03 October, 2011

Belgium, A Bit of History

There's far too much to tell for me to go into detail about my experience of the first two weeks here in Belgium (where I am studying, for those who haven't heard, Belgian Symbolist literature at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, courtesy of a Fulbright grant). Nor do I have any single anecdote that sums up my first impressions of the country adequately. It's a complicated place, like every country with about 2000 years of recorded history, and perhaps is so even more than some given its history of being handed off from French noble to French noble and then from large empire to large empire for hundreds of years before gaining autonomy and a separate national identity in 1830.

First there were there was Charlemagne, then a long line of French nobles (and a few English and German ones tossed in, in places), then it sort of slid into being part of the Burgundian Netherlands, which was sort of French, sort of Dutch. After that, Charles V of Spain acquired it with his accession to the seat of Holy Roman Emperor. It doesn't seem like the Spanish Hapsburgs left a very large legacy, beyond the renaming of the prison in Brussels the "Amigo," due to some complicated linguistic confusions. Then the Austrian Hapsburgs came around; the Belgians tend to resent their legacy a bit, since they left the entire "Mont des Arts" region in Brussels littered with the gigantic, uniform, white buildings that Austrian emperors seem to have loved, but which the Belgians, with their idiosyncratic houses and fondness for small canals and small cobbled roads find aesthetically offensive. Also contributing to the unpopularity of the Austrians (and the Dutch, and the Spanish to an extent) is the fact that they made it into the front line for fighting the French.

Of course, the French contributed to that as well, which makes them similarly unpopular in Belgian historical accounts. And the French became rulers of many different parts of the country at many different times as the war proceeded. Hapsburg rule ended definitively, in fact, just after the French revolution, when the newly-formed French army (well before Napoleon was anyone to speak of) crushed all resistance in that area and threw out the Austrians.Unfortunately, since they were revolutionaries, they also did lots of nasty things to the churches all through the area, which is one of many reasons (the Germans being another major one, later on) that while almost all church buildings date from the gothic period, few of them are gothic in the interior--they were generally pillaged thoroughly and the Belgians would be obliged to replace the insides with decorations of the early-nineteenth century style.

Belgian was soon handed over to the Netherlands, but finding King William's rule to be despotic (both anti-Catholic and anti-democratic), the Catholics and the Freemasons united (for what may be the first time in the history of Europe; it had already happened in the American revolution) to throw off his rule in 1830. At first only the French, the Polish (quite a few Polish refugees actually fought for Belgian independence) and the USA recognized the country's independence. GB and the rest took nearly a decade to do so. Interestingly, one of the consequences of the US's early recognition is that the USA has it's second oldest ambassadorial residence in Brussels. A very nice place dating from the early-mid 1800s, to which I have actually been for a very classy reception honoring Fulbright peoples.

Being small, and not exactly possessing the most impressive of military forces thanks to its size, the country basically tried to remain militarily neutral for the remainder of the century while strengthening itself economically. That, as most know, became impossible when the 20th century and its two World Wars hit.

Now, regarding WWI, I've always seen Germany as being on pretty much equal footing with the allied powers morally speaking. The politicians on both sides were essentially responsible for a brutal, pointless war in which millions of lives were thrown away for (almost) nothing, leaving Europe (in a way that Americans who insist upon being snotty about the Continent during WWII will never understand) depleted, disillusioned, and traumatized. But really, despite my view of 1914-18 Germany in general, I have to admit that they were vicious to the Belgians. The whole concept of "Prussianism" really was a precursor to Nazism in the sense that it was already starting to see Germany as everything and the non-German as inferior. Hence the policy of going into towns, destroying the libraries, shooting city officials, soldiers, priests, and professors indiscriminately, and then instituting draconian punishments for resistance. It goes without saying that a lot of Belgian churches suffered at that time, as well as universities and other cultural institutions. And it also goes without saying that all the brutality of WWI was pretty tame in comparison with what would happen to the country in WWII. It's no wonder that almost none of the churches (if any) have their original stained glass (and that is a great loss in a gothic church).

Today the Belgians generally seem to pride themselves on a dry, skeptical sense of humor, their fantastic food, and the fact that they still exist after all that. They hate being mistaken for Frenchmen, and they hate being mistaken for the Dutch. They have, as is often reported, and which I can declare to be absolutely true, fantastic beer.


Annette said...

I've followed your blog for a long time. Thank you for posting an up date while you're in Belgium.
I was there in 99 and 01.
My dad is a Veteran of Battle of the Bulge, or course he was not there as a tourist but American soldier.
I enjoyed my visit to Belgium, did not expect the friendliness of the people. Loved the architecture and history.

Gentle Gardener said...

This post made me smile!

Therese said...

Thanks Annette, and thanks Mum!

Annette--You must be very proud of your dad. Thank him for his service for me, if you would. I plan to visit the site of the Battle of the Bulge as soon as the weather is good enough. WWII (and WWI)history is everywhere in Belgium, which is great for me, because I think it's very interesting.

Annette said...

I too love to read about World War II.
Dad was captured by Germans at the railroad overpass in the town of Bulligen Belgium (I may not be spelling it right.) He was not captured for long because after a few hours allied war planes flew over and bombed the area and dad escaped back to his camp. Dad told me the Battle of the Bulge was worse than D-day at Omaha beach because it was bitterly cold and lasted longer.