How important for you is living together with your fellow citizens? Are you prepared to mix with people not speaking your own language? This was the challenge faced by the Flemish and Walloon Belgians with respect to the new German-speaking citizens in Eupen-Malmedy, and vice-versa. I would like to tell you which requirements need to be met for integration to be successful, and whether the citizens of the East Cantons became integrated in their new fatherland, whether they were able or wanted to integrate.
Integration is a mutual process involving a population majority and minority. Were conditions back then in 1920 conducive to integrating German-speaking Belgians? The majority of Belgians had major reservations: Belgian national propaganda had repeatedly spoken of the “cantons rédimés”, the lost and re-found cantons. But the Flemish and Walloon populations soon discovered that these “long-lost brothers and sisters” spoke German, just like the erstwhile enemy. Conversely, the Eupen-Malmedy population spoke little French. Only the links between the German and Limburg dialects helped them get by in day-to-day life. Practically all of them continued to view themselves as German citizens and adherents of German culture. With the socialist Belgian Workers’ Party (POB/BWP) warning against annexation, doubts begun to spread in conservative circles in Brussels.
The citizens of Eupen-Malmedy were cultural minority speaking a different language. They had political expectations completely different to those of the population around Montzen or Arlon, who also spoke a German dialect. The vast majority of the new Belgians did not understand the language(s) of their new fatherland. Political participation was not possible until after 1925. Though Belgium fairly quickly started investing in the infrastructure and public buildings (schools, churches), thereby creating jobs, this helped little in countering the general apathy. The population of Eupen-Malmedy regarded the plebiscite as a major injustice.
Even after 1925, no clear signals appeasing the Eupen-Malmedy population were forthcoming from Brussels. Two competing visions existed in Belgian political circles. The one group wanted to assimilate the region, gradually introducing French into schools and the administration, in line with the colonial thinking prevalent at the turn of the century which linked sovereignty with the top-down propagation of the colonists’ values, culture and language. By contrast, the other group was guided by respect and cultural tolerance. This vision was based on the liberal principles upon which the Belgian state was built.
Existing research reveals that the integration of the German-speaking Belgians in the inter-war period was unsuccessful.
Certain events were unfortunate. In 1926, the new Belgians elected the Verviers lawyer Jenniges as their candidate by an overwhelming majority. It soon transpired however that the complicated Belgian electoral system put him in second place, with someone else declared the winner. In the wake of the negative experience of the plebiscite, confidence in Belgian democracy was again shaken.
In 1926 and 1929, Belgium and Germany conducted secret negotiations on a possible sale of the East Cantons to Germany. After the two countries had reached basic agreement, France vetoed the move, not wanting any single item of the Treaty of Versailles to be changed. These negotiations became public in Eupen-Malmedy, once again shaking the confidence of the German-speaking Belgians in their new fatherland. The largely indifferent political direction after 1925 similarly strengthened this feeling.
At the same time, the young Weimar Republic intentionally laid obstacles in the way of a successful integration of the Eupen-Malmedy population in the Belgian state. In Germany, the Treaty of Versailles was unanimously rejected as the “Diktat of Versailles”. From 1925 onwards, German government authorities continued with their secret policy of promoting the German culture and language, already practised between 1920 and 1923, while at the same time fostering irredentism, i.e. having the Eupen-Malmedy reincorporated in Germany. Cultural, business and political associations, organisations and clubs received financial and ideological support.
Up to 1933, the conflict was waged at a nationalistic level, with citizens of Eupen and Malmedy supposed to choose between the democratic Belgian and the democratic German fatherland. As of 1933 and the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, these tensions gained momentum. There were no longer two democratic states competing for the favour of the Eupen-Malmedy population, but a democracy and a despotic dictatorship. Historical studies reveal that many citizens of Eupen and Malmedy did not make any such distinction, with the majority of them guided by situational opportunism and their own short-tern interests: In 1929, more than 75% of the electorate voted for democratic parties calling for the region to be returned to Germany or for a referendum. By contrast, the Heimattreue Front, a nationalistic party close to the national-socialist regime in Germany, received 45% of votes in 1939. Openly national-socialist “front” organisations had about one hundred members. These included the glider club in Eupen (with the same structure as the SA in Germany), the Saalschutz (venue security) in Malmedy or the archery club in Sankt Vith.
These pro-German parties and organisations sought to prevent integration in Belgium, while the pro-Belgian parties sought the opposite. The latter were also prepared to engage politically via their national mother parties and to take part in inner-Belgian political life.
For the Belgian state, which only started actively promoting the integration of the German-speaking Belgians in 1930, the question after 1933 was how a democracy should deal with political groupings openly opposing the democratic state and wanting to prevent any form of integration. One instrument was the Ausbürgerungsgesetz, a law stripping Belgians of their citizenship. Adopted in 1934, it was only applied to four Eupen-Malmedy citizens (in 1935). Controversy reigned over whether it violated the principle of equality anchored in the Belgian Constitution by distinguishing between Belgians by birth and those who had only recently gained Belgian citizenship.
The question why the integration of the German-speaking Belgians was not really successful is not just a question of politics. One example: Press and radio were for the most part oriented towards Germany, thus also hindering integration.
A further example: The world economic crisis heightened the societal tensions in Eupen and Malmedy, as seen in the town of Eupen with its rampant unemployment (up to 1000 people unemployed out of a population of 14,000), wild stock market fluctuations, emergency taxes, etc. Though the crisis arrived in the region somewhat later in 1931, the population quickly noticed in the following years that national-socialist Germany was recovering from it quicker than Belgium.
In the region’s communicative and cultural memory, this inter-war period was a time of polarisation between pro-Belgian and pro-German movements characterised by a deep-going refusal to engage in any communication. The question to what extent the population was guided by situational opportunism has only recently been researched.
The rights of minorities are now firmly anchored in European political culture. The right to speak one’s mother tongue, to be taught or to make statements in court in this language is a recognised human right. Majority societies nevertheless show a repeated tendency to want to assimilate minorities, attempting for instance to make them speak the dominant language.
Respect for minority languages and the protection of fundamental rights is a way of promoting the readiness of a minority to integrate in the majority society. On the other hand, it is just as important for a minority to be open to the language and culture of the majority society. What can we learn from this example for life together in our multicultural and open-minded society?
Further reading (in German):
Philippe Beck: Umstrittenes Grenzland. Selbst- und Fremdbilder bei Josef Ponten und Peter Schmitz, 1918-1940. Brüssel, et. al. 2013. (Comparatism & Society; Bd. 21).
Heidi Christmann: Presse und gesellschaftliche Kommunikation zwischen den beiden Weltkriegen. Dissertation an der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, München 1974.
Klaus Pabst: Eupen-Malmedy in der belgischen Regierungs- und Parteienpolitik (1914-1940). Aachen 1965 (Zeitschrift des Aachener Geschichtsvereins; Bd. 76).
Grenzerfahrungen, Bd. 4 (erscheint 2018)