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  • The Treachery of Art: This is Not Belgium
  • Stéphane Spoiden (bio)

En creux: la Belgique est un trou sur la page du monde. Le vide n’existe pas, et pourtant il existe, mais en creux.

—Claude Javeau

Partiellement francophone mais non français, nordique mais sans mythologie, plural mais sans contours, lieu d’infiltrations constantes et de dénis tout aussi flagrants, il est une culture parce qu’il ne peut se prévaloir d’en avoir une.

—Marc Quaghebeur

A Virtual State

Belgium likes to think of itself as being at the heart of Western Europe and is indeed central to many European Union activities. Brussels is the capital city of the European Union and the seat of most of its institutions. But Belgium is also a small country overshadowed by economic and cultural giants such as Germany, France and Britain. The first questions that one might want to pose concerning this small and relatively little known country are: How can Belgium cultivate its cultural identity despite the powerful influence of surrounding cultures? Can Belgium retain or develop an individual cultural character and, if so, what form(s) can its expression take?

The answer to these questions may be found in what has become a cliché concerning the cultural particularity of Belgium: a country that lies at the crossroads of the two major cultural types in Western Europe: Latin and Germanic. 1 The country is comprised of two communities: the Walloons and the Flemings, each loosely associated with one of the two cultural types, as well as a minuscule German-speaking [End Page 137] community of about 65,000 people. But as a consequence of being at this intersection, each of the two principal communities is also situated at the periphery of the two European cultural regions. Belgium is thus a country simultaneously on the margins and at the center of the cultural dynamics of Europe. This marginal centrality/central marginality leaves the country riven by tensions and divisions. I contend that Belgium’s cultural identity is determined by this unique geographical and cultural situation.

The unique position of Belgium has prompted many observers to conclude that Belgium has been, since its creation in 1830, either an artificial state or a non-nation. The French statesman Talleyrand, for instance, famously contended that the creation of Belgium was merely a by-product of European diplomacy of the time that did not significantly reflect cultural or national character. The idea of Belgium as a non-nation has recently gained considerable currency among the Belgians themselves who, witnessing the increasing fragmentation of their country and the concomitant rise of an antagonistic biculturalism, have more and more difficulty discerning cohesive cultural or national forces within the country. Furthermore, it has been frequently asserted, particularly in intellectual circles, that Belgium has no particular identity at all.

In response to this paradoxical assertion of non-identity among Belgian intellectuals, however, historians are quick to remark a cultural unity among the different Belgian populations of the region since the Middle Ages. The biculturalism that separates Flemings and Walloons did not arise before the latter part of the nineteenth century. Until independence from the Netherlands in 1830, a multicultural society in the so-called Belgian territories, whose origins are traceable to the numerous small groups inhabiting Southern Netherlands, was subsumed under a loosely defined common culture. What was called Belgium during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was in fact an entity composed of several regions that shared a common history and enjoyed some form of political union. A national sentiment only arose after Belgium gained independence from the Netherlands and avoided annexation by an interested France. 2

A State to Be or Not to Be a State

A virtual state of Belgium had been in existence since the Middle Ages, and the creation of a real Belgian nation-state in 1830 paradoxically initiated the demise of Belgian cultural unity by fostering a biculturalism based on linguistic differences. Reginald de Schrijver, a renowned Belgian historian, points out that “there was [End Page 138] no Flemish or Walloon consciousness in the modern sense, and thus no Flemish or Walloon people” (1981, 16).

That perception progressively changed when the...

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