… well, not surprisingly, the Belgians couldn’t decide on their greatest one so they chose two of them!
How come? Well… in 1913 already, Jules Destrée, a forceful advocate of an independenent Wallonia famously remarked to King Albert I:
and the chemistry apparently not having changed that much over 90 years we ended up in 2005 with Father Damien for the Flemings and Jacques Brel for the Walloons. We leave aside the small German-speaking part of the Belgian population in the eastern border region of the realm since there are so few of them (70,000) and because they are Krauts anyway.
Since the Flemings constitute the majority in our country, I think it’s only appropriate to first shed some light on the figure of Father Damien. He was born on January 3, 1840 as Jozef De Veuster in the small town of Tremelo, between Antwerp and Brussels. Destined to take over his father’s grain business, he nevertheless succeeded in forcing his will to become a priest through, and became a brother in the Congregation of the Holy Hearts of Jesus and Maria in Leuven, where he chose the name of Broeder Damiaan – Father Damien. In 1863 he fulfils the dream of his sick brother Pamphile to become a missionary and arrives in Honolulu in 1864, where, for sheer lack of priests, he is immediately ordained one. In 1873 Bishop Maigret decides to send a priest to the leper colony of Molokai for a period of three months. It is Damien, who will remain there for the rest of his life. Shocked by the horrifying circumstances in the colony, he goes to work with enormous will and courage to lessen their suffering, acting not only as a priest but also as a doctor, building his own church but also roads, making coffins and digging graves, and generally becoming a nuisance for his superiors with his incessant pleas for support. His efforts were not fruitless: soon there came decent housing for the patients as well as a school. His fame quickly spread, and while he himself was a Catholic, most financial support came from American protestants, while the Church of England also made substantial contributions. In 1884 he was diagnosed with leprosy himself - he had been lax about hygiene. He nevertheless continued to work with the help of four others until two weeks before his death on April 15th 1889. He was 49 years old. In 1936 his remains were brought back to Belgium by the naval schoolship the Mercator, and was buried in Leuven. In 1999, a movie was made with Australian born actor David Wenham in the lead role.
Now Jacques Brel. Brel, born in Schaarbeek, Brussels in 1929, was simultaneously poet, performer, musician, actor and director. As a kid he displayed not so much an affinity with music as rather with poetry, and indeed, even when he was a successful singer-songwriter, for him the words were always more important than the music. In 1953 he recorded his first two songs. After an unsuccessful session attempt in the studios of Belgian Radio and TV (BRT), he decided to try his luck in Paris. There, in 1957, discovered by Parisian talent scout Jacques Canetti, he achieved his breakthrough with "Quand on n'a que l'amour". It is the beginning of the great era of the French chansonniers, and the sole little Belgian soon competes on his own with big names like Jacques Dutronc, Georges Brassens, Charles Trenet, Gilbert Bécaud and Julien Clerc. In the next ten years, he achieved worldwide fame, with lyrics that radically broke with the sentimental post WWII-songs but focused instead on social satire (mocking the church, the bourgeoisie and, alas, Flemish nationalists) and universal emotions such as loneliness, friendship, despair, lost love, failure. His musical oeuvre comprises some 100 songs, including numbers like "Marieke", "Le Plat Pays", "Les bourgeois", "Ne me quite pas" and "Le Moribond". Brel greatly inspired other singer-songwriters, and he is surely one of the most covered artists around, with Neil Diamond, Petula Clark, Shirley Bassey, Nina Simone, Leonard Cohen, Ray Charles, David Bowie (Amsterdam!), Mark Almond and many others performing one or some of his songs. His many concerts (up to 300 a year!) always had an electrifying effect on the audience, with Brel and his public joining in an emotional embrace which left no one untouched. At the same time, his performances were so fiery and dramatic that in the course of one show he could lose 800 grams of bodyweight! A life like that took its toll on his health, an the fact that Brel smoked four packs of Gitanes a day did not help either. In 1967 already he bade the podium farewell with a last dramatic concert at the Parisian Olympia concert hall. After he finished, he got a 20-minute ovation, capture a glimpse of that moment here. Brel essentially made his name with that sole decade between 1957-1967. After that, he had a brief career in the movie business, acting in some ten films and directing two. It was no success. In the early seventies, lung cancer was discovered. A 1974 an operation deprived him of one lung, yet he manages to occasionally record a song. He died in 1978, and is buried on the cemetery of Atuone on the island of Hiva-Oa, Tahiti.
I will very likely never become as famous as Brel, yet we may have one thing in common. Like me, he seems to have had a love/hate relationship with his country. He never denied his Belgian roots. Me, although I'm immensely proud to be a Fleming, will do so neither. A number of his songs were recorded both in Dutch and in French, e.g. the legendary "Mijn vlakke land - Le plat pays" (My flat land - Belgium and The Netherlands aren't called The Low Countries for nothing). I fear that sound excerpt, when heard for the first time, won't impress much, but you gotta hear it whole, and be in the mood for it. Insert a mental picture of dramatic skies heavy with clouds over a flat green country interspersed with woods and waterways, with stately cathedrals here and there towering over medieval towns. Brel sings about stone devils - the gargouilles (rain water dispensers) - on those cathedrals. He sings about the dunes holding back the waves of the North Sea, about skies so low canals seem hung up to them, about rainy roads and the northern wind. He sings about "Le Plat Pays qui est le mien". He sings about my country, Belgium, 175 years young in 2005. Brel was, I guess, torn about it - like me. He once said:
"If I were king, I would send all the Flemings to Wallonia and all the Walloons to Flanders for six months. Like military service. They would live with a family and that would solve all our ethnic and linguistic problems very fast. Because everybody's tooth aches in the same way, everybody loves their mother, everybody loves or hates spinach. And those are the things that really count."
If only it were that simple.
UPDATE: MFBB's CHOICE FOR GREATEST BELGIAN EVER
Personally, I can find myself neither in the Flemish nor the Wallonian choice. My "greatest Belgian" is King Albert I (1875-1934), who ruled from 1909, when he succeeded his (in)famous predecessor Leopold II, to 1934, when he died in a mountaineering accident. Albert Leopold Clément Marie Meinrad was not Leopolds son, but Prince Philip’s, the Count of Flanders, Leopold’s brother. Albert had German blood running through his veins, since his mother was Princess Maria of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, and was thus a full nephew to the German Emperor Wilhelm II! There was another German connection: in 1900 he married Elisabeth, a Bavarian duchess with whom he had three children, one of them to become his successor Leopold III.
When Albert became King in 1909, he inherited a country which under the forceful aegis of his uncle Leopold II had developed into a prosperous and industrious nation. Indeed, by the turn of the century Belgium was the fifth industrial power in the world, a fact which was helped greatly by the cheap import of precious ores and minerals from its Central African colony the Congo (with regards to the treatment of the natives we Belgians have unpleasant thruths to face, but that will be the scope of some future post. I hope).
In the decades of building up its industrial potential however, Belgium had dangerously neglected its defenses, falsely assuming that its neutral status, granted in 1830 by the then Superpowers, would forever protect it from invasion. The result was that when World War I broke out in summer 1914 and Germany sought to advance into France over Belgian soil (as required by the Schlieffen Plan), Belgium, when suddenly faced with an invading army of 800,000, could only rely on a field army of 60,000 and some 130,000 fortress troops. Despite that, King Albert flatly rejected the German August 2 ultimatum for a free pass-through, and thus established himself as our national hero. On August 3, after a nightly meeting with the Cabinet, he sent out a telegram in response saying that Belgium would with all her might resist the violation of her neutral status and territory. On August 4, the Germans invasion began.
The Germans soon found the ring of forts around Liège a tough nut to crack. It took them almost two weeks, with heavy losses, to neutralize them. A cavalry probe by two Uhlan divisions in the province of Limburg was soundly defeated by General De Witte at Halen. However, there was no stopping the German juggernaut, which by the end of August had basically swept the Belgian Army to the northwest, where it consolidated its hold around Antwerp with its ring of forts – Belgium’s "National Redoubt", so to say. It was from Antwerp that King Albert personally conducted two counterattacks in Von Kluck’s rear, as the latter's armies advanced towards Paris.
Precisely these attacks made the Germans decide they’d better finish off what was left of our troops, and so they set on besieging Antwerp, which finally fell by October 10. However, the bulk of the army had managed to slip away to the West at the last moment, ready to fight another day. King Albert and his troops were relentlessly pushed further to the southwest, until they ended up by the end of October behind the river Yser in the westernmost corner of Belgium. An ingenious flooding of the lowlands along the river made for a near impenetrable barrier and thus it was that the King, with his exhausted troops, finally managed to put an end to the retreat and hold the line, with his HQ in Veurne, almost within German artillery range, and his back on the French border.
Then trench warfare set in. Throughout the war, the Belgian sector of the front would not change much, not only because the flooded areas severely hampered large troop movements but especially because Albert refused to put the Belgian troops under allied command, still insisting on keeping his neutral status. Albert received a lot of scorn for this, for it meant that Belgian divisions could not be deployed in the great offensives as waged by Joffre, Foch, French and Haig. It is certainly true that the British troops, who defended the other small part of non-occupied Belgium around Ypres, paid a far higher blood price for the liberation of our country. But the point can also be made that Albert understood much better than Foch and Haig that massed offensives against well dug in machinegun positions and artillery were pointless and a scandalous waste of lives, unless some novel tactic was introduced which would effectively break the enemy line. There is something else: both Foch and Haig could rely on the near complete manpower resources of their respective nations to fill up the ranks. Albert however, who perhaps held a mere 5% of Belgian soil, had to sit out the war with whatever troops he had left, plus perhaps 100,000 men whom he could draft from among the Belgian refugees in France and Britain. The participation of the Belgian Field Army in a "typical" allied offensive, say, the Somme 1916, would have bled it white in the course of several days, never to recover again for the remainder of the war. What he did do, as a gesture of military cooperation within the allied framework, was send an armoured car battalion to the eastern front to fight with the Russians against the Austrians, there being no use for them behind the Yser, given the static nature of the front.
And so the years went by, with the front lines not changing except for isolated outposts overrun and retaken. There is a very good 1915 account of what life for the troops in the flooded land was from the hand of an American female reporter, Mary Roberts Rinehart. From time to time, King Albert would visit the trenches or fly over the Yser front in his Spad, which on such occasions was always accompanied by four fighters. He kept receiving heads of state and generals, e.g. the French President Poincare and the generals Haig and Foch, all insisting -to no avail - that Belgium should abandon its neutral status. It is true that in the years 1915-1917 Albert was often very pessimistic on the outcome of the war, and had an outspoken respect for German combat power. I would however dare to challenge any present day politican to keep his head as cool as Albert, having lost 95% of your country in a cataclysmic event with your population suffering from a cruel occupation. As it was, Albert simply kept his front for four years with the least possible losses. Given that the allied generals basically "kept" unaltered fronts too, although at the cost of several million men, King Albert’s stance was probably not so opportunistic as it seemed at the time. Only in 1918, after the last German offensives had petered out and fresh 20,000 strong American divisions under General Pershing changed the stalemate in favor of the allies, did Albert agree to place his troops under allied control. In September 1918, as a reward, Foch appointed him overall commander of the new Army Group Flanders, comprising Belgian, French, British and American troops. In reality however, command of the army group lay in the hands of the experienced French general Jean-Marie Degoutte, a situation which can very well be compared with the first Gulf War, where the Saudi Prince Khalid bin Sultan was nominally the Coalition’s Supreme Commander but the day-to-day decisions were taken by General Schwarzkopf. By the time the Germans decided to surrender, on November 11, 1918, the offensive had liberated the provinces of East and West Flanders.
From before the outbreak of the Great War, Albert understood that the growing importance of the Socialist Party might one day undermine his position. In studying his relationship with socialist prominents and with the Social Party itself (BWP – Belgische Werklieden Partij – Belgian Workers Party) from the end of the 19th century till his death in 1934 – once cannot escape the conclusion that Albert I was a shrewd pragmatist, as he managed to buy off the BWP’s goodwill with – necessary – social reforms, while at the same time firmly keeping the reins of monarchical rule over Belgium. A monarchy which in prewar years was generally considered by socialists as out of date at best and a tyranny at worst. As it was, Albert, before and after the war, managed to steer clear of the waves of militant socialism and communism which either severely shook the estabishment, like in France, or overthrew it, like in Germany or Russia. Indeed, only 11 days after the November 11 1918 armistice, Albert held a King’s Speech in which he promised general singular suffrage, recognition of syndical liberties (a.o. the right to strike) and extension of social legislation. In recognition of the rightful demands of the Flemish community, Albert I also promised the University of Ghent be made Flemish and full equality would exist between Flemish and French. And sure enough, by keeping his promises Albert effectively neutralized the threat of revolution and basically "incorporated" the socialist movement in the establishment, in the process nevertheless managing to keep the monarchy intact. By the time the social and consitutional reforms were finished (in 1921) Albert felt strong enough again to resist the socialists when these came with new demands, like 6-month (!) military service and new social laws. Like in World War I, Albert had cleverly sat out the storm to emerge from it in a stronger position.
A final word should be said about the high esteem Albert had for the sciences. In 1928 he founded the National Fund for Scientific Research. Its principal purpose was to finance research at Belgian universities. It started with assets of 110 million Belgian francs from private funds and a complementary donation from the Belgian government. The NFSR supported a great number of major research projects, some of which had a significant international impact. E.g., it supported Professor Picard's 1931 atmospheric balloon experiment to measure and analyse cosmic radiation.
Not only the industry benefited from the NFSR’s financial support of research. Its funds enabled the setting up of numerous expeditions which brought home a wealth of archeological, anthropological and biological data. One of the most noteworthy expeditions is the 1934 Franco-Belgian Easter Island Expedition, during which the naval schoolship Mercator transported two moais back to Belgium, one of which is now in the Parisian Musée de l’Homme, and the other one in the Brussels Royal Museum for Arts and History.
Albert I died on February 17, 1934, in a mountaineering accident in Marche-les-Dames in the Ardennes, under circumstances which to this day remain unclear. There has been heavy specualtion as to likely causes for murder, with theories ranging from jealous husbands to elimination by the French Secret Service (because Albert wanted to leave the military partnership with France and return to neutral status). These and other theories have flourished because Albert was an able alpinist and in excellent health. Whatever the exact reasons for his death, he was greatly mourned by the population and received worldwide recognition. His widow, Queen Elisabeth, would survice him for 24 years.
King Albert I was a man with flaws and opportunistic when it suited him, or the complicated nation he was king of. At times he seemed to falter - e.g., at the end of the Siege of Antwerp he considered surrendering to the Germans. However: the man was a War Hero who foiled the Sclieffen Plan, a social and constitutional reformer, a man who finally granted elementary rights to the majority in his country, a promotor of sciences, and a great athlete. Compared to today's spineless European elites he stands like a Giant. To me, King Albert I is the Greatest Belgian Ever.
But that is just my opinion, of course.