Saturday, July 21, 2012


| Belgian | National Day |
21 July 2012!

July 21st is Belgian National Day, commemorating the day in 1831 that Leopold of Saxe-Coburg swore allegiance to the Belgian constitution and became the first King of the new country.

July 21st is not Belgian Independence Day and don't let anyone fool you. Belgians had won their independence from the Netherlands in 1830, so July 21st of following year marks the day the constitutional monarchy was formally adopted and the new Nation of Belgium was born.

Anyone planning to celebrate this auspicious occasion?

  • Attending a re-enactment of the swearing in and coronation at the Sint Jacobs Church on the Coudenberg in Central Brussels, perhaps?
  • Or maybe dining out on moules and frittes at a local restaurant?
  • How about savoring some Belgian brews and chocolates at home?

Last year about this time, I wanted to put my love for Belgian beer into a little historical, social, political, and economic context. What you see below is a re-post of that blog article. Enjoy!

Brewing traditions in Belgium go back to at least the Middle Ages. Pieter Bruegel (about 1525-69) painted people enjoying beer. The Trappist monasteries that now brew beer in Belgium were occupied in the late 18th century primarily by monks fleeing the French Revolution. However, the first Trappist brewery in Belgium (Westmalle) did not start operation until 10 December 1836, almost 50 years after the French Revolution and 5 years after what we now celebrate as Belgian National Day.

The Belgians took a unique path to independence, very different from that of the USA even though for both countries the genesis was similar: both chaffed under the unfair demands of an aloof and uncaring monarch. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815’s Battle of Waterloo and the end of the French Empire, the major European powers created the United Kingdom of the Netherlands as a buffer state against future French expansion. Fifteen years later, in 1830, a revolution broke out when the people of what would become Belgium felt underrepresented in the Parliament of the Dutch king. King William I did not pay much attention to the revolt, refusing to even meet with the revolutionaries. Prince William, the king's son and representative in Brussels, was autocratic, unpopular, and ineffective. The inaction had the effect of fomenting the revolution.

At this time, the borders separating France and The Netherlands (modern-day Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg) were set, but the borders inside of The Netherlands were not so clear. The provinces around Brussels were split into French-speaking to the south and Flemish-speaking to the north. The provinces in what would become the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg had some different property inheritance customs that made them unique. Aside from language differences, there was little to separate the people: culture, art, trade, and customs flowed relatively unhindered, and as for the language, most people were multi-lingual. When King William began imposing some tariffs and trade restrictions, people in the outlying provinces revolted. It is said that a performance at the opera house in Brussels so inflamed the people that they impulsively demanded their independence. So at the beginning of the revolution, there was no Declaration of Independence, no sense of a National border, no clear central leadership, no organized militia, no idea of a fight for Independence. There was mostly frustration over the fact that the folks in and around Brussels were not benefiting sufficiently from the central government way up in Amsterdam.

In the wake of any decisive political, diplomatic, or military solution to the impasse, a Belgian constitution was drafted with the tacit support of Britain and France, though these countries had competing reasons for their support. The French saw Belgian independence as a means to extend the Catholic realm at the expense of territory held by the Protestant Dutch. England, fearing France would annex Belgium, imported a German from the house of Saxe-Coburg to serve as King and prevent the French from taking advantage of the situation. On this day (July 21st) in 1831, Leopold was inaugurated as King before the other major European powers, Austria and Prussia, could object.

But King William did not accept what had transpired, and refused to recognize Belgium as a separate country. Sporadic battles continued for 8 more years. Finally in 1839, Kings Leopold and William signed the Treaty of London which carved out who got what between the various belligerents and recognized Belgium as a sovereign country with a constitutional monarchy.  So in 1830 there really was no particular day on which Belgian independence was formally declared with flourished signatures. In 1831, despite having a constitution and a King, there really was no internationally recognized country of Belgium. By 1839, when Belgian independence was formally established and the border disputed settled, it was a formality and people were already thinking of 21 July as their National day. At this point, the people of Belgium had already been wrestling with national identity. Brussels sits on the boundary between the French-speaking Wallonian provinces in the south and the Flemish (Dutch)-speaking provinces of Flanders in the north.   To prevent the regions aligning with neighboring countries and preserve a strong central government, Brussels became a bilingual capital and remains so to this day.

The unique sense of a Belgian National identity that has developed out of that chaos over the past 172 years is what we celebrate today. Through two World Wars, major battles between neighboring countries Britain and Germany have been fought on Belgian soil. This is one of the reasons why the NATO is headquartered in Belgium and why Brussels is the de facto capitol of the European Union.  Peacekeeping, diplomacy, free-trade, and military alliances are important aspects of Belgium’s national identity. Beyond statecraft, Belgium is known for food such as waffles, moules (mussels), and frittes (twice-fried sliced potatoes), and products such as lace, chocolate, and beer. Of these, I am especially interested in the beer and in particular, Cuisine à la Bière: cooking with beer. Germany likes beer, too, but they have many formalities with their brewing process. France likes cooking too, but they prefer cooking with wine.   

Today, celebrate Belgian National Day with Belgian waffles, Belgian chocolate, moules and frittes, and Belgian beer! Long live Belgium!