Belgium History


Belgium has existed essentially in its present form since
1830, when an uprising led to independence from The
Netherlands. The country's name goes back to a Celtic
tribe, the Belgae, whom Julius Caesar described as the most
courageous tribe in all of Gaul. The Belgae were
overwhelmed, however, by Caesar's legions around 50 BC, and
for 300 years the area was a Roman province. Some scholars
believe that the southern part of Belgium was the
northernmost area of true Roman cultural penetration, beyond
which Latin never really took hold. The proto-Dutch
language, spoken by the Frankish invaders who swept through
the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD, took hold north of
that line.

Throughout most of the Middle Ages, life in the area
centered on the quasi-independent trading and manufacturing
towns--Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, Liege, and others--that rose
out of the rubble left by the Viking ravages of northern
Europe. After centuries of war and many accidents of
dynastic succession, the area that had come to be known as
the Lowlands--comprising the approximate modern territories
of Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg--came into the
possession of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor in the early

The arrival of Protestantism polarized the Lowlands into two
hostile camps. In the religious wars, the split became geo-
graphic and political as the Protestants succeeded in
establishing the United Provinces of the Netherlands in the
north. The remaining Catholic territory after these wars is
roughly equivalent to modern Belgium.

After two centuries of Spanish rule, the Austrian Hapsburgs
gained control of the country after the Treaty of Utrecht
(1713). Napoleon annexed it to France in 1794. After his
defeat in 1815, Belgium was awarded to The Netherlands.
However, after 15 years of chafing against Dutch
administrative and economic reforms, the Belgian people
revolted and declared the independent state of Belgium in
1830. A progressive, almost republican constitution, was
created, and the state was successfully launched with
Leopold I, a German prince, as the first King of the

For 84 years, Belgium remained neutral in an era of intra-
European wars until German troops overran the country during
their attack on France in 1914. King Albert, the
constitutional commander-in-chief of the armed forces,
rallied what remained of his troops and, after joining the
French Army, was able to retain a tiny corner of Flemish
Belgium near the sea throughout the war. Some of the
fiercest battles of World War I were fought on "Flanders'

The inter-war years saw an unprecedented blooming of Flemish
culture in northern Belgium and a sharpening of ethnic
rivalry between the northern Dutch-speaking Flemings and the
southern French-speaking Walloons. Partly as a result, in
1936, Belgium reverted to its former policy of neutrality,
trying not to provide Nazi Germany with an excuse to invade.
As in 1914, this failed, and Belgium was occupied by the
Germans in 1940. While the cabinet and other political
leaders established a government-in-exile in London, the
King remained in Belgium for the entire war. The King's
controversial behavior during the German occupation forced
him, in 1951, to abdicate in favor of his son, Baudouin, who
reigned until his death in 1993. The current King is
Baudouin's brother, Albert II.
source: State Department Background Notes 1994

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