Why should you be interested in what happened in the 19th century in what is now East Belgium? For many people, this era marked the start of the Late Modern period. Have you for example asked yourself why you today feel yourself Belgian, German, Dutch or British? Why other identities, such as East Belgian, Bavarian or Welsh, are also important? Why boundaries continue to exist in our minds, although we are all citizens of the European Union. Many populists are calling for border controls in Europe. Have you any idea what this would mean for you? I would like to tell you how such feelings of identity developed in the 19th century and how borders changed, playing a key role in everyday life, as is still the case today.
At the turn of the century in 1900, the world had completely changed, looking completely different to that a century previously. The century saw the establishment of many cornerstones of today’s prosperity in Europe: trade, crafts, industry, research and education took on new forms. The map of Europe as we now know it was drawn, with its constituent nations giving populations their first ever feeling of belonging. Positive values, such as hard work and reliability, similarly stem from this period. People started becoming mobile, undertaking hitherto unimaginable journeys. The era of mass communication began. High German gained predominance over local dialects in East Belgium in this century.
The Congress of Vienna (1814/15) redrew the map of Europe. Prussia was awarded the Rhineland, the western border of which was formed by three newly established counties or “Kreise”: Eupen, Malmedy and Sankt Vith. They were part of the administrative region of Aachen, itself part of the Prussian Rhineland province. In 1821, the county of Sankt Vith became part of Malmedy.
The new borders were drawn in accordance with the logic of the Great Powers, without consulting populations on what they considered best. Some 10,000 people lived in and around Malmedy – now part of Prussia – who spoke Walloon, a French regional dialect. Moreover, in 1815 the municipality of Neutral-Moresnet (what is now Kelmis) was created under very strange circumstances. As the Great Powers were unable to reach agreement on who should be assigned this 3.4 km2 area on account of its large deposits of zinc ore, it remained no-man’s-land until 1919.
In Eupen and Malmedy, as in the whole of the Rhineland, Prussia was viewed with suspicion. The conservative Catholic majority was ruled by a state with a Protestant monarchy, officials and military. Looked at from today’s perspective, their attitude could be described as reserved, but not openly hostile. The clash of these two very different worlds was aptly described by the German authoress, Clara Viebig, in her many novels, most of which appeared at the beginning of the 20th century. They frequently took place in the German and what is now the Belgian Eifel.
The modern nation states emerged against this background, not just propagating nationalism, but also taking over a widening panoply of tasks, making life and social interaction easier for their citizens.
But even in this century, the development differences between the north, i.e. the region around Eupen, and the south, i.e. what is now the Belgian Eifel, remained large. Eupen and Kelmis in particular greatly benefited from development boosts in this period. Due to the new borders, the clothmaking factories in Eupen were however only able to serve their old markets by paying high customs duties. Moreover, they proved not to be very competitive on the new markets, resulting in repeated crises. The introduction of more and more machines led to mass poverty among the unskilled textile workers in Eupen, and in 1821 a workers’ revolt smashed the first mechanical cloth-cutting machine before it had even started operating. Such actions followed the example of English workers, who had started revolting against industrialisation in 1811. Social conflicts characterised the century in Eupen. The founding of workers’ associations and trade unions, the emergence of political parties and associations, and the spread of socialist ideology and Christian sociology characterised the conflicts in the town.
Mining activities in Neutral-Moresnet, the no-man’s-land town with its rich zinc ore deposits, was in the hands of Vieille Montagne, a company that developed in this century into a modern, global player with its headquarters in Paris. Though the deposits were largely exhausted by the 1860’s, the town continued to be governed by the mayor and company management in a very autocratic manner until 1919.
It took a long time for what is now the Belgian Eifel to find its place in the modern world, as witnessed by the small town of Sankt Vith. In 1811, it had just 735 inhabitants, rising to 2700 by 1914. One of the reasons for this growth was the construction of the so-called Vennbahn, a railway line between Aachen and Troisvierges/Ulflingen (Luxembourg), which opened in 1889. The town quickly developed into a railway junction, with some 800 men employed by the railway by 1914. Due to this railway, the inhabitants of the Eifel became more mobile, were able to find markets for their agricultural products more easily, and could buy new, up to then difficult-to-come-by goods. Throughout the region, roads were widened, again improving accessibility. Agriculture in particular make great leaps forward, promoted by farmers’ associations and cooperatives.
At the same time, Eupen and Malmedy were able to watch the Prussian State, and, as of 1870, the German Reich developing into a nation state. The ‘nation’ became the decisive feature for national identity, while the state constantly expanded its policy scope, for instance introducing compulsory schooling in 1825.
The development of this national identity was clearly to be seen in the region. For instance. units of the German army were stationed in Malmedy, and construction of a new military training camp in Elsenborn started in 1894. On the other hand, military conflicts (including the German Unification Wars of 1864, 1866 and 1870/71) promoted German patriotism among the population. The Prussian and German officials, the teachers, priests and military training personnel saw to it that High German was used in their fields of activity, with it gaining the status of a national language competing with the region’s German dialects. For the town of Malmedy and Prussian Wallonia with its 10,000 citizens speaking the French Walloon dialect, the question of what was the local / national language played a role during the 1871-78 “Kulturkampf” (literally the Cultural Struggle). While Prussia had generally tolerated languages spoken by minorities on its territory, the latter were increasingly forced to adopt German as their national language in the German Reich.
But the 19th century was not just the century of modernity. Death was ever-present, with many children dying young and life expectancy overall low. Medical care was unsatisfactory, despite several religious orders building many medical centres and simple hospitals in the second half of the 19th century. Education in rural areas and among the urban working-class population was elementary, despite the introduction of compulsory schooling in 1825. To top it all, a series of natural disasters led to famines in 1816-1817, 1845-1846 and 1882-1883. The lack of any long-term perspective and the general poverty led many people from what is now the Belgian Eifel to emigrate either to America or to the industrial regions along the Meuse and Ruhr rivers.
The then German-Belgian border region was the scene of much cultural exchange but also of many conflicts in the 19th century. Border insurgencies were commonplace. While after 1815, the historic links to neighbouring regions remained intact despite the redrawing of borders, people with cross-border contacts soon started seeing their neighbours as representatives of a nation state with its own language, national anthem and flag.
The German invasion of Belgium on 4 August 1914 brought war – portrayed as a military-national conflict – to the region, closing the borders. Indeed, they were to remain closed until the 1970’s, an obstacle in the way of the everyday lives of people living close to them.
In our history books, this region was long seen as a border region from the perspective of urban centres. Similarly, from a national perspective the scope of a nation state’s activities stops at its borders. Following this argumentation, a border region is always on the periphery. But researcher historians are gradually starting to redefine this perception, viewing such a region as a transition region subject to influences from both sides of the border. These can give rise to a new and specific form of (cultural) wealth and to symbioses not found in urban centres. One good example of this is the history of the labour movement in Eupen, a town with an industrial background. This movement was characterised by a cross-border protest culture, influenced by movements in England, the Rhineland, Belgium and the Netherlands.
All this is evidence that the foundations for life as we now know it were laid in the 19th century. Part of the population was open to such innovative influences and indeed actively helped shape them. Other were warier, influencing developments through their passive stance. What do you think about developments today? Are you afraid of what’s happening or does it give you hope? Are you prepared to work actively to shape your future?
As an example: What would you like to see changed in the ways the state does things in Belgium, allowing it to find answers to current challenges? As a citizen of the EU, could you contemplate working in another country? Are you open-minded with regard to people from other regions working here? How open and modern should society here in Belgium be?
Further reading (in German):
Carlo Lejeune (Publ.): Grenzerfahrungen. Eine Geschichte der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft Belgiens. Code Civil, beschleunigte Moderne, Dynamiken des Beharrens (1794-1919). Eupen 2016.
Sebastian Scharte: Preußisch – deutsch - belgisch: Nationale Erfahrung und Identität: Leben an der deutsch-belgischen Grenze im 19. Jahrhundert. Mu¨nster, New York, Mu¨nchen, Berlin 2010 (Beiträge zur Volkskultur in Nordwestdeutschland; Bd. 115).