The history of Belgium: Part four - Expat Guide to Belgium | Expatica
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Last update on June 15, 2020

A century of misfortune and catastrophe for the emerging Belgium ends on a happier note: the foundation of modern Belgian prosperity.

The history of the small but turbulent nation of Belgium starts to change. After a century of misfortune and catastrophe for the emerging Belgium, Belgium’s history has a happy ending: the foundation of modern Belgian prosperity.

Spanish Lowlands: Burn the witch!

The Spanish Lowlands, now made up of Flanders, Brabant, Hainaut, Namur and Luxemburg, became Philip’s defender of the Catholic faith in the north. It was established as an independent domain under his daughter, the Infanta Isabella and her husband, Archduke Albert retaining. The country became ultra pious under the Infanta. Religious orders increased immensely and the Jesuits established some thirty colleges, but the Catholic hold on the people stifled literature and thought. Life for the remaining Protestants became increasingly difficult, driving many more into Holland. The rest became heretics who could be tried as witches – meaning the death penalty. Death at the stake and witch hunting became a key tool for the persecution of Protestants. Thousands of innocents were burned.

Independent domain of Spain

Already devastated by the religious wars, as the border area between the northern Protestant states and the Catholic south, the remaining Spanish Lowlands came under repeated attacks. The people endured a life under siege within the shelter of city walls. Trading came to a halt as the seaward outlets had been cut off. Germany, the major trading partner, had been almost destroyed during the Thirty Years War (population declined from 20 million to three to four million). As the commercial elite had sold out and fled north there were no longer any merchants, brokers, exchanges or bankers. The country’s only recourse was to turn inward, and successfully modernised its agriculture. It reached the point of self-sufficiency.

Yet this was the age of colonial expansion with great cities like London and Amsterdam dominating their incredibly prosperous countries. Belgium however refused to change, maintaining its autonomous cities and regions with the lords, the church hierarchy and the guilds rivalling each other over concerns related to their local privileges.

Austrian rule 1715–1792: Belgium isolated

After the Peace of Utrecht (1713), the Lowlands came under the sovereignty of Emperor Charles VI, the head of the German branch of the House of Hapsburg in Vienna. Austria was now the seat of the Supreme Council, but this made little difference, as Belgium had become virtually isolated from the main currents of European civilisation. The 27-year reign of his governors in Belgium started with the perpetual disputes over local rights and privileges, but may be termed as relatively peaceful and very pious.

Under the long reign of his daughter, the extremely popular Empress Maria-Therese (1740–1780), efforts were made to restore Belgium’s earlier prosperity. New construction increased major roadways from some 40 miles to 620 miles at the end of the century, including the important cross-country highway from Aachen and Ostend. A new rugged three compartment, spring mounted stagecoach was introduced with greater capacity, comfort and speed. Further, with the addition of horse-drawn canal boats serving food aboard for those who wished leisurely comfort, Belgium became a much-travelled country.

Reforms and Revolt: The short lived United States of Belgium (USB)

Her son and successor, Emperor Joseph II, coming to the throne in 1780, attempted to reform the local political and social scene and free it from the heavy hand of the church and nobles. After abolishing all contemplative religious orders and most of the ecclesiastical seminaries, he applied censorship of sermons and took a census of church property for eventual confiscation. Then just ahead of the French Revolution (1789) he attacked the ingrained position of the burghers and the nobility by abolishing all privileges. In place of the independent provinces and their governing Estates-Generals, he established nine districts (much like today’s provinces) with appointed administrators, and completely reorganised the judicial system in a manner much similar to that effected later by Napoleon. His changes affected every branch of the country and would have been judged admirable except that with no transitional period involved, overnight hundreds of thousands of office-holders lost their livelihood without compensation.

The explosion of protests overwhelmed even the supporters of administrative reform. Meanwhile the whole continent was aflame with revolutionary ideals following the turbulence in Paris. The ensuing uprising sent the Austrian troops in flight to Luxembourg and led to the declaration and adoption of the Constitution of the States of United Belgium, based on that of the new USA. With reprisals by the new Emperor Leopold II aided by the Statists (those who wanted a return to the old set up) the Constitution was abolished but the region remained in turmoil.

In the meantime, the people of the Bishopric of Liège, highly prosperous, ultra-liberal with a large industrial proletariat and always independent of the Lowlands, revolted against their Hapsburg Bishop as well (August 1789 – just two months after the taking of The Bastille in Paris).

Belgium unites as a country

Both revolutions collapsed on the return of the Austrian Army. The inhabitants of the two regions overrode their mutual loathing and sent an appeal to France, their only hope. Though the French revolutionaries had originally made proclamations of neighbourly peace, it was the Belgians themselves who influenced this change by requesting help in their struggle for liberation. It may be said that 20 January 1792 is the real birthday of modern Belgium, the date when the refugees in Paris formed the Committee of United Belgians and Liégois. In April they adopted a new Belgian constitution with a referendum, an appeal to the people and provision for an assembly to be elected by universal suffrage of all citizens of voting age.

Belgium was liberated by military action with the victors acclaimed even by the Statists and while elections followed, confusion reigned due to a general European war against France. Liège voted annexation to France, but with the defeat of the French armies, Belgium was reoccupied by the Austrians for 14 months. This short period saved the new country from the class and religious hatreds, which arose at that time in France under Robspierre.

When France retook the country in June 1794 there was only minor emigration, no confiscation of property and though out of power, the former governing classes kept their fortunes and maintained their influence. Some anti-clericalism arose with the destruction of some abbeys and convents. While the clergy lost its great fortunes and land, their influence on the people remained. In contrast to France, there was no class hatred or civil war in the following century.

Annexation by France 1795–1813

The annexation by France in 1795 swept away the old feudal system, uniting Liège and the former Spanish Lowlands under liberated laws. Given the same rights of equality, justice and freedom of action as French citizens, the Belgians received their new status with enthusiasm. Some difficulties arose amongst the pious Belgian Catholics concerning the anti-religious campaign – confiscation of the immense landed property of the church and oath-taking requirements of priests, and peasants rebelled against conscription into the French army. However, Belgium received great benefits, as a part of France and eventually on Napoleon’s reconciliation with the Pope the people felt free to support the Empire wholeheartedly.

Belgium rose to be the most advanced industrial region of the French Republic. With far reaching new markets opened for Belgian products, profits rose to great heights. The population rate soared, while productivity increased immensely in both industry and agriculture. The successes of Napoleon resulted in an industrial boom, while even his ceaseless wars augmented Belgium’s prosperity in meeting the ever-increasing supply demands of the French army.

Belgium, a modern nation

Support for the Empire broke down in the last four years of the Empire commencing with religious strife following Napoleon’s break with the Pope. The Belgian Bishops’ dispute with the Empire aroused Catholic opposition, particularly amongst the Flemmings. Further, increased compulsory military duty resulted in large-scale refusals and desertions, while the growing dictatorial nature of the Imperial regime became strongly resented. The subsequent takeover by the allies in 1813 was quick (only Liège remained pro-French) and met no opposition.

Nevertheless, the French regime had established the basis for Belgium as a modern nation. It had lifted its administration, socially and politically, out of a past of privilege, with modern laws, freedom and justice. It had unified Belgian citizens to think of themselves as one people for the first time and brought into being a new social class – a hard working elite who had prospered under the Empire and who would be the nation’s leading families for many generations.