Belgium in the long nineteenth century

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The History of Belgium from 1789 to 1914, in the period dubbed the "Long Nineteenth Century" by the historian Eric Hobsbawm, includes the end of Austrian rule, and periods of French and Dutch occupation of the region, leading to the creation of the first independent Belgian state in 1830.

In the years leading up to 1789, the territory today known as Belgium was divided into two states, called the Austrian Netherlands and Prince-Bishopric of Liège, which were both parts of the Holy Roman Empire. In the aftermath of the revolution in France, both states experienced revolutions in 1789 in which the old order was overthrown and new states created. Both revolutions were condemned by the Holy Roman Empire and by 1792, both had been crushed. The territory was only briefly regained, however, as the area was captured by the French during the French Revolutionary Wars and incorporated into the French Republic itself. This "French period" lasted roughly from 1794 to 1815, during which time the Industrial Revolution began to take effect in Belgium. In the aftermath of Napoleon's final defeat in 1815, the Congress of Vienna added the territory of Belgium to the Netherlands, and until 1830, Belgium was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.

In 1830, the Belgian provinces of the Netherlands revolted in the Belgian Revolution and declared their independence. Under the rule of King Leopold I, fighting between Belgium and the Netherlands continued, despite widespread international support for Belgian independence, until 1839 when Belgian independence was finally recognized by the Dutch. Under Leopold I's reign, Belgium remained relatively stable and was only lightly affected by the Revolutions of 1848. On his death in 1865, his son Leopold II was inaugurated as King. Leopold II's reign was dominated by the rise of the Socialist party and calls for reform to the military and system of voting as well as the "Schools' War" between Liberal and Catholic political factions. Although Belgian independence was briefly threatened during the Franco-Prussian War, under Leopold II's reign, the country reached an unprecedented level of industrialization and prosperity, becoming the second most industrialized state in the world after Great Britain. The period was also marked by the creation of a personal colony by Leopold II, the Congo Free State. The subsequent international outcry over human rights abuses forced the Belgian state to annex the region in 1908, forming the Belgian Congo. In 1909, after his father's death, Albert I began his reign which lasted until 1934. In the years leading up to 1914, the process of military and voting reform begun in the 1880s was finally completed. In August 1914, despite declaring neutrality, Belgium was invaded by the German Empire, beginning the country's involvement in World War I.

General aspects[edit]

Geography and demographics[edit]

Map of Belgium in the 1850s
Main article: Geography of Belgium

The territory of 19th century Belgium varied little over the period. The border of independent Belgium with the Netherlands remained almost the same as that which had been created after the Dutch Revolt in the early 17th century, and the western borders of Belgium almost the same as those of the 18th century polities in Belgium, the Austrian Netherlands and Prince-Bishopric of Liège.[1] It was only after the French annexation of 1795, however, that the territory became a single entity. Belgian revolutionaries in the 1830s sought to create an independent state with the borders of the nine provinces that had been established under French occupation, while also ending the traditional roles of the small duchies, princedoms and counties which had traditionally been the basic territorial units.[2] Aside from the loss of Zeelandic Flanders, Northern Limburg and part of Luxembourg and their combined 300,000 inhabitants which were ceded to the Dutch compensate for the loss of the rest of the territory, the outline of Belgium in 1914 was virtually identical to that established by the French in 1795.[3]

Within Belgium itself, the northern half, which would come to be known as Flanders, was a largely agricultural area containing the important port of Antwerp and city of Ghent, as well as the capital Brussels. In the southern half, which would come to be known as Wallonia, along the valley of the Sambre and Meuse rivers, there were a number of smaller towns and cities which would become the focus of industrialization in the so-called sillon industriel. In the west of the valley, around Charleroi was the so-called Pays Noir where there were significant coal deposits. In southeast Belgium, along the border with Luxembourg and Prussia (later Germany), was the heavily forested and agricultural region known as the Ardennes.

In 1784, the total population of the territory of Belgium was approximately 2.6 million, with just 25% living in cities, but during the 19th century, the population both expanded and urbanized.[4] Between 1830 and 1875 the population of the city of Brussels grew from approximately 100,000 to 180,000;[5] and by 1910 the population of the metropolitan area had soared to 750,000.[6] The population of Belgium was almost universally Roman Catholic, though free-thinking movements like Freemasonry were also popular among intellectuals and the urban middle classes.[7]

Throughout the long nineteenth century, Belgium was a common destination for political refugees and had important émigré communities, particularly in Brussels.[8] From 1871, many of the Paris Communards and, in 1889, the far-right politician, General Georges Boulanger fled to Brussels where they received political asylum.[8] Other notable exiles who lived in Belgium during the period included the painter Jacques-Louis David, the writer Victor Hugo and the theorist Karl Marx.


When France and the Netherlands controlled Belgium, each had tried to force assimilation of their national languages, but neither French nor Dutch rule lasted long enough to fully entrench the use of their languages across the entire region, or to displace the local dialects.[9]

In 1846, 57% of Belgians spoke dialects of Dutch or Flemish as their primary language while 42% spoke dialects of French, such as Walloon, Picard or Gaumais.[10] Under 1% of the population spoke German.[10] However, across the country, the aristocracy and middle-classes spoke French, often as a second language, and French was also the language of the legal system and government.[10] There was huge variation in accents, spelling, grammar across the country and particularly in Flanders, where regional dialects were almost incomprehensible to those from other regions.[10]

In Brussels, surrounded by a predominantly Dutch-speaking area, 38% spoke French in 1842 while 61% spoke Dutch; many of these would have spoken dialects like Marols instead of the standard languages.[10] By the end of the period, social change and internal immigration from Wallonia had contributed to the growing importance of French in Brussels.[11]


Austrian rule and the Prince-Bishopric of Liège[edit]

In 1789, the area of modern-day Belgium was divided into two polities which, though independently governed, were both part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Austrian Netherlands, which made up the majority of the territory of modern-day Belgium, had been in existence since the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714 when the Habsburg Monarchy annexed the territory from the Spanish branch of the house.[4] The traditional principalities, duchies and counties surviving from the Middle Ages retained great regional autonomy.[4] The economy of the Austrian Netherlands developed little, as its neighboring states imposed high export tariffs and the port of Antwerp remained blocked by the Dutch.[4] Although Enlightenment ideals developed among the urban bourgeoisie, most of the population remained suspicious of education and extremely politically conservative. The Catholic church was particularly influential, despite the attempts of Emperor Joseph II to reduce its power.

The Prince-Bishopric of Liège was a small ecclesiastical state ruled by a Prince-bishop which could trace its lineage back as far as the 10th century.[12] The state's capital, Liège, was the largest city in Belgium by the 1780s.[13] The Prince-bishopric did not exist as a single continuous country but instead consisted of several islands of territory surrounded by the Austrian Netherlands.[12] The Prince-bishopric was one of the foremost industrial regions of the time, known for its successful wool, armaments and coal-mining industries, and traded widely.[12] The state was notionally governed by agreement of the Three Estates but, from 1684, officials were elected by 16 separate "chambers", each made up of wealthy nobles and guild members elected for life, leaving many groups unrepresented.[14] These included the bourgeoisie, industrialists and lower clergy. The spread of the Enlightenment, which became popular in Liège in the 18th century, bred further discontent with the political system.

Revolutions of 1789[edit]

Brabant revolutionaries massing in the town of Ghent in November 1789.

On 18 August 1789, just months after the French Revolution, a revolution broke out in the Prince-Bishopric of Liège. In a meeting at the town hall, the democrat Jean-Nicolas Bassenge called for the reinstatement of two popular mayors that had been dismissed by the Prince-Bishop. The revolutionaries forced their way into the city's citadel and forced the Prince-Bishop, Constantin-François de Hoensbroeck, to ratify the new appointments.[15] The Prince-Bishop acquiesced but fled the principality a few days later for Trier. With the Prince-Bishop gone, the revolutionaries declared Liège a republic. A Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was introduced, just twenty days after a nearly identical document had been approved in France, declaring all citizens equal before the law and freedom of thought and expression.[15] Despite pleading their case, the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire condemned the revolution and order the restoration of the old regime. The army of Liège was finally defeated by the Austrians, who re-occupied the city in January 1791 and the Prince-Bishop was reinstated.

In the Austrian Netherlands, a populist revolt called the Brabant Revolution broke out in 1789 as a result of the perceived injustices of the Austrian regime. Emperor Joseph II's liberal reforms particularly angered Catholics, who feared a further decline in church influence, while for some his policies had not been sufficiently radical or Liberal.[16] Fighting began in October 1789 as an émigré patriot army in the neighboring Dutch Republic invaded their country and defeated the Austrians at Turnhout. The émigré army succeeded in pushing Austrian forces out of all of the territory except Luxembourg. A loose confederation of states in the region was formed as the United States of Belgium. The revolution was conservative in character.[17] The use of the word "Belgium" in 1789 was the first time that the term had been officially employed to denote the region since Roman times.[17] Once established, the revolutionaries divided into political factions. The Liberal Vonckists, led by Jan Frans Vonck, were eventually denounced and forced into exile by their conservative rivals, the Statists, led by Henri Van der Noot.[16] The Brabant revolutionaries were finally defeated by Holy Roman Forces, who occupied Brussels in December 1790.[18]

Following the crushing of the two revolutions, a number of Brabant and Liège revolutionaries regrouped in Paris where they formed a joint "Committee of United Belgians and Liégois", uniting revolutionaries from both territories for the first time.[19] Three Belgian corps and a Liège Legion were levied to continue the fight for the French against the Austrians.[19]

French rule[edit]

The Battle of Fleurus in 1794 pushed the Austrians out of the territory for the last time.
See also: French period

In the aftermath of the execution of King Louis XVI, revolutionary France was attacked by Prussian and Holy Roman forces from the Austrian Netherlands. Though the French defeated the Austrian army in 1792 and briefly occupied both the Austrian Netherlands and Prince-Bishopric of Liège, they were pushed out themselves by an Austrian counterattack in 1793.[20] In June 1794, French revolutionary troops expelled Holy Roman forces from of the region after the Battle of Fleurus for the last time. The French government voted to formally annex the territory in October 1795 and it was split into nine provincial départements within France.[1]

French rule in the region was marked by the rapid implementation and extension of numerous reforms which had been passed in post-Revolution France since 1789.[20] Administration was organized under the French model, with meritocratic selection. Legal equality and state secularism were also introduced.[20]

Napoleon I attends the launch of the warship Friedland in Antwerp in 1810

The important University of Louvain was dissolved and re-founded without its religious status. The use of French language was actively encouraged, and publications in Dutch banned as the government tried to integrate the territory into France, leaving a lasting legacy. Contingents of Belgian revolutionaries had served in the French army since 1792, but after the occupation, compulsory military conscription was extended to Belgians who were forced into the French army. The policy was extremely unpopular, and though 160,000 Belgians were serving in the French military by 1813, an insurrection known as the Peasants' War broke out in East Flanders and the Ardennes in 1798 in response.[20] The revolt, which spread rapidly, was quickly and violently suppressed by the French.[20] Under Napoleon, the Code Napoleon, which would form the basis of all future Belgian legal codes, was implemented.[21]

The period of French rule coincided with the start of the Industrial Revolution in Belgium.[20] Use of mechanical production techniques was encouraged by the French state. The government was particularly active in encouraging industrialization of industries in Belgium which were of military use, such as the cannon foundries at Liège.[20]

As the course of the Napoleonic Wars turned, the territory was invaded by Russian and Prussian forces.[22] After Napoleon's defeat and exile in 1814, the Southern Netherlands were occupied jointly by the Austrians, Prussians and Dutch. In an attempt to strengthen their position in Belgium, the Austrians began to recruit a "Belgian Legion" of infantry, cavalry and artillery which was merged with the Dutch army. The Hundred Days' Campaign, launched by Napoleon after his escape from exile, was largely fought in Belgium in Spring 1815, and Napoleon's final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo occurred just miles from Brussels.[20]

Dutch rule[edit]

After Napoleon's total defeat in 1815, the Congress of Vienna merged the French territory in Belgium with the Netherlands to form the United Kingdom of the Netherlands as a buffer-state against the French.[22] It was ruled by William I of Orange.[23] The fusion of the manufacturing centers in Belgium with the important exporting ports in the Netherlands, encouraged the further growth of the industrial cloth manufacturing and metallurgic centers in Wallonia.[23] William I was also keen to promote the economic development of the southern provinces, founding the "Société Générale des Pays-Bas" in 1822 in order to provide businesses with capital to invest in machinery.[a][24] The Société Générale would serve as a driving force behind Belgian industrialization in the 19th century and at its height would control large swathes of the national economy. William I also encouraged the creation of educational facilities in the Southern Provinces, founding universities in Leuven, Liège and Ghent in 1817.[25]

The period of Dutch rule saw growing hostility between the Catholic Belgian provinces, and the predominantly Protestant Dutch. The Belgian provinces also complained that they were underrepresented by the Kingdom's system of government, where 55 Belgian deputies were allocated to represent 3.5 million people, while an equal number of Dutch deputies represented just 2 million.[23] When the States-General voted against adopting the new unrepresentative constitution, William declared the minority favorable vote outweighed the negative vote. Liberals in Belgium also accused William of attacking personal and religious freedoms.[23]

Belgian Revolution[edit]

Belgian revolutionaries during fighting on the barricades around the Parc de Bruxelles
Main article: Belgian Revolution

The Belgian Revolution broke out on 25 August 1830, after the performance of a nationalist opera (La muette de Portici) in Brussels led to a minor insurrection among the capital's bourgeoisie, singing patriotic songs and capturing some public buildings in the city. This early revolutionary group was swelled by a large number of urban workers. The following day, the revolutionaries began flying their own flag, clearly influenced by that of the Brabant Revolution of 1789.[23] In order to maintain order, several bourgeois militia groups were formed. The situation in Brussels led to widespread unrest across the country. William I rejected his son's advice to attempt to negotiate with the Belgian rebels, forcing them towards a more radical, pro-independence stance, and sent a large military force to Brussels suppress the insurrection.[23]

Heavy fighting took place between Dutch forces and Brussels revolutionaries which were reinforced by small contingents from across the country between 23 and 27 September 1830 and the Dutch were eventually forced to retreat.[23] In the aftermath of the failed attack and mass desertions of Belgian soldiers from the Dutch army, the revolution spread around Belgium. Dutch garrisons were pushed out from the area, until only Antwerp and Luxembourg was still left occupied.[23] The Provisional Government of Belgium, led by Charles Rogier, was formed on 24 September and Belgian independence was officially proclaimed on 4 October while work began on creating a constitution. In December, international governments at the Conference of London recognized the independence of Belgium and guaranteed its neutrality.[23] The Dutch, however, only recognized Belgium's independence and the terms of the Conference in 1839.

Creation of the Belgian Constitution[edit]

The Belgian constitution depicted with the Belgian lion on a coin.

In November 1830, a National Congress was established to create a constitution for Belgium. Fears of "mob rule" associated with republicanism after the French Revolution of 1789, as well as the example of the recent July Revolution in France, led the Congress to decide that Belgium would be a popular, constitutional monarchy. The Congress approached several candidates, but chose Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a minor but well-connected German noble, to be the first "King of the Belgians". He was officially inaugurated on 21 July 1831, after taking an oath to abide by the Constitution. Leopold I was generally unsatisfied with the amount of power allocated to the monarch, and sought to extend it wherever the Constitution was ambiguous or unclear while generally avoiding involvement in routine politics.[26]

The Constitution developed by the National Congress was implemented in July 1831. It guaranteed individual liberty, property rights, freedom of religion and the press, and equality before the law.[27] Because of the perceived balance between freedom and rule of law, it was praised by Liberals around the world and promoted as a model for future constitutions.[28] Under the new constitution, Belgium had two chambers, a Chamber of Representatives and Senate, both elected by a small number of wealthy citizens.[29] The King was allowed substantial power in military affairs, but was given little independent power in any other sphere, which was instead given to the elected chambers.

Reign of Leopold I[edit]

Leopold I, depicted on the first ever Belgian stamp, issued in 1849.

Leopold I was crowned on 21 July 1831, replacing Baron Surlet de Chokier who had served as regent since February. Before his selection by the National Congress, Leopold had been Duke of the minor German state of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.[30] He had pursued a distinguished military career fighting for the Russian Empire during the Napoleonic Wars and was well connected to other European monarchies.[b]

Despite the Congress of London's verdict in 1830, the Dutch continued to resist Belgian independence for much of Leopold I's early reign. On 2 August 1831, days after Leopold's coronation, the Dutch launched an invasion across the border known as the Ten Days' Campaign. The 50,000-strong Dutch force rapidly pushed the small Belgian army back as far as Leuven.[31] Faced with a military disaster, the Belgian government appealed to the French for support.[32] Without international support, and faced with an entire French army under General Étienne Gérard, the Dutch withdrew on 12 August. The Dutch were pushed out of Antwerp, their final garrison in Belgium, by the French in 1832 although much of the city was destroyed in the fighting.[33] Sporadic skirmishes along the border continued until 1839 when the Dutch signed the Treaty of London.[34] The Ten Days' Campaign had revealed the fragility of the Belgian position, and although the Dutch finally recognized the independence of Belgium, the Belgians were forced to give up some disputed territories, including Zeelandic Flanders and the Duchy of Limburg. Part of Luxembourg also remained as a protectorate of the Dutch.

Opening of the first railway in Belgium in May 1835.

Politics in Belgium under Leopold I were polarized between liberal and catholic political factions, though before 1847 they collaborated in "Unionist" governments.[26] The Liberals were opposed to the Church and particularly opposed its influence in politics and society, while supporting free trade, personal liberties and even secularization.[35] The Catholics saw religious teachings as a fundamental basis for the state and society and opposed all attempts by the Liberals to attack the Church's official privileges.[35] Initially, these factions existed only as informal groups with which prominent politicians were generally identified. The Liberals held power over much of Leopold I's reign. An official Liberal Party was formed in 1846, although a formal Catholic Party was only established in 1869. Leopold, who was himself a Protestant, tended to favor Liberals and shared their desire for reform, even though he was not partisan.[26]

Leopold I's reign was also marked by an economic crisis which lasted until the late 1850s.[36] In the aftermath of the revolution, the Dutch had closed the Scheldt to Belgian shipping meaning that the port of Antwerp was effectively useless. The Netherlands and the Dutch colonies in particular, which had been profitable markets for Belgian manufacturers before 1830, were totally closed to Belgian goods.[36] The period between 1845 and 1849 were particularly hard in Flanders, where harvests failed and a third of the population became dependent on poor relief, and have been described as the "worst years of Flemish history".[36] The economic situation in Flanders also increased the internal migration to Brussels and the industrial areas of Wallonia which continued throughout the period.[36]


Fighting between revolutionaries and government troops at Risquons-Tout in 1848

By 1847, Belgium was suffering from economic destabilization as Belgian exporters faced increasing competition from new British firms.[37] Radical parties like the Association Démocratique, founded in 1847 at the instigation of Karl Marx who had briefly lived in Brussels in exile, also actively agitated against the unpopular Liberal government under Charles Rogier.[37] However, the success of the Liberals' economic reforms, partially mitigated the effects of the economic downturn and meant that Belgium was not as badly affected as its neighbors by the Revolutions of 1848.[37] Nevertheless, in early 1848, a large number of radical publications appeared.[37]

The most serious threat of the 1848 revolutions in Belgium was posed by Belgian émigré groups. Shortly after the revolution in France, Belgian migrant workers living in Paris were encouraged to return to Belgium to overthrow the monarchy and establish a republic.[37] Around 6,000 armed émigrés of the "Belgian Legion" attempted to cross the Belgian frontier. The first group, travelling by train, was stopped and quickly disarmed at Quiévrain on 26 March 1848.[35] The second group crossed the border on 29 March and headed for Brussels.[37] They were confronted by Belgian troops at the hamlet of Risquons-Tout and, during fighting, seven émigrés were killed and most of the rest were captured.[37] The defeat at Risquons-Tout effectively ended the revolutionary threat to Belgium, as the situation in Belgium began to recover that summer after a good harvest, and fresh elections returned a strong Liberal majority.[37]

Reign of Leopold II[edit]

Portrait of Leopold II

Leopold II was sworn in as King of the Belgians in 1865. His reign coincided with the Belle Époque and rapid economic expansion from the 1880s. It was characterized by the resurgence of the Catholic Party, political confrontation over military, educational and franchise reform and his own creation of a personal empire in Africa.

One of Leopold's long-term preoccupations was increasing the international standing and influence of his country. Throughout much of his early reign, Leopold hoped to regain the areas of territory which had been ceded back to the Netherlands in 1839, particularly Luxembourg which he viewed as an integral piece of Belgian territory.[38] He also pushed for reforms to the military and the implementation of conscription, many of which would only be realized after his death. From the 1870s, he tried to persuade several Belgian Prime Ministers to support the creation of a overseas colony in the Far East or Africa in order to increase Belgian wealth and political influence.[39] After being repeatedly turned down, he launched a personal venture to colonise the Congo river basin in central Africa, without the prior backing or support of the Belgian state.[39] Some of the vast personal wealth he accumulated from the colony was spent on a program of grandiose public buildings across the country, earning him the nickname "Builder King".[40]

View of the Cinquantenaire park and arch, started under Leopold II in 1880. It was only finished in 1905.

Most of these projects were focused in Brussels, where he also constructed two large palaces,[c] and Ostende, where a vast colonnaded arcade was built along the seafront in an attempt to turn the town into a fashionable seaside resort.[41] Under Leopold's reign, Belgium hosted a total of five prestigious World Exhibitions, in 1885, 1888, 1894, 1897 and again in 1905, as well as a major national exhibition in 1880 to mark the 50th anniversary of Belgian independence.[42]

Politically, Leopold disliked the Socialist party, preferring to negotiate with the Catholic Party, which held power for much of his reign. He was widely distrusted by politicians who saw him as meddling in state business and seeking to expand the power of the monarchy. Towards the end of his reign, public awareness of the atrocities committed under Leopold's colonial regime, as well as his marital infidelity, led to a significant fall the monarchy's popularity. Following his death in December 1909, his funeral cortege was booed.[43]

Although Belgium was officially neutral throughout his reign, significant numbers of Belgians volunteered to fight for right-wing causes abroad. From 1860, large numbers of Belgian Catholic volunteers went to Italy in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to defend the independence of the Papal States against Giuseppe Garibaldi's revolutionaries.[44] The Zouaves, as they were known, were ultimately unsuccessful and the Papal States fell in 1870. A volunteer Belgian Legion fought alongside French forces in the Mexican Adventure from 1864 on behalf of Mexican Emperor Maximilian I, whose wife was the daughter of Leopold I. The unit suffered heavy casualties at the Battle of Tacámbaro in 1865, and after heavy fighting was disbanded in December 1866.

Franco-Prussian War[edit]

French and Belgian troops stand-off at the border during the Franco-Prussian War.

When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in July 1870, Belgium was confronted with the greatest threat to its independence since 1848. Shortly before the conflict, a draft treaty from the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 between Napoleon III and Bismarck discussing the annexation of Belgium as the price for French neutrality was made public.[45] Napoleon III had also attempted to annex Luxembourg into the French Empire in 1868, which seemed to contemporaries like a parallel of Belgium.[46] As the conflict begun, it was feared that either France or Prussia might try to outflank their opponent by invading and annexing neutral Belgium.[47] The Belgian army was mobilized on the same day that both French and Prussian reserves were called up. As French troops moved towards the Belgian border, panic ensued in Belgium. The national gold reserves were evacuated to the National Redoubt fortress at Antwerp.[47] In the event, Belgium was able to remain neutral, after a restatement of the British guarantee of Belgian neutrality by Gladstone, though much of the fighting (including the key Battle of Sedan) occurred just south of the Belgian border.[47] More crucially, the mobilization of the Belgian army, which was divided into a mobile Army of Observation to guard the frontier and the static Army of Antwerp to hold the National Redoubt, revealed key structural problems in the military, particularly with the system of conscription while re-emphasizing the importance of the Treaty of London to Belgium's survival.

Military reform[edit]

Leopold viewed a strong military as the key to maintaining Belgian independence against France and, after the Franco-Prussian War, an expansionist Germany.[38] After cutting the defense budget in the 1860s, the government had been advised by a military commission to increase the size of the army and to abolish the system of Remplacement, whereby rich Belgians selected for military service by lot could pay for a substitute to take their place.[48] Leopold II personally lobbied successive governments to implement the findings of the report and institute a fundamental reform of the army. Reform was opposed by both Liberal and Catholic Parties, which viewed the army with suspicion and Remplacement as a key civil right.[48] Supported only by the socialists, Remplacement was only abolished in 1909 and was the last legal document signed before Leopold's death.[49] Under the new system, one son per family would be liable for military service regardless of social class but the total size of the military remained the same.[50]

Although military reform was delayed until the end of his reign, Leopold did succeed in convincing the Belgian parliament of the need to extend Belgium's defenses. In the mid-1880s, French and German fortress building along their shared border again worried the Belgian government that the country might be used as an invasion route. In 1887, a program of fortification construction begun along the Sambre and Meuse rivers.[51] Designed by the leading military architect, Henri Alexis Brialmont, 9 forts were built at Namur, in order to guard against an offensive from France, while 12 were built around Liège, near the German border.[51] Completed in 1892, they supplemented the existing National Redoubt at Antwerp, which was also later modernized and extended.[51] The fortifications would later play a major role in the opening stages of the First World War.

School War[edit]

The pro-Liberal magazine La Bombe, depicting a priest watching children flock to the secular schools.
Main article: First School War

The political rivalry between Liberal and Catholic parties peaked between 1879 and 1884 when both parties clashed on the issue of religion in primary education. In June 1879, a Liberal majority government under Walthère Frère-Orban succeeded in passing an Education Act secularizing primary education across the country and starting the so-called First School War. New "neutral" schools were to be established in all municipalities, funded by the local communes with assistance from national government, while Catholic schools were to receive no support at all.[52] Outraged at the perceived challenge to its authority, the Catholic church encouraged a boycott of the schools. Though 3,885 secular schools had opened across the country by 1883, attendance in private Catholic schools had actually risen from 13% to over 60%.[53]

In 1884 after fresh elections, a Catholic government under Jules Malou passed a new Education Law providing public financial support for religious schools and, in 1895, religious education became compulsory in all schools.[52] The Catholic Party's triumph in the issue was another blow to the already-weakened Liberal Party, and ushered in a period of almost unbroken Catholic government until World War II.


Main article: Congo Free State

Even before his accession to the throne in 1865, Leopold began lobbying leading Belgian politicians to create a colonial empire in the Far East or Africa, which would expand Belgian prestige.[39] Politically, however, colonization was extremely unpopular in Belgium where it was perceived as a risky and expensive gamble with no obvious benefit to the country and his many attempts were rejected:[39]

Belgium does not need a colony. Belgians are not drawn towards overseas enterprises: they prefer to spend their energy and capital in countries which have already been explored or on less risky schemes ... Still, you can assure His Majesty of my whole-hearted sympathy for the generous plan he had conceived, as long as the Congo does not make any international difficulties for us.

Walthère Frère-OrbanLiberal Prime Minister, 1878–84[54]
Map of the Congo Free State in 1892.

Determined to look for a colony for himself, and inspired by recent reports from central Africa, Leopold began patronizing a number of leading explorers including Henry Morton Stanley.[39] Leopold established a charitable association to oversee the exploration and marking out of a territory based around the Congo River, with the stated goal of bringing humanitarian assistance and civilization to the natives. In the Berlin Conference of 1884–5, European leaders officially recognized Leopold's control over the 1,000,000 square miles (2,600,000 km2) of the notionally-independent Congo Free State.[55]

Leopold, however, reneged on his humanitarian promises, and instead turned to brutally exploiting the locals and the land to gain what profit he could. Initially, the Congo Free State relied on exporting ivory to pay for its upkeep, and for wars and military expeditions in the Eastern Congo.[56] However, as rubber became an important resource in the 1890s, it quickly became a far more profitable export and allowed the colony to become extremely profitable for the first time.[56] Monopoly concessions to collect rubber in large areas of territory were sold to private companies, and the state's private army was used to force locals to collect it. Most famously, in some cases, Congolese people who failed to meet their quota were killed or had their hand cut off. The system was immensely profitable, but as many as ten million Congolese may have died as a result of the system of exploitation during the period while the colony was under Leopold's control.[d][58]

Eventually, growing scrutiny of Leopold's regime led to a popular campaign movement, centered in Britain and America, to force Leopold to renounce his ownership of the Congo. The "Belgian solution" they proposed was for Belgium to annex it in order to end the overexploitation without disrupting the delicate balance of power in colonial Africa. In 1908, as a direct result of this campaign, Belgium formally annexed the territory, creating the Belgian Congo.[59]

Rise of socialism and franchise extension[edit]

Slums in Brussels, 1860s. Workers' living standards remained poor for much for the 19th century in Belgium as urban populations grew.[60]

The reign of Leopold II saw the rise of organized Socialist political groups and parties in Belgium, most notably among the industrial workers in Wallonia. The early socialist movement in Belgium was characterized by a successful co-operative movement in Flanders, and in 1866 trade unions were legalized opening the way to organized labor politics.[61] The International Workingmen's Association held its first conference outside Switzerland in Brussels in 1868 as Belgian socialism, under figures such as César De Paepe, expanded dramatically.[62]

The first real socialist political party in the country, the Belgian Workers' Party (POB-BWP), was founded in 1885. The small numbers of workers who were allowed to vote in general elections meant that it achieved little success in conventional political channels. In 1886, rioting and violence broke out among industrial workers in Liège then spread across Wallonia, and was only repressed by the military.[63] Numerous politicians of the Workers' Party were arrested by the government in the subsequent backlash,[63] but in the aftermath of the strike, a wave of industrial legislation including reforms to ban child labor and limit working hours were introduced.[64] The government reaction to the strike and its bloody repression were criticized by contemporaries:

There exists but one country in the civilised world where every strike is eagerly and joyously turned into a pretext for the official massacre of the Working Class. That country of single blessedness is Belgium! the [sic] model state of continental constitutionalism, the snug, well-hedged, little paradise of the landlord, the capitalist, and the priest. ... The massacre of this year does not differ from last year's massacre, but by the ghastlier number of its victims, the more hideous ferocity of an otherwise ridiculous army, the noisier jubilation of the clerical and capitalist press, and the intensified frivolity of the pretexts put forward by the governmental butchers.

Karl MarxThe Belgian Massacres. To the Workmen of Europe and the United States (1869)[65]
Un soir de grève (1893). Belgian strikers wave red banners during the huge general strike of 1893. Painting by Eugène Laermans

Despite making a rapid recovery, the Belgian Workers' Party was still penalized by the Belgian electoral system which based suffrage on wealth, stopping most of the party's support base among industrial workers from voting. In August 1885, the party began its "Antwerp Programme" which called for universal suffrage, while confirming the party's intention to pursue its goals through parliamentary democracy rather than revolution.[66] The culmination of this policy was a massive General Strike in 1893, involving some 250,000 workers. Fearing a revolution, universal male suffrage was adopted in 1894, but only with plural voting which allowed up to two additional votes for wealthy or educated citizens.[67] Nevertheless, the percentage of the population eligeable to vote rose from 3.9 to 37.3 percent and in the 1894 elections the Socialists won 28 of 152 seats.[68][69] The Belgian Workers' Party called two further unsuccessful general strikes in 1902 and 1913 in an attempt to end the system of plural voting.[70]

The new voting system increased the socialists' influence considerably, but the chief beneficiaries were the Catholic Party whose new ideology of Social Catholicism, introduced following the papal Rerum Novarum encyclical of 1891, gained considerable support, especially in Flanders.[67] In 1894, the Belgian Workers' Party adopted the Charter of Quaregnon, which would form the basis of its ideology until 1979, and, by 1911, the party had 276,000 members, making it one of the most successful Socialist parties in Europe.[71] As a result of lobbying by the Belgian Workers' Party, Belgium was one of the first countries in Europe to launch a comprehensive social insurance scheme, including sickness compensation (from 1894), voluntary old-age insurance (1900) and unemployment insurance (1907).[72]

Reign of Albert I (to 1914)[edit]

Portrait of Albert I

Albert I inherited the throne after the death of Leopold II in 1909 and ruled Belgium until his death in 1934, encompassing the final half-decade of the long 19th century though his rule was also marked by the First World War and Interbellum. The period 1909 to 1913 was marked by continued economic confidence, and three World Exhibitions were held in the short period, in 1910, in 1911 and in 1913.[73]

In 1913, a huge general strike took place across the country on the issue of voting rights at the instigation of the Belgian Workers' Party.[74] The system of plural voting, in force since 1893, was extremely unpopular because of its perceived unfairness, but also because votes using the system tended to favor the Catholic Party.[74] Although between 300,000 and 450,000 workers were involved, the strike was ultimately unsuccessful and the party voted in favor ending the strike, and taking future action by parliamentary means, on 22 April 1913.[74]

The issue of military reform, which had been extremely contentious right up to the end of Leopold II's reign, continued to be important up to the outbreak of the First World War. Under the influence of pro-militarist lobbying, expansion and further reform of the army was discussed in the parliament and a new system of universal military conscription was adopted in 1913.[49]

Prelude to World War I[edit]

"Germany Violates Belgian Neutrality." Headline in Le Soir of 4 August 1914.

From as early as 1904, the Alfred von Schlieffen of the German General Staff began to draw up a military strategy, known as the "Schlieffen Plan" which could be put into action if Germany found itself at war with France and Russia on two fronts.[75] The core of the plan was a rapid attack on France on the outbreak of war, forcing a quick victory in the west before the Russians had time to fully mobilize their forces. The Schlieffen Plan took advantage of the French military's concentration and fortifications along the Franco-German border by prescribing an invasion of neutral Belgium and Luxembourg. According to the plan, the German army would rapidly overwhelm the Belgian military and then move quickly through the country and then towards Paris.[75] The general staff believed that the no signatories would be willing to honor its commitments from the 1839 Treaty of London, which a German diplomat dismissed as a "scrap of paper".[75]

Belgian troops defending Liège in August 1914

On 2 August 1914, following the events leading to the outbreak of World War I, the Germans presented an ultimatum to the Belgian government demanding permission to move German soldiers through the country.[75] The ultimatum stated that Belgian independence would be reinstated upon German victory and that reparations would be made afterwards.[75] Luxembourg was invaded and occupied by the Germans the same day.[75] On 3 August, the Belgian government rejected the proposal and the German invasion began.[75] Contrary to the Germans' expectations, Great Britain, along with the British Empire, declared war on Germany as the Treaty of London had demanded.

The reorganization of the Belgian army had begun in 1913 was only due to be completed in 1926, and consequently at the outbreak of war, the Belgian army was under-strength and largely unprepared.[76] Albert I took personal command of the 265,000-strong Belgian army.[77] The Belgian army, however, could do little against the 1.5 million-strong German invading force.[77] Between August and October 1914, the Germans took the fortified cities of Liège, Namur and Antwerp and occupied Brussels. The fortified positions proved little match for the greatly improved siege artillery available to the Germans at the time, although the greater-than-expected defence did buy some time for the French and British to react to the threat. By the end of October, the Belgian army had been forced into a small pocket along the Yser river in the far west of Belgium. In a surprising victory, the Belgian army managed to halt the German advance at the Yser, paving the way for the static trench warfare that which would characterize the Western Front for next four years. Most of Belgium, however, was occupied by Germany and would remain under German control until 1918.



View of mines in the Borinage region in the 1890s by Constantin Meunier

Belgium was the first country in continental Europe to experience the Industrial Revolution, and was the most intensively industrialised country in the world throughout most of the period.[78][79] Belgian industrialised rapidly over the nineteenth century, focused on iron, coal and textile production.[80] By 1914, Belgium had extensive rail networks, mines and factories and productive export sector.

The Industrial Revolution is usually considered to have been spread from Britain to Belgium by two British industrialists, William and John Cockerill, who moved to Liège in 1807 and formed a company producing industrial machinery and iron.[80] Industrial development was possible in Belgium because of the large coal deposits located in the Sillon industriel along the Sambre-Meuse river valley. Although the town of Ghent, a centre of cotton production in Flanders, industrialised rapidly, the effects of the Industrial Revolution were most felt in Wallonia, and particularly in the cities of Mons, Charleroi, Liège and Verviers.[79] By the 1840s, Cockerill was the world's largest manufacturer of steel.[79] Belgium also rapidly developed a large railway system. From the outset, the Belgian state supported the construction of railways, envisaging a railway link between the industrial region of Mons and the port of Antwerp via Brussels.[81] The first stretch of this line, between Brussels and Mechelen, was opened in 1835 and was one of the first railways opened in Europe.[81]

Originally, Belgian firms copied and mass-produced British designs but soon began specialising in railway materials, chemicals, weapons and raw materials which were all widely exported, making Belgium one of the foremost industrial powers in the world.[79] One of the most successful exporters was Édouard Empain, nicknamed the "Tramway King", whose company ran infrastructure projects across Europe, Asia and South America. Among the projects for which Empain was responsible was the Paris Métro system, completed in 1900, and the entire Egyptian suburb of Heliopolis, which was finished in 1905.[82]

Language division[edit]

1836 depiction of the Battle of the Golden Spurs by Nicaise de Keyser. Evoking Flemish history played a central role in the development of the Flemish Movement.

As the independent state of Belgium consolidated after the Revolution, the issue of a consensus language in the country became an increasingly important political question.[11] At the start of the period, French was the dominant language in the country, and was the only language that was approved for use legal and government business anywhere in the country. It was also the language of the economic and social elite, even in Flanders. By the 1860s, Flemish dialects were in decline and increasing numbers of Flemish people of all social classes were bilingual, paralleling a similar decline in northern France.[11] However, partly inspired by a resurgence in Flemish literature and culture, the Flamingant political movement began to develop, forming their first political parties in the 1860s and 70s. Political agitation by Flamingant groups led to Belgium becoming officially bilingual in 1870 and enforced the compulsory teaching of Dutch in all secondary schools in Flanders, reinforcing the language's presence.[11] By 1898, Dutch was legally recognized as an equal language to French in legal matters. During the first decades of the 20th century, the Flemish Movement began to develop as a mass, radical political movement, fully emerging during the First World War.

In the 1880s, a Walloon Movement began to emerge in parallel to the Flemish Movement. The early Walloon Movement developed in reaction to the perceived discrimination against French language as Dutch was progressively accorded equality. At the same time, the movement called on a "Walloon identity" rather than a Belgian one. In his famous Lettre au roi sur la séparation de la Wallonie et de la Flandre ("Letter to the King on the separation of Wallonia and Flanders") published in 1912, the Walloon socialist Jules Destrée argued that the language division in Belgium was irreconcilable, famously stating that "In Belgium, there are the Walloons and the Flemish. There are no Belgians."[83]


The 19th century saw a flourishing of Belgian literature in both French and Dutch languages. In Flanders, the Literary Romanticist movement, aided by a renewed interest in Belgium's Medieval past, flourished under authors including Hendrik Conscience, who is credited as "father of the Flemish novel", and poets like Theodoor van Rijswijck.[84][85] Conscience's most famous work, De Leeuw van Vlaanderen ("The Lion of Flanders", 1838), portrayed a romantic and heavily embellished account of the County of Flanders' fight against the French in the 14th century, with the Flemish victory at the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302 as the centerpiece. De Leeuw van Vlaanderen became a source of inspiration for the Flemish Movement and remains one of the best examples of Flemish literature.[86]

From the 1860s, Flemish literature began to reflect the Realist style already popular in France, under writers such as Anton Bergmann and Virginie Loveling.[84] The works featured detailed depictions of ordinary aspects of daily life and often had a pessimistic tone.[84] The famous poet and priest Guido Gezelle produced a famous collection of Lyric poems in Dutch from the 1850s until his death in 1899, heavily influenced by Belgian dialects such as West Flemish.[84] In 1893, the cultural magazine Van Nu en Straks ("Of Today and Tomorrow") was launched to bring Flemish literature to an audience outside Belgium. Flemish literature continued to flourish in the first decades of the 20th century under writers such as Stijn Streuvels.[84]

In Wallonia, literature in French began a revival in 1881 with the creation of the La Jeune Belgique ("The Young Belgium") movement, which supported the creation of distinctively Belgian literature and opposed Romanticism.[84] Among the members of the Jeune Belgique were the writer Camille Lemonnier, whose works were often set against the background of Belgian peasant life in the Naturalist style, and the poet Charles Van Lerberghe.[84] French language poetry also flourished in Belgium in the early 20th century under Émile Verhaeren and Maurice Maeterlinck; Maeterlinck was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1911.[84]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In full, the Société Générale des Pays-Bas pour favoriser l'Industrie nationale ("General Company of the Netherlands for promoting National Industry"). After independence, it would become the Société Générale de Belgique (SGB).[24]
  2. ^ Leopold was briefly married to Charlotte, daughter of the British King George IV, making him second-in-line to the British throne until her death in 1817. His second wife, Louise, was the daughter of Louis Philippe I of France. He was also the uncle of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. In February 1830 he had been offered the crown of Greece, but had decided to refuse the offer. (H. Pirenne, pp. 48–53)
  3. ^ The Palace of Laeken, complete with huge greenhouses, and the smaller Palace of Brussels.
  4. ^ Since the first census in the Congo was taken in 1923, all estimates of loss of life during the period are guesses. Current estimates range between three to fifteen million deaths.[57]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Deneckere, Gita; Witte, Els; Gubin, Eliane; Nandrin, Jean-Pierre (2005). Nouvelle Histoire de Belgique. I: 1830–1905. Brussels: Éd. Complexe. ISBN 2-8048-0066-0. 
  • Emerson, Barbara (1980). Léopold II: le Royaume et l'Empire (French trans. ed.). Paris: Éd. Duculot. ISBN 2-8011-0287-5. 
  • Dumont, Georges-Henri (1996). La Vie Quotidienne en Belgique sous la Règne de Léopold II (1856–1909) (Rev. ed.). Brussels: Éd. Le Cri. ISBN 2-87106-173-4. 
  • Ascherson, Neal (1999). The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (New ed.). London: Granta. ISBN 1-86207-290-6. 
  • Pirenne, Henri (1948). Histoire de Belgique. VII: De la Révolution de 1830 à la Guerre de 1914 (2nd ed.). Brussels: Maurice Lamertin.