The History of Flemish Nationalism:
Past, Present and the Future

                                                              

 

Peter Engholm

Monash University, September 1999

 

 

 

ABSTRACT:

Flemish nationalism developed from within the Flemish movement in the beginning of World War I. Previously, Flemings had been concerned only about their linguistic and cultural rights in a Flemish region within a Belgian context, but World War I saw a rise of demands for an independent Flanders. Hence, the Flemish movement was divided into Pacifists, who wanted to continue the linguistic and cultural struggle, and Activists and Frontists who sought to exploit the situation to achieve territorial and national goals. Nationalistic parties were formed and became the main voice in the struggle for independence. The demands for more autonomy led to the federalisation of Belgium in 1993, and more autonomy to the three regions of Flanders, Brussels, and Wallonia. Still, nationalism is stronger than ever, and the future of a unified Belgium is uncertain.

KEYWORDS:

Flemish nationalism, Belgium, Europe, Activists, Frontists, Flanders

 

FULL TEXT:

Introduction:

No, Belgians! French I love, and venerate it too;
But I want all the world to give your tongue its due
Belgians, you should not yield others greater stature
Your language is unique, express your true nature;
It is your heritage, a treasure all your own
A rich and endless pool of all that can be known…

As long as what is French is all that we hold dear,
And our own forebears’ gifts receive no honour here,
Then Belgian will appear to serve a foreign master
And what they called their own will vanish ever faster
Our mongrel children will, while breathing Flemish air,
Forget the people’s name that once existed here.[1]

This extract from a poem written by the young civil servant Jan Frans Willems in 1818 symbolised the concern of the Flemish people for their language which has been a trade-mark for the Flemish movement since it originated a few centuries ago. The “Flemish question” about the place and future of Flanders and its people and their language, inspired several writers to raise the issue in the political sphere which later translated into more or less radical nationalistic expressions.

It is important to distinguish Flemish nationalism from the Flemish movement. Although Flemish nationalism is part of the Flemish movement and developed from it, it is mostly regarded to be concerned with more radical issues that only a minority of Flemish people adhere to, such as, for example, the creation of an independent Flemish state. Still, the two concepts are undeniably closely intertwined, and some authors choose not to make any distinction, but simply describe the Flemish movement in terms of various degrees of nationalistic expressions and actions. This paper, however, aims to separate the two concepts and discuss the rise of the more radical Flemish nationalism in the twentieth century, how it differs from the traditional Flemish ideas, and what implications it has for Flanders and Belgium today and in the future. But to understand the rise of nationalism in the twentieth century, it is first necessary to look at the roots and history of the Flemish movement, which dates back centuries ago.

History of the Flemish Movement up until 1830

The history of Flanders begins with the annexation of the area we now call Belgium with the Roman Empire in the beginning of the millennium. Over the following centuries, Germanic language and culture was brought to the northern area of what today is Flanders, and by the thirteenth century the boundary between the Romance and Germanic tongues had been established in more or less its present position. However, this was also the time when the French language began to infiltrate the area - especially the upper levels of society in Flanders, and a growing concern rose out of the linguistic influence and dominance it seemed to seek to obtain over traditional and local dialects and cultures.[2]

This came to be the main emphasis of the Flemish movement in its initial form and expression. The period up until 1830 had seen an era of constant foreign rule in Flanders, including incorporation with the Netherlands in the Kingdom of the United Netherlands in 1815, and the period saw no elements of nationalistic sentiments among the Flemings - probably due to the fact that Flanders had no ‘real’ history of independence. The focus was instead on what impact the French language had on the Dutch-speaking region. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had seen a flowering of French culture and language in Europe, and the aftermath of the French revolution in 1789 resulted, among other things, in that a Francophone bourgeoisie emerged in most of the major Flemish centers. Flemish and Dutch dialects were gradually replaced by French, which was imposed on all areas of passing laws. This “frenchification” continued even after Napoleon’s defeat and the incorporation with the Netherlands in 1815.[3]

This growing importance of French was attested by the Brussels lawyer Verlooy in 1788, leading many future commentators to regard him as the father of the Flemish movement. He appealed to all Dutch-speaking people to work together in the field of language and culture, and was to acquire great historic significance in the awakening of Flemings’ national consciousness:[4]

And why should our language have to yield pride of place to French? Why subordinate the much better to the worse? Why sacrifice the language of the majority, of the best, of the most distinguished in the State, to that of a bare quarter of the country, to a little corner of ugly bastard French?[5]

Hence, for the first time, Germanic and Romance language areas were accorded a degree of regional significance, and although the Belgian revolution in 1830 united people from all over Belgium - both Flemings in the north and Walloons in the south - the stage was set for a future of linguistic and cultural conflicts between two different groups of people within one newly created united Belgian state.[6]

The Flemish Movement in a Belgian State

The creation of the Belgian State in 1830 lay a foundation for a social language constraint. For a whole century the position of the small man in Dutch-speaking Belgium was to illustrate the accuracy of Lacordaire’s famous words: “Between the weak and the strong, the poor and the rich, it is freedom that oppresses and the law that sets free”. In other words, the Dutch language was not dead but it had become the language of the small man who could not hope to develop and attain his rightful place in Belgian society unless he abandoned both it and the culture of which it is a part.[7] This, according to Ruys, is a “cruel and wholly unjustified price to be exacted since it meant giving up that which in any other nation would be regarded as an inalienable birthright, all the more so because in the Belgian State the majority of the population was, and is, Flemish”. [8]

Various Flemish publications sought after 1830 to bring the language issue to the focus, faced by the growing use and dominance of French. “The Lion of Flanders” was an important piece, written by Hendrik Conscience in 1836 who sought to foster Flemish pride and self-respect within the context of Belgian national identity. It described “the Battle of the Golden Spurs” in 1302 in which Flemish townspeople defeated the French that tried to annex the (at that time) semi-independent
Flanders. The victory came on July 11 that later became the Flemish National Day. The publication, reflecting Flemish people’s strife for independence and the recognition of their national day has naturally been a highly regarded piece in nationalist circles since it fist came out and is constantly referred to even today. [9]

The period up until World War I marked an advancement of the Flemish movement into the political sphere, with demands for language laws and other pro-Flemish legislation in various instances. The movement was still focusing mainly on equal right for the Dutch-speaking majority and the French speaking minority within a united Belgian state, and although separatist issues sometimes were brought up, these were very few, short-lived, and quickly rejected. The milestone of the century was the Equality Act of 1898 which declared the French and Dutch texts of laws and royal decrees to be of equal validity. Other legislative successes proved that the Flemish movement now had been established as an important political power within the Belgian society.[10]

The Rise and development of Flemish Nationalism

The first wave: 1914-1945

The development of Flemish nationalism can be traced back to the beginning of World War I in 1914. During the decade and a half preceding the War, the leaders of the Flemish movement continued to press for rights to use Dutch in school, military, courts and government. Efforts to promote Flemish consciousness were achieved through the use of symbolic items, such as flags, traditional Flemish songs, slogans, and national holidays. The national anthem (The Flemish Lion, composed by Karel Miry in 1848) was also widely used to promote Flemish identity.[11]

It was not just the war itself that promoted Flemish nationalism. As noted by Murphy[12], the seeds were sown before 1914 by rising regional-territorial concern among Flemish people. However, these concerns became more compelling in the social and political upheavals accompanying military struggle and occupation after 1914 and in the light of the uncertainty over Belgium’s future. Hence, the war saw a split of the Flemish movement into Pacifists, who purely wished to continue the linguistic and cultural Flemish struggle, and Frontists and Activists, who sought to exploit the situation to achieve territorial and national goals. It is from the latter two groups that Flemish nationalism developed.

In remembrance of the “Battle of the Golden Spurs” on the Flemish national day July 11, 1917, a newly-formed movement consisting of radical Flemish intellectuals and front-line troops members circulated an ‘open letter’ addressed to King Albert, demanding a “free Flanders in a free Belgium for free Flemings”. The author, Adiel Debeuckelaere, emphasised the rising Flemish concern by directing the ‘blame’ towards the Walloons:

The Flemish people’s suffering began in 1830. Our people have been wronged: they have fallen behind, they have gone into a steep decline. In Belgium, the Walloons have everything, the Flemings nothing.[13]
 

Another movement emerged of the so-called Activists who wanted to seize the opportunity of collaboration with the Germans in order to promote independence of Flanders. They formed a ‘council of Flanders’ in Brussels, proclaiming independence of Flanders on December 22, 1917. However, nobody took this seriously because the council represented itself and was not liked by the people, but they raised the issue of an independent Flanders for the first time seriously. Still, it was the Activists who put the issue on the agenda - a new element that would not entirely disappear within the Flemish movement.[14]

Hence, the movement that emerged in the 1920s was stronger and more radical in its objectives than it ever had been. The first Flemish nationalist party was the Flemish Front, or the Front Party, which adopted a nationalist, anti-militarist and left-wing program when it was formed in 1919. It managed to gain four seats in the Belgian parliament in 1922. This was also the year of another anti-Belgian and nationalist publication, the “Ten Commandments of the Flemish Nationalist”, which sought the destruction of Belgium and spurred the idea of joining Flanders with the Netherlands.[15]

A rather spectacular incident was the by-elections held in Antwerp on December 9, 1928, where the Flemish Nationalist Front Party candidate August Borms won. He was a former Activist leader who had been condemned to death after the war and was still in prison at the time (the sentence had been commuted to life-long imprisonment). The election was declared invalid, but its symbolic significance was obvious to all.[16]

In 1929 a group of Flemish nationalists who were convinced that the resolution of the Flemish question lay in regional autonomy or independence for Flanders organised a committee which investigated various options for Flanders including federalism within the Belgian state, independence, and even union with the Netherlands. Their report, issued in 1930, adopted a federalist stance but the project was attacked from all sides and it became clear that it had little chance of success at that time.[17]

Hence, the Flemish movement was divided into ‘minimalists’ led by Frans van Cauwelaert who rejected autonomy, and a section of nationalists who dreamed of an independent Flanders, a federal Belgium, or a merger of Flanders and the Netherlands. Nationalists were kept at arm’s length, but grew in support from 45,000 in 1919, to 140,000 in 1929.[18] Federalist ideas in the 1930s were promoted by a new Flemish Nationalist party, the Vlaamsch Nationaal Verbond (VNV), and although the ideas were not widely shared, they helped stimulate more moderate proposals for other laws addressing the national linguistic and territorial duality. General elections in 1936 strengthened the nationalists, increasing votes to 168,000, and in 1939, just before World War II, they managed to get 185,000 votes. Hence, The 20 years between the wars had witnessed the evolution of Dutch-speaking Belgians toward a national consciousness of their own, and a sharpening of their desire for greater independence. Although the Flemish nationalists were hardly a threat to the century-old Belgian State, nationalist ideas had become a new rising force in Flanders and found its stronghold within nationalistic parties such as the VNV. [19]

When World War II came, the VNV was convinced that a ‘New Order’ was coming, and that Flanders should talk to and collaborate with the Germans about new political and territorial structures. In 1940, it made clear to German authorities that it hoped for a constructive dialogue with ‘The Reich’. Hence, World War II saw a growing tendency of Flemish nationalism towards more fascist and national-socialistic ideas.[20] This is attested by Jules Callewaert, a leading figure in Flemish Catholic Nationalism, in his ‘Letter to Dr Elias’ in 1943:

[German National Socialism] can be exported to Germanic peoples. Now, the Flemings are a Germanic race; and for most Germans, German and Germanic are one and the same, and according to their co-called laws of blood they must become one and the same in actual fact.[21]

Thousands of young Flemings left for German training campuses and thence for then frontline. However, various contrasts made the collaboration slowly break down and stirred hatred and violence in Belgium. Between January 1, and March 1, 1944, no less than 740 murders were committed between collaborators (blacks) and resistance fighters (whites). [22]

The end of the war meant the total collapse of Flemish nationalism in its first wave. Those members and advocators that had not fled when it was clear that Germany would not win were arrested and put on trials. From a nationalistic perspective, the collaborative policy during the War had been a bad mistake. Ruys argues that the fault was that the radical wing deviated from its original aim of autonomy of Flanders in Belgium and cooperation with the Netherlands, and put themselves in a position which made Flanders dependent on the Reich[23]. 

The second wave: 1960s

It would take some 15 years before Flemish nationalism would again seriously rise in Flanders. A new party, Flemish Concentration, had been formed in 1949, when the postwar climate had lost enough of its aggressiveness, but it failed to win any seats in the elections held the same year. The party was later renamed The Volksunie or People’s Union, and had its final lowpoint in 1958 year’s elections. However, three main events after the War played an important role in the resurgence of Flemish nationalism:

First, the abdication of King Leopald in the early 1950s made even the ordinary Flemings realise that more was at stake than just language rights. Most Flemings had voted for the king to be reinforced after the War, but pressures from Wallonia made him abdicate. Hence, federal and nationalistic ideas again grew out of concern that the non-radical Flemish movement would not be able to secure Flemings’ interests in a future Belgium.[24]

Secondly, there was a rising concern about Brussels becoming more ‘frenchified’, resulting in demonstrations in 1961 and 1962 with hundreds of thousands Flemings marching the streets of Brussels, demanding a bilingual statute for the city and abolition of any language census. A law in 1962 fixed the language border, and another in 1963 completed the language rules in education. Flemings began to realise that more active and radical expressions actually could have a positive effect for their cause.[25]

The third reason was the emergence of Walloon consciousness, which arose mainly due to that the center of gravity of Belgian economy was shifting north - to the Flanders region. Mass support for the Walloon cause in the winter of 1960-61 helped lay the foundations for a re-styled Flemish nationalist campaign.[26] It became clear that the ‘new’ wave of nationalism no longer considered Belgium as an enemy but as a federal framework within which Flemings and Walloons could live together. The Volksunie party adopted the federal ideas and saw a gradual transition from previously being a right-wing nationalist party towards becoming a centre-left, moderate party, eager to join government coalitions and more acceptable to the establishment.[27]

Current nationalism

The last three decades have seen the results of these nationalistic demands. Belgium became a federal state in 1993 - an end-result of a series of reforms of which the first one came in 1970, and left the old Unitarian Belgium behind. One might have assumed this to be the end of the more radical nationalism in Flanders, and that increased autonomy for both Flemings and Walloons (they now have their own parliaments and a high degree of political, economic and cultural say) would finally put a lid on separatist demands. This is not the case, though. Among the old nationalists, the old doubt still exists about whether Flanders should look to Belgium for its future or become an independent region in a new Europe. More surprisingly, separatist demands have increased with the creation of a federal state.

Radical Flemings who saw no future for Flanders in a federal Belgium, but demanded an independent state, formed a new nationalist Flemish party, Vlaams Blok, in 1979. Apart from independece of Flanders, Vlaams Blok advocates the ‘redemption’ of Brussels from the French, stating in their program that they consider the ‘frenchification’ of Brussels a temporary phenomenon and that: “as the capital of an independent Flanders, Brussels will, in the long run, regain its Flemish identity”.[28]
In the 1991 national elections, the party gained 10.4% of Flemish votes, and the latest election in June 1999 showed increased support, resulting in a 15.5% vote for Vlaams Blok - for the first time making it the third largest party in Flanders.

One suggestion by Blommaert[29] to this growing support for the nationalist party is that the constitutional reform process initiated the creation of a Flemish state, not merely an autonomous region within the Belgian Federation. Hence a ‘give them an inch and they take a mile’ approach would explain current rise in Flemish nationalism. By giving the Flemings more and more autonomy, they were also given the old nationalist’s euphoric vision of an independent Flanders. The two regions of Flanders and Wallonia also seem to have grown further apart with the federalisation of Belgium. In 1994-95 a Flemish-Walloon conflict developed with the Flemish people arguing that the French community had violated autonomy of Flanders by supporting cultural organisations on its territory without prior consultation with Flemish authorities. Although the nationalists supported the conflict, Flemish media denied all accusations of nationalism itself as the root of the conflict.

The language border that was established in 1963 has also become a strong cultural dividing line according to Derk Jan Eppink in an article in Internationale Spectator in 1998:

One does not only speak two different languages, one lives in two completely different worlds. The public opinion in the two parts is completely at odds with each other and only shows a common interest during a soccer game of the Red Devils [the national soccer team] … The knowledge of Walloons about Flanders is very limited, and the same way vice versa. Slowly, one starts to see each other as foreigners.[30]

Concluding remarks

The future of Flemish nationalism is unclear. The positive results for Vlaams Blok in this year’s national elections and the Flemish and Walloon regions clearly noticeable movement further away from each other - which indicates two totally different identities - seem to deliver a picture of a federal Belgium on the verge of serious future transformation. On the other hand, the Flemish Parliament has formulated proposals for a better functioning of a federal Belgium, not for the termination of it, not even in the long run.[31] It must be said, however, that this policy is held when the nationalists still are in minority in Flanders. If Flemish nationalism is allowed to grow even stronger, the consequences may be severe and even violent. Vlaams Blok does not rule out military solutions in the Flemish question for independence:

If the Wallon aide wants to resolve the matter militarily, and sends tanks against us, the Flemish people will defend themselves. I am not afraid of self-defence. We cannot definetively rule out miltary consequences.[32]

A farsighted professor of Liege university, G. Nijples, stated in the 1830s that: “This is the beginning of a struggle and God knows where this will lead”.[33] And the struggle goes on. The Flemish movement that grew out of concern about and protection of Flemish rights, culture and language, has become increasingly concerned with nationalistic issues such as the place and legitimacy of Flanders within a Belgian federal state. This is observed by Trueheart:

Nobody is interested in maintaining Belgium as such, especially with the acceleration of European integration. What do we have in common? It used to be the Belgian franc, and now it doesn’t exist.[34]

Tastenhoye takes this argument further:

For Flanders it doesn’t matter whether it remains inside Belgium or operates directly within Europe. Moreover, in order to achieve new social and economical relations, it is better to perform as an independent federal state in the European frame than in the jammed, chaotic social-economical context of Belgium.[35]

Although Flemish nationalism has enjoyed a history of just over eighty years (with a short break just after World War II) it has proved to be sustainable. It led the struggle toward federalism in the 1970s and 1980s, and leads the struggle today towards Flemish independence. Whether it succeeds or not only God knows.

 

Any reproduction or distribution of this text is prohibited without express permission by the author. Please contact peter@engholm.nu for permission or further information.

 

REFERENCES:

Blommaert, J., “Language and nationalism: Comparing Flanders and Tanzania” (1996), http://africana.rug.ac.be/texts/research-publications/publications_on-line/Flanders_and_Tanzania.htm.

Communist Action, Nr 9, 9/2/96, http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/6380/ca9.htm.

Eppink, D. J.,“The divorce of the Belgians”, Internationale Spectator, 1/6/98, http://www.vvb.org/fps/en/tekst/hfdstk82.htm.

Grouwels, B., “Flanders intends to strengthen the position of Brussels”, De Staandard, 26/3/99, http://www.vvb.org/fps/en/tekst/hfdstk16.htm.

Hermans, T., Vos, L. and Wils, L., The Flemish Movement, The Athlone Press, London, 1992.

Hobsbawm, E. J., Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995.

Mughan, A., “Belgium: All periphery and no center?”, in Y. Mény & V. Wright (eds.), Centre-Periphery relations in Western Europe, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1985.

Murphy, A. B., The Regional Dynamics of Language Differentiation in Belgium, The University of Chicago, Chicago, 1988.

Ruys, M., The Flemings - A People on the Move, A Nation in Being, Lannoo, Tielt and Utrecht, Utrecht, 1973.

Tastenhoye, G., “We don’t have to be afraid of an independent Flanders”, Gazet Van Antwerpen, 14/2/98, http://www.vvb.org/fps/en/tekst/hfdstk48.htm.

Trueheart, C., “Wither Belgium?”, http://www.emu.edu.tr/trnc/h160399a.htm

Van der Wusten, H., and Roessingh, M., “Belgium and the Netherlands”, in R. Eatwell (ed.), European Political Cultures - Conflict or Convergence?, Routledge, London, 1997.

 

FOOTNOTES:



[1] J. F. Willems, “Ode to the Belgians” (1818), in T. Hermans, L. Vos and L. Wils, The Flemish Movement, London, 1992, p.65.

[2] A.B. Murphy, The Regional Dynamics of Language Differentiation in Belgium, Chicago, 1988, pp.43-46.

[3] Ibid., pp.46-49.

[4] M. Ruys, The Flemings - A People on the Move, A Nation in Being, Utrecht, 1973, p.28.

[5] J.B.C. Verlooy, “Treatise on the Neglect of the Mother-Tongue in the Low Countries” (1788), in
T. Hermans, L. Vos and L. Wils, The Flemish Movement, p.51.

[6] A.B. Murphy, The Regional Dynamics of Language Differentiation in Belgium, pp.50-52.

[7] M. Ruys, The Flemings - A People on the Move, A Nation in Being, p.43.

[8] Ibid., p.9.

[9] H. Conscience, “Foreword to the Lion of Flanders” (1838), in T. Hermans, L. Vos and L. Wils, The Flemish Movement, pp.86-91.

[10] M. Ruys, The Flemings - A People on the Move, A Nation in Being, pp.56-59.

[11] Ibid., p.68.

[12] A.B. Murphy, The Regional Dynamics of Language Differentiation in Belgium, p.106.

[13] A. Debeuckelaere, “Open Letter to the Belgian King Albert I” (1917), in T. Hermans, L. Vos and L. Wils, The Flemish Movement, pp.227-228.

[14] M. Ruys, The Flemings - A People on the Move, A Nation in Being, pp.75-76.

[15] “Ten Commandments of the Flemish Nationalist” (1922), in T. Hermans, L. Vos and L. Wils, The Flemish Movement, pp.262-263.

[16] T. Hermans, L. Vos and L. Wils, The Flemish Movement, p.280.

[17] A. B. Murphy, The Regional Dynamics of Language Differentiation in Belgium, pp.113-114.

[18] M. Ruys, The Flemings - A People on the Move, A Nation in Being, pp.86-89.

[19] Ibid., pp.106-109.

[20] M. Ruys, The Flemings - A People on the Move, A Nation in Being, pp.113-114.

[21] J.L. Callewaert, “Letter to Dr Elias” (1943), in T. Hermans, L. Vos and L. Wils, The Flemish Movement, p.307.

[22] M. Ruys, The Flemings - A People on the Move, A Nation in Being, p.118.

[23] Ibid., pp.119-123.

[24] M. Ruys, The Flemings - A People on the Move, A Nation in Being, pp.141-155.

[25] Ibid., pp.165-169.

[26] A. B. Murphy, The Regional Dynamics of Language Differentiation in Belgium, p.131.

[27] M. Ruys, The Flemings - A People on the Move, A Nation in Being, p.194.

[28] Vlaams Blok, “Facts and Objectives”, Attachment 1.

[29] J. Blommaert, “Language and nationalism: Comparing Flanders and Tanzania” (1996), http://africana.rug.ac.be/texts/research-publications/publications_on-line/Flanders_and_Tanzania.htm.

[30] D. J. Eppink, “The divorce of the Belgians”, Internationale Spectator, 1/6/98, http://www.vvb.org/fps/en/tekst/hfdstk82.htm.

[31] B. Grouwels, “Flanders intends to strengthen the position of Brussels”, De Staandard, 26/3/99, http://www.vvb.org/fps/en/tekst/hfdstk16.htm.

[32] Communist Action 9 February 1996, http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/6380/ca9.htm.

[33] M. Ruys, The Flemings - A People on the Move, A Nation in Being, p.47.

[34] C. Trueheart, “Wither Belgium?”, http://www.emu.edu.tr/trnc/h160399a.htm.

[35] G. Tastenhoye, “We don’t have to be afraid of an independent Flanders”, Gazet Van Antwerpen, 14/2/98, http://www.vvb.org/fps/en/tekst/hfdstk48.htm.