Belgium: a linguist's paradise
Aside from beers, waffles and fries, Belgium is a country known for its bitter rivalry between the Flemish and French-speaking communities. Geographically, the country is divided into two, with Flanders occupying the north and Wallonia the south.
City map. Photo: S. Hermann & F. Richter via Pixabay
Brussels is rather awkwardly nestled entirely within Flanders, despite its significant French-speaking population (think Berlin being surrounded by the DDR, though the context here is a little different!).
Having got this far, you may be wondering what an article about Belgium is doing on a website dedicated to the German-speaking world. This is where things get interesting. If you, like me, enjoy sitting back and watching King Phillipe’s royal addresses to the nation, you may have noticed that he always throws in a little bit of Deutsch. Why on earth does the King of Belgium speak fluent German in his TV addresses?
The answer is that Belgium is, in fact, a country with three official languages: Flemish, French and German. The often overlooked Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft (German-speaking Community of Belgium) or DG, lies entirely within the province of Liege in French-speaking Wallonia, between the famous ‘Drielandenpunt’, where the Belgian, German and Dutch borders intersect in the north, to the border with the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg in the south.
The 77,000 German-speakers of the DG have their own seat of Government in Eupen and in 2010, fed up with the Flemish-French squabbling, the head of the DG and all-round legend Karl-Heinz Lambertz proposed either the creation of an autonomous state, returning to Germany or unification with Luxembourg as possible solutions.
The history of the German-speaking part of Belgium is one of being passed around like a hot potato. Over the course of several centuries, the area has belonged to Burgundy, the Netherlands, Austria, Napoleonic France and Prussia, before finally being handed over to Belgium (itself only founded in 1830) after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. The community was invaded by the Nazis during the Second World War, before once again being handed back to Belgium following the Potsdam Conference.
Where once steam trains hauled coal on the Prussian-built railway line running from Troisvierges (Luxembourg) to just south of Aachen (Germany) there are now cyclo-tourists pedalling their way along what is now one of the longest cycle paths on disused railway tracks in the world.
The Vennbahn cycle path. Photo: Leonhard Lenz via Wikimedia Commons
The Vennbahn is also significant in that it created one of the most bizarre international borders in Europe. In short, after the First World War, it was decided that the Vennbahn railway line was entirely Belgian territory, despite some of it lying within Germany.
This meant that several German exclaves were created, entirely cut off from the rest of Germany, by a strip of railway. Looking at a map, the eagle-eyed observer will spot areas around Roetgen and Monschau totally surrounded by Belgium.
Map of the Vennbahn. Photo: www.demis.nl via Wikimedia Commons
At one stage, as ludicrous as it sounds, a traffic island belonged to Germany, whilst the surrounding road lied in Belgium. What is now a popular tourist destination was for decades a fiercely contested piece of land.
Despite its turbulent history, the Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft and the Vennbahn serve as markers of how far the European community has progressed. Where once savage land disputes over traffic islands and signal boxes raged, there is now one of the most picturesque, well-maintained cycle routes in Europe.
Aside from looking ridiculous on Google Maps, the Schengen ‘border-free’ area means that the border quirk that is the Vennbahn has no real impact on anyone’s lives, other than having to receive ‘Welcome to Belgium/Germany’ text messages every 5 seconds as your device’s GPS desperately works out which country you’re in.
Moreover, the German-speaking area of Belgium has firmly cemented its place at the heart of the European community, belonging to an area known as Saar-Lor-Lux (incorporating Saarland, Lorraine and Luxembourg, as well as part of the Belgian Ardennes), with roughly 200,000 inhabitants of this so-called Großregion (major region) commuting cross-border each day. In many respects, the headline-grabbing Flemish and Walloon nationalists could learn a lot from their quieter, often overlooked German-speaking compatriots.