Rise of the Socialist Party and the trade unions
The economy was stagnant during the long depression of 1873-95, as prices and wages fell and labour unrest grew. The Belgian Workers' Party was founded in 1885 in Brussels. It issued the Charter of Quaregnon in 1894 calling for an end to capitalism and a thorough reorganization of society. Though, the Belgian Workers' Party was not elected to government until the late 20th century, it exerted considerable pressure on the rest of the political process, both through direct participation in politics themselves, but also through general strikes.
During the late 19th century, general strikes became an established aspect of the political process. Between 1892 and 1961, there were 20 major strikes, including 7 general strikes. Many of these had overtly political motives, like the 1893 General Strike that helped achieve universal suffrage.
On several occasions, Belgian general strikes escalated into violence. In 1893, soldiers fired on the striking crowd, killing several. Karl Marx wrote, "There exists but one country in the civilised world where every strike is eagerly and joyously turned into a pretext for the official massacre of the Working Class. That country of single blessedness is Belgium!"
Nevertheless, Belgium created a welfare net particularly early, thanks in part to the trade unions. Sickness compensation was established in 1894, voluntary old-age insurance in 1900 and unemployment insurance in 1907, achieveing good coverage nationwide much more quickly than its neighbours.
In 1893 the government rejected a proposal for universal male suffrage. Outraged, the Belgian Labour Party called a General Strike; by April 17, there were more than 50,000 strikers. Violent confrontations broke out with the Garde Civique (the Civil Guard or militia) around the country, as in Mons, where several strikers were killed. Violence escalated. The government soon backed down, and passed male universal suffrage but reduced its impact by creating plural votesbased on wealth, education and age. The Catholic conservatives, with 68% of the seats, remained in power, as the Liberals dropped to only 13% of the seats and the Socialists held their share.
As in many countries, women's suffrage was introduced at the end of the First World War; however the last restrictions on women's voting were only lifted in 1948.
Artistic and literary culture in Belgium began a revival towards the late 19th century. Particularly, among Walloons with the new French language literary and artistic review La Jeune Belgique.
A core element of Belgian nationalism was the scientific study of its national history. The movement was led by Godefroid Kurth (1847-1916), a student of the German historian Ranke. Kurth taught modern historical methods to his students at theUniversity of Liège. The most prominent Belgian historian was Henri Pirenne (1862-1935), who was influenced by this method during his period as a student of Kurth.
Architecture and Art Nouveau
At the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, monumental Historicismand Neoclassicism dominated the urban Belgian landscape, particularly in government buildings, between the 1860s and 1890s. Championed in part by King Leopold II (known as the "Builder King"), the style can be seen in the Palais de Justice (designed by Joseph Poelaert) and theCinquantenaire, both of which survive in Brussels.
Nevertheless, Brussels became one of the major European cities for the development of the Art Nouveau style in the late 1890s. The architects Victor Horta, Paul Hankar, and Henry van de Velde became particularly famous for their designs, many of which survive today in Brussels. Four buildings designed by Horta are listed by UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Tragically, Horta's largest work, the Maison du Peuple was demolished in 1960.
Stanard rejects the widely held notion that Belgians were "reluctant imperialists." He argues that "ordinary people came to understand and support the colony. Belgians not only sustained the empire in significant ways, but many became convinced imperialists, evidenced by the widespread, enduring and eagerly embraced propaganda in favor of the Congo."
Congo Free State and Belgian Congo
At the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 the Congo was attributed solely to Leopold II of Belgium, who named the territory the Congo Free State, originally intended to be an international Free Trade zone, open all European traders. King Leopold had been the principal shareholder in the Belgian trading company which established trading stations on the lower Congo between 1879 and 1884. Power was finally transferred to Belgium in 1908 under considerable international pressure following numerous reports of misconduct and abuse to native labourers. The Congo territory was acquired formally by Leopold at the Conference of Berlin in 1885. The country, under his personal jurisdiction, was named the Congo Free State. Congolese territory, covering just under 1 million miles squared, more than 80 times the size of Belgium. The first development projects took place during the Free State period, such as a railway that ran from theLéopoldville to the coast which took several years to complete.
The era of the Congo Free State is most infamous for the large number of atrocities committed under it. Since it was, in effect, a business proposition (it was run by a private company, headed by Leopold himself), it aimed to gain as much money as possible from primary exports from the territory. Leopold's personal fortune was greatly increased through the proceeds of Congolese rubber, which had never previously been mass-produced in such surplus quantities, for the growing market for tyres. During the period between 1885 and 1908. As many as eight million Congolese died through of exploitation and disease while the birth rate also dropped. However, these estimates are guesses and no figures are available for the period.
To enforce the rubber quotas, the Force Publique (FP) was created. Whilst the Force Publique was nominally a military force (it would later fight during both Firstand Second World Wars), during the Congo Free State period its primary duties involved enforcing rubber quotas in rural areas. Imprisonment and summary executions were common. Severing of limbs was sometimes used by the Force Publique as a method of enforcing the quotas.
Following reports from missionaries a moral outrage campaign emerged, particularly in Britain and the United States. The Congo Reform Association, led byEdmund Dene Morel, was particularly important in the campaign, and published numerous best-selling tracts and pamphlets (including Red Rubber) which were reached a vast public. King Leopold appointed and financed his own commission to put these rumours about the Congo Free State to rest, but in the end his own commission confirmed and investigated the atrocities.
The Belgian parliament long refused to take over the colony as a financial burden. In 1908, the Belgian parliament responded to the international pressure, annexing the Free State, as the campaigners had argued for. After World War II, Belgium was criticized by the United Nations for making no progress on the political front as other contemporary colonial states were doing. Despite propaganda campaigns within Belgium, few Belgians showed much interest in the colony; very few went there, and imperial enthusiasm was never widespread. The government limited the possibility of Congolese settling inside Belgium.
Political rights were not granted to the Africans until 1956 when a the growing middle class (the so-called Évolué) received the franchise and the economy remained relatively undeveloped despite the mineral wealth of Katanga. For 18 months from January 1, 1959 there was political uncertainty and African national feeling became more apparent with the effect that the Belgian government resolved on independence for the colony in June 1960.
At the Round Table Talks on independence, Belgium requested a process of gradual independence over 4 years, but following a series of riots in 1959, the decision was made to bring forward independence in matter of months. The chaos in which Belgium departed the Congo caused the secession of rich Western-backed province Katanga and the prolonged civil war known as the Congo Crisis.
The Belgian Tianjin Concession in China was established in 1902. There was little investment and no settlement. However it led to a contract to supply an electric light and trolley system. In 1906, Tianjin became the first city in China with a modern public transportation system. The supply of electricity and lighting and the trolley business were profitable ventures. All the rolling stock was supplied by Belgian industries and by 1914, the network also reached nearby Austrian, French, Italian, Japanese and Russian concessions.
After the defeat of Germany in World War I, Belgium inherited League of Nationsmandates over Ruanda-Urundi.
The colony was administered in a similar way as by the former German administrators, continuing policies such as ethnic identity cards. In 1959, moves towards independence could be seen in the territory and agitation by PARMEHUTUa Hutu political party was evident. In 1960, the Rwandan Revolution occurred and Belgium changed the appointments of chiefs and vice-chiefs to promote Hutus into the posts.