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What's Belgium famous for? Chocolates and child abuse, and they only invented the chocolates to get to the kids.
Ray, In Bruges

The battlefield of Europe

There's a long-standing joke about famous Belgians or the lack thereof. The facts are different.

Modern Belgium is something of a historical anomaly. Throughout the middle ages, the wool trade in Flanders made towns like Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp among the most prosperous in the world. It's worth noting that in 1302 the French lost the 'Battle of the Golden Spurs'. It's one of first times in the middle ages where heavy cavalry was annihilated by infantry, coming a few years after the battle of Stirling. It was especially painful for the French because the Belgian fighters were mostly not nobility and not that interested in taking prisoners for ransom, which resulted in an interesting amount French nobility getting killed in battle instead of being captured. Hence the name, the golden spurs were worn by rich nobility and it is said that after the battle over 500 of them were taken from the battlefield. Among the dead were the French commander and the chief advisor to the king of France. The date of the battle is the national holiday of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium

Through a very savvy marital politic, the various local principalities, one by one (except principalty of Liège), became the possession of the Dukes of Burgundy. The King of Spain then inherited these "Low Countries" and modern Belgium and the Netherlands became the Spanish Netherlands, while the principalty of Liège belonged to the German Confederation. Eventually, religious differences made the Dutch break away, but the southern states (modern Belgium) stayed Catholic and (mostly) loyal to the Spanish. They then got passed across to another branch of the Habsburg family and became the Austrian Netherlands. During their rebellion of 1788-1790 against the Enlightened autocrat Emperor Joseph II, these declared their independence as the United Belgian States (the Belgian tricolor of black, yellow, and red also dates back to the revolution of 1788). The new nation was named after a Celtic tribe from the region which already had given its name to the province that had encompassed the northern part of Roman Gaul. However, a bad split between liberals and Catholic conservatives soon developed and enabled the Austrians to put down the rebellion/revolution. Soon after, the region was conquered by the Revolutionary French armies and added to the French Republic (later Empire) in 1795. Shortly before the Battle of Waterloo (which took place just south of Brussels), the Kingdom of the United Netherlands was created at the Congress of Vienna from the former Republic of the Netherlands (aka Holland), the former Austrian Netherlands (including Luxembourg) and the former principalty of Liège.

However, the Dutch and Belgians had grown apart over the years and it wasn't long before Belgium broke away in a brief civil war and was recognized by Britain and France in 1830. To placate Prussia (who saw Belgium as a potential French pawn), Belgium declared eternal neutrality and this was guaranteed by Britain and France, who promised to defend Belgium if attacked, and attack Belgium if she was the aggressor. This would come back to bite all concerned in the collective ass later. At the same time, the eastern half of the grand duchy of Luxembourg (which since 1815 also belonged to the German Confederation) was separated from Belgium as a nation in its own right. In 1831 the Belgians elected themselves a king, Leopold I, from the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the same family as the British royal family (descended from Queen Victoria's consort Prince Albert), which however renamed itself Windsor in World War 1.

From then on, Belgium got down to the serious business of turning themselves into the fourth biggest industrial power in Europe, while developing a colonial empire, infamous for its nastiness in the Congo (Heart of Darkness is set there).

In 1914, that neutrality clause was violated by Germany, as they were using it as a back-door to France. When the Belgians refused to co-operate, Germany invaded, and although the stories have been wildly exaggerated since, certainly didn't conduct themselves enormously well: it has been dubbed "The Rape of Belgium", which at the time was a much less emotive term and meant "sacking and plundering". This invasion caused Britain's entry into the war. Technically, Belgium was not fully conquered. World war I slowed down into long, slow trench warfare. A small part of Belgian soil remained unconquered. Belgium as a nation was completely crushed by the German warmachine. Ypres and Passchendale are in Belgium. The poem 'In Flanders fields' is one of the best-known World War I poems and the Poppy, which normally doesn't grow in numbers in Flanders, became a symbol.

In 1940, Germany invaded again, and was even less civil than the first time. Belgium was overrun very quickly - as with France, its leaders had prepared for a retread of World War One and relied on stationary forts for defence. Paratroopers, gliders and tanks rendered them harmless in a matter of hours. This wasn't helped by the Belgian government desperately clinging to the hope that the Germans might leave them alone this time and not co-operating with the French and British defence plans until they were actually under attack. Belgian pilots played a role in the Battle of Britain and La Résistance.

Belgium had a weird influence on both World Wars. A Belgian weapon (manufactured by FN) was used by Gavrilo Princip to kill Franz Ferdinand, thus starting World War I. World War II was ended by the bomb on Hiroshima, which used uranium mined in Congo, at that time a Belgian colony.

Belgium was a founder member of NATO and the European Union, and home to many of the institutions of both organisations. It has adopted the Euro, replacing the former Funny Money that was the Belgian franc.

"Brussels" is often used as British journalistic shorthand for the EU, especially where stories involve faceless bureaucrats and/or apparently bizarre decisions taken by same. For Added Alliterative Appeal, they are often "Barmy Brussels Bureaucrats", or sometimes just "Eurocrats". The EU's main bodies are divided between Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg, with the EU Parliament actually located both in Brussels and in the French city.

The current king is Albert II, whose official title is "King of the Belgians" rather than "King of Belgium", to distinguish him as a monarch who rules by popular will, rather than by legal or divine right.

The whole "Boring Belgium" thing has never really extended to the cuisine. It's known for its chocolate as well as waffles and mussels. "French fries" also originated from here. However, Belgium is particularly famous for its beer, which is considered the finest in the world. Belgium has more breweries per capita than any other country, and includes several "Trappist breweries" managed by monks. Attention to detail is so high that each brand of Belgian beer has its own goblet specifically designed to enhance its characteristics, and Belgian brewers in general are some of the best and most creative in the world.[1]

The entire family of saxophones were invented by Adolphe Sax, born in Dinant, Belgium. Patent taken for France in 1848. There are ten kinds of saxophones.

The famous and long-running comic book Tintin comes from Belgium. As do several other Franco Belgian Comics. (In the 1990s it was said that only three things hold Belgium together - the royal family, the Red Devils (the national football/soccer team), and comics!) In the English-speaking world the best-known Belgian comics characters apart from Tintin and co. are probably Lucky Luke, The Smurfs, and Marsupilami. In the world of music, Belgium is probably best known for 20th-century songwriter Jacques Brel, and its techno music, particularly on Maurice Engelen aka Praga Khan, and his most famous project, porno-house group Lords of Acid.

Also noteworthy: Belgium has three official languages, namely Dutch (in the smaller, but more populous, north), French (in the larger, but less populated south) and German (a tiny area in the east). English is also the lingua franca in many European institutions in Brussels. The Belgian dialects of Dutch are known as Flemish. Some places in the southern part of the country, Wallonia, also have Walloon, a set of threatened Romance languages closely related to but distinct from French.[2] Actual German is only spoken in two cities, Eupen and Malmedy, which were transferred from Germany to Belgium after WW 1 in a referendum which required voters to give their name and address to the occupying armies, prompting Germans to be a bit careful about who they voted for. Yes, Belgians are used to linguistic confusion, it's a fact of life!

Not just confusion even - entire governments have been brought down over linguistic arguments that might seem incredibly petty to outsiders, such as the debate over the Voeren/Fourons. And every organization (like political parties, unions and so on) effectively exists twice: Once in the French part, once in the Flemish part.

An outsider watching a Belgian political debate may be surprised by the garishly coloured clothes worn by the politicians. This is because each major party is strongly attached to a colour (Red for the socialists, blue for the liberals, orange for the (ex-) Christian-democrats and green for the ecologists) and it has become an habit for the politicians to mark their allegiance by an article of clothing (most commonly a shirt, necktie or bow tie, but also eyeglasses frames or even a dress suit). The Belgian politician fears no ridicule (or are just that good in modern marketing).

A related trend is the nicknaming of the governmental coalitions (often formed with six or more parties of sometimes widely different ideologies) by a plant (or other) name alluding to the blend of their colours. Witness "the rainbow" (for a socialist/ecologist/liberal alliance); "the violet" (socialist/liberal); "the olive tree" (socialist/ecologist/Christian-democrat); or "the blue orange" (Christian-democrat/liberal).

The eternal political struggle between its two major regions is infamous in Europe and beyond. The political structure of Belgium is designed to prevent either region from imposing its will upon the other in keeping with the national motto 'Strength through Unity'. In practice this tends to lead to obstructionism: both regions often block political decisions by the other region, either on principle or to demand corresponding benefits for their own region. (There is a federal politician with the nickname 'Mrs. No'.) Any decisions that do make it out tend to be heavily delayed and carefully weighed.

The struggle reflects the differences between the impoverished left-wing Wallonia with its old industries and the wealthy knowledge-based right-wing Flanders. This creates an imbalance between tax income and government spending, popularly described as a cash flow from Flanders to Wallonia intended to support Walloon economic development but sometimes considered to disappear into the pockets of a massive bureaucracy and a large number of state-dependent unemployed. Between this inequality, the corruption associated with certain political parties (notably the Walloon Socialist Party) and the heavy involvement of social partners (= trade unions) in politics, the government finds it exceedingly difficult to slim down to pay off its mounting debt and improve the economy at the tail end of the economic crisis. The economy does seem to improve by itself though, and a sovereign debt crisis has been narrowly avoided.

In April 2010, the federal government has been brought down over the long-running debate surrounding the electoral arrondissement of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV for most Belgians). It's not the first time that this debate caused trouble, either. After the general elections of June 2007, it took six months for a new government to be formed, partly because of the debate concerning BHV. The 2010 crash led to new elections in June 2010 where the Flemish winner was a rising right-wing confederalist party with an eventual goal of secession, and the Walloon winner was the traditional unitary socialist party. Finally, on December 6th 2011 (540 days after the elections) a new government was formed. Belgium now holds the world record of "longest government formation".[3]

Tropes associated with Belgium:

Fiction set in Belgium and/or featuring Belgians

...and, famously, in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the word "Belgium" is considered the most obscene profanity in the universe on every planet except Earth. There's even an award for the most gratuitous use of the term on film.

The Belgian Flag

File:125px-Flag of Belgium svg.png


  1. Note: If you see a beer with a French name, it is most likely Belgian.
  2. It has approximately the same relation to standard French as does the Norman "French" traditionally spoken in the Channel Islands.
  3. The second longest is Iraq, which took about eight months, and at least had a war, foreign meddling, corruption, and the extreme youth of its democracy to excuse its tardiness.
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