Saturday, July 24, 2010

The United States of Belgium

All the time people make the mistake of thinking that there was no Belgium or Belgians before the years 1830/31 when actually the history goes back all the way to ancient times and even in "modern" Europe the unique identity of Belgium and the Belgian people was still there when the country was ruled by the illustrious House of Hapsburg as the "Austrian Netherlands". You can see this with the creation of the United States of Belgium or the United Belgian States (États-Belgiques-Unis). This was a national organization that existed during the year 1790 when the Belgians made a rebellion against the liberal-secular policies of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II. In this way it also shows that Belgium was a much more traditionally religious country than today but also traditionally a country that was opposed to the concentration of power in the hands of a big central government.

The Austrian Emperor Joseph II enacted laws that made the laws, courts and government uniform throughout his empire. He also suppressed religious orders, public displays of religious like processions, saying rosaries, favored government regulated education rather than religious education and the special rights and traditions of individual areas throughout the Hapsburg empire. The Catholics of Belgium quickly made rebellion against these policies led by men like Jan Frans Vonck (who first supported some of the changes and more revolutionary on the French model) and Henri Van der Noot (who wanted foreign support and restoration of traditional rights). Van der Noot went to Breda in the Dutch republic and organized the rebels into an army that then returned to Belgium and defeated the Austrian army at the battle of Turnhout. Ghent was captured later and the Austrian regents in Brussels fled the country and the remaining Austrians fortified themselves in Luxembourg and Antwerp while the rebels took over the rest of the country.

Taking ideas from the Dutch Republic and the recently formed United States of America the rebel leaders formed the United States of Belgium, which included most of the Austrian Netherlands except for Luxembourg. The Bishopric of Liege had also revolted on its own, the rebellion not part of the Brabant revolution, but joined forces with the United Belgian States as well. However, like the situation of today Belgians are very familiar with, the two factions that made the rebellion and made it successful from the start were also in constant deadlock and disagreement with each other. Some supported some of the imperial policies, others wanted everything to go back the way it had been, some wanted to unite with the Dutch republic and others wanted to stay independent and some also wanted their old traditions preserved within the Hapsburg empire. There were finally, few people who really agreed on everything.
Joseph II died that year and his brother Leopold II became Emperor. He did not carry on all the same policies of his brother and sent powerful Austrian forces into Belgium to put down the rebellion and independence movement (divided and constantly on the edge of civil war within itself). Because of the dis-unity of the rebel leaders and their factions, in the end it was not especially difficult for the Austrians to restore their rule over Belgium and break up the independence government such as it was. In October Namur was captured and returned to imperial rule, followed quickly by West Flanders. By the month of December the United States of Belgium was gone and the Austrian Netherlands was restored and would remain until the tumult of the French Revolutionary wars. Like many ideas that sound very good it had ended in disaster but one thing that could not be destroyed was the idea of "Belgium". Contrary to what people think, Belgians had always thought of themselves as a unique people and while they might think the United Belgian States had been a rather poorly planned enterprise they were not going to abandon the idea of having an independent kingdom of their own.

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