|The World's Sovereigns 1889 (photomontage)|
The one in the center is Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, seated to his left on a chair is Queen Victoria.
King Leopold II of Belgium is the second man on his right (long dark beard), while the two men standing right next to him are; Left: Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria; Right: Tsar Aleksandr III
While in London in 1887 to attend the celebrations for his cousin Queen Victoria’s 50 years of reign, Belgium’s second King, Leopold II (who later became infamous for his role in the Congo massacre), wrote the following to his chief of state:
Europe’s political future remains rather uncertain […]. If we wish to remain independent, we need to strengthen ourselves and prove ourselves worthy of our independence.
As you can tell, he was already quite worried about what was fomenting behind the curtains within Europe’s highest political spheres.
Upon his return, King Leopold II desired to have a true Belgian army raised instead of their current conscription system which mainly allowed richer folks to pay poorer ones to take their spot in this army. Unfortunately, these changes were voted down by the Chamber of Ministers in July.
So the King decides to play a little game: pretend that he doesn’t want to uphold his obligations (such as attending an important party in Bruges in August) to show his displeasure with his government, then finally accede to their entreaties upon the condition that they let him hold a speech (WARNING: it is quite a long read). The maneuver works, and on August 15, 1887, King Leopold II says the following to a large crowd:
statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck
Gentlemen, I have readily answered your request for me to join you to inaugurate these statues that remind us of such great memories. Nearly six hundred years ago, Flanders was going through one of the greatest hardships ever mentioned in its annals. Invaded by foreigners, torn by factions, abandoned by all, separated from its Princes held in captivity, and prevented from attempting anything to assist itself, [Flanders] seemed doomed to ruin and servitude.
That is when Pierre de Coninck and Jean Breidel appeared like a live protestation against angering discords, against failures, which are suicide. In the darkest hours, they never doubted neither their country’s rights nor its strength. Bolstered by their courage and their faith, they transferred the heroic breath that animated them into their fellow citizens. Under their leadership, laborers, bourgeois and nobles of Bruges and Ypres, Gand and Courtrai, proudly went, one against three, to face the shock of one of the greatest feudal armies and win against it the famous victory of the Golden Spurs, which not only saved Flanders’ freedom and independence, but was recounted throughout Europe as a sign of its liberation.
Let us bow with respect before the image of these great citizens. Let us pay tribute to the civic and warlike virtues of our valiant ancestors. By erecting this expressive bronze [statue], by glorifying the feelings and actions it symbolizes, the Flemish are assuredly proclaiming that the same feelings animate them today, that they would be capable of the same acts, that neither today, nor ever, will they cease to be the noble sons of the Flemish of 1302.
|Battle of the Eperons d'Or|
What thoughts, gentlemen, invade the mind, what contrasts hit it from all sides! Would the tough and energetic fighters of the 14th century have ever envisioned the fate in store for their distant posterity on these grounds still full of their memory?
To the ardent but fecund turmoil of those tormented times, to the persistent wars upon earth and sea, from within as well as without, has succeeded the most complete Independence, one which has lasted for more than fifty years. Our cities have reconciled, our provinces unified. After the Middle Ages’ fragmentations and divisions, after long centuries of foreign domination, the Belgian People have regained their historical individuality. In the full enjoyment of their sovereignty, they chose in 1830 the institutions they wanted, and since then there hasn’t been a day when they haven’t ceased being the master of their own destinies. Never has Belgium known such a state as the one it now possesses.
But bliss entails grave responsibilities. Prosperity has its hurdles. The prolonged enjoyment of peace has its perils. The excess of feelings of security, which it engenders, has often cost dearly to those who have abandoned themselves to them. The dangers that once threatened your communes, which so often compromised their existence or their greatness, haven’t all gone away. Civilization in general has taken a substantial step forward, altering the course of things, but its agents have remained the same. The political oscillations of the modern world, distributed upon vaster surfaces, slower yet more regular, are all the more unstoppable in their impact and fearsome in their consequences. Wars have become devastating: those it surprises are lost.
But, Gentlemen, let me repeat before this monument the pressing call of the chronicler who sang our ancestors’ exploits: “The Flemish Lion should not sleep.”
The glorious heritage that you are so rightly proud of will subsist, will not cease to expand, if you always cultivate virile sentiments, if you nurture the sacred fire of patriotism for which I have before me such noble models.
Any freedom is born and dies with Independence. It is the lesson written on every page of our history. The great causes are interdependent. On the historic day upon which your intrepid militias fought beneath Courtrai’s walls, nobles, bourgeois, laborers were one within the same ranks, joining hands, shedding their blood in a sublime momentum, and priests were beside them to encourage the living and bless the dead.
Let us raise our souls, gentlemen, to be equal to these great examples. Like these heroes, let us all make here the solemn vow to not back away from any sacrifice needed to maintain the integrity of our homeland’s rights at all times. Only then will this celebration be truly worthy of them!
|Belgian army mobilization booklet - 1887|
Note: Belgium was highly Catholic at the time, so it’s no wonder the priesthood held great sway in politics.
In any case, as this speech shows, along with a few others he gave later on, and until he died, King Leopold II was adamant about reinforcing Belgium’s defenses. Yet it’s not until 1913 (a whole year after even King Carol of Romania suggested Belgium seriously prepare its own defense), thanks in part to its own indolence, that Belgium’s Parliament finally voted in favor of general service and increased both the military’s recruits and budget.
Too little, too late, as we all now know…
Speech translated from Journal of Belgian History article Une manoeuvre royale. Le "discours de Bruges" de Leopold II - 15 août 1887 by L. Schepens
Anecdote from 1830-1930 La Patrie Belge, Editions Illustrees du "SOIR" Bruxelles