Saturday, November 7, 2009

Pro Flandria Servanda - Flanders' Right and Claim for Autonomy

November 11 is Veteran's Day in the U.S. It is Wapenstilstandsdag in Flanders. Both days recognize the sacrifice of millions during the Great War of 1914-1918[i]. A war fought overwhelmingly by Flemings for the defense of the Belgian State. 80% of those who served - and died - for Belgium were Flemings, a disproportionate percentage. Moreover, they fought and died for a state that ruled and oppressed the Flemings for the sake of a Francophone German royal family and an elite of foreign language users. In an earlier posting I have illustrated in part the sacrifice of the Flemings and the Flemish-Americans to that cause.

In response to what he perceived as the subjection of smaller ethnicities by larger ones,
Woodrow Wilson promulgated his 14 Points. Of course, during the war this was a means of justifying the struggle of the Allies against the Central Powers.[ii] The underlying principle of Wilson's 14 Points was self-determination of ethnicities in Europe (especially Point #5) and the example of the liberation of the Eastern European ethnicities (Poles, Ukrainians, Finns, etc.) as embodied in Point #6. Point #7 called for the "restoration of Belgian sovereignity” without reference to redress of the oppression of Belgium’s 4,400,000 Flemings by the 3,000,000 Walloons.

As Colonel House, President Wilson's closest confidant, stated:

"What are the "interests of the populations?" That they should not be militarized, that exploitation should be conducted on the principle of the "open door," and under the strictest regulation as to labor conditions, profits, and taxes, that a sanitary regime be maintained, that permanent improvements in the way of roads, etc., be made, that native organization and custom be respected, that the protecting authority be stable and experienced enough to thwart intrigue and corruption, that the [protecting] power have adequate resources in money and competent administrators to act successfully.”

In the Belgian capital of Brussels, a Flemish Committee of the Council of Flanders was formed on October 30th, 1918 in response to this proclamation. Members included prominent academics and local leaders. After deliberations, they sent an official appeal to Wilson, which read in part:

“Our Committee, voicing the interests of a population of over four million people, expresses its confidence that alike with the Poles, the Yougo-Slavs [sic], the people of Ukrajn [sic], the Finns and the irish, the Flemish people will see its future safeguarded by the Peace-conference on the basis of full autonomy within the Belgian State.”[iv]

These appeals fell on deaf ears. The Flemish community in the U.S., perhaps 100,000 strong in 1919, had poor economic or political sway. Most certainly, Flemish Americans had barely a fraction of the clout that the Irish Americans or Polish Americans had. Moreover, support for the Flemish Movement by Wilson would have been the antithesis of what not only the Francophone Belgian elite wished for, but more importantly, what France demanded of Wilson. Wilson’s response was to ignore this appeal.

Flemish rights activists however did not give up. In March, at the same time that the vast mass of the Flemish army established the political paper “Ons Vaderland” (March 4, 1919) the Flemish Committee again, on March 30th, sent an appeal to Woodrow Wilson.

“According to [the] fourth point [of] your general principles, [we, the] undersigned beg [that this] should be brought before [the] Council [of] Four, the clearly expressed national wishes of [the] Flemish race, hoping our claims may be fully granted.”

What did the Flemish Committee – and in fact, the Flemish “Front Movement” (De Frontbeweging
[vi]), through their publication in “Ons Vaderland” agitate for?

“Autonomy for Flanders in legislation, government, education, justice, [and the] army, on [the] basis of [the] principle: ‘In Flanders Flemish’ as the only means to secure the rebirth of Flemish civilization.

“Wallonia and Flandria should form a federation of two selfgoverned parts of Belgium.

“[The] entire educational system should be founded on [the] population. Hence in Flanders all schools from board[ing] schools to university (including secondary and technical education) [should be conducted] in Flemish.

“All courts of justice in Flanders [should be conducted] in Flemish.

“[In] all regiments [of the army the] mothertongue of [the] men should be also the vehicle for administration, drill and command.”

The authors closed their appeal with the emphasis that “this program does not ask for any favor[s]. It simply demands the rights of a self-respecting race, a race with a glorious past, and which wants to rise again to [the] height[s] of its abilities.”

Many of us know how this story ended: the Flemish delegates were ignored, hounded and imprisoned. However, a movement of the Flemish people rose up in response.

When the Great Powers redrew the map of Europe at Versailles, in late June, 1919 , the reaction among the Flemish veterans and people of Flanders was spontaneous. Across the country a hue and cry of indignation arose. Clearly democracy self-determination that Woodrow Wilson promised existed only for those to whom it was either politically expedient to grant it.

The Flemish had suffered and endured four years of warfare and destruction for what? They had exchanged one oppressor (the Germans) for another (the Walloons). It was with this as the background that first a small group of veterans marched toward Diksmuide, on the Ijzer River, where the best of Flanders young men had fought and died. They marched for Peace, Autonomy, and Goodwill Toward All.

This is the legacy of November 11, 1918 for Flemings. These are the roots of Flemish ethnic pride today. For Flemish Americans – and others of Flemish descent in the great diaspora around the world – this is what we should dwell on this coming November 11th.


[i] For an excellent website in English and Dutch that offers unique glimpses into the impact and participation of Flanders in WW1 please see
[iv] The Flemish Committee, Pro Flandria Servanda: Flanders’ Right and Claim for Autonomy, (The Hague: Martijnus Nijhoff, 1920), pp.v-vi
[v] The Flemish Committee, Pro Flandria Servanda: Flanders’ Right and Claim for Autonomy, (The Hague: Martijnus Nijhoff, 1920), pp.vii-viii
[vi] I am unaware of any books in English on this very important subject of study. The most recent, comprehensive study I am aware of is Daniel Vanacker, De Frontbeweging: De Vlaamse strijd aan de Ijzer, (Kortrijk: De Klaproos, 2000). A fascinating comment by Frans Van Cauwelaert in the book (p.232): "Een Vlaming aan 't front die niet met de activisten is, moet een rare vogel zijn."
[vii] The Flemish Committee, Pro Flandria Servanda: Flanders’ Right and Claim for Autonomy, (The Hague: Martijnus Nijhoff, 1920), p.ix
[viii] The Flemish Committee, Pro Flandria Servanda: Flanders’ Right and Claim for Autonomy, (The Hague: Martijnus Nijhoff, 1920), p.ix
[ix] The official website for the Ijzer Bedevaart (Pilgrimmage to the Ijzer) is

Copyright 2009 by David Baeckelandt. No reproduction in any form of this and any and all postings on this blog without my express, written permission.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you David, for sharing with us every episode about the flemish people and its achievements to make this world more or less a better place, even though they were'nt reconished by governments for their good deeds, wheter it was the own belgian gvt or others.

    Vlaanderen boven !

    Hugo B.