One Hundred Years Ago, Belgium became the most Complicated Country in Europe – July 1921: Language Border between Wallonia and Flanders

Zur deutschen Fassung.


The inability to form a new government quickly after an election is usually associated with failed states such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or the USA. However, the record for the longest time needed to form a government was set by Belgium in 2020, with 652 days, breaking the previous record of 541 days, also set by Belgium.

Are the Belgians doing this on purpose because they don’t hold any other world records?

No, Belgium really is that complicated. After the 2019 elections, twelve parties had made it into parliament. There are so many because each political view is represented twice. There are two Christian Democratic parties, two Social Democratic parties, two Green parties, two Liberal parties and quite a few regional or nationalist parties.

“Why don’t the politically like-minded parties just join together?” you ask. Well, the problem is that they can’t talk to each other. Because there is a French-speaking Christian Democratic/Social Democratic/etc. party and a Dutch-speaking Christian Democratic/Social Democratic/etc. party. The relationship between these parties is similar to that between the “Judean People’s Front” and the “People’s Front of Judea”. The only party competing throughout Belgium is the Marxist Workers’ Party, which has twelve seats in parliament.

“Why can’t they talk to each other? Isn’t Belgium a bilingual country?” you ask now, and that is commonly assumed for the country in the heart of Europe that is home to the capital of the European Union. But Belgium is not really a bilingual country in the sense that everyone speaks two languages. Rather, Belgium is divided into four regions with different language policies.

When I took the train to Antwerp, I got to know all four zones on the very first day. In Eupen, the capital of the often overlooked German-speaking Eastern Belgium, the gentleman at the counter serves customers in either German or French. The ticket is printed in German.

Once on the train, the planned stops are announced in German. But already at the next stop, in Welkenraedt, the announcement is only in Dutch. In Liège, you are informed in French, and in Brussels bilingually. It’s the same conductor making the announcements. He could speak all three languages everywhere. But he keeps strictly to the letter of the law.

Specifically, to a law of 31 July 1921 which has, of course, been repeatedly modified and complicated in the meantime, but which for the first time established a territorial language border in Belgium. (A boundary that corresponds surprisingly to the late-antiquity boundary between Germanic and Romance languages.)

Essentially, it’s like this: In the north, in Flanders, you have to speak Dutch. In the south, in Wallonia, you have to speak French. Brussels, the capital, which lies like a lonely outpost – West-Berlin-like – in Flanders, is bilingual. And in the east of French-speaking Wallonia, there is the German-speaking community, which is not a region in its own right, but a language group in its own right, and is therefore German-speaking despite belonging to French-speaking Wallonia.

According to the language law of 1921, a language census still took place every ten years in the communities along the language border. Based on the census results, the communities could then change sides. And poof, from one year to the next, school was held in French instead of Dutch or vice versa. Many Belgians preferred to move rather than go through that.

Because this was not complicated enough, special regulations were created for the municipalities numbered on the map above, but a different regulation for each municipality, and different regulations depending on whether the matter is a local, municipal, communal, regional, provincial, social security, police, judicial, semi-governmental or federal one. In total, there are several thousand exceptions.

But the more complicated the law, the more scrupulously it is observed. For example, authorities in Flanders must communicate in Dutch. However, if a Belgian resident of Wallonia is visiting Flanders or is stopped there by the police, for example, the Flemish official may (not must) – if he happens to know French, which for him is not obligatory – speak (but not write) to the citizen in French. However, if a French-only speaking Belgian living in Flanders (such a thing can happen) runs into the same police officer, then the French-speaking Flemish police officer is not allowed to communicate in French with the also French-speaking resident of Flanders. Except after duty and privately, but then only in a pub that has a license for multilingualism. And not on Flemish holidays, unless this holiday coincides with a federal, i.e. nationwide holiday.

Belgian police officers like to stop foreigners because they can speak to them in any language and, if necessary, in English. Unless, of course, the foreigner is a resident of Belgium, in which case the Belgian language laws apply. How strict the proportionality rules are also enforced against visitors, I experienced myself when I was house-sitting in Belgium.

Honestly, the language dispute in Yugoslavia is a joke compared to Belgium.

No joke, unfortunately, is that each of the two population groups derives a good part of its identity from the antagonism to the other. Because most Belgians do not speak the language of the other group, they perceive its members only through media in their own language.

A particularly sad chapter is the University of Leuven/Louvain, one of the oldest and most prestigious European universities. Founded in 1425, later one of the capitals of humanism, this story came to an end in 1968.

The university, like politics, was in fact already divided into two parts. One could study not only linguistics, but also geography, mathematics and, absurdly, even English literature in French or in Dutch. There were practically two universities under one historic roof.

But after a new language border demarcation in 1962, the university was clearly in Flanders, and Flemish students protested that it was possible to study in French at all in Leuven/Louvain. Since a university should offer education in other languages, I find this complaint of the Flemish students downright absurd, especially since they themselves did not have to speak French. But that’s how nationalism and regionalism work, the brain stops working and suddenly students hate their fellow students.

The government’s attempts at mediation were in vain, the prime minister resigned, and the new prime minister wanted to get rid of the problem: The university was divided, and the French-speaking faculty and students had to leave the city.

In 1971, a new city was built in Wallonia, Louvain-la-Neuve, that is, New Louvain, consisting almost exclusively of this university and the student dormitories. It is, like all cities that sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s, a depressive place – except for the Hergé Museum.

The two universities spent the 1970s dividing up the library. Books with odd signature numbers remained in Leuven/Louvain, those with even signature numbers were moved to Louvain-la-Neuve. Or rather to the border between Flanders and Wallonia, where they were then handed over by Flemish Mail to Walloon Mail. The distance between the two universities is 30 km.

It was not the first time that the university library in Louvain/Leuven became a victim of world history. In August 1914, it was set on fire by German troops. About 300,000 books burned.

And this brings us to the main culprits for the Belgian language quagmire. It is neither the Walloons, the Flemish, the French, the Dutch or the Romans, but, with the reliability attributed to them, the Germans.

For the partition of Belgium was the work of the Germans during World War I. They introduced the administrative division after their rapid occupation of Belgium, into a Flemish part with the capital of Brussels, and a Walloon part with Namur as the capital. It was the Germans who set up separate Dutch- and French-speaking ministries. And it was the Germans who banned the French language from the university in Ghent.

The German policy toward the Flemish was the birth of anti-Belgian Flemish nationalism, although only a small minority of the Flemish could be lured into cooperating with the occupiers. But for the first time, there was a current within the Flemish movement that fundamentally rejected Belgium and wanted its own state.

After World War I, the Flemish were portrayed as traitors to their country, which was also exaggerated because only a few thousand people had colluded with the Germans. The vast majority of the Flemish, who had rejected the German occupation just like the Walloons, felt unjustly branded as traitors to the fatherland.

And if that is not enough proof that Germany is to blame for everything that goes wrong in Belgium: In World War II, Germany invaded Belgium again, the library in Leuven/Louvain burned down again, and Germany sowed even more discord between the Flemish and Walloons by treating the former better than the latter under suspicion of being Aryans. For example, Flemish prisoners of war were released or recruited into the Waffen SS, while Walloons were taken to Germany for forced labor.

Again, only a few Flemish people collaborated with the German occupiers, but of course the different treatment did not improve the relationship between the two language groups. Only the German-speaking Belgians, oddly enough, came out of the two world wars fairly unscathed. But perhaps Walloons and Flemish are bickering far too much to even notice the existence of the few Germans in the East.


P.S.: I am not intentionally looking for topics related to Germany. For July 1921, I deliberately did not choose the Leipzig Trials (for German war crimes in Belgium during World War I) or Adolf Hitler taking over the NSDAP as topics. After all, one goal of this series is to cast a glance at different countries.

But whenever I dig deep enough, I find German hands in the global game almost everywhere. Even the alternative topic of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party 100 years ago should have mentioned the German colony of Kiautschou in China, because its non-return to China after the Treaty of Versailles was the trigger for the founding of the Communist Party in July 1921. So, in a way, it is Germany’s fault that China is now a dictatorship. :/

Links:

  • All articles of the series “One Hundred Years Ago …”.
  • More history.
  • By contrast, the language dispute in former Yugoslavia is rather amusing.
  • More articles about Belgium, with quite a bit still to come, especially my report from Neutral Moresnet, a country that – and this shows how long my notes have been lying around already – no longer exists.
  • Another two countries that no longer exist – and I bet you have never heard of – will be the subject in August 1921. Be excited in anticipation, share the articles of this series on the interweb and with your friends, and thank the supporters of the blog who are making this project possible!

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Belgium, Germany, History, Language, Politics, World War I, World War II and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to One Hundred Years Ago, Belgium became the most Complicated Country in Europe – July 1921: Language Border between Wallonia and Flanders

  1. Pingback: Vor hundert Jahren wurde Belgien zum kompliziertesten Land Europas – Juli 1921: Sprachgrenze zwischen Wallonie und Flandern | Der reisende Reporter

  2. By the way, for those wondering about the split between the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front, it’s all explained here:

  3. Jason Good says:

    Fascinating.

    I was part of a European-funded research project in the mid 1990s and Leuven Uni was a partner and visited.

    I knew about the partition of books by code number but I had assumed it was Catholic/Protestant, not language, based.

  4. And I thought all the problems in the world were caused by US foreign policies and military. Thank you for letting me know everythingis Germany’s fault😂😂😂

    • I just replaced one over-simplification by another. :-) But between two over-simplifications, I prefer the lesser known one.

      When I was in Australia during the first Iraq war, I heard that “it’s all the Pommies’ fault”, by the way.

  5. You just confirmed that the Decision of 1988, which I have scrupulously followed, was a good one. The famous Decision is that as soon as your train enters Belgium (irrespective of where it comes from or where it is going) make sure that you are asleep, and you don’t wake until it crossed out of Belgium.

    • Oh gosh, how could I have overlooked that decision? Especially as you say it’s famous? :O

      But then, I was going to a destination within Belgium, so it probably didn’t apply to me.
      Very complicated country.

  6. Having now lived in Belgium for almost 17 years, I can confirm that the language question is one of the most irritating and tiresome aspect of this otherwise quite friendly, pleasant and easy-going country. I can mention some examples.
    Driving eastwards towards Liege, the motorway crosses several times between Wallonia and Flanders, with the road signs switching several times between LIEGE and LUIK. If you’re in Flanders and wish to go to Mons, you need to follow the arrows towards BERGEN.
    At the beautiful city of Mechelen (“Malines” for the Walloons), the tourist information office offered me a self-guided walk booklet available either in Dutch, English, German or Spanish. Pointedly NOT in French. It turned out the be a wonderful day, which is what mattered in the end.
    Examples abound, from the residents registration office whispering that she’s forbidden to speak English, to the “WEGOMLEGGING – DEVIATION” sign next to a closed road, probably borrowed from nearby bilingual Brussels, having the offensive, illegal French word “Deviation” blacked out. You know, to make it easier for the road user to find their way.
    Things could be so easier for everyone if the entire country were to adopt the Brussels model, i.e. having both Dutch and French as official languages, teaching both languages at school and allowing everyone to speak whichever language they wish. But this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. You see, it’s in the nature of Belgian authorities to prefer to turn a solution into a problem rather than the other way round.

    • Thank you / Merci / dank u wel for these wonderful examples!

      I am glad you confirmed the complexity and absurdity of the situation, for I feared that readers wouldn’t believe me.

      I wonder if hitchhikers in Belgium have bilingual signs and then fold them to use only one language in the respective parts of the country. Probably that’s mandated by law, too.

      And I agree with you, it would be such an advantage to simply teach/learn both languages from a young age.

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