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German in Belgium

July 14, 2009

Belgium is known for the linguistic and cultural tensions between the Flemish-speaking north and the French-speaking south. But the country's thriving German community along the eastern border is keen on Belgian unity.

Eupen's Old Town, the center of Belgium's German-speaking minority
Eupen's Old Town, the center of Belgium's German-speaking minorityImage: Picture-Alliance /dpa

Tucked inside a pocket of countryside, among rolling hills and pastures, lies the town of Eupen. Some 73,000 German-speakers live around here, people who are known as the "Last Belgians."

German is Belgium's third official language - about 56 percent of the population speaks Flemish, 32 percent French, and just one percent German. Still, the people in the Eupen region are more committed to the Belgian state than their bickering Flemish and French compatriots.

Isabelle Weykmans, culture minister for Belgium's German-speaking community, said there's a reason this community is so dedicated to the country.

"They feel good here, and they have also seen that the Belgian federal state gives us a great deal of autonomy in several policies," Weykmans said.

A former battleground

Local public radio station BRF broadcasts popular German music and the community has its own newspaper and its own schools. It boasts 25 of its own members of parliament, as well as a guaranteed seat in the European Parliament.

But the community was not always as secure in its status as it is today.

Before the 19th century, the area served as a battleground for the French, British, Prussians and Austrians. When Europe's maps were redrawn after Napoleon's defeat, the region was carved up in the grab for land. The three separate German-speaking communities - around Eupen, Eifel and Kelmis - were divided between Prussia and the Netherlands, and later Belgium.

Belgium's German-speakers have stickers identifying them as such, just so they're not overlooked
Belgium's German-speakers have stickers identifying them as such, just so they're not overlookedImage: Picture-Alliance /dpa

According to historian Els Herrebout at Eupen's state archives, the history of the region has been turbulent, especially during the period after World War One.

"The end of the First World War was the beginning of a very difficult episode," Herrebout said. "The population of the territory was forced - and no one asked them - to change nationality and homeland three times within 25 years."

The first time was under the Treaty of Versailles, when the community was forced to become Belgian. The second was during the Hitler era, when the region was annexed to Nazi Germany. The third came after the Second World War, when the region was taken back by Belgium.

"That means: three times a change of language, three times assimilation attempts, and the resistance against it, the so-called revisionism between the two world wars," Herrebout said. "There was a very important group that wanted to go back to Germany."

That desire was more cultural than it was political, he said. But politics did later play a divisive role, often tearing families apart, when informers and collaborators emerged.

Herrebout said the population was punished for siding with Germany when it was finally returned to Belgium after the war.

"They lost their right to vote, nationality rights, some of them had to leave for Germany, a lot of them were in prison after the war," he said.

Some German speakers also lost their jobs, leaving bitterness which only began to heal after Belgium started recognizing the community's rights.

Not one German identity

Journalist Chantal Delhez at the local radio and TV station BRF said that the German identity in the region is confused.

Isabelle Weykmans, right, culture minister of Belgium's German-speaking community
Isabelle Weykmans, right, culture minister of Belgium's German-speaking communityImage: Barbara Cöllen/DW

"It's very difficult to say there is one identity because I think those people are still looking for their identity," Delhez said. "There are so many cultural differences, so many cultural mixtures, there is not one identity."

But for Culture Minister Weykmans, the community's identity is stronger than ever.

She said young people like her are staying in the area. But their multilingual skills enable them to move or commute easily across the region's three borders.

"We don't have enough jobs in our region and lots of people are going outside, so we are a very open community," Weykmans said. "It's very important for us, because we are living from this mix of different cultural influences."

The key then to this tiny community's survival is multilingualism, an openness to the outside world and regional autonomy. Perhaps there is a lesson there for Belgium's Flemish and French-speaking regions, which are intent on asserting their own cultural and linguistic identities.

Author: Nina-Maria Potts (sac)
Editor: Kyle James

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