The Great War ground on. None of the internecine squabbles between the “scum” living in comfort abroad and the profiteers being Germanized at home made any difference to the Allied propaganda machine that continued to put up recruiting posters exhorting the hesitant to Remember Belgium!, turning the nation into a myth (as Albert knew very well: “They need are suffering”), representing it as violated, or raped, yet valiant and undefeated.
One of the most famous cartoons of the war appeared in Punch in 1916; the picture by artist-illustrator Bernard Partridge shows Albert and the Kaiser on a field of battle against a heap of smoldering rubble, a sky of garish red clouds and, disappearing into the distance off left, a long line of trudging refugees. The Kaiser in Prussian blue uniform and spiked helmet is leaning on the pommel of his sheathed sword saying to Albert: “So you see – you’ve lost everything.” Albert, bareheaded, naked sword in hand, turning his back but glaring over his shoulder, replies: “Not my soul.”
After the war, the weight of Belgium’s moral stamina, the very righteousness of her cause, came to prove a heavy burden, an awkward instrument to wield amid the subtler forms of conflict around the table at the Peace Conference at Versailles. As long as she suffered and her sad fate could serve as a rallying cry for others, then she was admired and pitied. But when she spoke up for her rights and began to stake claims, to talk of reparations and make demands, she became an embarrassment, was at first ignored, then shunned. Small countries, she was given to understand, should be seen and not heard. John Maynard Keynes in his The Economic Consequences of the Peace said that Belgium’s claims against Germany were “simply irresponsible.”
Germany, or rather the negotiators around the table, recognized that debts were owed, and yet, “Belgium is a small country” and it is “a popular delusion to think of Belgium as the principal victim of the war.” The delusion can be easily explained. “The special position occupied in the popular mind is due, of course, to the fact that in 1914 her sacrifice was by far the greatest of any of the Allies.” But after 1914, “she played a minor role.” And so the gradual post-war reevaluation of brave little Belgium began. The posters came down, the engines of propaganda were dismantled, the old sentiments died. Then there was a second war and another king, and other sentiments.
The time came, Agatha Christie admitted, when she grew tired of her little Belgian, frankly bored with him; by 1975 she could stand him no longer and killed him off. On August 6, The New York Times accorded him a front-page obituary (Hercule Poirot is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective). “Mr. Poirot achieved fame as a private investigator after he retired as a member of the Belgian police force in 1904,” wrote Thomas Lask. “At the end of his life he was arthritic and had a bad heart. He was in a wheelchair often, and was carried from his bedroom to the public lounge at Styles Court, a nursing home in Essex, wearing a wig and false moustaches to mask the signs of age that offended his vanity. In his active days, he was always impeccably dressed.
“Mr. Poirot, who was just 5 feet 4 inches tall, went to England from Belgium during World War One as a refugee.” Christie, still writing, was 84 when Poirot died. “His age was unknown,” reported Lask.
Famous Belgians don’t often make it to the front pages of the world’s press. It is sadly fitting that this internationally acclaimed son of Brussels should be, much like his country, an English invention. The treaty the Kaiser spoke of with such historic contempt in 1914, “the scrap of paper,” was the 1839 Treaty of London that enforced Belgium’s neutrality and established the limits of its sovereignty.
Many Belgians saw it at the time as a humiliation, yet it was a formal guarantee of their safety in perpetuity signed by the Great Powers – Britain, France, Austria, Russia and Prussia. Beginning with Leopold I, Belgian monarchs learned to exploit the status of neutrality for the benefit of their diminutive kingdom – this perennial battleground of Europe –, for its industrial progress and colonial expansion in Africa. Belgium remained peaceful and unscathed during the continent-wide revolutions of 1848. She trembled but was untouched by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. The refugees then were escaping in the other direction, seeking and finding asylum in neutral Belgium, this conveniently located country.
For three quarters of a century that scrap of paper helped to keep the nation safe and prosperous, until the day the Kaiser tore it up and told Belgium to step aside. Then the Belgian people and their King fought back, and in the words of one of Albert’s biographers, astonished the world, and themselves.
The second part of this article can be found here