Belgium And The Belgian People Before The German Invasion

IT is characteristic of Belgium that she may best be described in superlatives, and in superlatives which are mutually contradictory. Belgium is in mere size the most diminutive country in Europe. Yet it is also the most thickly populated. It is probably the richest country on the Continent. Yet it is also the country where living is cheapest. It is one of the most free-thinking countries, and it is also one of the most Catholic, almost mediaeval in its loyalty to the old religion. In politics it is one of the most advanced, with a formidable organized Socialist party. Yet it is also one of the most Conservative, having been for thirty years under the same Catholic government a fact which is unique in the history of Parliamentary Government.

THE explanation of those paradoxes is a very simple one. Belgium may no doubt claim to be one nation firmly rooted in the past. If there had been hitherto any doubt as to the intensity of the national feeling, the present war must have removed it. At the same time Belgium is also an artificial creation of politics and diplomacy. There are in Belgium two countries and two races. The North is Flemish, the South is Walloon. The Flemish North is one uniform plain ; the Walloon South-East is mountainous and picturesque. The Flemish districts are mainly agricultural ; the Walloon districts are mainly industrial. The Flemish population is Catholic, as Catholic as the Irish or the French Canadians ; the Walloons are agnostic. The Flemish constituencies are as Conservative as the constituencies of an. English or Scottish University. The Walloons are more Socialistic than the miners of Saxony.

III

THE Teutonic and the Latin races, whose opposition forms the warp and woof of modern Continental history, have had to live together in Belgium from time immemorial. They have never completely merged their differences. They have never been welded into one homogeneous whole. It is their opposition which, for centuries, has rendered common political action very difficult. It is their opposition which explains why, in the sixteenth century, Belgium failed to assert her independence against Spain, whereas the Dutch provinces succeeded. It is their opposition which explains the whole tragic Belgian history. The wealth of Belgium attracted the foreign invader. Her racial divisions made her an easy prey.

IV

IN the past the patriotism of the Belgians, like that of the Italians, had been primarily provincial. Before the Belgian people became one nation they were a federation of separate States. The unconquerable love of freedom which has been their characteristic through the ages refused to submit to the political discipline of one central Government. The centrifugal forces were always stronger than the centripetal. King Albert is today the ruler of one United Kingdom. But his predecessor, Prince Albert of Austria, could sign himself, ” By the Grace of God, Arch-duke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, of Lothier, of Brabant, of Limburg, of Luxemburg, of Gueldre, Count of Habsbourg, of Flanders, of Artois, of Palatine Burgundy, of Hainaut, of Holland, of Zeeland, of Namur, and of Zutphen, Marquess of the Holy Roman Empire, Lord of Frise, of Saline, of Malines, of the city, town, and land of Utrecht, of Overyssel, and of Groningue.”

All through the troubled sixteenth and seventeenth centuries those provinces maintained their distinct political existence. It is true that the province of Brabant exerted a powerful attraction and became eventually the nucleus of a centralized State. Brussels since the fifteenth century was considered as the political capital, and the Constitution of Brabant, the joyeuse Entrée, was the Great Charter and expressed the political ideal of the Belgian people. But notwithstanding this attraction of Brussels and Brabant, each province maintained its individuality.

V

THIS failure to achieve political unity, this parochialism, this tendency towards federation and Home Rule, which has survived until this day, does not mean that the Belgians have no strong political life. It only means that political life expresses itself, not in the central Government, but in the cities. Belgium has always manifested a highly developed civic activity as highly developed as in the cities of ancient Greece and mediaeval Italy. Few countries can boast of such glorious civic annals. Few countries can show a greater wealth of beautiful historic towns. The British tourist who makes Brussels or Bruges his headquarters can visit in succession, within an hour’s railway journey, cities like Ghent, Antwerp, Mechlin, Louvain, Ypres, Liége, Oudenarde, Tournay, each with its own distinct personality, with its own accumulation of treasures of art.

VI

As Belgium is the meeting-place of the Latin and Teutonic races, and as in Belgium they must needs compete and co-operate, it is interesting to observe which of the two races has obtained the mastery. The simple answer is that neither has obtained the mastery. Each excels in its own province. Each brings its special gifts to the common stock. The Belgian Walloon is more cheerful, more enthusiastic, more eloquent, more witty, more sociable ; he understands better the art of living. To live in succession in Liége and in Ghent is like living in two different worlds. And it must be admitted that life is infinitely more pleasant on the Meuse, which is mainly a French river, than on the Scheldt, which is mainly a Flemish river. On the other hand, the Fleming is more earnest, more persistent, and also more sensuous and more artistic. Above all, he is more practical, and it is because he is more practical that, on the whole, he has succeeded better than the Walloon. Out of the four great cities of Belgium, three are Flemish : Antwerp, Brussels, and Ghent. If the great Belgian Parliamentary orators are generally French, the great political leaders are generally Flemish. So are the great painters, from Memlinck to Rubens, from Van Dyck to Wiertz. Strangest of all, even the great French writers of Belgium are all of Flemish origin ; Rodenbach and Verhaeren, de Coster and Maeterlinck.

VII

ECONOMICALLY, Belgium is marvellously prosperous. Owing to the natural resources of her soil, to her geographical position and her close proximity to the great markets of Europe, owing, also, to the industry of her inhabitants, Belgium has been, from olden times, one of the world’s great trading centres, a very beehive of industry. Curiously enough, the three great economic divisions of Belgium have remained the same through the centuries. In the days of Artevelde, Flanders was the seat of the cloth industry, and has remained so ever since. Brabant, with Brussels and Antwerp, was the seat of international trade, and has remained so ever since. Liége, with Namur and Dinant, was the seat of the metal industry, and still retains its supremacy. Few countries have suffered more from religious persecution, from foreign oppression, from periodic wars. Yet all these adverse circumstances notwithstanding, the lapse of a few years has generally sufficed to restore the material prosperity of the country.

VIII

IT may be objected that, although the prosperity is great, the standard of living is often low, and that is partly true, whether it be due to the pressure of population, or the Catholic habit of resignation and submission, or to the sweated labour of the numerous convents which tends to reduce wages. But although wages, and especially agricultural wages, are comparatively low, the cost of living is also lower than anywhere, and on the whole there is no such abject poverty in Belgium as there is in Great Britain. The land is largely owned by the people, as Belgium has adopted the Code Napoleon. Co-operation, which is carried as far in Belgium as it is in Denmark, and the nationalization of railways, which in Belgium has proved a magnificent success, are bringing back tens of thousands of industrial workers to the rural districts.

To estimate Belgian culture with fairness, we must not forget that until 1830 the Belgians never had a chance. Two thousand years ago Julius Caesar said of them that they were the bravest of the Gauls. Unfortunately, notwithstanding their bravery, they were no match for the Roman conqueror. Nor were they after-wards a match for their powerful neighbours, who in turn coveted and conquered the rich country. For centuries the Belgians have been under the rule of absentee princes or under the heel of foreign invaders. They fought heroically against Philip II and the Duke of Alva. But here again the might of the Spanish Empire was too much for the free cities of Flanders. After the collapse of the world Empire of Charles Quint, Belgium for two centuries became the cockpit of Europe. The names of Steenkerque, of Ramillies, of Malplaquet, of Neerwinden, of Fontenoy, of Jemappes, of Fleurus, of Ligny, and of Waterloo constitute a catalogue of melancholy eloquence. Yet they only represent part of the suffering which the Belgians endured. What a lurid picture one might unfold of the atrocities perpetrated on our soil, not only by our enemies, but often, alas ! by the very soldiers who were to defend Belgium ! Pillage, arson, rape, and massacre in those four words are summed up their achievements, and those horrors have lasted for centuries.

Once more, after eighty years of peaceful development, Belgium has become the battle-field of the nations. Once more her plains have been trampled down by the soldiery of Europe. But for the first time in her history she has been the battlefield of Europe by her own free will. It is the object of this little book to tell the sad tale of what the little nation has suffered to preserve her own independence and to save the liberties of Europe.