Fleming Versus Walloon


Is Flanders a Continental Ireland? Does the growing violence of the struggle between its Flemish and its French-speaking citizens spell the disruption of Belgium?

The answer to these questions is important. Quite apart from the dramatic possibilities of Belgium’s own future, it has an immediate bearing on European politics at large. Whether Belgium will continue to support the French policy with regard to Germany depends, in the first place, on whether its French-speaking population retains its precarious supremacy. An independent Flemish nation would deprive France of her last Occidental auxiliary, put a formidable obstacle in the way of her Continental expansion policy, and disturb the present balance between Teutonic and Gallic influence at the most vital spot of their time-honored battle front.

How is it, then, that hitherto such a vital question has received such scant attention in the press abroad, especially in America? The contrast with the space devoted to Ireland is striking, and throws an interesting sidelight on the deficiencies of the world’s present system of news-distribution.

The Flemings just about equal the Irish in numbers. They are a majority of the population, not in some obscure Eastern mushroom republic, but in one of the most highly civilized industrial countries in Western Europe, which recent circumstances have made a firstclass factor in Continental politics. And although there is not — or not yet — a civil war, as in Ireland, there is no lack of dramatic incidents that would make good stories even for the yellowest newspapers. Since 1918 there have been numerous death-sentences imposed by Belgian court-martials; there have been scenes of riot and bloodshed in the streets; there have been picturesque occurrences, like the invasion of the House of Representatives by a demonstration of returned Flemish soldiers, who beat up a number of members on the floor of the House. Yet even those spectacular items hardly caught the attention of the news-agencies; and as to the more serious treatment of the problem which its implications and possibilities would justify, I could count on my fingers the number of articles which I have seen devoted to it by foreign reviews since the war.

True, the fact that very few people outside of Belgium and Holland can read Flemish newspapers and publications makes the presentation of the Flemish case more difficult. But this is only a minor cause of the silence about the Flemish problem. There are causes much more fundamental. One of them is that we are still suffering from a continuation of the system of government-controlled news that we owe to the war. The present acute phase of the Flemish conflict originated in a wartime condition, namely the attempts of the German occupants to disrupt Belgium by fostering Flemish nationalism. This condition the Allied censorship was as much interested to hush up as German propaganda was anxious to magnify. Moreover, practically all the news that gets abroad from Belgium is controlled by the Agence Havas, which is a semiofficial French institution. Both the Quai d’ Orsay and the bulk of French public opinion treat the Flemish movement as directed against France; consequently, news about it is taboo. Lastly, and so far as America is concerned, there is no echo of the Flemish conflict in American politics, as there is of the Irish issue; hence a lack of demand for the news, which increases the effect of the deficiencies in its supply.

The comparison with Ireland, while it seems justified by the international importance of the Flemish problem, ends there. It does not hold good with regard to the issues at stake. The struggle is not one — at least, not primarily — between oppressed Flemings and oppressing Walloons. At the root of it is a conflict between two groups of Flemings: a Flemish-speaking majority, and a French-speaking minority. The division is social rather than national.

Belgium’s population has, for nearly two thousand years, been formed of two distinct linguistic groups: the Flemings in the northern half of the country, the Walloons in the southern half. Both groups include a great diversity of dialects, but the language of general and written intercourse among the Walloons is French, and among the Flemings, Flemish, with the exception already mentioned. Incidentally, Flemish is only the Belgian name of Dutch. There is even less difference between the language of Flanders and of Holland than between the English used in America and that of the United Kingdom, as the last minor differences between Dutch and Flemish spelling disappeared half a century ago.

The linguistic boundary between Flemings and Walloons is sharp and well-defined. It runs approximately from east to west, and it has not moved for manny centuries. The only exception is the agglomeration around the capital. Brussels, which is situated in Flemish territory, but very close to the language boundary, is it mixed district, where both groups are about balanced in numbers: one quarter of its half million inhabitants speak Flemish only, another quarter, French only, and the remaining half speak both languages.

Roughly speaking, there are about four million inhabitants in the Flemish part, and three and one half millions in the Walloon part. In the latter, French is the only usual language. But Flanders is bilingual — about 81 per cent of its population speak Flemish only, one per cent French only, and 18 per cent both languages.

These 19 per cent of French-speaking Flemings form the element that gives the Flemish language problem its peculiar character. They represent the ruling classes: the bourgeoisie of the cities, the professional classes, the rich landowners, the high clergy. True, 18 of these 19 per cent speak Flemish as well as French. But they mostly use dialectical Flemish only for verbal intercourse with the ‘lower classes’; French is the instrument of their culture, and of their written intercourse. Therefore, the great obstacle in the way of Flemish aspirations toward national self-expression is the position of the French language as the common link between the wealthy and educated classes in both parts of the country.

For about a thousand years the use of the French language has remained the symbol — and in many ways the instrument — of social supremacy in Flanders. In the Middle Ages a French education was one of the means by which the aristocracy and the urban patriciate emphasized their superiority over the Flemish-speaking masses. Flemish was then characteristically called ‘dietsch,’ — the language of the people, — from the mediaeval diet, or people.

From that time onward, the prestige of Flemish grew or decreased as the power of the masses rose or declined. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, a series of revolutionary movements in the Flemish cities overthrew the patrician oligarchy, and gave all the power to the craftsmen’s and weavers’ guilds; it culminated in the battle of Courtrai in 1302, when the Flemish commoners and yeomen defeated the army of knights and mercenaries whom the King of France had sent against them.

The commoners ruled in the fourteenth century, the grand siècle of Flemish urban republicanism. Consequently, their language, which had become the vehicle of some of the earliest attacks on feudalism, like the works of Dante’s contemporary Maerlant and the folk’s epic Reynard, was then the language used by the Administration. At the massacre of patricians and noblemen in Bruges, which forestalled the battle of Courtrai, the populace killed those who betrayed a French accent in answering their challenge.

At the end of the fourteenth century, the Flemish city republics were again vanquished by the feudal powers, their industrial prosperity was dealt a deathblow, and the political privileges of their guilds were abrogated; French was in the saddle again with the noble vassals of the House of Burgundy, the new bureaucracy, who organized their territorial government, and the enriched and contented merchants who ‘aped the dukes.’

In the sixteenth century, Flemish temporarily regained the upper hand, as the revolution of the Netherlands against Spain brought the commoners to the front again; it was the language of the rebellion against popery and absolutism; the defeat of the Flemish revolution was also the defeat of the Flemish language.

All through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the industrial decay and the political and ecclesiastical reaction which followed the subjugation of the Southern Netherlands by the Spanish Kingdom resulted in the humiliation of the people’s language as well as of the people itself. The Flemish people was once again governed in French; Flemish, although still exclusively spoken by the commoners and peasants, practically ceased to exist, except in the form of a spoken dialect, a kind of Cinderella vocabulary which the rich used only to order their valets about or to scold their tenants. The Jesuits, who then virtually held a monopoly ot the education of the upper classes, purposely made that, education solely French, as a safeguard against the ‘dangerous’ ideas of which Flemish had been the vehicle at the time of the Reformation, and continued to be the vehicle in the Calvinistic Dutch republic to the north.

This condition was still in existence when Belgium became an independent state, in 1830. Five sixths of the Flemings then still knew Flemish only; but the remaining sixth represented the only people who read books and newspapers, who sent their children to school, and who were represented under the prevailing systems of limited suffrage, in local and national administration. Together with the Walloon upper classes, they made French the only official language of Belgium, although about one half of its population did not understand it. The Flemish recruits had to pick up a few words of it in barracks in order to understand their officers; and there have been cases of Flemings found not guilty after having been sentenced to death in a language of which they had not understood a word.


The beginnings of the present ‘Flemish movement ‘ date back to the thirties and forties of the last century. It was then purely literary and artistic. Its carriers were a few intellectuals, mostly risen from the peasantry or from the lower middle-classes.

In its literary expression the movement began — just as similar national movements have begun in Germany and elsewhere in the romantic period — as an endeavor to revive the popular traditions through philological and folklore research. Artists, especially painters, began to use the faded glories of Flemish medievalism as a background for their inspiration. By and by, the movement found its way to the masses, to that part at least which was learning to read in the few public schools that were in existence about the middle of the century. Popular novelists like Henri Conscience, who recalled the Flemish past to life in his historical novels; romantic poets like the writer’s grandfather Jan van Beers, who borrowed his most successful themes from the incidents of the peasants’ and workers’ lives; democratic pamphleteers and song-writers like Theodore van Ryswyck, again made Flemish a language that was written and — read. Soon the small peculiarities of spelling which had differentiated it from Holland Dutch in the dialectical period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries disappeared, so that Flemish literature has been for the last half century merely a branch — and not by any means the least significant one, in quantity or in quality — of the Dutch or ‘Netherlandish ‘ literature, the works of which are being indiscriminately published and read in Holland and in the Flemish part of Belgium.

Very little, however, was achieved through political means until near the end of the nineteenth century. It was only in some cities like Antwerp, where a majority of the middle classes had remained true to their Flemish tongue, that the local authorities had made it the basic language in the elementary schools and in part of the high schools. In the smaller localities, the Catholic high clergy, who, to all intents and purposes, controlled the educational system, maintained the supremacy of French, in spite of the opposition, ineffective and ruthlessly suppressed, of some of the peasant-born young Flemish priests. The national government — French only was spoken in Parliament— remained deaf to the demand of Flemish education for the Flemings, with the exception of a timid reform law in 1883, which was made largely inoperative by the inertia of the Administration.

An entirely new condition was created by the suffrage reform of 1893. Until then, the right to vote had been limited to big taxpayers. A persistent campaign of the young Labor Party, culminating in a general strike, forced Parliament to revise the constitution and to grant the suffrage to all adult males. Thenceforth the Flemish peasants, workmen, and lower middleclasses began to be a factor in politics. What had thus far been the cultural aspiration of a small élite became a mass movement, which soon crystallized around a political platform.

The chief demands related to the use of the Flemish language in the schools, the courts, the state administrat ion, and the army. They were on the whole very moderate, as compared with the platform of the Flemish ‘Activists’ under the German occupation, and with that of the militant wing of the ‘Flamingant’ movement at present. Only a few extremists, with practically no following and no political representation, dared to talk about the partition of Belgium, or even about a federal system granting administrative autonomy to the Flemings. There was no Flemish party in Parliament, nor even a permanent division between the Flamingant and the Anti-Flamingant elements within the three existing parties — Catholic-ConservativeLiberal, and Labor. All three parties refrained from committing themselves to any definite attitude on the language problem, and left their representatives free to vote as they liked on each particular bill.

Shortly before the war, however, one issue began to dominate the others to such an extent that it threatened to disrupt the unity of the traditional parties in a permanent way — the Ghent University.

There are four universities in Belgium. Two of them — Brussels and Louvain — are private institutions. The other two — Ghent and Liége — are run by the State. All use French, exclusively. Ghent, which is situated in the heart of Flanders, was started as a Flemish university during the shortlived reunion with Holland which lasted from 1815 till 1830. It has been French ever since.

A bill to make Ghent Flemish again was being considered by Parliament shortly before the war. It was framed in moderate and practical terms: it provided for a quite gradual change, the present professors being allowed to continue teaching in French if they preferred to do so. On the other hand, great pressure was being brought to bear on the three parties, the supporters of the bill even going so far as to take part in joint demonstrations, thus threatening to disrupt the party machines. The bill seemed on its way to secure a majority, when the war broke out.

The Ghent University question has never ceased since to be the real test issue of the struggle. The language reform in the elementary and highschool system, the development of vocational education, the increasing use of Flemish in the courts of justice and in the public service, resulted in a growing demand for higher education in Flemish. Moreover, the number of young Flemings able to obtain a university education had increased as the social barriers which before had kept it a monopoly for the upper ten-thousand began to crumble, and allowed access to a larger proportion of young people from the poorer classes. So the conquest of the Ghent University appeared to the Flamingants as the logical fulfillment of the reform of the rest of the school system.

The chief reason why the contest about Ghent has developed much more heat than any previous language bill had done, is that it raises the fundamental question whether Flemish shall remain merely the language of the lower classes in Flanders, or shall become the instrument of higher learning, the carrier of a national civilization. That the tax-collector, the policeman, the judge, the teacher, and the drillsergeant who are to deal with the Flemish-speaking masses should know enough of the vernacular to make themselves understood, could be granted without encroaching on the position of French as the language of higher civilization. To demand a Flemish university, however, means to challenge the position of the French-speaking bourgeoisie as the only class whose language gives it access to higher learning.

The German occupation put a terrible incubus on the movement. The ‘emancipation of the Flemings’ it will be remembered, was one of the points of Germany’s peace programme. It was not merely a rhetorical retort to the Entente’s demand of self-government for the smaller nations. It was made the basis of a policy that aimed at unnerving Belgium’s resistance by separating the Flemish from the Walloon provinces. A sham government, called ‘Council of Flanders,’ was set up as an advisory administrative body to the German governor. While all Belgian universities had suspended their activity under the occupation, Ghent was reopened by the German civil government as a Flemish university. This policy succeeded in enlisting the support of a minority fraction of the Flemish movement, who called themselves Activists, and even of a few Walloon extremists, who were used as their counterpart. They included very few politicians of note. Most of them were young enthusiasts of a somewhat fantastical turn of mind; and there naturally was, among those who accepted official posts from the Germans, a fair proportion of intriguers and grafters.

The chief circumstance which has made the Activist episode act as a poison in Belgium’s political life ever since is that the Activists went so far as to lend Germany assistance in her military endeavors. A propaganda drive was undertaken among the Belgian war prisoners in Germany, and, through various agencies, among the Flemish soldiers at the Belgian front itself, to promote mass desertion and rebellion. It failed on the whole, though it had become a very serious concern to the Belgian army command by the time of the 1918 offensive.

The ‘Flemish’ university was not much of a success, either; very few capable professors could be enlisted, even in Holland and Germany, and the student population remained very small. Practically all the Activists fled when the German troops withdrew; the few who remained were treated as traitors by the returned Belgian authorities. Thirty were sentenced to death, with subsequent, commutation to life-long hard labor; thirteen got life sentences, and 137 others aggregate sentences of 1418 years imprisonment. A large proportion of those who did not go into exile have had their terms reduced, or have been released since, thanks largely to the humane policy of the former Socialist Minister of Justice, Mr. Vandervelde.


The popular anger of which this cruel repression gave evidence, and the way in which the Anti-Flamingant press exploited the association between the German occupation and the Flemish University, were very severe drawbacks to the Flemish movement after the Armistice, in spite of the fact that the Activists had never represented more than a tiny fraction of it. But this was only temporary. It soon became apparent that, regardless of the Activist adventure, the war had given additional impetus to the Flemish demand for self-expression. The very excesses of the Anti-Activist repression, and the attitude of a large section of the Belgian-French press, which antagonized even the most moderate Flemings by treating them as proGermans, resulted in a reaction.

A good deal of resentment had also accumulated among the Flemish soldiers during the war. Eighty-six per cent of the combatant Belgian soldiers had been Flemings. This was due to various circumstances: the inequality of the military-service laws before the war; the fact that the German invasion overcame the Walloon provinces first and made it more difficult to draft the Walloon young men; and the larger proportion, among the Walloons, of skilled mechanics and educated boys, who were needed for noncombatant services. The language of current intercourse in the Belgian trenches was Flemish, while the language of command and of the officers’ messes was French. It was practically impossible for a Flemish soldier to be promoted to any rank without a knowledge of French, whereas most officers spoke either a very broken Flemish or none at all.

The Belgian government quite realized the danger of that situation, especially in view of the propaganda urging desertion and rebellion, which began to show some results in 1917. But the radical reform which might have alleviated it was not attempted, in view of its difficulty under the stress of war conditions; and the desultory concessions which were made instead proved ineffective. The returned Flemish soldiers, therefore, suffered from an inferiority complex, which made them a so powerful political ferment that the most militant expressions of the Flemish movement after the Armistice crystallized around their organizations; the radical nationalistic group which forms a Flamingant vanguard in Parliament characteristically calls itself the ‘ Front Party.’

This party is small, however, and it shows little signs of growing. In the present stage, at least, the nationality struggles are being conducted chiefly within the three traditional parties. Their Walloon elements are AntiFlamingant, because their power in the country is associated with the predominance of the French language, and because of the annoyance to which the Walloon officials, or prospective officials, feel that they are put by the requirement to learn a second language.

In the Labor Party only there is a minority of Walloon members who sympathize with the Flemish movement. In the Flemish constituencies of the three parties, the bulk of the voters and representatives are out-and-out Flamingant, with the exception only of the gentry and the big employers. There is at present a small majority in the Lower House in favor of the Flemish University of Ghent; but an equally small majority of the Upper House, which is elected by a less democratic procedure, is against it. The Anti-Flamingants are suggesting that Ghent should remain French, but that a new Flemish University should be established elsewhere, preferably in Antwerp. This alternative is not being accepted by the Flamingants, who obviously believe that it is meant merely to gain time, while defeating the bill which is now under consideration. They add that there are already too many universities in Belgium; that the means for the necessary buildings and equipment could not fairly be guaranteed; and that a new university would lack the advantages which the existing institution in Ghent derives from its central location, its traditions, its library, laboratories, and the other equipment which it takes many years to accumulate.

The weightiest motive of the Flemings’ opposition to this compromise, however, is in the subconscious mind: Ghent has become the symbol of higher culture in Flanders, and its continuation as a French institution is felt as an injustice and a slighting of the Flemish people’s language. Therefore thousands of Flemings are willing to die for a Flemish university in Ghent, who would not spend a cent to help build one anywhere else.

This is the main factor which has to he considered if one wants to understand struggles like the one that is now raging in Belgium, with the usual accompaniment of heated rows in Parliament, and sometimes bloody riots in the streets. Their worst feature, from the point of view of a wise solution, is that, after a period of fighting for certain issues, fighting itself becomes an issue. Political demands then become chiefly a means to crystallize the passions that arise out of historical complexes, out of former conditions which have nothing to do with the particular reform at stake. Complicated though the administrative problems raised by the Flemish controversy may be, there is none of them for which a rational solution, better than either the existing condition or any of the proposals now entertained by the Belgian Parliament, could not be worked out in a month’s time by, say, the undergraduates of a politics class in any American university. All they would need is to be given access to all t he available documentary sources — and to have no Fleming and no Walloon among them. Unfortunately, rational solutions, arrived at by rational means, are a rare occurrence in history.

In the meantime, one cannot help noting a disquieting similarity, in spite of the otherwise different conditions, between the past of Sinn Fein and the present of Flemish nationalism. Both movements started as a more or less vague and romantic aspiration to revive an ancient national culture. Their political demands were formulated; conservative prejudice and unreasonable resistance caused these demands to be pressed with growing force; by the time some of them were at last complied with from fear of violence, national passion had already bent itself on much more radical solutions. So, finally, there arises a psychological mass-condition where the chief problem is no longer how such or such an institution should be reshaped, but how the pugnacious instincts which have been roused can be prevented from becoming destructive, and from making any actual reform sterile for lack of statesmanship and sanity of temper.

This state of things seems to be well-nigh reached in Belgium at present. Out of it might arise, on both sides and through sheer despair of any other solution, a disposition to escape endless strife by accepting any end of it; and this would make the disruption of Belgium a possibility.

At present I am sure that no responsible leader desires anything of the kind. Even the most radical Flemings would be perfectly satisfied with a federal system, which would leave Flemings and Walloons autonomous in matters of education and local administration, organize military service on a basis of local or regional units, and have autochthonous officials in both parts of the country. They realize equally well that it would be a folly to disrupt the economic unity of the country, cut the railway system in two, and put a frontier between the Walloon coal districts and the Flemish ports and factories.

The plight of the new states which have been sliced out of the former empires of eastern and central Europe is a warning emphatic enough in this respect. Whether Belgium is a nation because, as some historians say, the state born in 1830 actually embodied a thousand-year-old spiritual community, or whether, as some other historians say, it is an artificial compound of two nations who have always had different civilizations based on different languages, is certainly an extremely interesting point of scientific controversy. But its solution has very little bearing on problems such as these: can Belgium subsist if one half of her population is allowed to feel that it cannot get access to European civilization by using its own language? And, on the other hand, would Europe be much advanced if a new item were added to the list of its ‘free states,’ choked by tariff walls and crushed by the weight of the ‘alliance’ system? Would the Flemings be better off if a Flemish free state, with its four million people, had to fight France to retain access to the German hinterland of the port of Antwerp, and to establish a new balance of trade for an overpopulated industrial country which has fewer coalpits than cities?

Thus Belgium illustrates the tragic clash between the economic necessities of the reconstruction of Europe, and the simplistic belief that problems of nationality can be solved by tracing new frontiers on the map of Europe wherever a claim for self-government is based on the possession of a distinct language or of some historical right.

Perhaps it is a good thing for the Flemings that the Peace Conference refused to receive the delegates of their ‘Front Party,’ who had gone to Paris to find out why the Fourteen Points were to be applied to Slovakia and to Lithuania, and not to the country that has suffered more for the victory of the Allies than any other. So they are free, at least, to work out their own salvation in a country where they form a majority. Otherwise they might have been the object of experiments based on the assumption that Europe’s nationalities can be freed by superposing economic frontiers on the boundaries of language.

Perhaps not the least important lesson that can be learned from Belgium’s nationality problem is the utter futility of trying to cure Europe’s ills by such rough methods, no matter from what lofty ideals they may have been constructed by logical inference. For there is no country in civilized Europe where language can be made the only foundation of political unity, without regard to the necessities of trade, the existence of local minorities, and the intermingling of national and social motives.

Most national problems arise primarily out of social antagonisms, and their real solution consists much more in the slow shifting of social frontiers than in the violent cutting of geographical ones.