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Useful Notes: Belgium
The battlefield of Europe

"Sire, ... you reign over two peoples. In Belgium there are Walloons and Flemings. There are no Belgians."

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

Modern Belgium (Dutch: België, French: Belgique, German: Belgien), officially known as the Kingdom of Belgium (Dutch: Koninkrijk België, French: Royaume de Belgique, German: Königreich Belgien), 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 Flemish soldiers were mostly non-noble (or, as in the parlance of the time, lowborn) and not that interested in taking prisoners for ransom, which resulted in a very large number of French nobles dying in battle, rather than being captured and paroled, the usual treatment for defeated noblemen. 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 the Prince-Bishopric of Liège, which, being governed by Catholic Bishops, could make no marital alliances, for obvious reasons), 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, the mostly Calvinist Dutch attempted to break away, but succeeded only partially, with the northern Netherlands (mostly swampy and poor at the time) securing their independence from the Spanish (after an 80 year long war). However, the Dutch proved incapable of defeating the Spanish on land, and so the southern Netherlands, today comprising all of Belgium, and some of France and Germany, remained under Spanish sovereignty, after which the remaining Flemish Calvinists (most had fled to the independent Dutch Republic, where they helped make the new state a world power) were ruthlessly Catholicized. The Southern Netherlands then passed into the hands of the Austrian Habsburgs, after the Spanish Habsburgs (the major branch) died out, to be replaced by the French Bourbon family, becoming 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 Dutch Republic (which itself had given way to the French puppet Batavian Republic), the former Austrian Netherlands (including Luxembourg) and the former {Prince-Bishopric of Liège.

However, the Dutch and Belgians had grown apart over the years (even from the Dutch-speaking Flemish) 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. (Declaring neutrality made logical sense as well, since Belgium was a small country—Belgium at war would hold out about a week or two longer than neutral Belgium.) 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, though it was technically the personal property of the kings of the Netherlands. 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 renamed itself Windsor during the First World War, to distance itself from the Germans.

From then on, Belgium underwent a major industrial revolution (the whole place was bursting with coal, iron, and sulphur), after which Belgium become one of the most industrialized states in Europe. Further down the line, the Belgians acquired colonies during the Scramble for Africa in what is today the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. The Belgian Congo became infamous for its ruthless economic exploitation and horrible treatment of the native Africans. (Heart of Darkness is set there). And by horrible, we mean that in Belgian Congoa single bullet was literally worth more than the life of a native man (soldiers stationed in Congo had to produce the severed right hand of a native to justify every fired bullet, which meant that soldiers had to go out and slaughter a few natives every once in a while to explain missed shots).

In 1914, Germany violated Belgium's neutrality, as they were using it as a back-door to France, activating the United Kingdom's responsibilities as the guarantor of Belgian neutrality. 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 never completely occupied. As World War I slowed down into long, slow trench warfare, small part of Belgian soil remained unconquered. Belgium as a nation was completely crushed by German economic exploitation and ceaseless warfare. Ypres and Passchendale, sites of several of World War I's bloodiest and most pointless battles, 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 fought Battle of Britain contributed to 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 founding member of NATO and The European Union, and home to many of the institutions of both organisations, and serves as the de facto capital of the European Union. It has adopted the Euro, replacing the former "money" that was the Belgian franc.

"Brussels" is often used as a journalistic metonym 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 Philippe, 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 in Belgium. However, Belgium's true culinary pride and joy are its breweries; Belgium is basically the world's beer Heaven, making the finest beers 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.note  The beer is one thing that the Flemings and Walloons will absolutely agree gives them some points of commonality and sets them off from their neighbors; France is better known for wine, and Dutch and German beer is quite different from the Belgian.

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 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.note  Actual German is only spoken in two cities, Eupen and Malmedy, which were transferred from Germany to Belgium after WW1 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. 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 was been brought down over the long-running debate surrounding the electoral arrondissement of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV for most Belgians), this electoral arrondissement allows walloon politicians to be elected on flemish soil, angering flemish nationalists who feel threatened by an encroaching "frenchification" . 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 this debate. The 2010 crash led to new elections in June 2010 where the Flemish winner was a rising right-wing confederalist party NVA with the eventual goal of secession, and the Walloon winner was the socialist party, a party seen as traditionally unitary. Finally, on December 6th 2011 (540 days after the elections) a new government was formed, along with solving the BHV matter. Belgium now holds the world record of "longest government formation".note  The formation gave Belgium Elio Di Rupo of the Francophone Socialist Party as Prime Minister: the first openly gay man to hold the office, the first openly gay male elected head of government, the first openly gay head of government on the European continent (Iceland had chosen a lesbian PM a year or so earlier), the first Francophone PM in Belgium since 1979, and the first Belgian PM who was neither an ethnic Fleming nor an ethnic Walloon (his parents were immigrants from Italy). The state reform that concluded the formation is usually referred to as the "Butterfly Agreement"note  after Di Rupo's memetic bowtienote .

Tropes associated with Belgium:

Fiction set in Belgium and/or featuring Belgians
  • Tintin was created by the Belgian Hergé, and most of the main characters are Belgian, though you'd never suspect it because of the translations' tendency to change just about every name.
  • Smurfs were created by the Belgian Pierre Culliford a.k.a. Peyo and became a world hit thanks to the mostly faithful Hanna-Barbera cartoon in the 80's.
  • Other Belgian comic strips set in this country: Suske en Wiske, Jommeke, Nero, Urbanus, Piet Pienter en Bert Bibber, Spirou and Fantasio, Gaston Lagaffe, Quick and Flupke...
  • The 24th Astérix album, Asterix in Belgium, which foreshadows the Flemish-Walloon divide in the antipathies between the different Belgian tribes of Julius Caesar's day. The tenth, Asterix the Legionary, features a Belgian legionary whose hairstyle resembles Tintin's and whose name Septantesix (which means "seventy-six") plays on the best-known area of vocabulary difference between Walloon French and the French spoken in France, the words for the numbers between 70 and 99.
  • Jacques Brel's songs frequently reference Belgium.
  • The cult classic Man Bites Dog is set in Belgium.
  • As is Vase de Noces (aka "The Pig-Fucking Movie").
  • Secret Army
  • The paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens and René Magritte.
  • Most of Hugo Claus's novels and plays.
  • Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot is an eccentric Belgian. Somewhat ironically in light of the link on famous Belgians on this page, she reportedly made this choice because she wanted to use a francophone character without having to deal with interferences from existing national stereotypes - and Belgium was pretty much seen as a 'blank slate' back then.
  • The protagonist's love interest in Frederik Pohl's Heechee Saga is Belgian.
  • In Bruges... it's another city in Belgium. Nice place too.
  • Not Quite Daily Comic is set in (a World of Weirdness version of) Belgium. There's even an episode about Gueuze.
  • Wing Commander features Jeannette Devereaux, aka "Angel", who was born in Belgium.
  • Austin Powers uses Belgians as Acceptable Targets, making them, among other things, the ones who raised Dr. Evil to be so... evil.
  • In Axis Powers Hetalia Belgium is a Cool Big Sis with a Cat Smile and has two siblings, Netherlands and Luxembourg.
  • Film/Resistance ... Love story against a background of the Belgian Resistance in WWII, starring Bill Paxton and Julia Ormond and based on a novel by Anita Shreve. In its day the most expensive Belgian movie ever made and such a flop it bankrupted the studio.
  • Belgium is depicted in Scandinavia and the World as a comics nerd with a sweet tooth.
  • In Mobile Suit Gundam Wing Endless Waltz it's revealed that the capital of the Earth Sphere Unified Nation is in Brussels.
  • A short arc in Chuck's fourth season involved a Belgian crime lord named....The Belgian.
  • In Monty Python's Flying Circus, there's a sketch called "Prejudice", which features a TV show that's about insulting all kinds of minorities. The host announces the results of a competition where the audience was asked to find a derogatory term for the Belgians. The winning entries are in order: the Sprouts, the Phlegms and Miserable Fat Belgian Bastards.
  • The opening of the JAG episode "A Girl's Best Friend" starts with Jewish diamond dealers in Antwerp.
  • The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine two-parter "Homefront"/"Paradise Lost" is kicked off with the bombing of a Federation-Romulan conference being held in Antwerp. Because a Changeling is discovered on the scene in video footage, the Dominion is held responsible, leading Admiral Leyton to try to bring The Federation under martial law.
  • Salamander'' in which a single rogue cop is all that stands between Belgium and destruction. Plays on the fragility of the country as a political and geographical entity.

...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. note 

The Belgian Flag
The flag's black, yellow and red colors derive from those of the Duchy of Brabant, the territory of which included the major cities of Brussels and Antwerp. The colors are also used in the flags of Flanders (black lion on yellow field) and Wallonia (red rooster on yellow field).

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