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History of Belgium

This is the history of Belgium. See also the history of Europe, history of the European Union, and history of present-day nations and states.

Table of contents
1 Before the independence
2 The independence
3 The Congolese colony
4 20th century Belgium
5 Reference

Before the independence

Belgium derives its name from a Celtic tribe, the Belgae, whom Julius Caesar described as the most courageous tribe of Gaul. However, the Belgae were forced to yield to Roman legions during the 1st century BC. For some 300 years thereafter, what is now Belgium flourished as a province of Rome. But Rome's power gradually lessened. In about A.D. 300 the Germanic tribe of the Franks penetrated into northern Belgium. About 100 years later, they took possession of the rest of Belgium, started their conquest of Gaul and created the short-lived Merovingian Empire.

When the Merovingian Empire declined, around the year 511AD, the Frankish lands broke up and did not get together again until the Holy Roman Empire conquered them again, this time under the rule of Charlemagne. In 1419 Philip the Good took over, and the Burgundian Empire began to flourish. But, when Philip II ascended the Spanish throne, he tried to abolish all Protestantism. So he sent troops to Holland and Belgium. Holland didn't like this, and continued to struggle until it gained independence in 1648. The Southern states, (modern-day Belgium) remained loyal to Spain.

Until this date the history of Belgium, the grand-duchy of Luxembourg and the country The Netherlands/Holland are the same: they formed the country/region of The Netherlands/The Low Countries/Les Pays-Bas (in french).
The northern part of present-day Belgium became an overwhelmingly Germanized and Germanic- (Frankish)-speaking area, whereas in the southern part people continued to be Roman and spoke derivatives of Latin.

While the Netherlands gained independence the nowadays Belgium came under the rule of the Spanish (1519-1713) and the Austrians (1713-1794).

Following the French Revolution, Belgium was invaded and annexed by Napoleonic France in 1795. After he fell, the major powers in Europe agreed that Belgium would become a part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. This was under the rule of a protestant king, namely William of Orange.

Under these various rulers, and especially during the 500 years from the 12th to the 17th century, Ypres, Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, and Antwerp took turns at being major European centers for commerce, industry (especially textiles) and art. Flemish painting--from Van Eyck and Breughel to Rubens and Van Dyck--became the most prized in Europe. Flemish tapestries hung on the walls of castles throughout Europe.

The independence

In 1830, Belgium wrested its independence from the Dutch as a result of an uprising of several frenchspeaking intellectuals from the Liège region (which had never belonged to The Low Countries), aided by French intellectuals and French armed forces. First, their objectives were to join France, but after international pressure, Belgium became an independent state. A constitutional monarchy was established in 1831, with a monarch invited in from the House of Saxe-Coburg Gotha in Germany by the British. The major powers in Europe agreed, and on July 21 1831, the first king of Belgium, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. He built the first railway in continental Europe in 1835, between Brussels and Mechelen. The Netherlands still fought persistently for 8 years, but in 1839 a treaty was signed between the 2 countries.

The Congolese colony

During Leopold II's 44 year reign from 1865 to 1909, Belgium acquired a colony in Congo. The colony's natural resources were ruthlessly exploited, bringing prosperity to Belgium. At first, the colony was called the Congo Free State and was the private property of the king, but in 1908 the colony was transferred to the state and renamed Belgian Congo.

The integration of traditional economies in the Congo within the framework of the modern, capitalist economy was particularly exploitative. Leopold's fortune was greatly added to through the proceeds of Congolese rubber, which had never been mass-produced in surplus quantities.

Exploitation of the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina (Vietnam), German Southwest Africa, Rhodesia, and South Africa paled in comparison to that of the Belgian Congo. Like all colonial powers at the time, the fortunes of Belgium and its king, Leopold II, and those of the multinational concessionary companies under his auspices, were mainly made on the proceeds of Congolese rubber, which had historically never been mass-produced in surplus quantities. While King Leopold II was the defacto sovereign of the Belgian controlled Congo Free State, between 1885 and 1908 the population of Congo nearly halved from 20 to 10 million. Although the actual figure is disputed because of a lack of documented statistics at the time, nontheless, several million natives were the victims of murder, starvation, exhaustion induced by over-work, and disease.

20th century Belgium

Belgium was invaded by German Empire in 1914 and again by Nazi Germany in 1940 (Belgium surrendered on May 28). This, plus disillusionment over postwar Soviet behavior, made Belgium one of the foremost advocates of collective security within the framework of European integration (EU) and the Atlantic partnership (NATO).

Since 1944, when Belgium was liberated by British, Canadian, and American armies, the nation has lived in security and at a level of increased well-being.

A parliamentary democracy, Belgium has been governed by successive coalitions of two or more political parties, with the centrist Flemish Christian Democratic Party providing the Prime Minister most of the time. Two major political controversies have marked the postwar years: a dispute over King Leopold III's conduct during World War II (which caused him to abdicate in 1951), and the insistence of the nation's majority linguistic community--the Flemish--upon a reorganization of the state into autonomous regions. The two were combined together when a referendum was held about his return. In Flanders they voted in favor of his return, in Wallonia against. In total the king won the referendum, but by this troubles and the probability of the escalation of the conflict, he resigned. Baudouin became king.

The last 50 years also have been marked by a rapid economic development of Flanders, which had been largely agricultural and, since the Belgian uprising, had become the poorer half of Belgium. This Flemish resurgence has been accompanied by a corresponding shift of political power to the Flemish, who now constitute an absolute majority (60%) of the population.


Much of the material in this article comes from the CIA World Factbook 2000 and the 2003 U.S. Department of State website.