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A short history of Belgium

היסטוריה קצרה של בלגיה    

The word “Belgium” originates from the name “Belgica”, given by the Romans to the northern part of Gaul, which Julius Cesar conquered a few decades before the Christian Era. It is based on the name of the fierce tribes which they had to subdue in that area.

Many inhabitants of what was later to become Belgium played an important part in the Crusades, including Godfred of Bouillon, one of the leaders of the First Crusade and Baldwin of Flanders, the first King of Jerusalem. 

In the Middle Ages, Belgium was divided in fiefdoms: the County of Flanders by the sea, the Duchy of Brabant, the Principality of Liège along the Meuse river etc. A merchant bourgeoisie developed, especially in the harbour towns of Bruges and Ghent and quickly conquered de facto independence from the feudal lords and from the Kings of France and the German Emperors, the nominal overlords. 

During the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), several battles were fought in what is now Belgium, like the one at Sluis, where the French King lost his fleet. The area acquired a reputation for being the battlefield of Europe. The battles of Oudenaarde, Malplaquet, Ramillies, Jemappes, Waterloo, Ypres and Bastogne were later all to be fought on Belgian soil.

During the late Middle Ages, present-day Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg were unified into the so-called XVII Provinces and became part of the lands originally belonging to the Dukes of Burgundy, a family related to the Kings of France, followed by the Habsburg Emperors, and finally the Kings of Spain.

During that period the Flemish painting school gained international acclaim with masters such as Van Eyck, Breughel and Memling. Later Rubens, Jordaens and Van Dyck turned Antwerp into a major arts centre.

Protestantism appeared in the 16th Century and prevailed in the Northern Provinces, which broke away, became independent and later on formed the Kingdom of the Netherlands (Holland). The Southern Provinces, however, remained Catholic under Spanish rule. In 1713, they became part of  the Austrian Empire and were known as the Austrian Netherlands, later to be called Belgium.

In 1792, following the French Revolution, France invaded the Austrian Netherlands. As a result, they were annexed and became part of Napoleon’s Empire.

After the battle of Waterloo, fought outside Brussels in 1815, the former Austrian territories were reunited with Holland into the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. This arrangement, however, lasted only fifteen years. In 1830, the Belgians revolted against the Dutch rule and became independent.

On 21 July 1831, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a German prince and widower of Princess Charlotte, the daughter of George IV, became King of the Belgians. The Constitution, however, restricted his powers.

The second half of the 19th Century was a period of dynamic industrial and economic development, based on coal and steel in the Liège area, the chemical industry and trade. Belgium ranked among the leading economies of the world, its GDP roughly equal to that of the United States.

During that period, the second King of the Belgians, Leopold II, privately acquired a large domain in Central Africa, later to become the Belgian Congo. It is indisputable that abuses were committed against the local population at the time, as was the case in other parts of Africa (as well as Asia and America) colonised by other European countries. There is, however, absolutely no documented evidence that millions lost their lives, as has been claimed by some. In 1908, the Congo became a Belgian colony and most abuses stopped. Serious historians agree that on the whole the Belgian Congo was run neither better nor worse than the neighbouring colonies in British, French, German or Portuguese Africa, as was also reported by visiting American journalists.

In 1914, the German Empire invaded neutral Belgium in order to outflank the defenses of the French army. Unexpectedly, the Belgian army resisted and fought on, holding a small part of unoccupied Belgian territory north of Ypres, alongside the British and French armies, until the Armistice of 1918.  Because of their heroic defense, Belgium and its King, Albert I, enjoyed enormous international prestige after the war.

Occupied Belgium suffered executions of civilians, severe destruction and was widely stripped of its industrial infrastructure. It was saved from starvation by food shipments from the United States which came in via neutral Holland. American Universities later helped rebuild the Belgian Universities that had been burned down in 1914.

In 1940, Germany again invaded neutral Belgium, which became one of the few European countries to have been occupied twice in a century. This time the Belgian army had to surrender after about two weeks, as did the French army a few weeks later. The elected Government went into exile in London. From there it supported the internal Resistance, organised Belgian units within the British Armed Forces and put the Belgian Congo’s vast resources at the disposal of the Allied war effort. 

Many Belgians, some of whom had escaped from occupied Belgium, volunteered at the Belgian Embassy in London.  A plaque outside the previous site of the Belgian Embassy in Eaton Square commemorates this.

During the four years of occupation, the behaviour of the population was similar to that of the other occupied countries, Holland, France, Norway and Denmark: the majority waited things out and struggled to survive.

Some Belgians collaborated economically with the Nazi occupiers. Others joined the Waffen SS and fought in Russia or became members of the police forces set up by the Germans to assist them. Most of the municipalities or police refused to help the Germans rounding up Jews, although some did.

After the war 87,000 people were prosecuted for treason, war crimes, or having aided the enemy in some way or other. Of those found guilty about 4,000 received death sentences, of which 241 were actually carried out.

Tens of thousands of other Belgians resisted Nazi occupation with arms, by sabotage, by hiding Jews or others sought by the Germans, by spying for the Allies or by setting up escape routes for Allied pilots who had been shot down. About 17,000 Belgian Resistance fighters were executed or died at Fort Breendonk prison outside Brussels or in jails or concentration camps  in Germany, mainly Dachau. Approximately 27,000 survived detention in the camps. Some of the Resistance fighters had already opposed the first occupation twenty years earlier.

According to official figures, about half of the Jews who were in Belgium in 1940, whether of Belgian nationality or refugees from other countries, survived the Holocaust, either by escaping abroad or by being hidden by non-Jews. Of the 25,267 Jews sent to Auschwitz or other camps, only 1,207 survived. Yad Vashem, the official Israeli institution studying the Holocaust, has recognised about 1,500 Belgian Righteous amongst the Nations, among them Queen Elisabeth, the grandmother of King Albert II.

Timely action by the Belgian Resistance prevented the retreating Nazi German army from destroying the port of Antwerp which fell intact into Allied hands in September 1944, thus shortening the supply lines that until then had had to rely on artificial ports in Normandy. Retaking Antwerp was the main objective of the German offensive in the Ardennes in December 1944, a.k.a. the Battle of the Bulge.

In the years after World War Two and in large part inspired by the desire of seeing an end to the recurring wars between its neighbours, which were often fought on its soil, Belgium became one of the pioneers of European unification.

Brussels is the seat of most European institutions. Since 1967 the Belgian capital also hosts the seat of NATO, of which Belgium is a founding member and to which it contributed most of its military effort during the Cold War.

In 1960 independence was granted to the Belgian Congo and two years later to Rwanda and Burundi, which were United Nations mandate territories. Both the government and the population of Belgium retain a strong interest in developments in Central Africa, which receives the bulk of Belgian development aid.

For some years now Belgian aid to poorer countries has gradually been increased to 0.7 % of GDP, one of only a few countries to reach such percentage.

Belgium’s internal politics are largely dominated by the enduring opposition and squabbles between the Dutch speaking Flemish in the North and the French speaking Walloons in the South, historical, cultural and economic factors each playing a role. However creative constitutional arrangements have been developed over the years, giving the two communities a large degree of autonomy without any form of bloodshed. Several constitutional reforms which transformed Belgium into a federal state were introduced in the seventies and eighties of the last century.

The country's economy now ranks amongst the 15 largest GDPs in the world and is largely based on manufacturing, the mechanical and chemical industries and trade.  The port of Antwerp is one of the ten largest in the world and the second in Europe.

Belgium has a population of 10.5 million.

According to UN figures which take into account life expectancy, access to medicine, education and housing, etc., Belgium enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world.

It is well known they take their food very seriously, and that their beer and chocolates are second to none.

Many contemporary Belgian artists and writers have contributed to Western culture. In the late XIXth century, the Flemish poet Emile Verhaeren and writer Maurice Maeterlinck wrote in French while fellow romantics Hendrik Conscience, Paul Van Ostayen, Ernest Claes, Felix Timmermans, Jan Frans Willems and Herman Teirlinck chose to use Dutch as did delicate poet Father Guido Gezelle in the local Bruges dialect.

Painter James Ensor, whose father was British, worked in Ostend and recreated folkloric scenes in Belgian streets. 

The muscular creations of sculptor Constantin Meunier evoke the physical exertions of working people. 

Architects Horta and Van de Velde were amongst the most important portents of the Art Nouveau school and several of their buildings adorn Brussels streets.

Adolphe Sax’s invention, the saxophone, is today a must in any jazz band.

In the XXth century, cartoonist Hergé’s creation of Tintin became the most prominent representative of the world famous Belgian strip school, while the Smurfs, Lucky Luke, Spirou and Suske and Wiske also attained a certain fame.

Flemish writer Hugo Claus, recently passed away not before seeing his “Het Verdriet van België” being translated into several languages.

Jacques Brel’s sensitive songs and Georges Simenon’s whodunits have also attained fame far beyond our borders as have the Antwerp fashion school and dancers like Béjart’s Ballet du Vingtième Siècle and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Rosas.

Surrealist painters Paul Delvaux and René Magritte gained international fame. Film director André Delvaux, known as "the godfather of the Belgian film industry", put our small country on the international film map.


Belgium’s contribution to technology has always been important, in the XIXth century the dynamo was invented in Liège and chemist Solvay’s invention made mass production of steel possible.

No fewer than 11 Nobel prizes have been won by Belgians.

Bicycle riding, football and tennis are widely practiced and many Belgian sportsmen and women have attained top rankings.

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