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Keeping It Together

Matthew Kelly

The Sorrows of Belgium. Liberation and Political Reconstruction, 1944-1947, by Martin Conway, Oxford University Press, 432 pp, £68, ISBN: 978-0199694341

Following the general election of June 2010, it took 541 days for Belgium’s politicians to form a new coalition government. Things ticked over. The rubbish was collected. Outside observers offered much wry comment. Government and politicians were proved to be as useless as everyone had always supposed. A state underpinned by sensible political principles could rely on civil servants to run things efficiently.

This, of course, was rubbish. Belgium’s politicians, through the federal structures established in the last quarter of the twentieth century, continued to govern. For the eighteen months before the credit rating agencies snarled and the people expressed their impatience on the streets a caretaker national government made minor adjustments to tax and spend policies, including social security levels, established by its predecessor. Regional governments answerable to regional parliaments spent this money according to devolved competencies. In certain respects, the actions of Belgium’s political and bureaucratic elite, responsible for the peaceful transformation of Belgium’s governing structures since the 1960s, were vindicated by these processes. Belgium’s long search for a new coalition government can be seen as a crisis of politics rather than a crisis of state.

Others see prime minister Elio Di Rupo’s government of December 2011 as the latest temporary fix to a more fundamental problem. Belgium, they say, is an artificial country formed for reasons of European realpolitik in the 1830s. It forces into a single state the francophone peoples of Wallonia in the south and the Dutch-speaking people of Flanders in the north. This produced a relatively functional polity that could never meaningfully be called a nation. If francophone Brussels ‑ with its significant Flemish minority ‑ was not marooned in Flanders, Belgium would have long since gone the way of Czechoslovakia. Only consociational government, which prevents majoritarian tyranny and effectively institutionalises coalition, has kept the country together. In Northern Ireland, once a failed state now merely dysfunctional, a similar system manages to accommodate the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin.

The prophets of Belgium’s break-up doubt if these structures will continue to reconcile the interests of competing ethnic groups. Populist Flemish nationalists like Bart De Wever, the charismatic leader of the separatist Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliante (N-VA), Belgium’s largest political party, and since January 2013 mayor of Antwerp, exploit the fact that the de-industrialisation of Wallonia has left the south economically dependent on the more dynamic mixed economy of the north. The fiscal transfer from north to south is the most significant of the remaining national competencies and provides a focus for Flemish discontent. Seceding from Belgium would free the Flemish of these obligations, throwing the Walloons on the mercy of the European Union and allow the flourishing of a distinctively Flemish culture allegedly suppressed by an ascendant francophone culture whose supposed arrogance is at odds with the realities of Walloon decline. To this way of thinking, the Belgian nation is at best a hopeful illusion of the liberal imagination; at worst, it is the project of a political elite whose pluralist multiculturalism masks self-interests that do not align with those of the peoples condemned to inhabit the geopolitical space signified by the term “Belgium”. Either way, Belgium’s sorrows are a reminder of the continued fragility of the European nation-state.

Martin Conway counsels against the partitionist assumptions of ethnic nationalism’s avatars. He argues that latter-day commentators exaggerate the historic weakness of Belgian nationality and the historic strength of Flemish and Walloon separatism. Wallonia and Flanders, he maintains, “were, and remain, historically contingent entities, the existence of which as political communities has no greater logic than that of Belgium”. Notwithstanding the manifest cultural differences it needs to accommodate, a successful Belgian state has a good chance of creating satisfied Belgians. And on this basis, Conway gives Belgium’s past a fairly clean bill of health.

What might be termed the First Belgian State, dominated by a bourgeois francophone elite as likely to be resident in Flanders as in Wallonia, survived into the 1880s. Rapid and early industrialisation saw this elite respond sensibly to the rise of a well-organised industrial working class, smoothly bringing into being the Second Belgian State. Before long, the three main political parties ‑ Catholic, Socialist and Liberal ‑ were integrated into a framework of parliamentary democracy that lasted until the Second World War. With no party predominant, this made for a political culture that was pragmatic and somewhat conservative. Political parties desirous of power valorised those qualities that made for stable coalition government, generating in the process enduring ideas about what it meant to be Belgian.

If the federal Belgium created in the late twentieth century is the First Post-Belgium State, the origin of the ethnic assertiveness that provided its origins lay not in the primordial soup from which fervid Wallonian and Flemish nationalists imagine they drink but in the failure of the Third Belgian State. Established in the immediate postwar years, Conway argues that its history demonstrates the relative novelty of partitionist thinking. Until the 1960s, it had not occurred to most Belgian citizens that their regional identities were incompatible with a broader Belgianness. Conway’s brilliant chronicling of Belgium’s postwar rebirth identifies, first and foremost, what went right, the necessary preliminary for figuring out what has since gone wrong.

In September 1944, Belgium saw one force of occupation replaced with another. The rapid advance of the Allies and Germany’s ignominious retreat brought the people out onto the streets and before the lenses of photojournalists. Iconic images from the streets of Brussels were reproduced throughout the world. That Belgian sovereignty was restored, bequeathing a strong and enduring sense of relief, did not make the task faced by the politicians returning from exile any the easier. Although Belgium’s last sovereign government, exiled in London from 1940, retained the unambiguous support of the Allied governments, the brutalisation of the Nazi occupation over the winter of 1942-3, when young men and women were transported to Germany as conscript labour and Belgian Jews were rounded up for a fate far worse, opened up a credibility gap between the londoniens and the people. As the civil servants, members of judiciary and local politicians, previously ready to justify their “administrative collaboration” through personal and institutional memories of the German occupation of 1914-18, began to disengage, so the people withdrew further into local and private spheres. Reliance on family, the “grey economy” and the grassroots associational cultures of the Catholic Church and workers’ organisations taught the Belgian people how to survive outside state structures and without an even-handed judicial system or the guiding presence of legitimate government.

Liberation, however, made the necessity of government and state all too clear. The economy came to a near standstill as coal production virtually ceased; fuel shortages paralysed the transport system; manpower shortages affected the harvest; farmers hoarded food with renewed determination; the black market intensified its stranglehold on the food supply. When loathed New Order institutions established by the Nazis were dismantled, thirteen thousand officials who policed prices and food production were dismissed. The visibility of the Resistance, denied by the Nazi retreat its opportunity to take a stand, did not help. These “young, and often rather undisciplined armed men”, Conway writes, “dressed in improvised uniforms played on fears that had been established in bourgeois circles well ahead of the Liberation of a potential descent into disorder and potential anarchy”.

The steadying presence of the Allies helped secure a fairly stable transition. Pre-war mayors and town councillors assumed their former positions, repossessing public buildings following public processions and much speechifying about the shared sacrifices of the Belgian people and the importance of maintaining order. Signalling a return to normality, these highly ritualised events mobilised familiar procedures and reassuring rhetoric. At the national level, the londoniens cobbled together a government representative of the major parties ‑ Socialist, Catholic, Liberal, and Communist. Unwieldy inclusiveness, reflecting the determination of mainstream politicians to restore parliamentary government, did not give the government much authority and only a carefully worded intervention by President Eisenhower persuaded the Resistance to demobilise. If recalcitrants gave way once threatened with expulsion and the loss of allowances, the Partisans Armés, the military wing of the communist Front de l’Indepéndance, proved less pliable. When they eventually handed their arms over to the Allied forces, communist ministers resigned in protest, lamenting the government’s conservative drift. Their march in Brussels on November 25th, though an unarmed political demonstration, gave the government the excuse it needed to make a show of force. When somebody threw a grenade, the gendarmes forcibly dispersed the crowd. Rumours of a communist coup were given added currency by the general strike called for November 28th. Though it was a flop, the British positioned tanks around public buildings, giving the government a badly needed fillip. Those few days humbled the Belgian communists, gifting their political opponents the myth of an attempted coup, brought the state closer to achieving its desired monopoly on force and left the communists keen to come in from the cold, pushing for inclusion in government as junior partner in a Popular Front administration with the socialists.

Despite the government’s ostensible weakness, reliable Belgian bureaucrats made government by decree peculiarly decisive. In October 1944 the money supply was brought under closer control. All but the smallest denomination banknotes were declared illegal and a new currency was introduced. Individuals could exchange up to two thousand francs for the new banknotes but their remaining cash had to be deposited into new bank accounts, which were immediately frozen. Controls were simultaneously imposed on all existing bank accounts, allowing only 10 per cent of deposits to be withdrawn. Bold and decisive, this multi-purpose policy aimed to curb inflation, avoid devaluation and diminish social conflict by restricting the conspicuous consumption of the middle and upper classes, black market profiteers and those believed to have benefited from the Nazi occupation.

Equally indicative of the state’s recovering capacity was its introduction of a system of universal welfare. These measures were anticipated by the 1944 “Social Pact” between representatives of business and the trade unions, which effectively committed any future Belgian government to introduce improved social security benefits and a new structure of workplace collective bargaining. Crucially, the new provisions were delivered by voluntary organisations of the Socialist and Catholic parties. As such, reconstruction did not disrupt the foundations of Belgian society as it had developed since the formation of the state; renewing the linkage between local voluntary organisations and the Socialist and the Catholic parties meant welfare reconnected many Belgians to national party politics and, via coalition, to government itself.

Nobody understood the restorative dimension of these developments better than Achille Van Acker. Little known in contemporary Belgium, Van Acker was president of the Socialist Party and prime minister between February 1945 and July 1946 and then in 1954-8. Conway champions his role, describing the achievement of this homme de l’intérieur in a rare moment of hyperbole as “less that of a reformer and more that of saviour”. Managerial, technocratic and portly, with a mildly authoritarian streak, Van Acker was a Flemish-speaking socialist whose experiences of the interwar period placed him on the conservative wing of the party. Remembering how socialist attempts to lead a progressive government following their most successful electoral result in 1925 had been paralysed by powerful banking and industrial interests, Van Acker took none of the party’s 1930s radicalism into the postwar period. Not for him state-financed public works or nationalisation but instead a conventional economic recovery that would allow the social pact to be implemented. Conway suggests his leadership was reminiscent of that of Roosevelt, though his reassuring radio broadcasts and the emphasis he placed on the bon sens, frugality and industry of the typical Belgian also recalled the less glamorous Stanley Baldwin, another mollifying centrist who deployed the rhetoric of conventional wisdom as a means of suppressing political debate. If the patriotic rigours of austerity provided Van Acker his theme and increasing prosperity his goal, his policy priorities focused on restoring coal production, increasing energy production, improving transport links and getting the bakeries going. Introducing production, price and wage controls aligned the Belgian economy with other western European governments.

Granted special powers in March 1945, Van Acker declared a mobilisation civile. Restricting the rights of industrial workers to change jobs and effectively outlawing strikes strengthened the position of employers and enhanced the grievances of a workforce already acutely conscious that their standard of living was in relative steep decline. As Conway explains, this authoritarian handling of the industrial working class chimed with Van Acker’s broader attempts to reorientate the Socialist Party towards middle class interests. In the 1930s, Belgian socialists recognised that it was in the interest of the left to look after farmers and the middle classes if they were to be weaned away from fascism; in the 1940s, industrial decline necessitated the party reaching the middle class voter if they were to remain electorally viable. Van Acker shrewdly led the move to change party membership from its basis in trade union affiliation to the individual member, while at the same time nurturing the bond of sympathy between the party leadership and the trade unions. His willingness to go into coalition with the Communist Party reflected similar calculations: in government, he reasoned, the communists would be less plausible as a focus for working class discontent. Nonetheless, he firmly resisted attempts to pull the government towards anything that smacked of Popular Front government for his real prize was the patriotic coalition with the Catholics that had slipped out of his party’s grasp in the 1930s. Despite the party’s historic anticlericalism, which could be more powerfully mobilising than its socialism, Van Acker hoped that the social pact would provide the basis for close cooperation.

Standing between him and his goal was the king and Catholic loyalty. Following Belgium’s defeat, Leopold III took personal control of the armed forces and on May 28th, 1940, without consulting the government, he agreed their surrender. Thereafter he conducted an independent foreign policy, notoriously seeking an accommodation with Hitler at Berchtesgaden in November 1940. Judging the exiled government to be in a state of rebellion against his constitutional authority, the king refused communication with the British government, opting for silence, discreet contacts with New Order political figures and intellectuals, and castle arrest. Leopold’s chronically self-serving sense of constitutional propriety was evident in his secret Testament Politique. It pronounced the acts of the exiled government unconstitutional and implied the same of its successors. In May and June 1945 a wave of strikes, protests and riots was triggered by news of Leopold’s liberation. Socialist and communist hostility to the king overlapped with opposition to labour conscription and, in the coalfields of Wallonia, growing resentment of Flemish ascendancy. Leopoldist mobilisation, strongly Catholic and Flemish, sometimes intimated a more authoritarian, paternalist politics. At the same time, the terrible state of returning POWs and conscripted workers saw simmering anger at pro-German collaborators boil over. As Conway shows, localised rituals of humiliation and damage to property were more carnivalesque than life-threatening, though to be daubed in swastikas and manhandled out of town was a frightening experience. Van Acker thought the disorder was made significantly worse by the uncertainty about the king and he sought to persuade Leopold that his abdication was in the national interest.

After much vacillation, Leopold refused to step aside and Van Acker went on the attack, seeking a parliamentary debate and a public investigation into his activities during the war. At this, the Catholics, though privately wary of the king and often reluctant to see him resume his constitutional duties, felt bound to withdraw from the government. Although Leopold wisely opted for a self-imposed exile, the withdrawal of the Catholics, excluding them from government for the first time in sixty-one years, was a defeat for Van Acker. His determination to build a centrist coalition government that embodied a Belgian patriotism and broadly adhered to the framework established by the Social Pact had been derailed by the question royale. Although concessions to the trade unions, the improving economic situation and the formation of a Socialist-Communist-Liberal successor coalition helped keep the Popular Frontists at bay, the risks associated with excluding the most popular political party from government were obvious. That said, the disorder allowed elections to be postponed, another tactic aimed at securing the Catholic and socialist centre ground. Despite the intensity of the passion unleashed, Conway suggests that the crisis normalised Belgian politics, channelling divisions into “the familiar receptacles provided by the Catholic, Socialist and Liberal parties and their socio-economic affiliates”. When elections were finally held in February 1946 ‑ fought, astonishingly, on a male franchise ‑ the result followed the basic pattern of the interwar years: the Catholic Party secured 43 per cent of the vote, the Socialists 32 per cent, the Communists 13 per cent and the Liberals 9.6 per cent. A weak showing for the Liberals and the high watermark for the Communists: Van Acker was once again asked to form a government because the Catholics wouldn’t work with the Liberals or the Communists. He made no secret of his preference for a Socialist-Catholic coalition, but the question royale forced him into coalition with the Liberals and Communists. Once in power, his government continued the battle to ensure price and wage stability, growing an ever-larger army of regulators. Most of the population resented these policies at some point and the people’s talent for fraud and evasion, nurtured during the Occupation, found new outlets. Van Acker’s barely disguised pursuit of a Socialist-Catholic coalition was stymied by disputes over the franchise, denominational education and the continuing problem of the king.

Fed up with his tacking to the right, the Socialist left forced Van Acker out in August 1946, signifying “the inability of the Belgian post-war elite to create a new and stable basis for national reconstruction”. What Camille Huysmans, Van Acker’s successor, lacked in drive or policy focus he made up for with bon mots. Still, his Socialist-Liberal-Communist government lasted until March 1947, proving to be the most durable of the immediate post-liberation governments. It was brought down by disagreements arising out of the government’s determination to remove coal subsidies while maintaining price and wage controls. When the Communists demanded the price be set at 600 BF per tonne and the Socialists and the Liberals voted for 629 BF, the Communists resigned, insisting that to submit to industry demands for either price rises or increased subsidy was “a first step towards a policy of unconditional surrender before the financial powers”. Days later the Socialists and the Catholics agreed a joint programme and went into government together. This moment exposed the ideological convergence of the main parties and the degree to which the political elites agreed on what constituted the national interest. With economic policy paramount and the question royale kicked into the long grass, Conway suggests the decision to allow the coal industry to charge prices that removed the need for state subsidy marked a “decisive reorientation of the economy towards a regime of market forces”.

March 1947 was the latest in a long line of elite political fixes. Though principally brokered between Socialists and Catholics rather than Catholics and Liberals, it smacked of the bourgeois politics of the First and Second Belgian States. It established a pattern that allowed the Van Acker state to function well for a generation or more, giving Belgium a boom economy in the years following the final resolution of the question royale in 1950-51 (when Leopold abdicated in favour of his son). Over the longer term, however, the frailties of its conservative achievement became increasingly clear: tacking a little welfarism and corporatism onto a largely unreformed polity meant Belgium’s political structures and culture, exuding a strong sense of “business as usual”, proved unable to respond effectively to new popular pressures. Despite this, in a scintillating final chapter Conway argues that the failure of government policy regarding the economic deprivation of Wallonia, demands for political and language rights in Flanders and the protection of the linguistic freedoms of the francophone population of Brussels caused “negative mobilisation against the state” rather “than the positive appeal of regional loyalties”. By the 1960s nobody was happy. The decline of the coal industry, facing the rigours of market forces, was not checked, generating powerful working class resentment; regionalist aggression saw the Catholic and Socialist parties divide into Flemish and Walloon variants; Brussels ceased to be the focus of ambitious young politicians and the political process became dominated by fragmenting special interest groups. New federal structures of dizzying complexity ‑ the gradual formation of which was neatly managed at the centre ‑ brought an end to the old top-down ways of the past, creating a politics in which the paternalist grandees at the centre are continuously buffeted by the upstarts at the periphery. For all the political fragmentation, recent elections suggest the majority of Belgians favour the maintenance of the Belgian state and broadly hope that skilful politicking by the men and women at the centre will secure the state’s future.

That Belgian sense that little changes, notwithstanding the occasional strike and the continuing failure of public services to work properly, might be yet disturbed by next year’s elections. De Wever recognises that if N-VA’s appeal to the Flemish electorate is to be consolidated the party must be decisively distanced from the far-right politics of Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest). His triumph in the Antwerp mayoral elections and recent polling in advance of next year’s general election suggests he is succeeding. N-VA support is currently put at approximately 21 per cent of the national electorate, a small but significant increase over its performance in the 2010 election (17.4 per cent) and twice the support attracted by Di Rupo’s Socialists, the next largest party. If the N-VA increases its share of the vote in line with polling, it will be hard to resist pressure to change current fiscal arrangements in a direction that will lead to the further immiseration of Wallonia. However unlikely it might seem at present, if the break-up of Belgium followed, this would be because the Flemish “self” had placed the Wallonian “other” outside its universe of obligation. Although EU integration has diminished the socio-economic and political ramifications of state failure, particularly for weaker groups and regions, the treatment of Greece and Ireland during the euro crisis gives a hint of what might be in store for Wallonia.

Consociational political structures institutionalised sectarianism in Northern Ireland; in Belgium, the new politics consolidated ethnic division, the optimistic “post-nationalist” regionalism of the 1990s giving way to something more essentialist in the twenty-first century. A minor controversy erupted in June 2013 when a Flemish geography teacher in Etterbeck, a municipality of Brussels, presented his class a map of Wallonia divided into Wallifornia, Wallabama and, apparently most offensively, Wallbania. Such is the silly stuff of regional rivalries everywhere, but what marks Belgium’s difficulties is that the wealthiest and most powerful part of the country threatens secession. Wartime and postwar Belgium provides a case study of Europe in miniature and Martin Conway leaves the reader in no doubt that this history can only be understood when account is taken of the material conditions that give ideas traction. The mix of resentment and triumphalism that is consolidating Flemish nationalism echoes the punitive politics of the euro crisis, more evidence that Belgium’s sorrows remain Europe’s.


Matthew Kelly is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Southampton. He is the author of The Fenian Ideal and Irish Nationalism, 1882-1916 (Woodbridge, 2006) and Finding Poland: From Tavistock to Hruzdowa and Back Again (London, 2010).



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