One of Europe’s smallest countries, it is a kingdom of the Low Countries lying on the NE border of France, and bounded by the North Sea, Netherland s, Germany, and Luxembourg. It is one of the most densely populated and highly industrialized areas of Europe and has twice proved of great strategic importance in invasions of France by Germany. An independent nation for less than two centuries, Belgium is still divided ethnically into two regions: Fland ers in the N, where Flemish is spoken, and Wallonia in the S, where French is the official language. The capital, Brussels, is a bilingual city and is important as the headquarters of the European Union and NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization).
Originally inhabited by the Celtic Belgae tribe, it came under Rome as the province of Belgica after falling to Julius Caesar in 57 b.c. In the fourth century a.d. it was occupied by the Franks, and it became part of Lotharingia after the death of Charlemagne in 814. From the 12th century throughout the Middle Ages the region was divided between the duchies of Brabant and Luxembourg and the bishopric of Liege. At this time the cities of Belgium, notably Ypres, Bruges, and Ghent, gained a large measure of autonomy and prosperity through the wool trade and textile manufacturing. The 14th century saw urban growth, class war, and the Hundred Years’ War. In the 15th century the country passed to the dukes of Burgundy, and the wool trade declined in competition with England.
Belgium passed to Austria under the Hapsburgs in 1482 and by inheritance to Philip II of Spain in 1555. Under the Pacification of Ghent of 1576 the Belgian cities, like their Dutch neighbors under the Union of Utrecht in 1579, united in revolt against the Spanish, but, unlike the United Provinces, they failed to secure their independence. The region’s economy was destroyed in the struggle, and with the continuing rule of Catholic Spain, Protestantism was erased from Belgium. In the wars of the 17th century parts of the Spanish Netherland s were lost to France, and by the Peace of Utrecht of 1714 Belgium reverted to Austria.
The reforms of Joseph II of Austria were opposed in Belgium, and in 1789 the republic of the United States of Belgium was set up. Although Austrian control was reestablished in 1790, Belgium fell to France in 1794 during the French Revolutionary Wars and was formally ceded to France in 1797. After the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 united Belgium and the Netherland s under a Dutch king. This arrangement was not popular with the non-Dutch population, and after a rebellion in Brussels in 1830, Belgium was established as an independent state by the London Conference of 1830–31. In the 19th century Belgium was one of the first European nations to industrialize and under Leopold II (1865–1909) established a colonial empire in the Congo.
Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality led to the entry of Great Britain into World War I, during which the whole country was occupied by Germany except for a heavily contested area around Ypres. Belgium was again occupied by the Germans during World War II from 1940 to 1944 but made a rapid recovery in the postwar years. In the 1960s friction between the two ethnic groups caused a period of political instability, and the country still remains deeply divided culturally. Constitutional reform began in the early 1970s, creating three partially autonomous regions (Fland ers, Wallonia, and Brussels) and three politically recognized ethnic communities (French, Flemish, and German), but ethnic discord continued throughout the 1980s. In 1993 new reforms gave the regions additional autonomy and created a federal state. In the same year, King Baudouin died and was succeeded by his brother, Albert II. Although the European Union has no single seat of government, many of its most important offices are located in Brussels, making Belgium an important fixture in Europe.