Belgium Explained To Slovenes (And Whoever Else ) In Ten Easy Lessons

Another excellent guest post by ARF. Enjoy!

Part One : The Flemish

The flag of Flanders. No relation to Ned Flanders of the Simpsons and very much alike the Panther of Karantania


It’s NOT Monty Python’s Flying Circus, although the opposing attitudes might win a prize for major silliness. What is it then? Well, it’s the opposition of two cultures who were put together because of the founding of what is now our father- or motherland. Yet both factions seem more like orphans put together in the same household without each other’s consent. I’m afraid the matter is so complex I have to split it up and deal with it in a few posts. I’ll deal with the Flemings first…

As I explained in my first guest post, it all started when Belgium was conceived and, in short, our French speaking brethren were lumped in with us Flemings and had control over the government and economy. Consequently, they looked down on the Flemish as being uneducated and unsophisticated boorish louts, only to be used to squeeze for their farming produce and cheap labour in Walloon- controlled factories and mines and be intimidated by the French speaking clergy, since this country used to be the epicenter of Catholicism (thank, erm, god we’ve got all that behind us now)…

Hang on a second : before I go on, I should make something clear. I’m not angry at my Walloon brethren and sisters. Alas, history forces me to give evidence of their less than desirable attitude towards Flemings in a space of roughly 150 years. And, as you’ll come to see, a role reversal has taken place over the past 187 years. So with that out of the way, let’s move on…

Francophone culture dominated Belgium from the start and the official language was French. So were there no Flemings in control? Oh yes there were. But they did their best to forget all about their Flemish heritage. And that wasn’t a novelty. I spoke of the Flemish National Holiday briefly last week : on July 11th 1302 The Battle of the Golden Spurs was fought. Basically, an army of Flemish knights, soldiers, trade guilds and whoever could wield a weapon defeated an army of French soldiers, noblemen and their allies, even though they were outnumbered 2 to 1. Fighting with the French were the Flemish collaborators, called ?Liliards’, because they had sworn allegiance to the French flag, which then sported a lily. The Flemish partisans were called ?Clawards, because their symbol was the Flemish Lion. You can bet your sweet Slovene bottom that these collaborators were sought out and paid for their service to the occupying French with their lives in very painful and lengthy ways.

You can imagine Flemings consorting with yet another band of French speaking individuals at the expense of their own heritage didn’t fall all to well in the 19th century either. And while the times they have a- changed, you can still find blue-haired old ladies of the almost extinct bourgeoisie rank in my home town Leuven who address each other in French, much to the dismay of present day Lovanians, especially those who fought for the Flemification of the Leuven University in the 60’s. That in itself is worth a post, but then this guest post thing would take up more than ten lessons and not be easy… 😛


So while the Walloons and their new batch of Liliards were in power, things seemed pretty bleak for the Flemings. An expression which illustrates this has survived to this day. Whenever the officers in the Belgian army explained something or gave orders, they did so in French and added ”Et pour les Flamands la même chose” (“And the same goes for the Flemings”).

By all counts, you should think we’d be feeling pretty bad about ourselves. After all, you’re being treated as a second class citizen on a daily basis. And yes, we developed a victim complex roughly the size of the former Soviet Union, which later turned into a typical Belgian syndrome. “We’re just lowly Belgians and basically, we’re sorry we are. Please forgive us, we can’t help being born here”. Well, thanks to people like Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Tia Hellebaut and Kim Gevaert (tennis, tennis, World Champion High Jump, European Champion 100 & 200m Dash) we only have our national football team to be ashamed of. 😀 I told you we had a lot in common, didn’t I?

But long before our sporty women, one man wouldn’t let all this slide and he attempted to reconnect the Fleming with his Flemish identity. His name was Hendrik Conscience and he is now known as ?The Man Who Taught His People To Read’. He wrote his novels in a very baroque style of Dutch with heavy Flemish overtones (Flemish is a variant of Nizozemsko) in a time when you were guaranteed to be ousted for doing something inflammatory like that. Nevertheless, Conscience stuck to his guns and is revered for it to this day. Not quite France Preseren, but there are, once again, similarities : two writers, both revered for giving their countrymen a sense of identity. Personally, I think his writing is kind of pompous, but it did the trick back then, I suppose. I would have preferred a poet who’d give us a drinking song for a national anthem, though… :mrgreen:


It’s not the easiest of subjects to write about, because Flemish emancipation only started happening inbetween the two World Wars and went on for long after that. And it’s still going on. Some say it won’t end until Flanders de facto separates from Wallonia; something which causes nightmares down South. But more on that next week…

This empancipation is responsible for a rift within the Flemish community as well, as some of those who historically opposed the founding of Belgium from one generation to the next and either wanted to remain with the Dutch or have an independent Flemish state felt that their future lay with the Nazis during WW II and collaborated willingly, thinking Hitler would grant them the status of allied free state within the Third Reich, purely on cultural kinship. There even was a separate SS brigade fighting on the Eastern Front, the Langemark Brigade. Needless to say, these people were misled and all they got to show for when the war was over was defeat, disdain, imprisonment and their civil rights taken away for several years. Not that many of them minded the latter consequence, since they didn’t want to be Belgian anyway.

Some of the collaborators and their offspring would later found a political nationalist party, the Volksunie, which weighed heavily on Belgian politics and around the end of the 70’s gave birth to the Vlaams Blok (Flemish Block), whose founder, the now late Karel Dillen (The Man Who Could Look Around A Corner With One Eye While Looking Back With The Other; not in the least related to Bob Dylan) felt the VU wasn’t extreme enough. Well, denying the Holocaust and glorifying Nazi Germany was second nature to this man and it is no wonder that what is now called Vlaams Belang (Flemish Importance/Interest) is thé party whose programme is directed against – mostly Arab – foreigners, gays, lesbians and bi’s, intellectuals and artists, calls for an independent Flanders most vehemently and basically wants to turn Flanders into a police state.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? Dear ol’ Adolf would’ve loved it back in the day. Unfortunately, it made sure that Flemish symbols like our regional flag are being looked at as being separatist and racist, because Vlaams Belang hijacked them. Doesn’t make things any easier, I tell you. Show your pride about your cultural heritage and even your own people might label you a party member – it’s become a standard insult to call someone ?Vlaams Belanger’ – with all the negative adjectives it entails. Much to the delight of the party itself, for which this fencing in is an electoral godsend…

Nevertheless, the Flemish identity rose to the foreground from a more civilized standpoint from the 60’s – even though we did have our fair share of rioting – and that hard working ethic and that out right stubbornness of ours made sure that by the 70’s Flemings were a force to be reckoned with. While the political parties back then were still bilingual and thus bicultural – federalization in the beginning of the 80’s split the parties into Flemish and Walloon counterparts, the Flemish politicians gradually took over, because by sheer population demographics, they had the highest voter percentages and thus got to deliver the prime ministers. Of the 10- odd million Belgians there are 58% Flemings and 38% Walloons. This has left the latter outnumbered and outgunned every time for about thirty years now. They are really up for moving a Wallonian prime minister into the Wetstraat 16 again (our No.10 Downing Street) but alas, unless a strong case of bird flu or The Black Plague eradicates 50% of all the Flemings and doesn’t hit Wallonia, this isn’t likely to happen any time soon.


To finish off, I’ll sum up some commonplace clichés which show how Flemings think about their Walloon brethren and sisters :

-They’re lazy and live on welfare, paid for by ?us’ (the rich Flanders region and specifically we, the tax payers. While these are generalizations, there is some truth in this statement, but to explain it in detail would take me forever and bore the hell out of y’all).

-They outright refuse to learn or speak Dutch/Flemish (sad but true; Flemings still speak French in a lager percentage and will try to accommodate the Walloons even by speaking French to them in Flanders, although this is starting to change).

-Their politicians are more corrupt than ours (not likely; Flemish politicians cleaned up their act much earlier and Wallonian scandals are only now getting out; that’s all).

Up next week : The Walloons…

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.

5 thoughts on “Belgium Explained To Slovenes (And Whoever Else ) In Ten Easy Lessons”

  1. ARF, I have a few questions (a sure sign of a great post):

    After the Battle of the Golden Spurs, did Flemings take over and rule?

    Haye there always been more Flemings than Walloons living in Belgium? So did the French minority rule over the Flemish majority?

    How do you say Liliards in Flemish?

    I take it Belgian French and Dutch are different form languages spoken in France and the Netherlands? Do you speak both?

  2. Well as far as I know after the Napoleon wars and Vienna Congress the United Kingdom of Netherlands was established and the Belgians did not want to be a part of that state. So they made a bit of a coup in 1830. They had a support of the UK and France and though the parliament was completely republican the alies insisted the new state was to be a monarchy. All the Belgian nobles refused to succede to the throne, as did the Greek prince, so the king of the Belgians became a German!
    My question: why did not the Flamish part of Belgium stay under the Dutch crown.

    And alcessa: I speak French and Dutch and the difference between the mother languages and the ones in Belguim is really small. The language of the Valons is called French and Vlaams is the language of Vlaandern. The difference between Vlaams and Dutch in more pronounced then the one of the French part. And a bit on a subjective side: I prefer Vlaams to Nederlands!

  3. Arf: chapeau, another great post! Quick anecodte: I went out with my Flemish girl friend’s when I first came to BXL and one of them wanted to meet up with a Walloon love interest. He ended up coming out with us and I was amazed to see that although she speaks French fluently, she refused to speak to him in anything but Flemmish or English – out of principle. He opted for English, ofcourse.

  4. Thanks for sharing. Been to Belgium plenty of times, but will visit better-educated on the next occasion 😉 Am better versed in Luxembourgish affairs having spent the first three months of this year there. Now there’s another interesting little bit of Europe right there as well.

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