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For All Nails #44B: A Québécois on the Scheldt

by Randy McDonald

La Presse, 20 September 1972
Section E "Séjour on the Scheldt"

Flanders has a heritage of wealth; prosperity comes to a Fleming as naturally as breathing. Flanders has always been prosperous, at least since the Middle Ages. I'd like to sentimentally conclude that the strong work ethic of the Flemish nation is entirely responsible for the transformation of the marshes of the Scheldt into one of the densest and richest clusters of people ever to exist on our world, but more than that was responsible. There was the advance, in the Middle Ages, of Christian civilization and German settlement (hardly synonymous, of course), further and further to the east, placing Flanders squarely in the middle of the vast European market instead of (as was the case in Carolingian times) at the fringes of civilization. There was the fertile soil of the Scheldt, productive enough not only to feed an intelligent and pious peasantry but to feed the hungry city-dwellers. There was the growth of English wool exports, providing the energetic cities of Ghent and Antwerp and Bruges with the raw materials that would finance the Flemish and European renaissances, and give birth to modernity.

There are times when Flanders has not done particularly well. The worst era of Flemish suffering was in the 16th century, inflicted by Flanders' foolish Spanish rulers, who transferred the hardness of their campaigns in Granada to Flanders in trying to reimpose Catholic Christianity on all Flemish. No matter that no faith can be forced on others, only freely accepted; the Spanish Hapsburgs simply did not care. The Austrian Hapsburgs weren't bad rulers, as things go, but under their rule Flanders stagnated as the best Flemish fled to the young Dutch Republic in what was once Flanders' hinterland. Once the Dutch began their blockade of the Scheldt, Antwerp stagnated.

Then the German Confederation came, and Flanders was renewed in the shell of Austrasia -- the country that no one, not even the Flemish, believes in, but which has its uses regardless -- with its own kings (from the notoriously philoprogenitive line of the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringens), its own capital (Brussel, lovely rich Brussel), the freedom of the navigation of the Scheldt (in its dying days, the Dutch Republic was quite unwilling to challenge revitalized Germany and its young ally), and the chance to matter.

There have always been Flemish who've left. FN1 I've already mentioned the Flemish who settled in the Dutch Republic, arriving in such numbers as to change the nature of the Dutch language FN2. It's a little-known fact, though, that many if not most of the inhabitants of the Teutonic southern shore of the Baltic Sea -- from southern Denmark east to the Lithuanian frontier -- can trace their roots back to the Flemish settlers invited by any number of dukes and knightly orders to bring their skills as farmers to Christendom's frontier. And then, there is the emigration of the 19th century.

Austrasia was the first country in Europe to industrialize; in the 19th century and in our own epoch, Austrasia did a superb job of it. FN3 At first Austrasian industrialism was in the south, in the provinces of Namur, Liège, Luxembourg, provinces now Lorraine, based on steel and the mining of coal and productive of alienating industry towns. Flanders was neglected. This was for the best, since it allowed Flanders to industrialize without suffering the searing spiritual damage inflicted upon the so-called "Walloons" of Austrasia's south. Even before the Franco-German War, Austrasia was rich. The Bloody Eighties were difficult times in Austrasia as in the rest of Europe, but social peace came to Austrasia and Flanders much earlier than it did in France. More: The Franco-German War left Germany with all of France's colonies, and what better choice of a colonial port than Flanders' Antwerp? (Hamburg was insecure, and Bremen then as now is far more a curiosity than a serious port.) Thus ensued Antwerp's great mercantile age, and Austrasia's vast merchant fleet.

This fleet made it much easier for ordinary Flemish to leave, though, not just malcontents. My father's father, Andrius Maeterlinck, was a pious man disgusted by the inanities of the revolutionaries and rioters of France and their imitators elsewhere; unlike many other pious Flemish, he, though, wanted to see the wider world. He had made up his mind to emigrate, and he had decided to go to Brazil or perhaps Santa Catarina (there would be time aplenty to choose once he descended below the Equator). It was only by happenstance that, while walking down the Antwerp quay, he saw the fleur-de-lisé of Québec flying high on a freighter's mast, the Marie-Reine Tremblay; that sight, and the memories of sermons past by priests praising Québécois piety and prosperity, made him opt for northern North America.

Andrius kept in touch with his Flemish relatives, as did my father Pierre, as do I. We thrilled to Austrasia's successes, mourned the devastating British bombing raids of the Global War, lobbied the Québécois government to support the Mason Doctrine and even contribute, and sent letters all the time. Modern Austrasia is the richest kingdom (at least in terms of wealth per capita) in the wider German Empire, and my relatives share in this prosperity. Austrasia -- or, at least Flanders -- is once again the centre of Europe.

I've been to Flanders and Austrasia on three previous occasions; on this occasion, I stayed in Antwerp for five days, with my second cousin Anton Maeterlinck. Anton is a historian, an instructor and researcher at the Antwerp annex of the University of Leuven. FN4 He is a brilliant man only 34 years of age, with infinite potential, and I have corresponded with him for the better part of two decades. (As second cousins with similar interests, we could do no less.)

When I asked him what he thought of Flanders' future over morning coffee in one of Antwerp's gentrified café districts, Anton simply smiled. "Flanders is fine, but Austrasia ... This epoch might be the time of Flanders' birth, whatever that is worth."

Austrasia is not Flanders -- the two terms, the name of the state and the name of the nation, have never coincided. They coincide better now than before the Global War, when Austrasia used to include in its southeast the provinces that now constitute the north of the Kingdom of Lorraine. These provinces were purely Francophone, quite industrialized, and vehemently anti-Flemish under the leaders of the Walloon movement, and so when Chancellor von Richter decided to give them to the young threatened Kingdom of Lorraine in 1948 no one in Austrasia minded for various reasons. (See more detail below.)

"Why should we care," Anton asked rhetorically over a Viennese coffee as the wind blew on the plaza outside. I had asked him whether Flemish -- people like himself -- minded that the Walloons preferred to be Lorrainers than Austrasians. "If they don't want to share a state with us, all well and good, we don't want them either." A wicked grin as he lifts the cup to his mouth. "At least we don't have to deal with greater Lorraine's rust belt," he said after he placed the cup down. "And isn't that terribly cynical?"

Of Austrasia's 11 millions, FN5 more than nine million are Flemish. There are plenty of Francophones left in Austrasia, but their numbers are dwindling. On my final day, for instance, I drove into the province of Brabant. Brabant has traditionally been divided between speakers of French in the south and speakers of Flemish FN6 in the north, but this division is fading as vast industrial Brussel spreads into the French-speaking countryside, Flemifying the land and the locals.

But then, the parts of Francophone Austrasia that I've had the luck to see, passing through on the train to Breizh, look hauntingly like Flemish Austrasia. The cathedral city of Tournai (which I saw from the window of L'Express as I sat in my seat) looked hauntingly like beautiful reconstructed Bruges, no matter that Tournai was Francophone and Bruges Flemish. How different are the two cultures? Not very, I'd say; there has always been a fair degree of symbiosis between France and Flanders, just as much as between Flanders and the Netherlands.

(Incidentally, the headlines in the Antwerp dailies on the day of my departure were full of news of the new Austrasian-Netherlandish accords. A reunification of the Low Countries would be a marked change, even a partial one if it were to take place. So much of the history of the Low Countries can be described by the tension between Antwerp and Amsterdam, each mercantile cities, the first Catholic and the second Protestant. Now that higher birth rates among the Catholic have broken the Calvinist majority, I wonder what shall happen next.)

In his letters, Anton introduced me to the writings of Henri Pirenne. Like Anton, Pirenne was an Austrasian; unlike Anton, Pirenne was a Francophone born into a rich Walloon family in Liège, near the modern frontier with Lorraine. FN7 Henri Pirenne was a brilliant historian with an excellent command of a half-dozen languages and a marvellous talent for synthesis, for seeing the wider picture while retaining an uncanny ability to refer to facts. Pirenne dreamed of a united Europe, and he treated Europe as a unity in his great historical study, A History of Europe. FN8 He had several preoccupations: in particular, there were the "middle lands," the successors to Lotharingie (the Netherlands, Austrasia, Switzerland, Lorraine), and the uncanny transfer of initiative and wealth from the westernmost of the Carolingian successor states (France) to the easternmost (Germany) after a millennium's lag.

Pirenne was a proud Austrasian, proud of the duality of Austrasia between French and Flemish. He famously wrote that:

"In Austrasia, owing to the close proximity of Austrasia and France, their political relations, and their commercial interests, the influence of French civilization affected even the bourgeoisie. [...] The bilingual character which Austrasia has preserved to this day dates from this period. It was not in any degree the result -- as was the bilingual character of Bohemia -- of a foreign occupation; it was a natural and peaceful consequence of the fact that France was Austrasia's next-door neighbour." FN9

Only ten years after Pirenne's death, though, the heart of Austrasian Wallonia was given to Lorraine. Another middle country, to be sure, but not Austrasia. This was unfortunate, as is the ability of even humane Flemish to envision a complete rupture. Must being Flemish mean that one is anti-French? Must Austrasia be torn on artificial lines of language, ending a true historical community?

Anton disagrees with that, of course. "It isn't at all Christian to despise someone because of their nationality, and hardly Christian to despise your fellow citizens. We live," he proclaimed, "in a liberal polity open to all, Christians and non-Christians. The Kingdom of God recognizes no cleavages of language."

The 1944 riots in Brussel are something that no one in Austrasia likes to talk about. (Lorrainers, for their part, cannot stop talking about these riots, as proof of their oppression.)

Austrasians of all languages had resented Germany's, and Chancellor Bruning's, arrogation of Austrasia's liberties. Still, it was accepted by all Flemish save the few radicals that Austrasia's link with Germany was vital for Austrasia's prosperity, and also for Austrasia's security -- Germany was arguably provoked by Britain, Britain hardly needed to bomb so many Austrasian cities, and the anarchy and chaos of France was an example not to be taken lightly. The double-headed German imperial eagle was a bit wearing, but it was better than the British lion. The Francophones dissented.

Flemish acceptance and Francophone distrust might not have had any ramifications if it was not for the fact that while Flanders' working classes were not alienated from society, the Francophone working classes were alienated, in the best French tradition; the missions had never taken root in Namur, and socialism and anarchism were potent. Brussel, in the first half of the 1940s, had a Francophone minority, mostly working class immigrants from Austrasia's southern provinces. Brussel's Francophone elite had long since reverted back to its native Flemish, and the Bruxellois lacked responsible leaders.

When Bruning, in July of 1944, announced that Austrasia would be integrated into the German Empire on equal terms with Tyrol and Hannover, the Flemish rulers of Austrasia responded by protesting severely and preparing petitions to be sent to Germany. The Bruxellois responded by declaring a socialist commune and attacking the police in the heart of official Austrasia, which responded by sending in the Garde against Anton Gervais and his fanatical ilk. (The neighbourhoods that the Bruxellois insurgents seized are still being rebuilt.)

The Brussel riots affected the rest of Austrasia. The riots began in Namur and Luxembourg even as the Bruxellois were being assaulted, and Flemish were completely unwilling to send in their armies into the south against their co-citizens. In the end, Germany sent its own armies in to pacify the locals; the refugees who left fled for France, of all places, not north beyond the line of German control. Austrasia -- the bicommunal, potentially bilingual Austrasia -- died with the Brussel riots. When Germany decided to annex the lands below the line of control to Lorraine in 1948, which was to be annexed in turn into Germany, very few Austrasians seemed to mind.

And so Austrasia is here, in the first years of the decade of the 1970s, an anomaly. Austrasia might be smaller than before, but it has a fair chance of becoming a homogeneous Flemish nation-state. They say that as many people in Liège call their city "Luik" as "Liège," and some few Francophones in south Brabant want to prevent the Flemish bourgeoisie of Brussel from buying homes across the language line. This homogeneity, though, strikes me as false, and unfortunate.

"Austrasia cannot live apart from the wider world," Anton mourned. "We accept the European Customs Union and enjoy it, we trade with the world -- it is unfortunate that we seek to become a monolithic ethnic bloc. Flanders has never been that way, and I'm not sure if I want Austrasia to become that." Anton, though, seems to be in a distinct minority among Austrasians.

The odd thing -- to me, as a Québécois partly of Flemish descent -- is that the Flemish weren't quite sure how to recognize me. My family name is Maeterlinck, and so when my cousin introduced me to a University séjour most people in earshot expected me to be Flemish. When I spoke, my French accent betrayed my too-weak Flemish, and they thought I was Lillois. FN10 When I mentioned my nationality, Anton's sophisticated colleagues and friends were stunned.

"Could it be," one lovely woman exclaimed, "that the best Austrasian among us is an American?"

I laughed; Anton looked pensive.

Forward to FAN #44C (Maeterlinck): On Brittany's Shores.

Forward to 22 September 1972: A Prodigal Son Returns and a Meeting is Arranged.

Return to For All Nails.