A country the size of the state of Maryland situated in northwest Europe and surrounded by the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, France, and the North Sea. It was an advanced industrial economy and secondary imperial power by the late nineteenth century.
   Before the French Revolutionary Wars, Belgium had been known as Austrian Netherlands since 1714 when Austria took possession of the Spanish Netherlands. Nominally ruled by the Hapsburg monarchy from Vienna, it enjoyed considerable autonomy until 1789, when the Austrian emperor attempted to centralize and consolidate his authority in the region. Upset with the loss of autonomy, and influenced by the events in neighboring France, the Belgians revolted and in 1790 declared their independence as the United States of Belgium. The Austrians quickly regained control, but soon found themselves at war with the revolutionary regime in France.
   The next three years were chaotic and destructive, as the French conquered the country in a self-described “liberation” by 1792 and enthusiastically imported their revolutionary measures, complete with liberal use of the guillotine and widespread confiscations of church and noble property. The Austrians reconquered the country in 1793, but the French were back the next year. Between the French revolutionary predations and the tendencies of armies during this period to live off the land, Belgium was devastated. In 1795, France formally annexed the region, and for the next 20 years it was officially French. The Revolutionary government nevertheless treated Belgium as a colony to be plundered. Under Napoleon, conditions were eased, at least for French-speaking Belgians, and the country was accepted into the French Empire.
   After the fall of Napoleon, the European map was redrawn by the victors at the Congress of Vienna. One of Britain’s major concerns at the Congress was for a power occupying the southern Netherlands that could defend it against what the British assumed would be inevitable expansionist pressure from France. After much discussion and haggling, the parties agreed that Belgium would be handed to the Netherlands. Given the conservative, Great Power preoccupation of the Congress with the European balance of power, little attention was given to what the Belgians themselves thought should happen. The reunified Low Countries were ruled by William I, of the intensely Calvinist Orange family that had ruled as Stadtholder in the Dutch Republic. It was supposed to be a joint kingdom, with dual capitals in The Hague and Brussels. William, however, became increasingly authoritarian and was insensitive to his Belgian subjects. His declaration of Dutch as the sole official language upset the French-speaking Walloons, and his attempts to impose the teaching of Calvinist doctrine in the schools offended both French and Dutch-speaking Catholics. Economic issues also played a role, as the Dutch tariff policies favored the northern provinces at the expense of the Belgians. In short, the Belgians and, in particular, the Francophone Walloons felt increasingly threatened. In 1830, the July Revolution in France brought matters to a head in Belgium. On August 25, the citizens of Brussels rioted, spurred on by the performance of an allegorical opera dealing with revolt and patriotism, The King’s son, William II, who resided in Brussels as the crown’s representative, was convinced that the only solution to the growing crisis was an administrative separation of north and south. His father, however, rejected the plan, and an army was sent into Brussels to retake control. The operation failed. After intense street fighting from September 23 to 26, a provisional government was declared; and on October 4 a declaration of independence was issued. In November 1830, a National Congress assembled in Brussels, and on February 7, 1831, a constitution was proclaimed. In what became known as the “Ten Days’ Campaign,” on August 2, 1831, a second Dutch effort to recapture the south began. It was initially successful, winning two quick victories against the Belgians. The attack ground to a halt on August 12, however, and the offensive was called off when a French army appeared to protect the Belgians.
   International conditions at the time favored the Belgian cause. The British foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, sought advantageous commercial conditions for British interests on the continent and therefore supported Belgian freedom. Either of two continental powers, France or Russia, might have posed a danger to cooperation in a peaceful resolution, but neither was in a position to run risks. The government of Louis Phillippe was, in 1830, dealing with political turmoil at home, even as a large part of its army was tied down in Algeria. Russia, on the other hand, was suddenly facing the Polish Rebellions. As a consequence, an international agreement was reached in London on December 20, 1830, recognizing the independence of Belgium. The conflict sputtered on for another eight years, until the powers imposed a peace on the parties in the Treaty of London, signed on April 19, 1839. The treaty recognized Belgian independence, with borders roughly similar to those today. More important, it also recognized Belgian neutrality - a neutrality recognized by all of the signatories, including Prussia, Austria, France, Britain, and the Netherlands. This commitment to neutrality would be crucial to the entry of Britain in World War I, some 75 years later.
   In the meantime, the Belgians elected Leopold Georg Christian Friedrich of Saxe-Coburg, a German nobleman who was an advisor to his niece, Queen Victoria, as “King of the Belgians” in 1831. Leopold had earlier turned down the job of King of Greece. Belgian independence meant a complete reversal of roles between the Flemish and the Walloons. French became the dominant language, even in the north, and the Walloons the dominant group. Despite being a majority, the Flemish, mostly farmers and factory workers, were considered second-class citizens. Under the rule of Leopold I and his son, Leopold II, Belgium prospered. Its industrialization was so successful that, by the eve of World War I, Belgium was, by some measures, the fourth strongest economic power in the world. The increasingly prosperous small nation was not a big enough stage for Leopold II, however. He hungered for an empire. Conventional wisdom during the mid-nineteenth century held that industrial powers needed captive colonial markets to provide a source of raw materials, as well as to “soak up” its surplus goods and perhaps also its excess population. Leopold was also driven by personal demons - obsessions with trade, profit, power, and an empire. From the early 1860s, Leopold lobbied the Belgian parliament and people relentlessly to push the country into an imperial acquisition. Hardly anyone was interested. Eventually, he realized any colonial ambitions would have to be achieved with a private colony owned by him personally. He expanded his efforts to the European scientific and philanthropic community. He hosted conferences and formed international committees on the “plight” of the natives of Africa. These included the Geographical Conference of 1876, the Association Internationale Africaine in 1876, the Committee to Study the Upper Congo in 1878, and the International Association of the Congo of 1883, all studded with leading scientists and nobles. Always, he cloaked his efforts in the language of scientific discovery and philanthropy. Leopold’s breakthrough came in 1878, with his meeting of Henry Morgan Stanley, the American who famously “found” the missionary David Livingston. The next year, Leopold funded an “exploratory” expedition by Stanley of the Congo River in central Africa. The expedition’s real purpose was to begin the establishment of Leopold’s personal empire. Leopold and Stanley’s efforts were ratified by the international community at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, which recognized Leopold as sovereign of the Congo Free State. Leopold’s personal empire, more in the nature of a proto-multinational corporation than a national colony, had little or no effect on Belgium. Leopold obtained a loan from the Belgian parliament in 1889, ostensibly for philanthropic work in his free state, but in fact used to fund the startup of commercial exploitation. Eventually, the brutal nature of Belgian rule in the Congo became known, and international public pressure forced the Belgian parliament to take over administration of the colony in 1908.The Belgian colonial administration was considerably less brutal than that of the Congo Free State, but no less paternalistic. Political administration fell under the total and direct control of the mother country, with no indigenous democratic institutions and almost no participation of any kind by the native population. The Belgian Congo thus earned a special place of infamy in the history of European colonialism.
   In the years since independence and the declaration of neutrality in 1839, the Belgians scrupulously adhered to its provisions. The army spent considerable resources building a series of fortifications around major cities throughout the country, but Belgium made no effort to ally itself with any of the Great Powers surrounding it. In each of the abortive crises in the years before the outbreak of the war, the Belgian government made it clear to all of its neighbors that it would resist any incursion across its borders, whether hostile or “supportive.” This was not enough to ensure Belgian security. World War I began with the German invasion of Belgium in an attempt to outflank the French army at the Franco-German border to the south. Officially, Britain went to war with Germany over the violation of Belgian neutrality but was not able to provide timely aid. The Belgians resisted stoutly but were rapidly overcome by the surprise and strength of the German army. Within weeks, the Germans had occupied all but a few square miles in the far west. They spent the next four years terrorizing and starving the civilian population, and pillaging the country of its economic resources. “The Rape of Belgium” became the symbol in the Western democracies, and especially the United States, of German barbarism.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>.
    Blom, J.C.H., and Emiel Lamberts, eds. History of the Low Countries. Translated by James C. Kennedy. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006;
    Hayes, Carlton J. H. A Political and Social History of Modern Europe. New York: Macmillan, 1926;
    Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold ’ s Ghost. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998;
    Schama, Simon. Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands, 1780-1813. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977;
    Schroeder, Paul W. The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994;
    Taylor, A.J.P. The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918. Oxford: Clarendon, 1954;
    Zuckerman, Larry. The Rape of Belgium. New York: New York University Press, 2004.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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