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UNOFFICIAL conversations between Brussels and Berlin, the meeting of French and German ministers at Thoiry, the French Council meeting of September 21st, together with the journalistic variations on these events, have again given prominence to Eupen and Malmedy. The territories to which these names apply lie just within the present eastern frontier of Belgium, having passed from German to Belgian sovereignty as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. They are neither large nor populous -- Prussian statistics of 1910 recorded that Eupen had a population of 26,156 and an area about 65 square miles, while Malmedy's 34,768 inhabitants were found within an area of just less than 300 square miles.
Whether viewed alone or in connection with other international matters, the question of Eupen and Malmedy arises from Articles 34-39 of the Treaty of Versailles, which articles direct that these one-time Kreise of the German Empire be handed over to Belgium. It was provided, however, that within six months of the coming into effect of the Treaty, registers should be opened by the Belgian authorities at Eupen and Malmedy in which the inhabitants of the Kreise should be entitled to record in writing a desire that all or part of the territories remain under German sovereignty. Belgium was engaged to report the result of this public expression of opinion to the League of Nations, and pledged to accept the League's decision in the matter.
Considerations of history, of military protection, of economic interests, of reparation, and of ethnography lay behind these articles of the Versailles agreement.
Belgium might with propriety allege that the great bulk of the districts in question were historically part of those forming the modern Kingdom of Belgium -- the more so since Germany's counter claim rested on the unsubstantial basis that they, or portions of them, had been included in the Circles of the Holy Roman Empire drawn upon the map in 1512. Moreover, Prussia's possession of Eupen and Malmedy dates only from 1814-1815, when they were arbitrarily assigned to her as part of that award of population on the Left Bank of the Rhine which was designed to compensate her for her renunciation of claims on Saxony.
The military consideration was also powerful. In the Kreis of Malmedy lay the great German mobilization camp of Elsenborn. Established as a summer training camp in 1896, it later constituted a centre for the network of double track railroads with multiple sidings which, in February of 1914, were connected with the Belgian railroad system by the international line Malmedy-Stavelo. Belgium had assisted in the construction of these last few miles of "light railway" which, despite its classification, was of standard gauge allowing a speed of 40 miles per hour. In August, 1914, General Von Emmich gathered his troops for the march on Liège in the region of Aachen, Eupen and Malmedy. To deprive Germany of these mobilization points was to render Belgium more secure.
In the case of Malmedy the historical and military argument was reinforced by economic and ethnic facts. To all appearance this Kreis was in closer economic association with regions lying on its western border than with those to the east; while, in spite of more than a century of Prussian control, Prussian statistics admitted the existence of a considerable Walloon element in the population. The town of Malmedy, with 94 percent of its inhabitants speaking French, was the outstanding example of the latter fact, although the German plenipotentiaries noted the presence of 9,500 Walloons within the Kreis. From these elements the Belgian Government had received petitions asking for annexation.
In Eupen, however, the Walloon element was virtually non-existent. The economic argument there was weaker in one respect, because of the district's proximity to Aachen; but stronger in another, since the zinc mines exploited by the works in Neutral Moresnet (a territory disputed since 1815, but assigned to Belgium outright by Article 32 of the Treaty) were situated within the Kreis. Moreover, Eupen contained much timber land which chanced to be the property of the Prussian state. This, if assigned to Belgium, would serve as partial and immediate reparation for the destruction of Belgian timber by the German forces during their occupation. Furthermore, Belgian control of the headwaters of the Vesdre, lying within the Kreis, would be of advantage in the proper operation of the canal system of eastern Belgium.
In their "Reply" to the German plenipotentiaries' "Remarks" the Allied and Associated Powers were at pains to note that reasons of the above order "justify the reunion of the territory to Belgium provided (the italics are the writer's) the petitions to this effect are sufficiently supported by the population of the district." They further declared that the transfer of territory "will take place as a result of a decision of the inhabitants themselves taken under conditions which will ensure complete freedom of vote," and that "the Treaty makes provision for consulting the population under the auspices of the League of Nations." Unfortunately the Treaty did not make provision for consulting the population under the active direction and supervision of the League. That body was merely to be notified of the result of the public expression of opinion recorded in registers opened by the Belgian Government at Eupen and Malmedy, and to render a decision thereon. In consequence, the Council of the League was forced to admit its lack of jurisdiction when, in April, 1920, the German Government complained of the manner in which the "plebiscite" was being held. Moreover, the very wording of the Treaty permitted, if it did not direct, Belgium's Commissioner to consult public opinion under circumstances which cannot be said to have ensured "complete freedom of vote," since General Baltia was well within his rights in limiting the means of recording a protest against annexation to Belgium to the public signing of the register at Eupen or (the only other provided) that at Malmedy. These registers were open, under the eyes of Belgian officials, from January to July, 1920.
In view of the Treaty terms the limitation of possible protestants to such men and women as were resident in the Kreise before August 1, 1914, and had attained the age of 21 (or would do so before the end of the registration period) was unexceptionable. Granting the legality of the machinery for registration, we may affirm that reasonable answers were given by Belgian authorities to German charges that great pressure was being employed to determine the verdict. Moreover, the Belgians' counter charge was sufficiently explicit to indicate the delicacy of their task at a time when General Baltia was forced to employ former German officials in local administration. All things considered, however, the recorded protests were remarkably few -- merely 62 in Malmedy and 209 in the smaller Kreis of Eupen. Of the total of 271 signatures in the registers, 202 were those of former German officials. Fully informed of the facts, the Council of the League gave Belgium full sovereignty over both Kreise on September 20, 1920, and maintained its own competence in the matter in the face of subsequent German protests.
Prior to this date the international commission to delimit the actual frontier line had enlarged the territories gained by Belgium. Under Articles 35 this body was to determine the frontier between Germany and Belgium, "taking into account economic factors and lines of communication." On the ground of economic necessity the Belgian member pressed for that portion of the railroad line Eupen-Rötgen-Monschau-Malmedy which lay beyond the administrative frontiers of the ceded Kreise, although Article 372 of the Treaty provided for the operation of such a connecting line under an agreement between the railroad administrations of the nations concerned. On March 27, 1920, the Commission gave the line itself to Belgium, thus creating a most extraordinary set of German enclaves between the railway and the regular Belgian frontier. Germany made an immediate protest to the League, but without result.
Curious and meagre reports concerning conditions in the new Belgian territory have appeared since that time. General Baltia has been hailed by some Belgians as the saviour of "pays redimés," and assailed by others as an autocrat who held "a parody on a plebiscite." In March, 1925, the Belgian cantons of Eupen, Malmedy and St. Vith were assimilated with the electoral district of Verviers, to which an additional deputy was assigned, and on April 5th of that year the inhabitants of the former Kreise participated in a general election. Three Catholics and three Socialists were returned from the district, and among the latter was one who had conducted his campaign in German and criticized the actions of General Baltia. He owed his election to proportional representation, however, since the voters of the three cantons generally indicated their preference for the Catholic representatives. A Belgian asserts (in a German periodical) that nearly all those who signed the registers have been expelled from Belgium on the ground that their action constituted an option for German citizenship, but goes on to state that German is the language of administration, courts, and schools. In spite of the latter fact a "Heimatsbund" was formed in St. Vith last April "to protect the mother tongue, manners and customs of Eupen, Malmedy and St. Vith." The customs barrier now existing between Germany and Belgium has forced some economic readjustment at the cost of tramways and industries, but to the advantage of small shopkeepers.
However, such matters are at the moment comparatively unimportant. The question of Eupen and Malmedy has not been revived as the result of local and popular agitation. It owes its present vitality to Grosse Politik.