Chapter 26 - Conclusion

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EIGHTY years have elapsed since Belgium became by her own efforts in the first place, and with the support of England and France in the second, an independent, self-governing, and clearly defined kingdom, occupying a position of transcendant importance for all concerned in the maintenance of the balance of power in Western Europe. For England in particular the preservation of the national integrity of the Netherlands is a vital necessity. Under no circumstances must Belgium and Holland be allowed to pass into the hands or under the control of Germany. Antwerp might be made a pistol directed at the heart of England, said Napoleon, and if this was true in the days of sailing ships, it is incalculably more true in an age of steam, electricity, and aeronautic achievement.

In those eighty years Europe has greatly changed, but the general change is small compared to that in Belgium herself. The Belgium in which Leopold I was invited to rule was an undeveloped country possessing little capital and inhabited by a people rendered so cautious by long and bitter experience that they might be described as timid. It made its national debut under the protection of the two Western Powers, and a state of tutelage is not the one most calculated to develop heroic qualities in a people. But there were other perils to national progress from the agreement of the Five Great Powers (Italy not then having been born) to leave Belgium outside the range of their ambitions. The sense of being protected by the solemn pledge of Europe might have bred ease and laziness. The citizens of the new State might have been so rejoiced with the novelty of independence as to enjoy the present in oblivion of the future. They might have reveled in the long freedom without thinking of the duty and difficulty of preserving it. Foreign guarantees are transient, the only sure bulwark of the existence of a nation, great or small, is its own resolution backed up by careful and wise preparations for the evil day of peril during the long years of peace. This reproach cannot be addressed to the Belgian people. They concentrated their attention on the development of their little country, and they labored with set purpose and a single mind to place it in the van of European industrial and intellectual progress. At first the movement was slow - too slow some impetuous critics observed - and the attention and efforts of the people were concentrated at home. No foreign adventure would have tempted the generation which died out with the first king. The present of an El Dorado as a colony would have been rejected, although a few enlightened minds were beginning to realize that some day or other the country would need outlets for its rapidly increasing population. But the development of Belgium came first. Not till its plains presented an unbroken expanse of cultivation, and its workshops and factories were working at full pressure did Belgians generally begin to think that some attention should be paid to expansion beyond the limits of their narrow borders.

By that time Belgium had accumulated no inconsiderable amount of capital. Her financial leaders took their place in the influential fraternity which controls the money markets of the world and which has been designated "la haute finance" The national savings were invested with some losses, but on the whole with great profits in South America, Russia, and China (to mention only a few of Belgium's spheres of interest). The growth of capital led to closer relations with Paris, and Brussels has become almost an agency or branch of the French metropolis in financial matters. It is sometimes said that French influence in Belgium has declined (and I for one am far from denying the truth of the assertion), but it is supreme in the circles of "la haute finance"

The acquisition and accumulation of capital, the participation in important World affairs chiefly in combination with France and Russia, and finally the possession of a great colonial territory, which has apparently excited the envy of onlookers, all these have produced a change in Belgian character and ways of looking at things that is not generally allowed for. It is no longer safe or prudent to speak of the Belgian nation as timid, self-diffident, and afraid to accept responsibility. It would be nearer the truth to say that they have become a trifle venturesome, a little overbold, and not afraid to enter into competition with the great ones of the earth. Perhaps they have gone a little too far in this direction, but the Government that attempts to treat them de haut en bos will soon find itself thwarted in its designs by the aroused sense of dignity of the governing classes in modern Belgium. The worst consequence of the assumption that Belgium has stood still since the days of the London Conference is that there are always other Governments ready not merely to flatter, but also to promise support in the event of aggression. The confidence of the Belgian Foreign Office in itself is great enough, but it is renderd infinitely greater by the conviction that it does not lack friends, and the most serious consequence of all, resulting from miscalculation in political effort, and from wilful blindness to the magnificent progress of Belgium in all the essentials of prosperity and stability, is that it is driven to take its friends from the wrong quarters.

With regard to the home politics of Belgium a foreign observer must be careful in expressing any sweeping opinion. Party passion runs undeniably high, and the gulf separating Catholic and Socialist is very wide and deep. At times revolution seems in the air, and with revolution would come such a change in the condition of things in the country that it might lose its integrity and independence. But many Belgians who speak with full knowledge and authority warn outsiders from forming what may seem logical conclusions about the conflicts of Parties in their country. They admit that political feuds become bitter, that the partisans are noisy - it is admittedly a Belgian characteristic - and that sometimes violence seems imminent; but they add these Belgians know just when to stop. They will draw back when they see peril from their clamor and excess to the national existence. That assurance is worth bearing in mind, although it does not cover all the possibilities of the situation. It meets the case while the Catholic party remains in office, but it is not at all clear what would follow from the advent to power of a Liberal-Socialist ministry, and the majority now behind the party in power is very small.

Looking beyond the question of party contests it is probably true that the precautions taken against a Socialist upheaval, with which the Legislative Chamber is periodically threatened, have been sufficient to assure the preservation of society, and no doubt the new army organization will also contribute to the same result. But at the same time there is almost as much danger in the Catholic party retaining a monopoly of office as there is from the other side coming in. The Belgian system of electing representatives is one of the fairest that has been devised by human skill, but its merits are obscured by the indisputable result that it has given one side a long and unbroken lease of power. This fact alone weakens its claims to perfection and strengthens the demand for the change to the simple procedure of "one man one vote" or "universal suffrage." The abolition of the plural vote will be a serious blow to Conservatism, and its effects will only be mitigated by extending the suffrage to women whenever the change takes place. Even on the Catholic side of the Chamber the view is beginning to prevail that in the next political crisis, which is probably not far off, the plural vote in its present form will have to go.

But to the outsider the recent developments in the Flemish movement seem more alarming as a menace to the stability of Belgium than the feuds of Catholic and Socialist deputies. So long as the Flemish demands were confined to redress of their own grievances, and to the establishment of their own position on a footing of equality with the Walloons there was no serious objection to be made, but all this was gained half a century ago and ratified by a second triumph twenty-five years later. The latest efforts of the Flemish party are offensive and not merely defensive. They are seemingly bent on a campaign of aggression into Walloon or quasiWalloon territory, the reasons of which are still obscure. And this forward movement has raised a volume of irritation and indignation among the Walloons that would not be credited by any one who had not seen a meeting of French-speaking Belgians discussing the latest Flemish demands.

Whatever the advocates of minor races may say to the contrary, language is the true connecting link of a realm, and the attempt to revive half or wholly dead languages, if they were ever anything better than dialects, becomes a menace to the State in proportion as the language in common use is weakly or strongly established. In Belgium there are the two languages which have hitherto been on a fairly equal footing so far as numbers were concerned. But the Flemings are increasing at a greater rate in numbers and prosperity than the Walloons, and the swing of the pendulum will be increasingly in their favor. They are now displaying an intention to make the most of this superiority and to show their adversary no quarter. It is not surprising that the Walloons are up in arms and are showing resentment. The champions of Flemish, which is only low German, and which in the course of a few generations might be converted by a German Government into a very passable high German, have now embarked on an undertaking aiming apparently at absorbing the populous parts of Belgium hitherto included in Walloon Belgium, and if the plain brutal truth must be told, their success seems far from impossible.

There is no doubt something more behind the Flemish movement than meets the eye. If it is only a party move to increase the Conservative forces in a country where the disruptive forces of Republicanism and Socialism are in active operation, the stability of the kingdom may be rather increased than diminished by it. But it is possible that there is another and more sinister explanation. German statesmen have always carefully watched and taken the greatest interest in the Flemish movement. German influence has long been in the ascendant in Antwerp, and the sympathetic attitude of the Berlin Cabinet in the Congo controversy has not failed to make a considerable impression in bureaucratic circles in Brussels. Belgian ministers are probably not aware that Prussia expects to be paid for services rendered and with interest ; but as no demand has yet been made of this nature the grateful sense remains unalloyed. The Flemish movement is in its essence an anti-French movement, and if it succeeds in weakening French influence in Belgium it must to that extent promote and strengthen the interests and influence of Germany.

There are two reasons for the outburst of an antiFrench feeling in Belgium. The first of these is the new religious laws, which amount to a persecution of the Church, and have made the French Government most unpopular among the true Catholics of Flanders. Nobody in this country or in France seems to realize the new sentiment of dislike for France and French ideas that has sprung up in Flanders within the last ten years. The dread of the spread of French influence was always a sort of bugbear in Flanders ; it has now given place to aversion and, the word must be written, contempt.

If the religious question has moved the masses, it is political considerations that sway the minds of those in power. There is a "Republican Party in Belgium. It must exist and take itself seriously when M. Vandervelde shouts the fact in the presence of his King, but a Republic could only exist in Belgium as a kind of satellite of that of France. If Belgian Republicans look to France, it is only natural that those Belgians who are not Republicans should look elsewhere, and that means to Germany. The situation has not yet become acute, but unless the feud between Flemings and Walloons can be arrested, serious consequences threatening if not the very existence of, at least the present order of things in, Belgium must follow within no remote future.

If there has been a deeper purpose in these pages than to describe a country and people among whom I have lived and for whom I have the highest admiration and regard, it is to do what may be done by individual effort towards drawing the attention of the British public to the affairs of Belgium with the view of increasing mutual sympathy. The national alliance between the peoples of Flanders and England is the oldest in Europe. There are no two people more alike. Their most cherished institutions, those of civic liberty, are the same. The English character has been leavened by considerable immigration of Flemish settlers since the twelfth century. Clouds have arisen from time to time on the horizon of their relations, but they have cleared away. The truest of Belgian patriots, whether he be Walloon or Fleming, knows in his heart of hearts that England - apart from the efforts of himself and his fellow-countrymen - is the one sure bulwark of Belgium's independence. The appreciation of that great responsibility should on both sides of the Channel stifle criticism and promote regard.

Source: Boulger, Demetrius C. Belgium. Detroit: Published for the Bay View Reading Club, 1913. Print.

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