Thursday, December 27, 2012

History of Belgium

Belgium has been a land of conflict throughout the turbulent history of Europe. Initially settled by migrating tribes from Eastern Europe and then thrown into conflict by the Roman invaders, the Visigoths, then the Spaniards. Then it became the battle ground between the Kings of France and England in the hundred years wars and the Napoleonic wars; then, between Prussian and German forces and the Allies in WWI and WWII. Since WWII Belgium has had a period of peace.

The word “Belgium” has its origin in the name “Belgica” which the Romans gave to the northern part of Gaul, which Julius Cesar conquered a few decades before the Common Era. It is based on the name of the fierce tribes which they had to subdue there.

A quick synopsis

In the Middle Ages, Belgium was divided in fiefdoms: 
  • Flanders by the sea, 
  • The Duchy of Brabant, 
  • The Principality of Li├Ęge along the Meuse river
Trade created the base for Merchant Barons to extract independence from those feudal lords. 

Then, during the Hundred Years War, several battles were fought in present day Belgium, like the one at Sluis, where the French King lost his fleet. 

Late in the Middle Ages, the area was unified with Holland and Luxemburg under the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy, a family related to the Kings of France, then the Habsburg Emperors, and finally the Kings of Spain. It's ironic that during this period of external rule, the sponsorship of royalty led to the world renown of the Flemish painting school with Van Eyck, Breughel, Memling and others. Later Antwerp became a center of arts, where Rubens, Jordanians and Van Dyck worked.

In 1792, following the French Revolution, France invaded the Netherlands, which were annexed and became part of Napoleon’s Empire. This rule culminated at the end of the Napoleonic Wars where Napoleon met his Waterloo, where else but the battlefield of Europe, Belgium.

Then in 1830 the Belgians revolted against Dutch rule and became independent and adopted its first Constitution with a limited monarchy.

The second half of the 19th Century was a period of dynamic industrial and economic development ranking among the leading economies of the world, its GDP roughly equal to that of the United States.

Then here we go again. In 1914, the German Empire invaded neutral Belgium in order to outflank the defenses of the French army. Unexpectedly, the Belgian army resisted and fought on, holding a small part of unoccupied Belgian territory north of Ypres, alongside the British and French armies, until the Armistice of 1918. Because of their heroic defense Belgium and its King, Albert I, enjoyed enormous international prestige after the war.

The battle of the Bulge was fought under very tough weather conditionsIn 1940, Germany again invaded neutral Belgium, which became one the few European countries to have been occupied twice in a century. This time the Belgian army had to surrender after about two weeks, like the French army a few weeks later. In the years after World War II Belgium became one of the pioneers of European unification and Brussels is the seat of the EU and NATO.

Belgium’s internal politics are largely dominated by the disagreements between the Flemish in the North and the Walloons in the South. However creative constitutional arrangements have been developed over the years, giving the two communities a large degree of autonomy and bloodshed has always been avoided. The main constitutional reform which transformed Belgium into a federal state was introduced in 1980, 25 years ago.

Happy ending to this story

Today the economy ranks amongst the 15 largest GDP's in the world and is largely based on manufacturing, the mechanical and chemical industries and trade, the port of Antwerp being one of the ten largest in the world and the second in Europe.

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