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THE moment the Belgian Parliament opened last November, the dangerous and complicated language question provoked a new ministerial overturn; and a crisis has been latent ever since. The November crisis was solved by the resignation of the Jaspar cabinet and its reconstitution in slightly different form. But debates in the parliament and editorials in the press made it clear from the start that this third Jaspar government, Catholic-Liberal like the ones before it, could look forward to only a very precarious existence, for Liberal support of the coalition is based on clearly defined reservations.
Pessimists are inclined to view the situation with alarm. It was Belgium's hope that this year's celebrations of the centenary of her revolution and her attainment of national independence might be carried on in a spirit of domestic concord. But if a new crisis should occur the only way out would seem to be dissolution of the Chamber and a general election. I do not believe this will happen. On more than one occasion since 1914 the Belgians have shown a capacity for concluding political armistices at critical junctures, and so we have every reason to expect that the centenary rejoicings are not going to be disturbed. It is none the less true that the time has come to put an end once and for all to the rivalries between Flemish and French, and to settle a question which has been poisoning the atmosphere of Belgium for a generation, complicating the political machinery of the country and rendering the formation of stable majorities and homogeneous ministries all but impossible.
The political world in Belgium presents vertical and horizontal divisions similar to those in German industry -- vertically, three great parties, Catholic, Liberal, and Socialist; horizontally, each party divided internally by antagonisms between Flemings and anti-Flemings, between defenders of what is Flemish and defenders of what is French. It is encouraging that a certain softening of animosities is to be noted recently inside the ranks of the powerful Socialist opposition. Since the elections of May 1929 this party has been making strenuous efforts to bring its Walloon and Fleming members to some sort of a compromise, if not to a permanent understanding; and in this it seems to have been successful. This achievement by one of our great political organizations is, I believe, a harbinger of something similar which is to take place in the Belgian people at large. Unless I am gravely mistaken, we shall witness in the next year or so the final convulsions of this bitter and futile controversy, and before long it will seem incomprehensible that such a question should ever have been able to divide fellow-citizens of undoubted intelligence and good faith. In fact, Belgium is on the way to working out the solution of the problem by a general overhauling of the laws governing her schools, her courts, her public administration, and her army -- a solution based on a wise decentralization, allowing much greater autonomy to each of the great regions that make up her territory. In this way the national motto "Union is Strength" will become a reality. Union, but not necessarily unity! Geneva speaks French, Zurich German, Locarno Italian -- yet the citizens of these towns are all Swiss. Similarly, a workman in Bruges speaks Flemish, a merchant in Liège speaks French, a peasant near Arlon uses a German dialect. But they are all Belgians.
The present Minister of Transport in Belgium, M. Lippens, not long ago published a book called "Words from the Beyond," written by his brother, Paul Lippens, who was killed on the Yser in 1915. "If we would do our best for Belgium," urged this young business man, himself of Flemish origin, "let us accustom ourselves to thinking of her as she actually is. We must get used to the idea that Belgium is not a homogeneous country, that Providence has bestowed on her, as on many other nations which are larger and perhaps more prosperous, a number of different races. Our governments have not always been reconciled to that idea; or rather, they have sometimes thought it in their power to become a second Providence destined to correct the mistakes of the first." And he went on to emphasize the impassioned character of our linguistic battles, in which, as in the battles of Homer, we insult each other instead of really fighting. There is, indeed, a linguistic mysticism which, like religious mysticism, easily turns to fanaticism, so that sentimental considerations are able to gain the upper hand over considerations of fact and good sense.
The Flemish movement, or to give it its actual designation, "Flamingantism," is a part of that political trend which was in operation throughout the nineteenth century and which culminated in the treaties of peace after the World War. That trend developed in two noteworthy directions: toward an extension of democracy and universal suffrage, and toward a more and more general recognition of the autonomy or the complete independence of nationalities. Irish Home Rule and the liberation of the Czechs and Slovaks by the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire are two conspicuous examples. By virtue of what we may call the "policy of nationalities" we have witnessed a curious self-assertion on the part of a number of "local" languages -- Lithuanian, for example, which till quite lately was spoken only by a few aged peasants on the outskirts of Kovno and Vilna. A Lithuanian diplomat confessed to me in 1921, "I do not know my mother tongue!" But this is no more astonishing than the revival in Zionist Palestine of Hebrew, which had been regarded as completely dead. In Jerusalem, one evening, I heard Rossini's "Barber of Seville" sung in Hebrew!
It is true that Flemish is spoken by only some three and a half million people, who beyond their own frontiers would at best be understood by not more than six million Hollanders. It is none the less dearly prized by those who do speak it. In the nineteenth century, moreover, there was a magnificent revival of letters in Flanders; and it is still going on, counting among its adherents many original writers both in verse and in prose. In view of that, prophecies like those of M. Pierre Forthomme in a Belgian magazine seem academic.[i] He wrote:
The absurdity of multiple languages will eventually impress everyone, and the renaissance of so many tongues will produce its reaction sooner than people think. All we need for that is the development of some incident serious enough to emphasize the insurmountable incompatibility of linguistic sophistries with the rapid and complex progress of the world today. At a time when people can encircle the earth in a week's time, will they still talk Finnish or Basque? We may need the United States of Europe, some day. But just try to organize it with a hundred and twenty languages on your hands!
Wherever the language prejudice has asserted itself, it will eventually be discarded. People will see that they have erred on the side of exaggeration. Language is not race; it does not make a nation; it is only one of numberless factors in culture. The human being does not live by language, and he may change languages without damage to his mental or spiritual development. Of unquestioned value to literature, diversity of language is of little or no utility to the other arts and sciences -- is more often, indeed, a source of difficulty and harm. Only a strong and universal prejudice, sustained by ignorance and passion, has been able to enshrine languages in human hearts and give them prerogatives they cannot rightfully claim.
The world is destined some day to use only one language; it may be English, or some other modern language, or even a language manufactured out of whole cloth. This is the logical trend of modern life. It is the solution indicated by good sense. Whether we like it or not, what is reasonable finally has its way in this world.
Some weeks after penning these lines, M. Forthomme joined the third Jaspar government, which promised substantial concessions to the Flemings, notably the transformation of the University of Ghent, lately entirely French, into a university where all lectures would be given in Flemish.
The population of Belgium is about eight millions, made up of four million Flemings in the north, three million French-speaking Walloons in the south, and about a million in central Belgium, around Brussels, who speak both Flemish and French. Brussels, in fact, is our melting-pot where, the wags say, French and Flemish are equally badly spoken. The great majority of the Flemings speak only Flemish. What complicates the problem is that in Flanders a minority of the population, estimated at between five hundred and eight hundred thousand, speak French and are devotedly attached to that language.
The situation has been much the same for centuries. French used to be spoken at Bruges, at the court of the Counts of Flanders and the Dukes of Burgundy. French has remained the language of the aristocracy, of the upper and lower bourgeoisie, and, down to recent times, of the intellectual classes. Flemish, on the other hand, has suffered a real literary decadence since the seventeenth century. In the sixth volume of his monumental "Histoire de Belgique," M. Henri Pirenne recapitulates the history of the two languages and the two cultures on Belgian territory as follows:
As early as the twelfth century French gained a foothold in the Flemish provinces, where it had become a sort of second national language to the upper classes. The growth of French was in no wise injurious to Flemish culture. Two literatures flourished side by side, the one Romance, the other Germanic, so long as the national civilization itself remained strong and healthy. But the religious wars of the sixteenth century and the dismemberment of the Netherlands brought about a decadence, from which the Flemish language suffered especially. Flemish, in fact, fell to the status of a provincial dialect, because the Catholic clergy, in order to prevent any infiltration of the heresies triumphant in Holland, was careful to break off such intellectual communications as Belgium might have maintained with her Protestant neighbor. Henceforth Flemish was only an instrument for not communicating with the outside world. Not only did Flemish not participate in the vigorous blossoming of Dutch literature in the seventeenth century, but it shrank back into an isolation which ended by so differentiating its dialects from the Dutch idiom as to give it the appearance of a language peculiar to Belgium. The French conquest only accentuated these misfortunes. Banished from public administration and from the schools, regarded with suspicion by the authorities, disdained even by those who continued, for lack of anything better, to use it, Flemish appeared, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as a simple patois, the days of which were numbered.
Action and reaction, flux and reflux -- such is the history of the two languages in Belgium since those days! Under French control, from the victory at Jemmapes in 1792 to Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the Commissaires of the Convention and the Prefects of the Empire made war on Flemish just as, in France, they made war on all forms of patois. But at the Congress of Vienna the victorious Allies created the Kingdom of the Low Countries as a bulwark against France. Theoretically, this union of Belgium and Holland should have contained some elements of prosperity. From the economic point of view the two countries did, in fact, make a magnificent combination. It was during the period between 1815 and 1830 that the provinces of the south saw the first blooming of their now gigantic industrial activity.
But the amalgamation was forced too rapidly. The Dutch and the Belgians were quite different in many respects. "Starting from the same point," writes M. Pirenne, "the two peoples had gradually drawn apart. They no longer had anything in common. Abruptly pushed together after such a long separation, they surveyed each other without signs of recognition, and with a mistrust only too easy to understand." The contrast between them came into the open in the States General: "Belgian talkativeness and freedom of manner were in contrast with the reserve, the phlegm, the earnestness of their new fellow-countrymen." One might have thought that a common speech would come to constitute a bond of sympathy between the Flemings and the Dutch. But religious differences outweighed that factor. The strong Catholicism of the Flemings was not to the liking of the Dutch Protestants; furthermore, opposition to the constitution promulgated by William I, which recognized religious liberty, was more vigorous in Flanders than in Wallonia.
The language question played only a minor role in precipitating the Revolution of 1830. But it was nevertheless a factor. If William did nothing to combat the popular prestige of French in Belgium, he nevertheless insisted that the official language in Flanders and at Brussels should be Dutch, and therefore Flemish.
After the Revolution of September 1830, after the inevitable separation of Belgium and Holland, fresh attempts were made to Gallicize the whole population. They lasted thirty years. The leaders of the Revolution, some of whom were of French birth, worked on the theory that the French language might become a strong bond of national unity between all Belgians. Until 1894 only such citizens as paid taxes to a certain amount had the right to vote. This meant that in Flanders only the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, which were both of French culture, participated in elections; the Flemish-speaking artisans and peasants had no voice at court. Nevertheless, toward the middle of the nineteenth century the Flemings began to be self-conscious. Their literary men at first led the movement. A measure permitting the use of Flemish in the courts became law in 1873. In proportion as the suffrage was extended (in 1893, universal suffrage, but with property limitations; in 1919, universal suffrage pure and simple), the Flemings obtained greater concessions in education, in the courts, in the army, and in public administration.
But successive Belgian governments, having first slipped into the error of Gallicization, now headed toward another error: the error of bilingualism, which consisted in requiring all Belgians exercising any sort of public function to know thoroughly both French and Flemish. The law of 1921 regulating the use of languages in public services reflects this tendency very strongly, and it provoked a reaction which might have been expected; for if it partly satisfied the Flemings, it dissatisfied the Walloons just as much. And yet both these attempts at solution, with their consequent errors, were probably necessary if all thinking Belgians, all Belgians not blinded by local patriotism, were to be brought to see the need of a third solution: namely, the regional solution, based on the autonomy of Flanders and of Wallonia.
During their war-time occupation of Belgium the Germans tried to intensify the language quarrel as a means of furthering their imperialistic policies. To accentuate animosities between Flemings and Walloons they instituted separate governments for the two populations and made the University of Ghent exclusively Flemish. The Belgians straightway rebaptized it "von Bissing University."
This German effort proved fruitless. The great majority of the Belgians -- Flemings no less than Walloons -- drew back in sullen resistance to the invader, a passive resistance of silent contempt. Despite certain post-war incidents, and despite the resumption of domestic rivalries, it may be said that on the whole Belgium has behaved very well. Her baptism of blood had shown her that she was truly a nation and not just a device of diplomacy. "What is a nation?" Ernest Renan had asked just after the War of 1870. And he answered that a nation is not constituted by unity of language or race, at least not by those things alone. Doubtless he was thinking of Alsace and Lorraine, which France had just lost; and he might have added that numbers of Frenchmen speak Breton or Basque or Flemish, which are more than mere dialects. "To have done great things together," said Renan, "to desire to share in further great achievements -- these are the essentials for the existence of a people as a people." And again he says: "To have suffered and hoped together is something more important than common customs houses and strategic frontiers."
Who can doubt that these conditions are fulfilled in Belgium? When the Germans invaded that country in 1914 they did not at first make any distinction between Flanders and Wallonia. The torture of Dinant went hand in hand with the tragedy of Louvain. Walloons and Flemings fought and died together. And even later, when the Germans ordered the deportations of workingmen, they began at Sveveghem in Flanders and at Lesines in Wallonia. But the test of the war was not needed to prove Belgium's right to exist as an independent nation. Between Flanders (an agricultural country, along with its harbors and its looms) and Wallonia (with its mines, its railroads, its glass works, its foundries and its forests) there are very powerful economic bonds. Antwerp is the outlet for the valleys of the Meuse and the Sambre, and the port for Liège and Charleroi, just as well as for all Flanders. The Belgian provinces supplement one another.
I will go even further: I believe that Flemings and Walloons have certain political traits in common -- love of self-government, a sense of municipal and provincial autonomy, a mistrust of centralized power. Both peoples are proud possessors of the same taste for organization. There is a saying to the effect that when three Belgians, be they Flemings or Walloons, happen to meet, they found a society. Another trait which Flemings and Walloons have in common is a certain flair for living, a strange frenzy whether in work or in play. The Belgian is a working animal, but he also enjoys a good time. The two things are not incompatible.
Now what are the differences that separate the two kinds of Belgians? They are many and great. Belgium is a country of two populations -- even, one might say, of two nationalities. M. Henri Pirenne himself admitted as much in a lecture he delivered at Liège in 1905. "Walloon national feeling and Flemish national feeling both exist undoubtedly beneath the surface of the common culture which we have seen developing in the various spheres of our social and political life. That common civilization rests on two other, and very different, civilizations: a Walloon national consciousness and a Flemish national consciousness." And this takes no account of the 90,000 Belgians of German language living not only in the former Kreise of Malmedy, Eupen and Saint Ville (transferred to Belgium by the Treaty of Versailles), but also in parts of old Belgium herself -- namely in certain villages near Arlon, Bastogne and Verviers.
The frontier between the Flemings and the French has not changed since the fifth century. It was long believed to correspond to the old boundaries of the Flemish forest. Others regard it as a trace of some ancient Roman highway or line of fortresses. It runs from Mousson, just south of Ypres, to Visé, just north of Liège, passing south of Brussels, through the village of Waterloo. Flemish is spoken north of that line, Walloon south of it. Flemish is a dialect, or rather a group of dialects, related to Dutch, which is the literary form of the speech. Walloon is a combination of ancient Romance dialects -- many of them older than French -- and is the written language of the Walloon population.
In his excellent book on "The Government and Politics of Belgium," Professor Thomas Harrison Reed, of the University of Michigan, characterizes the language frontier in Belgium as follows: "Though this boundary line preserves very rigorously its generally east and west direction, it is locally irregular enough, usually meandering about the villages but at times running down the centre of a street. It has suffered no material change for centuries. French villages have confronted Flemish villages, the Flemish side of the street the French side, time out of mind, without one tongue gaining on the other and without any tendency toward the formation of a common speech." There are small minorities of Flemish workmen in Wallonia, near Charleroi, Liège and La Louvière. But the Flemings, curiously enough, generally speak either French or the Walloon dialect of the natives among whom they have settled. Similarly, the thousands of
Flemish miners who travel daily from their Flemish homes to the mining districts of the Hainault or of Liège speak the Walloon dialect of these districts.
Since, as I have explained, alongside of the mass of artisans and peasants who speak only Flemish there are the richer classes who are French by culture and in some cases do not even know the language of the people, the problem arises not altogether between Flemings and Walloons, but also between Flemings and Flemings. The French minority in Flanders claims the right to be educated and governed in French, and the higher clergy support them. On the other hand, the lower clergy, the priests and vicars of the villages, stand with the peasants and workers who demand "in Vlaanderen vlaamsch" -- "Flemish in Flanders."
The general tendency of the central government for some years has been to require all who aspire to posts in public administration to have a knowledge of the two languages. By the law of 1928 soldiers are recruited along regional lines and serve in their native provinces. Companies are now either all Flemish or all Walloon, whereas formerly they were mixed. Nevertheless officers must still know the two languages and know them well. In primary and secondary education French is naturally the language medium in Wallonia. Flemish is obligatory as a second language in the high schools, and the pupils have then the right to choose between English and German. In Flanders, Flemish is the language medium, and French is taught as a second required subject. Walloon parents object to this scheme, and hold that their children should be taught, not a language of such scant general utility as Flemish, but a language of world importance such as English, German or Spanish. In Flemish territory parents of French culture ask for a free choice between Flemish and French as a first language, to which the Flamingants reply: "But we must not allow a rift to open between the people and the intellectuals!" And they insist on the right of every Fleming to be governed, judged, taught and commanded in Flemish in his own country. But under the momentum of the trend toward decentralization, which I have described, the Flemings are limiting their demands to the "linguistic unity" of Flanders proper. Accordingly, they have demanded that Ghent, one of the two state universities, be made a purely Flemish school, where teaching would be given in Flemish instead of in French. But the students at Ghent are not only Belgians (Walloons or Flemings) but also foreigners. Therefore it was proposed that a new university be created in Antwerp, where the Flemish ideal would be fulfilled; but the offer was rejected, the Flemish party demanding "Ghent or nothing."
After a desperate fight in the country and in Parliament, a solution proposed by Mr. Nolf, the head of the Department of Education, became law in 1924. The curriculum at the University of Ghent was planned in such a way that Flemish-speaking students must take a third of their work in French and French-speaking students a third of theirs in Flemish. This is a solution in the bilingual mood and, as I have said already, bilingualism is generally the principle and tendency of the central government and it gives satisfaction neither to the Flemish extremists nor to the Walloons and French-speaking bourgeois of Flanders. The Nolf system was a failure. Flemish students boycotted the new university. Recently the Jaspar government introduced a bill making Ghent University completely Flemish, and it has just been passed by Parliament.
Yet, strange to say, there is nowadays but one cry in both camps, that the solution be immediate and complete. Thus, in primary and high schools, guarantees are asked for French minorities in Flanders and Flemish minorities in the Walloon provinces; while, as regards administration, Walloons in the public service claim a right to live their whole lives in the central offices at Brussels without knowing Flemish -- and this, of course, would be possible only by dividing all governmental and public bureaus into two parallel branches. Other delicate situations also arise. What shall be done about private or "free" schools, which are predominantly Catholic and vie with the public institutes in the patronage they attract? "Immediate and complete!" A thing easily said, but not so easily done!
Certain extremists are talking of dismembering Belgium and annexing Flanders to Holland: after Pan-Germanism, Pan-Hollanderism! Others speak of uniting Wallonia with France. These are childish vagaries hardly worth discussing. But in both camps in Belgium there is an increasing tendency to find some general solution along the lines of a federalistic reorganization of the state. Without going quite so far as the Swiss system, it might indeed be possible to satisfy everybody by increasing the local autonomy of the nine Belgian provinces.
Walloons and Flemings should and can come to an understanding. They have been condemned by history, by geography, by economic interest, by a host of sacred memories, to live together. Their country lies at the crossroads of several great civilizations -- "between ardent France and earnest Germany," as Emile Verhaeren put it. For centuries one of the battlefields of Europe, Belgium can today fulfill a great role in history, in spite of wounds not yet entirely healed. She should be a connecting link between Latin, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon cultures. Glance at the map. Belgium is a corridor, a zone of traffic and transit. This is certainly true as far as merchandise is concerned; it can be true as regards ideas also.
[i] "Le Préjuge des Langues," in Le Flambeau, November 1929.