Would you be prepared to swap nationalities, to become a citizen of another country? What if you were forced to do so? What rules should a state use to take in new citizens? In my mind, such questions are very valid at a time when so many people are searching for a new country to call their home. A look back at the history of East Belgium shows how and under which rules the population of Eupen and Malmedy became inhabitants of Belgium and why it was so difficult for them to call Belgium their home.
In the weeks following the signing of the armistice on 11 November 1918, the remains of the Germany army trudged back to Germany – as losers. We have no reports of how the population of Eupen and Malmedy experienced this defeat. Following in the footsteps of the defeated German army, British, French and later Belgian troops occupied Eupen and Malmedy and large swathes of the Rhineland.
Since the middle of the war, nationalists in both Germany and Belgium had been clamouring for extensive annexations in the event of victory. In early 1919, Pierre Nothomb founded the Comité de Politique nationale (CPN), a body demanding that certain regions be ceded to Belgium: the Scheldt estuary and the province of Limburg from the Netherlands, the whole Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg and part of the Rhineland, giving Belgium access to the Rhine near Duisburg. These demands were clearly formulated in his book “La barrière belge”, published in 1916. His claims to the counties of Eupen, Malmedy, Schleiden, Monschau and Bitburg were argued from a historical perspective: as these regions had belonged to the Austrian Netherlands and as Belgium (founded in 1830) was the legal successor of this state, they had always been Belgian. The wrongdoing of the past decades now had to be put right.
But two competing views dominated the peace treaty negotiations: nationalistic politicians in Europe called for a peace treaty burdening the losing side with far-reaching annexations and high reparation payments, while US President Woodrow Wilson pleaded for the principle of self-determination, with each people having the right to decide their own destiny. In doing so, Wilson took account of the increasingly democratic tendencies in many European countries. Self-determination was seen as the solution for the problem of minorities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire which fell apart in October 1918.
On 18 January 1919, the victorious Allies started negotiating a possible peace treaty in Versailles. Belgium was unable to push through its wide-ranging annexation claims, and the Treaty of Versailles, signed on 29 June 1919, only ceded Eupen and Malmedy to Belgium.
- For both Belgium and France, this region held great strategic importance, acting as a buffer against Germany and any new invasion attempt. The first hilly area between Belgium and the Rhine, the region could be considered as an advance defence of the Liege fortification ring.
- The region was rich in water and forests, with the latter expected to provide long-term revenues. The water was a valuable raw material for the textile industry in Verviers.
While a number of the territorial cessions came into effect immediately, others were subject to a free and secret referendum (every man and woman had a vote) organised and supervised by a neutral power.
The form used in the region of Eupen and Malmedy was unique, with a plebiscite (the so-called consultation populaire) being conducted. This contradicted the principles of law.
- Public lists were posted in the county towns of Eupen and Malmedy, in which residents wanting to remain citizens of Germany were supposed to write their names.
- This plebiscite was organised by Belgium, a country with an impossible “neutral” status, as it would be the main beneficiary.
- Anyone wanting to protest against this procedure had to justify their protest in front of the officials.
- As the lists were only posted in the county towns, this meant that many citizens had to spend the whole day travelling to get there and back.
- If too many people gathered to write their names, access to the lists was denied.
- The first protesters were immediately punished, inter alia through being expelled from the region, having their ration cards withdrawn or prevented from changing money.
These examples serve to show that the plebiscite was organised in a way making it very probable that the counties would be ceded to Belgium. Even in Brussels, the whole process was labelled as the “petite farce belge”, while it was considered a major injustice in Eupen, Malmedy, Sankt Vith and Germany. By 23 July 1920, 271 protesters had added their names to the lists. The Treaty of Versailles came into effect on 10 January 1920, and the League of Nations ratified the two counties’ “change of fatherland” on 20 December 1920.
Did this vote reflect the will of the people? Let’s start with a retrospective: Compulsory schooling had been introduced in Prussia in 1825. One hundred years later, nearly everybody could read and write. Since the end of the 19th century, more and more people – and not just in the towns – had a newspaper subscription and were thus able to follow national politics. Moreover, many clubs and associations were being founded, each with its own executive board and statutes. These lowest-level proto-democratic institutions reinforced people’s demands for greater participation in society and politics. Council and national elections led to the development of pre-democratic processes. In 1920, the majority of Eupen and Malmedy inhabitants expected to be able to participate in deciding their fate, very much in contrast to what had happened in 1815.
Existing historical works show that both Belgium and Germany invested heavily - financially and with propaganda – in the plebiscite. Sections of the population in favour of the region becoming part of Belgium were few and far between. The only known document in favour of such was a petition drafted by Malmedy industrialists. But there were many indications of pro-German sentiments:
- Within just a short space of time, more than 8,330 citizens added their names to a protest list under the motto “We are Germans and want to remain Germans” before the German authorities stepped in to stop the protest.
- A workers’ uprising in Eupen was triggered by fear of the negative effects of becoming part of Belgium.
- Many reports refer to an insecure, passive population, placing their hopes in the continuing existence of the old borders.
- Over the next two decades, the majority of the population described the plebiscite as illegal.
On 10 January 1920, the counties of Eupen and Malmedy came under the command of General Hermann Baron Baltia, a Royal High Commissioner. Responsible solely to the Prime Minister, he had both legislative and executive powers. Invested with these quasi-dictatorial powers, he was able to completely quash press freedom until the newly-formed administrative districts, the East Cantons Eupen, Malmedy and Sankt Vith, were fully integrated into Belgium. In retrospect, his policies are seen by researchers as being moderate and appeasing towards the new Belgians, even if his transition regime was not based on rule-of-law principles.
This plebiscite so dominated the communicative memory in the years to come that virtually no memories of the First World War were passed on. The citizens of Eupen-Malmedy considered the plebiscite to be unjust and undemocratic, and it became the starting point for innumerable political and societal tensions dominating the coming decades. This is obviously the reason why this period has been the subject of a great deal of research by historians.
In Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders, similar influential political groupings pushing for independence exist. They go about this by annulling the rules previously governing how people lived together and wanting to shift borders or create new ones. Is there any sense in such actions today? A referendum conducted in a fair manner will always yield a result, but there will always be people who voted against the result. How can their rights be respected? How can a state react to such exceptional issues? What do you think?
Further reading (in German):
Christoph Brüll (Hg.): Zoom 1920-2010. Nachbarschaften neun Jahrzehnte nach Versailles. Eupen 2012.
Heinz Doepgen: Die Abtretung des Gebietes von Eupen-Malmedy an Belgien im Jahr 1920. Bonn 1966 (Rheinisches Archiv; Bd. 60).
Klaus Pabst: Eupen-Malmedy in der belgischen Regierungs- und Parteienpolitik (1914-1940). Aachen 1965 (Zeitschrift des Aachener Geschichtsvereins; Bd. 76).