A Brief History of Belgium

August 16th, 2013

Belgium is a complicated story, both artificial and natural, a new nation that has existed for centuries.

Belgium is a fascinatingly unique country in that it is simultaneously artificial and natural, independent and yet constantly ruled by other powers, and of course a single nation made up of three fiercely independent linguistic and cultural groups. Even in other multicultural nations like the United States there is an over-arching culture and language that almost everyone adheres to (the U.S. is often thought of as an immigrant nation, but 95% of the population speaks English). Despite this, there seems an ever-growing demand for document translation work – but that’s another story!

In Belgium there is no such unity, and some might say the nation really shouldn’t exist – except that it has, for Centuries.

Ancient History

What is today Belgium was part of what the Romans called Gaul when the empire invaded Europe in the last century BCE and the early Centuries CE. The area that is now Belgium was first occupied by Franks when the Roman armies began a slow, centuries-long retreat as the empire faded away.

The Franks were a German tribe and spoke a northern-German language that eventually evolved into Dutch. Centuries later, as Rome abandoned Gaul entirely, the Franks moved south – but in the South the language that would eventually become French was quite entrenched due to the influence of Latin on the local languages, and the Franks who moved south eventually took up French. Thus the area that is Belgium has been divided along linguistic lines since ancient times.

Belgium became part of The Netherlands when the “Low Countries” split from the Dutch in the 16th century, and finally achieved an independent state in the early 19th Century after Napoleon was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. Many regard Belgium as an artificial creation of the European powers as they re-organised Europe post-Napoleon, but as Belgium had been a discrete area for hundreds of years previously, this isn’t really accurate.

The Kingdom and Modern Belgium

Belgium became an economic powerhouse in Europe in the 19th Century, leveraging trade and colonisation efforts to become the fourth-largest economy in the world. King Leopold of Belgium was so rich he essentially personally owned what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo, using it as a retreat and playground.

The World Wars were not kind to Belgium, however; Germany invaded Belgium in both wars and left the country ruined economically and in terms of infrastructure each time. Beginning in the 1950s, Belgium was able to perform what’s known as the “Economic Miracle,” which resulted in a rise in the relative importance of the Flemish region of Belgium at the expense of the Wallonia region.

This has remained the general balance of power between the groups to this day. Belgium’s economy began to grow at a rapid pace, but most governments formed under the King were unstable due to fighting between the Flemish and Walloon groups. However, beginning in the 1980s successive reforms have created a more federalised government apparatus, and such inter-group fighting has almost been eliminated from Belgium political life.

You might also like: