At some stage in every person’s life, he or she wants to find out who they are, using the result to determine their purpose in life. The same is true for communities and minorities. Looking at the history of East Belgium, you will have noticed that many social groups in East Belgium in the 1960’s and 1970’s had completely different and even diametrically opposed views on the future of German-speaking Belgians. In 1973, they gained their own political representation, albeit with few powers. This political forum did however give them the opportunity to discuss their future and their identity. I often ask myself whether discussions of conflicting views are the only way of finding one’s identity – not just for this minority.
Societies in Western European underwent major changes in the 1970’s, as witnessed by the changing roles played by the Catholic church, membership of political organisations and traditional trades, and by women in society. The composition of families along traditional lines changed. At the same time more and more people wanted to “do their own thing”. Many went out onto the streets to demonstrate for peace. Things like environmental protection and cultural participation started becoming more important. Societies swung to and fro between common problems and goals (unemployment, securing prosperity, rising doubts about the future, etc.) and the new ego trip era of individualism.
Belgium was a special case in this period, as the state was going through a crisis. The following issues were at stake: How should the Belgian state be shaped to solve the conflicts between the two large language communities, French-speaking Wallonia in the south and Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north. How should political participation and autonomy for the two large language communities and for the capital, Brussels, be shaped?
In East Belgium as well, the rural Catholic population found itself quickly adapting to the changes, with mobility and new forms of communication bringing the region out of its previous isolation. And here as well, similar questions were being asked. What was the future place of German-speaking Belgians in the changing structure of the Belgian state? How was their political participation to be shaped?
On 23 October 1973, the Council of the German Cultural Community was established. It had 25 members, all of whom were directly elected from 1974 onwards. Up to the establishment of its successor, the Council of the German-speaking Community in 1983, this first Council had only few powers and just a small budget. However, it quickly developed into an important forum for heated discussions over the future of the German-speaking region, thereby gaining major symbolic importance.
These fundamental discussions revolved around two poles: Should the German-speaking Belgians adopt a federalist approach, putting forward maximum claims as a self-assured minority on a par with the other two language communities? Or should they, as an inward-looking minority, only have minimum rights in the new state structure, i.e. solely in the field of culture?
The traditional East Belgian parties (CSP, PFF, SP) opted in the 1970’s for a step-by-step policy, aimed at securing elementary cultural rights for German-speaking Belgians in harmony with their sister parties elsewhere in Belgium. They were not that interested in achieving the same rights as the other language communities. On the one hand, they found it hard to believe that a minority could have the same rights as a majority, while on the other hand any clear commitment to German culture was, for historical reasons, still considered anti-Belgian. These parties argued that the fate of the minority was very much dependent on the position of their national sister parties in Brussels. In retrospect, the stance of these parties can be described as collective hesitancy.
By contrast, the Party of the German-speaking Belgians (PDB, 1971-2009) saw itself in the driving seat, pushing for a form of autonomy for German-speaking Belgians on a par with that of the other language communities. In this respect, it had the backing of the Volksunie, a Flemish regional party. Their role model was the South Tyrolean People’s Party, a party that had achieved wide-reaching autonomy for South Tyrol in Italy through becoming the political representative of the vast majority of South Tyroleans, through putting forward constructive proposals to back their demands for greater autonomy, and through gaining recognition as the minority’s one and only mouthpiece. Through gaining a comparable level of autonomy, the PDB hoped to achieve social advancement for broad sections of the East Belgian populace and to improve the structurally weak region’s economic prospects.
The region’s history and different historical experiences overshadowed the political debates:
- The PDB’s clear commitment to German culture and to the minority’s role in the Belgian state did not go down well with the traditional Belgian parties who viewed it as a “Heim ins Reich” (back to Germany) position and sought to conjure up the impression that the PDB was campaigning for separation from Belgium in the long run.
- The traditional parties also had difficulties coming to terms with the minority's such self-assurance, expecting it instead to get down on its knees and show respect for the Belgian state. By contrast, the PDB discredited this stance, labelling it as chauvinism and doing its best to conjure up the impression that its political opponents in East Belgium were nothing more than the lackeys of the Walloon parties and not interested in defending the rights of the minority.
All that the political circles in Brussels could see coming out of East Belgian was a conflict between the regional parties over the visions for the region’s future. Indeed, the parties in the Council of the German Cultural Community only managed to partially agree on a common goal. This was probably the reason why the various state reforms were implemented in East Belgian many months or even years later than in Wallonia or Flanders.
Further debate over the identity of this minority were spurred in 1987 by the so-called Niermann affair. The PDB and its associated cultural organisations were found to have received funding from the German Hermann Niermann Foundation, a foundation with a board at times featuring members with an ultra-right-wing background. The PDB’s political opponents were quick to take this up, accusing the party of taking money from a German foundation – similar to what had happened in the inter-war years. Moreover, they saw their prejudices confirmed that the party was anti-Belgian, wanting to see the region become part of Germany again. This was repeatedly denied by the PDB. It admitted that this link to the foundation had been a mistake, pointing to the active role of two PDB members in ousting the right-wing members of the foundation’s board.
The discussions over the German-speaking Community’s public holiday and its coat-of-arms (1990) also bore witness to the conflicting identities of the elected representatives: With regard to the coat-of-arms, resort was made to the fact that the region had been part of the Duchies of Luxembourg and Limburg in the Early Middle Ages, thereby ignoring its more recent history. As the Community’s public holiday, the holiday celebrating the Belgian monarchy (15 November) was chosen. In doing so, the politicians were able to avoid a confrontation with the region’s own history.
In the meantime, Belgian underwent further state reforms restructuring the country. In 1980, the Regions were established in Belgium, with responsibility for economic affairs. Through this second state reform, the German Cultural Community became part of the Walloon Region. While having its proponents, this move also had fierce opponents, with many German-speaking Belgians fearing that, through being part of the Walloon Region, they would also be seen as part of the French language community, although for most East Belgians French was only their second language.
Established in 1973, the Council of the German Cultural Community was only able to issue decrees, but not to adopt laws, a power attributed solely to the French and Flemish Councils. This changed in 1984 with the establishment of the Council of the German-speaking Community. The second state reform allowed a Region (in this case the Walloon Region) to transfer some of its powers to a Community (in this case the German-speaking Community) in joint agreement. In 1989, Belgium’s language communities became responsible for education. As a result, the German-speaking Community’s budget shot up from €30 million to €80 million.
This all goes to show that these processes increasingly gave the German-speaking Belgians responsibility for shaping the region politically. On account of the increasing degree of federalisation, cultural autonomy became a natural part of the lives of German-speaking Belgians.
1993 marked a milestone in the reforms of the Belgian state, with the fourth State Reform rewording Article 1 of the Belgian Constitution to read: “Belgium is a federal state. It is made up of Communities and Regions.”
All of this took place against the backdrop of a changing Europe. As in many other parts of Europe, the environmental (“Green”) party Ecolo gained a place in East Belgium’s political landscape (as of 1981). The Treaty of Maastricht (1993) and the Schengen Agreement (1995) were further milestones on the road to European integration. These two developments had a great impact especially on German-speaking Belgians, simplifying their day-to-day life in many respects.
The history of East Belgium between the establishment of the Council of the German Cultural Community and the federalisation of Belgium has not yet been the subject of any great research, a fact attributable to the need for researchers to first catch up on the developments in the region between and during the world wars. Following initial hesitation, the period 1914-1950 dominated historical research for many years. But, beginning in the early 2000’s, historical research has increasingly focused on the position of German-speaking Belgians in the current political structure of Belgium.
As you have seen, the period between 1973 and 1993 was a time of change in East Belgium, laying the foundations for our modern, individualistic society. Finding our identity plays an important role in our day-to-day lives. What do you think? Did these controversial debates in East Belgium lead to progress or did they hinder the region in finding its new identity?