The French Revolution laid the foundations for our modern democracies, setting down on paper our inalienable human rights. When you have to appear in court, you have the same rights as every other citizen. You are protected against arbitrary action by the state. You can express your opinion freely. All these achievements and many others stem from the French Revolution, and it is well worthwhile taking a look at this epoch. Using the history of East Belgium as a basis, I would like to show you why the French Revolution laid the foundations for a Europe governed by rule of law and why you should fight to uphold these rights.
The French Revolution began in 1789. In 1795, what is now Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany to the west of the Rhine were annexed by France. The revolutionaries changed everyday life and the whole political set-up, introducing a new constitution, new laws and administrative reforms. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 26 August 1789 accorded people natural and inalienable rights from birth. These included equality before the law, protection of property, the presumption of innocence, protection against excessive punishments, and the separation of powers between the legislative (Parliament), the executive (government) and the judiciary (the courts). The introduction of the French Code Civil was an important step, as it meant that a judge could no longer arbitrarily set a punishment, but had to comply with the provisions of the Code Civil.
Nothing like this had existed before the French Revolution: rights were often only conferred on nobles and the clergy on the basis of agreements that had to be re-confirmed by each new ruler. Many people were not free, but subject to feudalism. People were not equal, but had much-differing rights dependent on their status. People were not treated equally before the courts but often according to the whims of judges.
How one viewed these revolutionary innovations was greatly dependent on one’s social status. Generally speaking, the clergy and aristocracy lost their prosperity and power, while ordinary citizens moved up the ladder, with the bourgeoisie in the larger towns benefiting most. Out in the country, it was mostly tradesmen, doctors, lawyers and civil servants who could look forward to much brighter prospects. Though labourers, farmers and craftsmen similarly enjoyed new rights, these sections of the population – most of them poor and illiterate – would only benefit from the innovations in the medium term. In their everyday lives, they did not get the feeling that the Revolution had made them better off.
What did this mean for what is now East Belgium between 1795 and 1815?
For the first time since the Middle Ages, the northern part, the region around Eupen, and the southern part, what is now the Belgian Eifel, were administered by the same authority: the Département de l’Ourthe.
The consequences of the Revolution were to be seen at a relatively early stage. Up to 1795, the nearby town of Spa, the town that lent its name to the English word “spa”, developed into a centre for people fleeing from the French Revolution. Nobles from the whole of France came there, staying for a few weeks before moving on further west. Many Eupen clothmakers also initially fled westwards, only to return to Eupen some time later.
This alone shows that the previous beneficiaries of the Ancien Régime, the aristocracy and clergy, were the losers of the Revolution, with the majority of them rejecting the political reforms. But the overwhelming majority of the peasants in what is now East Belgium also initially saw no great advantages in the many innovations, even if they had had to bear the brunt of the old feudal system. As citizens of the 21st century, we might find this strange, knowing that the French Revolution laid the foundations for our modern democracies.
Taking a look at the economic development in Kelmis, Eupen and the Eifel, it quickly becomes clear that for most people material interests were more important than the ideas behind the French Revolution.
In Kelmis, zinc ore mining was flourishing, the heyday of Raeren stoneware had finally come to an end, and the Eupen clothmakers were having to look for new markets. The young apprenticed tailor Johann Caspar Scheen from Eupen described the arrival of the French in his diary: “As soon as the French put foot on our Limburg territory, the clothmaking factory started losing business. And the factory represents the livelihood of our Fatherland, and when it ceases to flourish, all traders also suffer (...).”
Scheen expressed clear concerns about his future and that of the whole region. A few years later he was to write: “After going through several bad years, we also went through a series of good ones, with the factories and traders doing very well in 1795, 1796 and 1797, with the master craftsmen paying 6 - 7 marks to have their wool spun, and everything was fairly inexpensive and offered at a civil price.”
From a business perspective, the Eupen cloth-making factories experienced their heyday in the period up to 1815, with textile workers, spinners and cutters receiving good wages and the cloth manufacturers doing very good business. However, the young apprentice’s diary also shows us that the innovations initiated by the French Revolution – innovations which we see as game changers – played no role for him. His priority was to earn a decent wage and enjoy a modicum of prosperity.
The economic situation was completely different in the southern part of what is now East Belgium. In this rural area, people mainly earned their living working in agriculture, the leather industry or trade between the Rhineland and the Ardennes. They basically experienced no economic upturn, and maybe this was one of the reasons why many reforms were opposed by the conservative Catholic population.
In 1798, the Klöppelkrieg – the Peasants’ War – broke out, with predominantly young farmers (subject to military conscription) rising up against the French occupiers. In what is now Luxembourg, the German Eifel, but also in Sankt Vith, Büllingen, Amel, Bütgenbach and Burg-Reuland, the peasants armed themselves with the simplest weapons, but had no chance against the French army units, who put down the revolt within just a few weeks.
The French occupiers generally remained unpopular. Louis François Thomassin, a Liege tax official working in the French administration, was to write the following about the Eifel-Ardennes region in his 1808 and 1813 reports entitled “Mémoire statistique du Département de l’Ourthe”: “The inhabitants of this canton have given up any hope of ever being able to improve their agriculture. They are convinced that all attempts undertaken up to now have negatively impacted the peasants, forcing them to revert to their customary practices.”
I ask myself what these peasants had in mind. If, as Thomassin reports, they were unable to even consider being able to improve their economic situation, were they in any position at all to predict the consequences of the political innovations? Moreover, were these peasants even affected by the Revolution, and if so, how?
Looking through older historical works dating back to the 19th century, one notes that many authors partially or totally rejected the French Revolution on ideological grounds, highlighting the population’s opposition, while at the same time idealising their mourning for the old regime in the Austrian Netherlands. The best example is the Peasants’ War, whose participants were stylised by the church in particular as heroes. The reason: they had fought against modernity. Yet most of them had fought against being conscripted into the French army or against excessive taxation.
In particular after the Second World War, this phase of East Belgian history was highlighted by historical associations, as it was seen as politically neutral. The works of Alfred Minke (see the reading list below) were the first to paint a differentiated picture of the consequences of the French Revolution in East Belgium.
Not caring much about politics is a prevalent characteristic of current times. But let me ask you the following: Are people just dissatisfied with the work of politicians, or even with our democracy? Do you see politicians still fighting for human rights and democracy? Do you see how politicians seek to find the best solutions for enabling people to live together in peace and security? Do you see populist parties also upholding human rights, citing the ideals of the French Revolution? What consequences would their policies have for our democracy.
Further reading (all in German):
Carlo Lejeune (Publ.): Grenzerfahrungen. Eine Geschichte der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft Belgiens (a history of Belgium’s German-speaking Community). Code Civil, beschleunigte Moderne, Dynamiken des Beharrens (1794-1919). Eupen 2016.
Carlo Lejeune (Publ.): Grenzerfahrungen. Eine Geschichte der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft Belgiens. Tuche, Töpfe, Theresianischer Kadaster (1500-1794). Eupen 2015.
The quote of the apprenticed tailor Johann Caspar Scheen is taken from:
Alfred Minke: Die Französische Revolution aus der Sicht des Johann Caspar Scheen, Schneiderlehrling aus Eupen, in: Geschichtliches Eupen 24 (1990), p. 19-48
The quote of tax official Louis François Thomassin is taken from:
Josef Dries: Landwirtschaft auf dem Weg zur Monokultur. Klima, Märkte und Strukturen als beständige Herausforderungen, in Carlo Lejeune (Hg.): Grenzerfahrungen. Eine Geschichte der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft Belgiens. Code civil, beschleunigte Moderne und Dynamiken des Beharrens (1794-1919). Eupen 2017, p. 142-163.