Friday, 19 January 2007

What do they teach the Belgians?

Tuesday night I went out for a beer with this Belgian guy I met when I was here in September, Leiven. We were talking about my usual favourite topic of conversation, the EU and European history. He’s pretty strongly anti-US, but I found a lot of his perceptions of the country are just wrong.

I find handling these types of situations to be rather delicate. After all, in correcting their perception and telling them the way it actually is, I don’t want to come off as an arrogant American who thinks he knows everything. But at the same time, it’s not in my nature to look the other way when someone says something that’s factually incorrect.

But this isn’t the point of my story. During the course of the conversation one of the incorrect things he said was that the sinking of the Lusitania by the Germans was what brought the US into World War II (he was so sure of it he even bet money on it, I won £10!). I informed him that it was in fact the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor that brought the US into WWII, and that the sinking of the Lusitania was the cause of our entry into WWI. To my astonishment, he wasn’t even aware the US had participated in WWI! We only ended the war for you, you ingrate! But I digress…

I was saying that I think a century from now the two world wars will be lumped into one, with two different stages. He disagreed, saying the consequences of WWII geopolitically were so much greater than WWI. I disagreed, noting that WWI destroyed three empires, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian.

“Ah the Russian Revolution,” Leiven bemoaned. “It’s a shame they didn’t keep the tsars. Really, they weren’t so bad.”

I asked him honestly if he thought Russians wanted a tsar. He said yes.

“All Europeans want a monarchy,” he insisted. “They’re very important.”

Uh oh, he had stumbled upon a sore subject. A Belgian defending monarchy.

I am of the opinion that the continued existence of the Belgian monarchy is patently absurd, mostly for the reason that it has very little historical basis, and that history which it does have is catastrophic and shameful. Consider the facts:

The current king, Albert II, is only the 6th monarch of the country. It was begun in 1830 when the Belgians asserted their independence from the Netherlands, which had itself just spent 80 years asserting its independence from Spain. The new country decided it needed a king, not for any practical reason but because this was the time of revolution in Europe, and at the time you were either a monarchy, or you were part of France. So they chose Leopold I, a prince from Saxe-Coburg in Bavaria, a region whose only noteworthy attribute was churning out kings and queens for other European countries. Leopold was first asked to be the Greek king by the new Greek state, but he declined. He accepted the Belgian offer however, and set up camp.

I think the fact that the monarchy is so young and was set up for such an arbitrary and pointless reason, is reason enough to get rid of it. Contrast this to the monarchies of Britain, Denmark, or Spain, which are centuries old and have a real history and tradition. Similarly arbitrary monarchies were set up in the early 19th century by Greece, Italy and Germany, and those countries have all gotten rid of them. Why should the Belgians, and the Dutch, continue to fund their monarchies which are really just modern inventions without historical basis?

He disagreed. So I hesitated bringing out the big guns. After all, you don’t bring up Hitler with Germans except with the utmost degree of tact (well, you shouldn’t at least). But I had to.

“Ok, so what about Leopold II?” I asked. “Is that really a legacy that fills you with pride?”

I could see a look of embarrassment flash across his face.

Most Americans are probably not extensively familiar with Leopold II, King of the Belgians from 1865 to 1909 and son of Leopold I. But he is responsible for one of the worst atrocities in world history.

Leopold II is chiefly remembered outside of Belgium as the founder and sole ruler of the Congo Free State in central Africa, and also as the great shame of the European imperialist experiment. He is the one who famously declared at the Berlin Conference of 1884, where the European powers met to divide up Africa, that he wanted a “slice of this magnificent African cake.” A slice he got, in the form of a country 76 times the size of Belgium, under his own personal control (what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Leopold ruled the country under a barbarous system of forced labor and systematic terror between 1885 and 1908, during which time there were between five and eight million Africans killed. At the high end, this is two million more than the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust.

Joseph Conrad’s horrifying book Heart of Darkness is based on his own journey through the Congo in 1890 (Conrad’s book was later used as the basis for the film Apocalypse Now). Of course today the book is taught in psychological terms, completely uprooting it from its historical moorings. But the book is in fact part non-fiction, about a real situation that was happening at the turn of the century. At the time, especially toward the end of Leopold’s reign, it was widely known what was going on and there was an increasing drumbeat of opposition to Leopold’s tyrannical rule, which basically killed millions of Africans while using them as slave labor to export raw materials to Belgium. A great book about this period of time is Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost.

Anyway here’s my point - I know it’s taken me a long time to get there. This Belgian guy told me that although he knew vaguely about what happened, he didn’t know much about it because they don’t teach it in Belgian schools. He said the name Leopold II is barely even mentioned in Belgium, and in history courses the entire period is basically just skipped over. Imagine! It would be like a US history course completely glossing over slavery, or a German history book glossing over WWII.

I found this outrageous. How are people supposed to learn from the mistakes of the past if they don’t know about them? I found this particularly discouraging because I’ve always found Europeans to be quite knowledgeable about their own history and geography, which contrasts sharply with the historical and geographic knowledge of most Americans. I’ve found that Europeans are generally well-informed and contrite about the mistakes of their imperial past, which makes them particularly wary of such misadventures as the Iraq War. But to hear that Belgians aren’t learning about their own king, who was perhaps the clearest manifestation of the moral bankruptcy of imperialism, is absolutely shocking.

And it is with this in mind that I can’t understand why a Belgian would be willing to pay for this monarchy. Not only was its emergence recent and arbitrary, but the king who's had the longest reign was a tyrant who caused the deaths of 8 million people. And you’re willing to pay for this?

I did learn from Leiven that after World War II there was a referendum on whether to keep the monarchy or not, and the royalists barely squeaked out a victory with 51 percent. Since then, he estimated, the support for the monarchy has probably gone up to somewhere around 70.

Fine, it’s your tax money, I conceded. I just can’t understand it.

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