“On Belgian Nationality”, Ramiro de Maeztu (1915)

It has often been said that the concept “nation” cannot be defined, since it comprises something graduated of indefinite outline and content. Nonsense! If a thing is not clear, that is no reason why our minds should not be clear about it; for it is quite possible to perceive, with perfect clearness, the obscurity of a thing. Let us venture, then, to define nation as a plurality of human beings, in which prevails the will to form themselves into a sovereign state, circumstances permitting; or, if they are already so constituted, to maintain themselves in that condition.

The difficulties of defining the concept “nation” have thus been surmounted. Such difficulties primarily arise from the fact that it has been sought to define the nation, which is purely an act of will, from the conditions out of which the plurality has developed the desire to establish itself as a state, or to maintain itself in that form. These conditions are, of course, community of race or language, of culture or customs, of religion or territory, of destiny or suffering. The more conditions there are in common, the more probable will it be that the determination to form the state which characterises a nation will develop among a collective group of people.

In some of the South American Republics, however, it happens that the different states have race, customs, religion, language, and even a great deal of their history, in common; and, nevertheless, the desire to from a common State has not arisen. In Switzerland, on the other hand, we find an example of a single nation which exists in spite of the fact that its inhabitants—German, French, Italian; Protestant, Catholic, agnostic—are not united either by religion, language, race, or literary culture.

The accidents of history sufficed to give birth to a national spirit in Switzerland. Perhaps an analogous phenomenon is being repeated in our own time; perhaps the European war is creating Belgian nationality before our eyes. During the last few weeks, both in London and in Paris, people have spoken of the possibility of Albert the First, King of the Belgians, becoming King of France. The rumour would be of unusual importance if it emanated from the small class which is “in the secret.” But it does not come from that class. The truth is, the rumour has no foundation in fact.

If, in France, there were serious causes of dispute between the military command in charge of the campaign and the political authorities of the country; if the Government of the Republic refused to let the army have the supplies and men necessary for the proper conduct of the war, it would not surprise me if Generals Joffre, Pau, Castelnau, Sarrail, and Foch—the men who at present hold the fate of France in their hands—came to consider, at a critical moment, the advisability of offering the throne of France to the King of the Belgians. If this solution were decided upon, the France of the future would be monarchical, greater, and more Catholic; and such a prospect could not but be pleasing to many members of the French Right, in spite of the democratic tendencies of the King of the Belgians.

But, as it is not at all certain that such a state of things would be to the taste of England; and, again, as there should not have been any disputes between the French General Staff and the Government of the Republic—since the Left now in power in France has shown no less patriotism than the Right—it is likely that this rumour has no other basis than the immense amount of sympathy which the figure of the King of the Belgians has attracted throughout the world.

It would appear that this sympathy is amply justified. This monarch has not confined himself merely to visiting now and then the trenches in which his soldiers are fighting. For five months he has hardly ever left them, except to direct the attacks or retreats of his troops. Although his territories have shrunk to a corner of Flanders, there his foot is planted where his flag still waves; resolved to fulfil his vow not to leave Belgian soil until the Germans pass over his body.

So has he become a legendary figure for his troops. His soldiers believe everything that is said of him that he designs the plans of the trenches, that at times he actually takes his place in them, that he often seizes the rifle from a dead soldier to discharge it at the enemy, that shells burst under the wheels of his motor-car without injuring him; and that one glance of his sad eyes imbues his soldiers with a blended feeling of rage, pity, and despair which lifts them above the fears of death.

And the extraordinary thing is that this man who is turning a pacific people into heroes is not a soldier merely, but a philosopher who loves his books; a man who investigates the life of the poor that he may apply his power to ameliorating it; an engineer in touch with new discoveries; a lover of Ysaÿe’s violin and Verhaeren’s lyrics; of shy manners; as happy when he can withdraw into seclusion as annoyed when social duties compel to ceremony. He exemplifies the two virtues which Plato required in a guardian of his Republic—to be at the same time a warrior and a philosopher; but, in addition, it seems that King Albert is also an artist, a mechanic, and a Christian.

What adds to the oddity of the case is that no one can tell where it conies from. His ancestor, King Leopold, thought only of increasing his power, his kingdom, his fortune, and his pleasures. His undoubted political genius enabled him to succeed in his policy of degrading the higher energies of his country by setting it on acquiring wealth. He encouraged his country to take part in the exploitation of the Congo negroes and of the weaknesses of visitors to Ostend; and perhaps he thought to cleanse himself of these stains by protecting a religious spirit which he did not personally share, but to which he, as ruler, lent his countenance in order to strengthen his authority. His successor, King Albert, has made an end to all that. He did not wish to live on the blood-money of the Congo negroes or on the “guignotte” of the Ostend Kursaal;  nor to rest his reign upon the passive obedience of multitudes asleep in faith.

But neither could the devoted patriotism of King Albert find its source in his own country. Patriotism could not be, until now, a Belgian virtue; for, as Remy de Gourmont truly said: “There are no Belgians; there are Walloons and Flemings, but no Belgians.” And it might almost be added that there are neither Walloons nor Flemings; for the Flemings are Dutch by race and language, and the Walloons are French.

Motley, in his Rise of the Dutch Republic, writes: “Upon the 16th February, 1568, a sentence of the Holy Office condemned all the inhabitants of the Netherlands to death as heretics. From this universal doom only a few persons, especially named, were excepted. A proclamation of the King (Philip II), dated ten days later, confirmed this decree of the Inquisition, and ordered it to be carried into instant execution, without regard to age, sex, or condition.”

It might have been thought that the possession of common enemies so terrible as the Holy Office, the Duke of Alba, and Philip II would have been sufficient to raise a national spirit in Belgium. But it was not. In 1574 the States-General, assembled at Brussels, declared to Requesens that “they would rather die the death than see any change in their religion.”

The Flemings, who are Dutch, denied that they were Dutch; for they had a much stronger feeling for the Catholic religion, hostile to the Protestantism of the Dutch, than they had for national unity. On the other hand, the Walloons, who are French, ceased to be French, I do not know why—perhaps simply because the England of a century ago did not wish to see an enlarged France. And when, in 1830, the Belgian State arose, it owed its birth more to the common feeling of aversion which both Walloons and Flemings felt for Holland than to any positive affinity between the two classes of Belgians. The whole history of Belgium for the last eighty-four years has been the continual struggle between the Flemings and the Walloons.

Spain is a sentiment, France is a sentiment, England is a sentiment, Germany is a sentiment; but where could King Albert draw his patriotic feelings from if Belgium was not a sentiment; if Belgium, up to five or six months ago, was literally nothing more than the international treaty that guaranteed her neutrality?

The fact that Belgium was nothing more than a treaty is, perhaps, what most of all helped to awaken in her favour the sympathies of legalists and pacifists the world over when Germany decided to tear up the “scrap of paper,” as the Kaiser’s Chancellor called it. But that fact leaves me cold. I am neither a legalist nor a pacifist; I believe in no other laws than those which one defends with steel or on the Cross. Belgium gained my sympathies only when I saw her soldiers grouping themselves round the sword of her King. For that is how one knows there is a nation: if she asserts her will. A people does not awaken sympathy merely because it is trampled upon; it awakens sympathy when it wills to defend itself.

When Belgium, relying upon her treaty of neutrality, hesitated to create an army such as the Balkan States created (if Bulgaria, two years ago, was able to put an army of half a million men in the field out of her four million inhabitants, Belgium could have put a million in the field; and nobody would have ventured across her frontier if she had done so), when Belgium refused to arm she committed a sin which the immanent justice of history could not pardon.

The origin of this sin is clear. Belgium scarcely existed. She had placed herself or had allowed herself to be placed outside Dutch nationality; although half her sons were of Dutch extraction. She was outside French nationality, too; although the other half of her children were French. But in placing herself outside nationality Belgium had likewise placed herself outside many of the main streams of Humanity, which, in these times at least, lives a considerable part of its real life in nations.

Belgium appeared to have no wish beyond that of standing like some curious spectator in the pathway of peoples. The characteristic attitude of her great modern artists is that of a spectator. Rodenbach, the mystic, looked up at heaven; Maeterlinck,  the hedonist, looked at the pleasures of the world; Verhaeren, the enthusiast, looked at his efforts and his works. They are spectators, the three of them: they are Dutchmen who express themselves in French. And these three personify the three aspects of the Belgian people: their other-worldly religion, their love of pleasure, and their habit of work.

Compare any of these three figures with that of King Albert. From Verhaeren he might have learned to love above and beyond everything the visible and tangible wealth of the field and cities of the Low Countries. But on the day King Albert decided to oppose the march of the Germans through Belgian territory he realised that he sacrificed the visible and tangible wealth of his country, but he saved its soul. From Maeterlinck he might have learned how to extract a sensation of voluptuousness from every circumstance of life, death being one of them. Albert preferred the austere asceticism of the soldier to this voluptuousness. From Rodenbach and the innumerable chimes of Bruges-la-Morte, Albert could have imparted to his gentle religious nature a contemplative, cloistral, and other-worldly character. But the King of the Belgians preferred that positive form of religion which leads a man to hammer while he prays.

Here, then, is an original king. But will he be also an originator? It may be that he will. The ground nationality is a feeling of solidarity which may little by little become quietly formed by community of religion, language, or race; but which may also arise through heterogeneous peoples feeling identical sympathy for the same hero. Thus the French, the Germans, and the Italians in Switzerland are now Swiss because they possess in common the sentiments that legend and literature personify in William Tell.

It should be borne in mind, in the case of Belgium, that eighty-four years of life as a State has perhaps created a feeling of solidarity between Walloons and Flemings much more profound than they themselves imagine. But if it was King Albert’s heroism that enabled the Walloons and Flemings to realise the love they felt for the State which united them, is it not possible that these two groups of people will at last become Belgians through their joint admiration of the King? In this case history will bestow upon King Albert a much nobler title than that which his greatest admirers in England and France would award him. For it is great, the title of King of France, but much greater is that of the revealer of Belgian nationality.

 

Note

De Maeztu alludes to French generals Joseph Joffre (1852-1931), Paul Pau (1858-1932), Noël Édouard, vicomte de Curières de Castelnau (1851-1944), Maurice Sarrail (1856-1929), and Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929); Belgian composer Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) and poet Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916); John Lothrop Motley, American historian (1814-77), and his The Rise…, 3 Vols. (1856); Luis de Requesens y Zúñiga, Spanish diplomat (1528-76); and Belgian writers Georges Rodenbach (1855-98) and Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949).

First published in The New Age, Vol. XVI, No. 14, 4 February, 1915, pp. 373-4. Proofread and annotated by Fergus Cullen (2017).

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