Belgium’s Revolutions

By Isis Evens

(Episode of the Belgian Revolution of 1830 by Gustaf Wrappers)


The history of the Low Countries is riddled with social turmoil. The revolutions sparked by this civil unrest are what resulted in the current borders, both political and linguistic, of the Benelux. Each revolution, beginning with the revolution of the Spanish Netherlands against Spanish oppression, would provoke the next, as increasingly smaller portions within the area strove for independence and rights. These revolutions were not merely sparked internally, however, as neighboring countries, recognizing the possibility of physically shrinking their adversaries, assisted uprisings. This was first the case during the Belgian revolution, when France, seeking to undermine the authority of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, assisted the Walloon bourgeoisie of southern Flanders in its uprising. While the assistance of the French in this decisive battle granted Belgium independence from the Netherlandish reign, it resulted in the dominance of the French-speaking southerners over the Dutch-speaking Northerners, who, in turn, accepted Germany’s help during WWI to attain equal rights. The current dissonance between the Northern and Southern halves of Belgium remains tangible to this day, as Belgium continues to struggle to maintain its unity.

This guide has been divided chronologically so as to link each revolution to its prior cause. The guide begins with the Foundations for the Belgian Revolution, including an overview of the Kingdom of the United Netherlands and its actions against the Spanish occupation of the low countries. These are explained both through electronic resources as well as books. The guide then moves to The Flemish movement, this is discussed through a series of primary sources in both French and Flemish, as well as books analyzing the causes and consequences of the movement. Finally, the guide studies The Contemporary Issues within Belgium through a series of online articles regarding the social and political turmoil the country underwent as it operated without a government for almost two years.

Foundations for the Belgian Revolution

In order to understand the reasons for the Belgian revolution, a closer scrutiny of the socio-political history of the area is required. As such, the following sources trace the revolutions of the Low Countries, beginning with the Spanish occupation of the region and impact it had over the formation of democratic ideals. Next, we considers the Dutch revolt against French occupation, whose relevance is evidenced in the later French assistance to the Belgians during the revolution of 1830. France sought to sever its new adversary, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, by assisting Belgium in its revolution, since France had been forced to surrender that territory not long before.

(Map of the United and Spanish Netherlands)

  • Pirenne, Henri. Belgian Democracy, its Early History. Trans. James Vallance. Machester: The University Press, 1915.

Perhaps the most well-rounded summation of the establishment of democracy, this book traces the origins of the peoples of Flanders back to the Roman period. In this we find the roots of the linguistic divisions within Belgium. Of particular interest, however, is Chapter 11, which discusses the influence of the Spanish occupation on Belgian Democracy.

  • Sir Williams, Roger. The Actions of the Low Countries. New York: Cornell Press University, 1964.

A firsthand account of the revolt in the Netherlands, originally written in the 16th century, it demonstrates experiences from both sides as Sir Roger Williams fought for both the Dutch and Spanish armies. It provides a great understanding of both sides of the revolution from the internal perspective Williams acquired during his service.

  • Zamoyski, Adam. The Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.

This book provides an in depth overview of the political and social changes Europe underwent after Napoleon’s downfall. It discusses the formation of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, and allows us to understand the relations between the Dutch and French at the time leading up to the Belgian revolution.

  • Wils, Lode. “De Taalpolitiek van Koning Willem I.” Bijdragen en Mededelingen betreffende de Geschiedenis der Nederlanden, No. 92. (1977)

The linguistic politics of Willem I are discussed in this dutch essay. Sensing the increasing Francophone influence in the southern Netherlands (present-day Belgium), Willem began to employ language as a means of unifying the country. This plan, however, backfired, as it led to dutch disdain on behalf of the Belgians (especially the monetarily influential Walloons).

Click here to read the essay.

The Belgian Revolution

Once again dissatisfied with what it considered a foreign oppressor, the Belgians revolted against the Willem I and the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in a battle for independence in late 1830.

The Battle of Bautersem, 12 August 1831, during the Ten Days March Nicolaas Pieneman, 1833

And though on Belgium’s dusky sky

the sun of Orange Scarce has set,

And dawns to hope’s desiring eye,

Already backwards with regret

They look to William’s happy reign –

And those bright days that they have darkened,

His sun may never light again!

(Excerpt from Scenes from the Belgian Revolution, page 35)

Primary Sources

  • Hennigsen, C.F. Scenes from the Belgian Revolution. London: Manning and Smithson Printers, 1832.

Hennigsen, having experience the Belgian Revolution first-hand, wrote an account of his observations in a poetic prose style. As an Englishman and outsider, he attempts to convey impartiality in his pieces. He conveys the zeitgeist of the Belgian rioters in Brussels as well as the betrayal experienced by Willem I. In the second half of his work, Notes, he uses excerpts from his prose to discuss the details of the revolution more clearly.

Click here to view the book

  • Auber, Daniel. La Muette de Portici (The Mute of Portici). Paris: Brandus, 1828.

The opera that is claimed to have sparked the Belgian revolution, and also was of invaluable importance to the Parisian revolutionaries of the July Revolution of 1830. It centers around the failed revolution of fishermen against noblemen. After seeing the opera, massive riots formed across Brussels, as the peoples had come to redefine their nationalism to one without the oppression of Willem I. These riots ultimately grew to become the Belgian revolution.

Click here to flip through a manuscript of the Opera

Secondary Sources

  • de Dijn, A. A Pragmatic Conservatism: Montesquieu and the Framing of the Belgian Constitution (1830-1831). Elsevier: 2002.

In this article, de Dijn discusses the mentalities of the Belgian revolutionaries, and the reasons they created the government they did. He explains the reasons for the choice of a monarchy over a republic as well as why Belgians believed the implementation of a senate would behoove their new society. De Dijn directly links Montequieu’s Esprit des Lois, a political treatise published almost a century prior to the revolution, to the creation of the new Belgian government.

Click here to read the scholarly article

  • Thomas, Daniel. The Guarantee of Belgian Independence and Neutrality in European Diplomacy, 1830’s – 1930’s. Kingston: Daniel H. Thomas Publishing, 1983.

Thomas traces Belgium’s movement towards independence, while the book does range until the 1930’s, it does not discuss to great lengths the Flemish movement, and is therefore mostly valuable for its analysis of the revolution of 1830 and the social changes it sparked. He employs a great deal of primary sources, such as pamphlets, to demonstrate the socio-political development of the nation and the changing zeitgeist.

The Flemish Movement

After decades of social, political, and economical suppression at the hands of the Walloons, the Flemish of northern Belgium finally saw an opportunity to attain equal rights to their southern counterparts during the First World War. The fight for universal suffrage, which had been loosely organized prior to the war, was restructured and refueled by the German occupants, as Germany recognized the benefits of severing Belgium. Under the guise of linguistic brotherhood, the Germans allowed the Flemish to practice their language publicly, in schools and offices, and even granted them their own political party. At the close of the war, King Albert was forced to concede to the newly attained rights of the Flemish and permitted them equality with the Walloons.

Primary Sources

  • Severus, Claudius. Waarom? Daarom! Ghent: 1918.

Written by a group of Flemish activists under the name ‘Claudius Severus’, this propagandistic pamphlet was widely popularized and distributed across Ghent, the capitol of the Flemish movement. Despite its excessively violent tone, the pamphlet holds some truth in its presentation of the severity of the gap in wealth between the Flemish peasants and Walloon bourgeoisie.

Click to download the pamphlet: Waarom? Daarom!

  • Belgium.” Everybody’s Magazine, No. 5. (March, 1918).

This edition of Everybody’s Magazine, released shortly after the close of the first world war, demonstrates the normality, even to foreigners, of differentiating between Flemings and Walloons. It pertains often to stories of individual soldiers and citizens and sought to convey Belgium’s character at the close of the war.

Click here to view an electronic copy of the magazine

  • King Albert. “Aan het Leger van de Natie.” Staatsblad, 1918.

In his address to the nation after the victory of World War One, King Albert, wary of the political battle fought by the Flemish during the war, he acknowledges the fact that his army has never been one led by patriotism and differentiates between the Flemish and Walloons as separate entities fighting for individual causes.

Click to download the full speech in French and Flemish: Aan het Leger van de Natie or read my translation into English below:


To the Army of the Nation!

Soldiers :

Without provocations on our part, one of our neighbors, taking pride in his strength, broke the treaties which bear his signature and violated the territories of our fathers.Because we too were worthy, and because we refused to forfeit our honor, we were attacked. The world admired our loyalty : that the respect and esteem of all peoples strengthened us.When Independence was threatened, the nation shuddered and her children fled to the borders. But you, valiant soldiers of a holy cause, I will always have faith in your tenacious bravery. I, in the name of Belgium,greet you. Your fellow countrymen are proud of you. You will triumph because you are the embodiment of the force justice. Caesar said of your ancestors : of all the peoples of Gaul, the Belgians are the bravest. So glory to you, army of the Belgian people ! When fighting the enemy, remember, you Flemish, the Battle of the Golden Spurs ! And you, Walloons of Liège, that you are currently fighting for the honor of 600 Franchimontois.Soldiers ! I will depart Brussels to lead you.

Two soldiers stand next to a sign stuck in German trenches, it reads: “Flemish peoples, you can cross over, the Germans won’t shoot.” An example of the controversial collaboration between the German and Flemish during WWI.







Secondary Sources

  • Vanacker, Daniël. Het Activistisch Avontuur. Ghent: Academia Press, 2006.

The Activist’s Adventure, written by a Flemish journalist, chronicles the Flemish movement exclusively throughout the First World War. Vanacker discusses the controversy of the Flemish conspiracy with its German occupants, which forces the reader to question whether the actions of the activists were  ethically sound, given that they were betraying their country by collaborating with the enemy, however the country they were betraying refused to grant them equal rights to the Walloons. Vanacker also traces the origins of the Flemish parties’ formations as the Flemish finally gained a voice in the Belgian political sphere.

  • Clough, Shephard. A History of the Flemish Movement. New York: Octagon Books, 1968.

Shephard’s study of the Flemish movement begins with a presentation of the origins of the linguistic borders within Belgium, dating back to the Barbarian invasions of the Early middle ages. Shephard strongly emphasizes the importance of language as one of the major causes of the Flemish movement.

  • Clark, Samuel. “Nobility, Bourgeouisie, and the Industrial Revolution in Belgium.” Past and Present, No. 105. (Nov., 1984), pp. 140 – 175.

Clark presents the reasons for the decline of the nobility due to the rise of the bourgeoisie, in Belgium. He links this social reformation directly to the Industrial Revolution, which he holds accountable for the creation of the class gap between the Walloon bourgeoisie of the south and the Flemish peasants of the north. The piece offers great insight into the history of the economic issues that fueled the Flemish movement.

Click here to read the scholarly article

  • de Schaepdrijver, Sophie. “Death Is Elsewhere: The Shifting Locus of Tragedy in Belgian Great War Literature.” Yale French Studies, No. 102. (2002), pp. 94-114

This essay merely provides an interesting perspective of the influence of the First World War on Belgian literature of the time. Whereas it commenced in the stereotypical heroic style, after four years of trench warfare and an internal revolution through conspiracy with the enemy, Belgian writers were very quickly disillusioned and literature took a turn for the dark.

The Contemporary Issues Within Belgium

As the rift between the Flemish and Walloon political parties continued to widen, the Belgian government collapsed, leaving the country without a central government for a total of 535 days. The eventual reunion of the two sides was not brought on by a collaborative settlement, but rather a forced concession sparked by a rapidly deteriorating economy. These recent events demonstrate the continued relevance of the history of Belgium’s social and linguistic discord, and the revolutions they sparked. 

(Graffiti on a wall reads “This is not a country”)

  • Traynor, Ian. “The Language Divide at the Heart of a Split That is Tearing Belgium Apart.” The Guardian. 8 May 2010. Web.

The political collapse mentioned above is analyzed in this article. The radical push for complete independence for the Flemish, as Traynor claims, is fueled by the extreme importance Belgians attribute to their respective languages. This importance holds the equivalent social influence as religion or race might hold in other regions of the world. The frailty, of the Belgian nation, Traynor argues, lies in its bilinguality.

Full Article

  • “Belgium Has No Future: Interview with Flemish Seperatist De Wever.” Spiegel. 16 Dec. 2010. Web.

In this interview, Bart de Wever argues strongly for the separation of Belgium to independence for both the Flemish and Walloon territories. In referencing the history of Belgium, he states “If you look at German history, you can see how the country came about. In Belgium, you see how a country is breaking apart.” This quote mimics the patterns evident throughout the guide, as the Low Countries have spent the last few centuries consumed in revolutions.

Full Article

  • Olander, Eric. “‘Get Ready for the Break Up,” Warns Top Belgian Minister.” France 24. 6 Sept. 2010. Web.

In this article, Laurette Onkelinx, a Walloon politician, acknowledges the possibility of a future wherein Belgium separates along its linguistic border. The primary issue, as explained herein, is that the Flemish political parties continue to fight for increased autonomy for its regional governments, which the Walloons fear will further weaken their currently frail financial status.

Full Article

  • Judt, Tony. “Is There a Belgium?” How Can One Not Be Interested in Belgian History: War, Language and Consensusin Belgium Since 1830. Gent: Academia Press, 2005.

In her essay regarding the frailty of Belgium as a nation, Judt argues against the existence of Belgium as a nation, but rather describes it as being artificial. She too emphasizes how detrimental the linguistic tension is to the formation of nationalism, and describes the extent to which this influences the Belgian political sphere.

  • Waterfield, Bruno. “Belgium wins Guiness World Record for Political Impasse.” The Telegraph. 19 Apr. 2011. Web.

The only silver lining to Belgium’s recent political collapse, many Belgians viewed Guinness as adding insult to injury when presenting Belgium with its record.

Full Article

Libraries and Other Resources

  • Library at the Catholic University of Leuven

The Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium’s oldest university – dating back to 1425, houses a great collection of books and articles on the topics of Belgium’s various revolutions. Though many resources are available only in print form at the library itself, it is still a great research tool as a significant amount of books and articles can be viewed online.

Click here to search the online database of the KUL library

To search the contents of the Central Library, click “Centrale Bibliotheek” at the top of the list of libraries, then employ the Limo search bar.

  • Belvue Musem

Proudly advertising itself as “the only museum about Belgium!”, and it truly is, Belvue provides a thorough representation of Belgium’s growth beginning with the revolution of 1830 and ending with the Golden Sixties. It provides an extensive collection of over 1500 documents, photographs, movies, and artifacts from each era of Belgian history.

The Belvue Museum also houses a library, this library, however, is not open to the public, but one can be admitted after consultation.

Belvue! Museum Website