Belgium was the antechamber of Charlemagne’s imperial palace—or so wrote Henri Pirenne, who was eager to defend his little country. I thought about Pirenne after reading this Economist editorial, which calls for Belgium’s peaceful dissolution:
A recent glance at the Low Countries revealed that, nearly three months after its latest general election, Belgium was still without a new government. It may have acquired one by now. But, if so, will anyone notice? And, if not, will anyone mind? Even the Belgians appear indifferent. And what they think of the government they may well think of the country. If Belgium did not already exist, would anyone nowadays take the trouble to invent it?
The anonymous editorialist tries to hit all the highlights of Belgian history:
Belgium industrialised fast; grabbed a large part of Africa and ruled it particularly rapaciously; was itself invaded and occupied by Germany, not once but twice; and then cleverly secured the headquarters of what is now the European Union. Along the way it produced Magritte, Simenon, Tintin, the saxophone and a lot of chocolate. Also frites.
Despite The Economist‘s irreverent tone, I was sorry to see that Pirenne wasn’t included on their list. Henri Pirenne belonged to the first generation of Belgian scholars to professionalize the study of history; he was central to promoting the study of social and economic history; and seven decades after his death, medievalists still debate his theories about the growth of towns and the effects of Islamic expansion on Europe.
Even so, talk of Belgium’s dissolution makes me remember not Pirenne the medievalist but Pirenne the Belgian citizen, a fellow whose scholarly work is best understood by acknowledging the extent to which his life and the life of his nation were often one and the same. When Germany invaded Belgium during World War I, Pirenne’s son Pierre died fighting for his country. Pirenne himself refused to re-open his university as a pro-German institution; he was imprisoned for 31 months. In one concentration camp, where he was the only civilian among officers from four nations, Pirenne lectured on medieval history; later, in a civilian camp, he helped to open a school. After the war, he returned to his work with a distaste for all things German—while never ceasing to cultivate a certain pleasant, persistent optimism.
A French-speaking Walloon, Pirenne married a woman who was half-Walloon, half-Flemish; together they had four children. Their family reflected the Belgian national motto, l’union fait la force, a unity that Pirenne honored, and implicitly advocated, in his massive, seven-volume Histoire de Belgique. He denied writing the series out of national pride: “I have written a history of Belgium as I would have written a history of the Etruscans,” he insisted, “without reason of sentiment or of patriotism.”
In public lectures and in print, Pirenne rejected German arguments that racial heterogeneity and the lack of a common language made Belgium “une nation artificielle”; he also answered critics among his own countrymen who advocated Walloon or Flemish secession. In his Histoire de Belgique, Pirenne described a modern nation that had emerged from medieval antecedents, and he argued that the Walloons and the Flemish were united through shared historic, economic, religious, and cultural experiences. Belgian history, he claimed, was a microcosm of European history and a product of peaceful collaboration, a point he stressed at an awards ceremony in 1912:
To the contrary, and thanks to the variety of its influences and its place at the most sensitive spot in Europe, [Belgium] presents the spectacle of liberal, welcoming, confident and generous activity, in which is found the best of what we Walloons and Flemish have produced together.
Critics of the Histoire de Belgique complained that Pirenne lingered over cases of Walloon-Flemish collaboration but downplayed, even ignored, conflicts between the two groups. Those conflicts were always more relevant, and more open, than he was inclined to admit. Although Henri Pirenne was a hero, celebrated in street names, honored with statues, and later commemorated on a postage stamp, the Belgian government stopped short of giving him a state funeral in 1935. Officials fretted that national honors at the Palais de Academies would be seen as an affront to the Flemish—the sort of awkward incident that Pirenne was likely to pass over in silence.
Both halves of Belgium are increasingly keen on going their separate ways. I’m no pundit, and I can’t fake an interest in Belgian politics, but if an amicable split occurs, I may feel wistful, if only on behalf of Henri Pirenne. With a peculiar, dispassionate patriotism, he argued for the existence of a civilisation belge. Come what may, his life will be proof that it existed.