Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Belgian Maneuvers 1939

Someone asked me, reading from a book they just had been given, about the Belgian maneuvers of 1939 and asked how this was not a betrayal of France just at the critical point when World War II is about to begin. This is completely untrue though and I do not understand how anyone could think such a thing. This is the context: Belgium had always been neutral since independence until Germany invaded in 1914. After that, Belgium was allied to France because both countries were of course worried about the Germans, seeing that they would have no hesitation to invade and threaten both countries (or especially to invade France and Belgium would be a useful corridor). So there was an alliance until 1939 when on September 3, after the invasion of Poland, King Leopold III declared neutrality again. The Belgian army was at that time called out and put through some exercises as a show of force, not particularly for Germany, but for France so that they would know that if they tried to violate Belgian territory to attack Germany they would have a difficult fight and Belgium would resist them just as they had strongly resisted the Germans in 1914. This was not a betrayal, this was a realistic view of the on-the-ground situation.

Consider for a moment that prior to this time Germany had gone back on one provision after another of the Versailles Treaty and France and Britain had done nothing. Britain even signed a naval treaty with Germany. Italy had been opposed to Germany at first but left the Allies to join the Germans when Britain or France would not stand beside Italy in stopping the takeover of Austria and then later scolded Italy for occupying Abyssinia. After the Rhineland and Czech occupations and the union with Austria the French had done nothing. This was a concern to Belgium as was the French war plans which many thought left Belgium on its own. Then when Germany invaded Poland the British and then French declared war on Germany. What was Belgium supposed to do? They could do nothing about Poland, even Britain and France could do nothing to save Poland but they had declared war anyway. The Germans had made no aggressive moves against the Low Countries, Britain or France at that time. But the British and French had declared war on Germany so Belgium was suddenly faced with the possibility of France doing the same thing the Kaiser had done in 1914, attacking Germany and marching through Belgium maybe as an easier way to go.

The Allies had, honestly, done a poor job of diplomacy and foreign relations prior to World War II. They had given in to Hitler time after time and then, finally, declared war on Germany on behalf of a country neither of them could defend and which was being occupied by the Soviets also. It was perfectly understandable for King Leopold III to again declare Belgian neutrality and hope that, unlike before, the country could be kept out of the conflict. Later the King joined with Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands to call for all the countries to get together and make peace. Today this seems ridiculous because Hitler was a lunatic who wanted to take over the world, but try to remember what the people knew then, not what we know now. All Hitler had done then was to invade Poland and the Soviets had joined in. France and Britain had declared war on him, even though he had not threatened their countries, but they had not declared war on the Soviets for taking part of Poland or for taking over the Baltic republics. All that had really happened by then was that Poland had been partitioned, which was unfortunate for the Poles, but not something new, they had been partitioned between Germany and Russia for years. So, it seemed not unreasonable to many at the time that the two sides could talk through their differences and make peace without another world war.

That did not happen, but it is not the fault of the King that he could not look into the future. He was only trying to do what was best for his country in the situation he was in. When the war came Belgium was as strong an ally as she had been before and fought as hard as possible for 18 days against the crushing Nazi blitzkrieg, in doing so saving the lives of many French and British troops. That is what should be remembered, the free countries fighting as allies against invaders and do not waste time on accusations that are pointless and only efforts to stir up bad feelings between people and nations. There is already enough of that.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Famous Belgians

One of the youngest famous Belgians has today his birthday, 2006 Junior Eurovision Song Contest winner Thor Salden.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Nova Belgica

Just a few years after the Pilgrim Fathers of Massachusetts founded their colony on Plymouth Rock, the Dutch Republic was establishing the colony of New Netherland, the original territorial claims of which reached from what is now about Delaware up to southern Massachusetts (obviously there were competing colonial claims that would only be ended by the settlement, holding and development of an area). This was during the "Golden Age" of the Netherlands and we can only imagine how history would have been different if the Dutch colonial effort had not been taken over later by the English and re-named New York. But regardless of that, after studying in America I know that not many people are aware that New York and the surrounding area was once New Netherland and naturally no one knows (unless you read it here since I think I mentioned it early on from starting this blog) that many Belgians were involved in this and, in fact, because many still did not consider the status of the independent Netherlands and the Austrian Netherlands "settled" the names where interchangeable and New Netherland was called on some maps "Nova Belgica" or "New Belgium".

New Netherland was the product of the Dutch West India Company that wanted to find a western passage to Asia and later to establish a commercial trading colony on the North America continent. The Dutch West India Company included many people what would today be Belgians. Many of the founders or investors were Flemish Protestants who left Belgium (then belonging to the Catholic Roman Emperor) to go to the Dutch Republic and they helped in establishing the Dutch West India Company which organized the voyages of discovery and colonization to North America. Many people have heard the story about how the GWC agent Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan island from the natives for 60 guilders worth of trade goods. Some think he was Dutch, others think he was German, because he was born in Germany, but Peter Minuit was actually a Belgian and not Flemish but Walloon, his family being from Tournai. They were Protestants though and left Belgium to go to Germany because the Protestants were in power there. It is also not true, I have learned, that he cheated the natives out of Manhattan. He was actually the one cheated because the natives he first bought the island from were not really from there and had no right to sell it and later, when Peter Minuit found this out, he had to buy the island again from the correct owners -so he bought Manhattan twice!
This map has both names "Nova Belgica" and "New Netherland"

In 1664 the New Netherland colony was first taken by the English (the Dutch did not make an effort to protect the colony since it was supposed to be a place of total liberty) but later the powerful Dutch navy defeated the English and restored the colony to Dutch rule in 1673, however, only the next year the Netherlands was attacked by France, England and parts of Germany, exhausted her resources and had to give up the colony to England again who re-named it New York.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Royal Nose in the News

King Albert II made a short visit to the hospital to have surgery on his nose to treat basal cell carcinoma today. Official Belgian monarchie website says it was not serious and the surgery was successful and the King has been able to go home. I hope he feels better!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Prince Philippe in China

The Belgian Crown Prince and Princess recently were in the People's Republic of China. It was for the usual reason, foreign affairs, Sino-Belgian trade, investment in Flanders and the usual things like we have seen before, business and trade missions being led by Prince Philippe are not very unusual. Only lately though it seems to me a little concerning the growing influence of China. With countries in Europe on the edge of being bankrupt, Greece already, today Italy is on the news for being in big trouble and everyone worries about Spain and Portugal and maybe others and European Union goes to China to ask for the money to bail out these countries. Think about how the world has changed. Many of these countries, like Italy and Portugal, even Belgium and numerous others, once had their own concessions in China and now it is China that is being called upon to rescue the nations of Europe from their own poor economic choices. This causes me just a little bit of worry. Am I alone? I don't really remember the Tiananmen Square incident but I have seen video of it Has anyone forgotten this is the same government responsible for that? Also why did it used to be called everywhere the "Tiananmen Square Massacre" but now is called the "Tiananmen Square Protest"?

The Chinese government may not be really communist anymore but they still revere the memory of Chairman Mao who killed millions of people. He is just not a significant figure in their history but he is the founder of their whole modern country and government. Also I have heard other economics expert people say that the seeming wealth of the Chinese today is all an illusion, that the interior of the country is just as impoverished as ever, if not worse and that the true state of the economy cannot be known because the government controls all the media and all the financial reports and also we know they manipulate their currency and use criminals as a source of slave labor in labor camps. These are not secrets but it seems not many people want to talk about it. Anyway, I must confess to being a little nervous about Europe becoming more and more indebted to China, a country where they still have no real freedoms at all.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Belgian Royals Run in New York

Princess Astrid of the Belgians, Prince Lorenz and Prince Amedeo have completed the New York Marathon on Sunday. Princess Astrid did pretty good, finishing the 42.195 km course through the streets of the Big Apple in 5 hours 52 minutes and 38 seconds. Not bad for a woman 49-years young! She was listed on the roll of runners as “Astrid, princess de Belgique” (which of course some language - snobs have to point out like is a problem, so tiresome). She trained for the recent months to prepare for this and her time is in the 'normal' range for completion of the marathon by most runners. There is, though, no time limit for the New York Marathon so even if you are slow, you can still run it with enough determination. Of course, being the most fit and young, Prince Amedeo crossed the finish line first (before his parents, not first over every one of course) which we should expect for him being 25 and having endured military training. He finished with a time of 3:39. Prince Lorenz was not so fast as his son but came in a considerable time ahead of his wife when he completed the course in 4 hours and 23 minutes. Congratulations to all of them for their achievement!

Riots Rock Antwerp, Asylum Seekers Pile Up

This problem really is getting out of control. Only recently there have been many stories about the centers to house those seeking asylum in Belgium are over-filled to bursting with over 2,600 more people coming in just in the month of October. And the government is trying to deal with this problem while the national debt is growing larger and the EU-economic crisis becomes more extreme every day. And, at the same time, while more and more people flood Belgian shores, there is rioting in Antwerp between rival immigrant groups; Kurds and Turks, that the authorities have to deal with. The big riot on Saturday in Antwerp was the third such disturbance in only one week. Bus shelters were torn apart, store windows were smashed, cars were vandalized, at least one person was stabbed and many have been taken to hospital. Each side blames the other for responsibility for the violence. Surely anyone can see that this problem is not going to disappear, take care of itself or become better instead of becoming worse. There are Muslim groups now taking to court the government for discrimination (the burqa ban) and rioting in the streets, yet each month thousands more arrive wanting asylum in Belgium. This cannot be a good idea, especially for a small country where, as we see painfully today, even the native population has some problems getting along with each other. Nothing will be done it seems like, at the moment nothing can be done I guess because of the political deadlock but I am afraid these riots and things will only get worse as we have more people coming in and now bringing their own  ethnic feuds with them.

Hommages des Volontaires de Bruxelles 1830 au cimetière de Bruxelles

Some great photos here.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Provisional Government

At this time in history, in 1830, during the Belgian Revolution, power was held by the Provisional Government led by Charles Rogier, chairman of the committee, which had declared the independence of the provinces of Belgium on October 4, 1830. The provisional government ruled by decree during this time. They had already called for elections to choose a national congress but this took time to organize and to have people vote since they were at war at the time and the patriots were still facing the threat of the Dutch military. It was the provisional government that asserted the basic freedoms of what would become the Kingdom of Belgium such as freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of religion and freedom of education.

This provisional government held power until the election of a congress and after that time a more formal government was established under the statesman Baron Surlet de Chokier as Regent of Belgium. The provisional government had diverse members, some more liberal supporting a secular "enlightenment" state and others more conservative, supporting independence but still with ties to the monarchie of the House of Orange of the Netherlands. In the end, we know they decided on total independence and a Belgian monarchy with Louis, Duke of Namours as King. However, the British opposed this idea, not wanting Belgium to become an instrument of France. The powers agreed Belgium needed a strong and independent monarch and so the choice was later suggested of Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha who became the first King of the Belgians, Leopold I, starting our dynasty.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Belgium, Britain and Monarchy

It is not good, I know, to compare one country with another, but sometimes I cannot resist it. Especially this is so for the countries of the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Belgium. The two are very different and also have very much in common. It is also my confession that I think of this more probably because I hear now so much criticism from British politicians directed toward the existence of Belgium as a “proper country”, which they say it is not. And yet, look at the similarities of these two countries. Both are constitutional monarchies, both even have the same family of royalty. Both are also diverse countries, not like all countries in Europe are diverse now, but the mixture of Flemish and Walloon in Belgium and the mixture of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon and Norman in Great Britain. Both have also been close allies since the British intervened in the First World War in reaction to the invasion of Belgium and for that the Belgians have never missed being grateful and honoring that sacrifice on our behalf. And yet, some British politicians still denigrate my country and publicly cheer for Belgium to be broken up and destroyed.
What inspired me to think of a new comparison was that some of these political figures, in their own country and policies relating to that, are quite correct. Time to name a name: Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party. I cannot be anything but opposed to this man because he constantly insults my country, my people and wishes for us to be broken up and destroyed. He is also very much against the European Union, which does not bother me so much as his being very much against the Kingdom of Belgium. Yet, I have at least one friend (who is pro-Belgian of course) who greatly likes Nigel Farage and has pointed out to me that Farage is a proud British monarchist who wants the UK and the Commonwealth countries to preserve their monarchy. That is good for them and I have no problem with that, I support that also, and if he would only keep his words about his own country and not mine I would maybe be able to like Farage also. But, he does not and so I cannot like him and must be opposed to him. But this made me think to compare the attitudes toward the British and the Belgian monarchies in each country.

My perspective may not be correct but anyone can leave a comment to tell me so. I never used to watch much news coverage from Britain. I did not watch much news at all when I was very small (I was watching cartoons!) but now I am in education exile I see occasionally the BBC while still trying to stay up to date with news from home. One thing I have noticed is that the British news does not seem to mention their Queen very much at all. Unless there is some major social event she is connected with, they do not, as I have seen, pay much attention at all to the Queen or the others royals of the family. This surprised me because, since the British monarchy is so grand and famous around the world, because of their past empire (and everyone must agree it is the most grand) I thought the BBC would have always some news about the Queen. But I have seen very little and that what I did see was always in reference to some occasion social. Not like Belgium at all. From my perspective, the news in Belgium mentions the King quite regularly and in terms political and governmental not social only. Even though in Belgium we are being a popular monarchy and have no grand ceremonies with the King wearing ermine robes and wearing a crown and surrounded by servants in antique costumes, it seems the monarchie in Belgium is more central while the monarchy in Britain the serious media (not the gossip mags) just more often ignore their Queen and royals.

Is my perception incorrect? I know British friends read this (they are my number three source of readers after the USA and Belgium) so they can tell me if my view is incomplete. Thinking about this, I thought it was logical because the monarchy is for Britain now very separated from politics and all political problems and solutions. In Belgium this might also be the case except that the divisions in the political parties* means that the King must have a more central role as keeping peace between the two sides and forcing him to be the “adult in the room” (and the politicians do often behave like children it looks like). This does not happen in the United Kingdom. I heard nothing about the Queen being involved when, after last elections, a power-sharing government had to be negotiated between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrat Party. I know in Britain there is also now regional governments in North Ireland, Scotland and maybe Wales (I am uncertain of that one, I thought they had an assembly their own but also I thought they were always a part of England so, I am not certain of that situation). Maybe this worked better for United Kingdom than Belgium, I do not know, since I never hear of the Queen must settle disputes between English, Irish and Scottish people. However, in Belgium, the monarchy may not be so grand but is very important because the King is the one person with no regional agenda.
The King of the Belgians must work very hard, especially when there is disagreement and discord (as we have seen very clearly in this extended time with no government) and although British and Belgians both have people that like to mock and make comedy ridicule of their monarchs, in Belgium, even those who are not supportive of the monarchy must accept that it is important and they cannot ignore it because it is the central, unifying institution of the country. The former Prime Minister was ridiculed by some for saying all that kept Belgium together was football, beer and the King. If that is so, the King is even more important than anyone thought because beer and football cannot take any action to bring about political compromise and encourage national unity. The King may not be every day in the news, but he cannot also be ignored and it cannot be denied his crucial part in the political process of the country.

*Another problem I have is Farage saying there are no national parties in Belgium. This is not true! Votez B.U.B.!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Baby Belgians

Queen Astrid and Prince Albert

Princesse Josephine-Charlotte

Prince Baudouin (and a big bunny)