Even in the 1970’s, many East Belgians sought the help of teachers, priests or officials to fill in forms in French that they did not understand. In court, German-speaking Belgians were not allowed to be heard in their own language. Many postal workers and officials spoke just French. Many schoolchildren had to follow lessons given in French despite having insufficient knowledge of the language. It was not until German was recognised as a minority language that the German-speaking populace were able to officially use their language. I would like to explain to you why the recognition of a minority language and culture is so important for integration and inclusion.
Over the course of the 19th century, Belgium had quickly developed into a centrally-ruled unitary national state. But after 1945, this unity became little more than an illusion, with the state dominated by a French-speaking upper class. The Walloon and French-speaking population profited from their knowledge of the national language, while the Flemish majority had only few cultural and language rights. Resistance against this central state grew.
Beginning in the 1950’s, the country began to ferment. In 1948, a study centre named after the Belgian politician Pierre Hamel was established. This worked until 1955 on compiling a report on the country’s problems. Adopted in 1958, the report led to the language borders in Belgium being defined by law in 1962 and, one year later, to the languages to be used in schools being defined. There was now an official German language region in Belgium, made up of nine German-speaking municipalities. From this moment on, every German-speaking Belgian could now, at least in theory, demand to communicate with government authorities in German. In practice, several more years were to go by before this right was universally implemented. During this period, the minority developed a new awareness for their rights.
What are now the municipalities of Malmedy and Weismes were assigned to the French-speaking region. The decision as to which language region a municipality was to belong was taken by the local council. For instance, in Kelmis the decision to join the German-speaking region was taken by a majority of just one vote.
But the language laws were just the first step. Feeling disadvantaged, the Flemish political party was demanding not just language rights in schools, administrations and courts, but also political co-determination. While the East Belgian students in the Flemish city of Leuven (Louvain) experienced the tensions between French- and Flemish-speaking citizens at first hand, the turbulence in the rest of Belgium was hardly registered or described in the press in the East Cantons. The discussions about independence for the various language communities were too much for the still traumatised German-speaking minority in the late 1960’s.
This leads historians to question whether the German-speaking population actually fought for their independence, or whether the latter was just a by-product of the tensions between the two major language communities, the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish. Which interest groups played a role in determining how the various communities were to live together? What were their goals?
- Twenty years after the end of the Second World War, politics still played hardly any role at all in public life in East Belgium. Still traumatised, many people were even wary of joining a religious or cultural association. Such behaviour was part of the collective head-in-the-sand attitude.
- Public opinion was determined by the region’s single (monopolistic) newspaper, the Grenz-Echo. a newspaper explicitly expressing the views of the Christian-Social Party (CSP), a conservative party nearly always belonging to the prevalent government coalitions. The CSP dominated local politics, with 93% of the East Belgian electorate voting for it in 1946 and 69% in 1965. The CSP had a reputation as the “party of the East Cantons”.
- From an administrative perspective, the region was administered between 15 January 1945 and 1 December 1976 by a commissioner, Henri Hoen, tasked with implementing the political guidelines adopted by the Belgian government in 1946. These guidelines included closing the German-Belgian border as far as possible and getting the German-speaking population to look to Belgium, upholding an exaggerated Belgian brand of nationalism and promoting French as the language used in schools and administration - to the detriment of German.
- Many East Belgians had the feeling that they had few chances to move up the career ladder in Belgium. Moreover, the rural Belgian Eifel was economically weak, hit by a decline in agricultural employment and insufficient employment in other branches. Many people left the region due to its low-growth economy.
Current research points to turning points in the 1960’s, with a new generation of politicians bringing new momentum to the region. Social tensions mounted due to the disadvantages experienced by the rural population and the German-speaking minority. Moreover, the dominant position of the CSP virtually provoked counter-reactions.
The communicative memory was gradually extended to include a cultural memory revisiting the social traumata of the First and Second World Wars.
- Historical societies were established in Sankt Vith, Eupen and Kelmis.
- Young German and Swiss researchers focused on the 1920 switch from Germany to Belgium, the inter-war years and the Nazi period.
- The Belgian broadcasting corporation’s national language programme broadcast a series on “50 years of East Belgium”.
- The first historical studies were published.
In the 1960’s public opinion started to open up its horizons though developments in the media landscape, with the Aachener Volkszeitung, the local newspaper of Aachen on the German side of the border, producing a daily East Belgian supplement (1965-1989), and with Henri Michel being replaced by the much more open-minded Heinrich Toussaint as editor-in-chief of the Grenz-Echo. In the same vein, the Belgian broadcasting corporation extended its German language programme, again helping to promote the development of public opinion.
Up to 1965, the CSP was the only party upholding the interests of East Belgium in Brussels. The lethargy of the early post-war years gradually dissipated, as seen in the 1968 elections where, for the first time, the liberal Party for Freedom and Progress (PFF) gained one-third of votes following a remarkably modern election campaign. The CSP just managed to defend its absolute majority. Looked at from today’s perspective, many of the votes for the PFF were not so much a vote for a liberal party as an expression of social protest, taken up in Brussels by Sankt Vith’s PFF Senator Michel. Advocating independence, he fought hard to have the German-speaking population recognised as a minority. East Belgium made its voice actively and controversially heard in Brussels.
The general rejection of post-war values changed society, daily life and the use of the media. New social patterns emerged, greatly reinforced by the democratisation of schooling. More and more citizens felt able to take part in politics, displacing the passivity of the last two decades.
In 1970, the Christian Independent Party (CUW) was established as the first regional political movement. Mutating into the Party of German-speaking Belgians (PDB) in 1971, the party was dominated by young politicians who had, as students in Leuven, experienced first-hand the Flemish visions of autonomy and federalism. In the discussions on autonomy, they put forward far-ranging demands. Their opponents in these discussions were the so-called traditional parties, a minority of whose East Belgian members rejected any change to the Belgian state structure. The majority accepted the process but were wary of the changes. Following initial hesitation, they accepted a policy of step-by-step change in association with their national parties. We thus see that East Belgium was by no means homogeneous with regard to its political views.
In the Belgian parties, the view had come to prevail that Belgian could only be saved as a state through deep-going reforms. Awarding the language communities cultural autonomy was to be the first step, thereby reducing the pressure exerted by the Flemish supporters of a federal solution. The first reform of the Belgian state (1970/71) led to the establishment of the three language communities in Belgium: the Dutch, French and German Cultural Communities.
The German-speaking minority’s independence began on 23 October 1973 with the establishment of the Council of the German Cultural Community. The first of the three cultural councils, its members were elected following a free election in 1974. Though the Flemish and French councils were established two years earlier in 1971, their members were not elected until after the fourth state reform in 1993, while the Brussels Regional Council was established in 1989 with elected members.
The Council of the German Cultural Community started off in 1974 with a budget of what would now be €300,000 and with just few powers. Yet for politically interested citizens, it symbolised the long-awaited recognition of the German-speaking minority, with its language, culture and history. Acting as a political forum, its main purpose was to actively participate in the independence discussions and to steer the course towards greater independence in Eupen and Brussels. The main benefit of this cultural autonomy was to protect the continuing existence of the German language and culture in Belgium.
Back in 1950, two visions existed for the future of East Belgium: as a region in which French would quickly supplant German as the language spoken in schools, the administration and daily life, or as a region in which the German language and culture were recognised and with co-determination rights. For which vision would you have opted? Why? What does co-determination mean for you? Would you prefer to take the easy path, not having any political voice and having others decide over your future? Or would you prefer to fight for your rights, speaking out in political debates.
Further reading (in German):
Christoph Brüll, Carlo Lejeune (Hg.): Grenzerfahrungen. Eine Geschichte der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft Belgiens. Säuberung, Wiederaufbau, Autonomiediskussion (1945-1973). Eupen 2014.
Freddy Cremer, Andreas Fickers, Carlo Lejeune (Hg.): Spuren in die Zukunft, Anmerkungen zu einem bewegten Jahrhundert. Büllingen 2001.