ONE of the results of the war will be to compel us completely to revise our idea of the meaning of nationality. How often has it been said in disparagement of Belgium that the Belgian people were not a nation, but an artificial State and a geographical expression ; that there co-existed in Belgium two races which had little in common. In vain was it urged in reply that the same duality applied to Canada, that in Canada also there was a French race and an English race, and that yet no one denied that the Canadian people were one nation. In vain was it pointed out that the same duality applied to Switzerland, that there are French Swiss and German Swiss, and that yet the Swiss people are one nation. It required the War of the Nations to prove that nationality does not depend merely on race or language or geography, that nationality is a thing of the soul, that it is a political and moral and spiritual entity. It rests on common traditions, on common habits and common beliefs, on common aspirations and the memory of common sufferings. And it is because nationality is rooted in common aspirations and the memory of common sufferings that nothing will have contributed more permanently to weld together the Flemish and French provinces of Belgium than the heroic struggle for independence which has elicited the sympathy and admiration of the whole world.
To say, then, that Belgium is an artificial creation is merely to say that the existence of Belgium depends on something more essential than geographical limits or economic interests. Belgium is an artificial creation, just as a church or a scientific institution or a code of laws are artificial creations. Belgium is, indeed, the creation of the international law of Europe. It exists not because of any natural boundaries, but because the security of Europe demanded that there should be a political boundary and a barrier against the supremacy and tyranny of other Powers. Belgium exists because her existence is necessary to the independence of Europe.
AGE after age the Great Powers of the Continent have coveted the fertile plains and the fair cities of the Netherlands. As every reader of Froissart knows, the history of Flanders in the Middle Ages is nothing but a continued attempt of the Flemish burghers to defend themselves against the encroachments of the French kings. And it is interesting to observe that already in the days of Edward III Great Britain was the guarantor of Flemish independence. France was defeated by the burghers of Bruges and Ghent, and the battle of the “Golden Spurs ” is in the history of Belgium what the battle of Bannockburn is in the history of Scotland. In the confusion of the Hundred Years’ War the younger branch of the Royal House of France obtained by marriage and deceit what France had failed to obtain by force of arms. The Dukes of Burgundy obtained possession of the Netherlands for three generations. After Charles the Bold had ended his mad career on the battle-field of Nancy Spain succeeded to Burgundy. After Spain had failed in her attempt to coerce the Netherlands Austria succeeded to Spain. But as in the Middle Ages, so in modern times it was mainly France which persisted in coveting the rich prize. She failed under Louis XIV. She at first succeeded, but she ultimately failed under Napoleon. France failed because Great Britain could not allow her to succeed. Ever since William III the independence of Belgium and Holland has been the first principle of British foreign policy. Battle after battle has been fought by British arms on Belgian soil to defend Belgian autonomy. It was largely to prevent the annexation of Belgium and Holland that Great Britain waged the wars of the Revolution and Empire. And it was inevitable that the outcome of a Twenty-three Years’ War should be the constitution of an independent Belgium and an independent Holland. The foundation of those two little ” buffer States ” was the one permanent achievement of the Congress of 1815, even as the constitution of the buffer State of Poland will probably be the most important achievement of the Congress of 1915.
Belgium was united with Holland by the Congress of Vienna. It separated after 1830 with the consent of Europe. From 1 831 Belgium was not only independent, but its independence was guaranteed by all the Powers, and as the condition of this guarantee it had to submit to being a neutral State. It was debarred from entering into any treaty of alliance. It was prevented from seeking the protection of any single Power. The inter-national status of Belgium, established by the Treaty of 1839, confirmed by the Treaty of 1870, was placed under the safeguard of all the Powers of Europe, including Germany.
BELGIUM faithfully discharged the obligations imposed upon her by Europe. She maintained an army sufficiently strong to defend her neutrality. She built the formidable line of fortresses of Liége and Namur and Antwerp. In 1870, at the outbreak of the Franco-German War, the Belgian army gathered on the southern frontier to ensure the inviolability of Belgian territory. But apart from the critical period of 1870, apart from the futile plot of Napoleon III, the publication of which by Bismarck did more than anything to alienate the sympathies of Great Britain, Belgian neutrality was never seriously threatened or questioned.
As an independent neutral State Belgium entered, after 1831, on a career of unexampled and uninterrupted prosperity. She became the most populous, the most enterprising, the most industrious nation on the continent of Europe. Although small in territory, she became a commercial and industrial Power of the first magnitude. That very prosperity made more than ever the independence of Belgium the keystone of British policy. More than ever did Belgium count as an essential factor in international politics.
And the Belgian problem could not be viewed apart from the Dutch problem. Although separated from Holland as a nation, the future of the Belgian people was bound up with the future of the Dutch. If Belgium fell to Germany, Holland must inevitably all, and the possession of Belgium and Holland would mean the possession of two States with a joint population of fifteen millions, with the finest seaboard, with the most important harbours of the Continent, with a magnificent colonial empire in Africa and Asia. The possession of Belgium and Holland would mean the economic and political supremacy of Germany on the whole continent of Europe. It would mean a complete subversion of the balance of power. It would mean a standing menace to the very existence of Great Britain as a State and as an Empire.