Introduction I: A 'Scrap of Paper'
For most of the nineteenth century, Belgian neutrality had been an indispensable basis for the preservation of the balance of power in Europe, and thus for the continuation of the Congress or Vienna System of international relations. The importance of Belgian neutrality was first acknowledged in 1830-1831, when the nine provinces of the Southern Netherlands rejected their union with their Northern and predominantly Protestant Dutch neighbours – the latest in a long series of foreign rulers - and declared themselves independent. The separation of the Belgian and Dutch kingdoms presented a problem for the Great Powers, as it threatened to hasten the collapse of the Concert of Europe. The United Kingdom of the Netherlands had been a product of the Congress of Vienna. It was hoped that the united Low Countries would be strong enough to serve as a buffer state against any future French aggression and simultaneously maintain its independence against the encroachments of any other power that might wish to tip the scales of power. With the separation of these two kingdoms, it became necessary to find some new arrangement that could achieve these same goals. The solution was the 1839 Treaty of London which recognized Belgian independence and guaranteed the kingdom’s neutrality. For its part, the Kingdom of Belgium agreed to remain neutral in perpetuity, and was therefore forbidden from entering into political and military alliances, including purely defensive alliances, with any other nation. All other parties to the treaty – including Austria, France, Great Britain, Prussia, Russia and the Kingdom of the Netherlands – were implicitly committed to upholding Belgian neutrality by force in the event of an invasion of Belgian territory. The principle of Belgian neutrality was upheld on at least two other major occasions over the ensuing seventy-five years; first in 1870 on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War when, ironically, it was the French who posed a greater threat to Belgium, and then again in 1907, as part of the Second Hague Convention.
However, the political and military situation in Europe at the dawn of the twentieth century gave cause for some to reconsider these treaties and the past assurances. Neither the Central Powers nor the Entente considered Belgium as an enemy state; the kingdom was after all kept outside of the alliance system by the same treaty that guaranteed its independence and neutrality. But while Belgium did not constitute either a potential friend or foe to either side in the growing conflict, it did present an opportunity for bypassing the series of fortifications that stretched along the Franco-German border. While the German Empire was ultimately the only party to violate Belgian neutrality, it is not altogether implausible that under different circumstances it would have been French forces who first sought to cross through Belgian territory in an attempt to score a major early victory. This had certainly been a possibility in previous conflicts. In the end, the French goal of keeping the British Empire as a likely ally prohibited such an undertaking. As is well known, the hope that German forces could score a crippling victory against France in the opening days of the war compelled them to toward a different path, one that led straight through Belgian territory.
Consequently, as war became inevitable in August of 1914, the Belgian government received an official communication from the German Ambassador in Brussels demanding unfettered passage through their country for Imperial forces. The basis for this demand, the dispatch claimed, was reliable intelligence that French forces were preparing their own incursion into Belgium. It was therefore necessary to the security and sovereignty of both Belgium and the German Empire that Imperial forces be allowed to proceed and meet this threat. From this perspective, it was the German Empire that was upholding its treaty obligations, rather than violating them. This same message is conveyed in the proclamation at the left of this page, which was issued to the Belgian public.
In truth, the Germans were offering not assistance against a foreign aggressor, but an ultimatum. The Belgians had already declared their intention to stay out of the looming conflict, as their treaty obligations dictated they should, and as they had managed to do during previous conflicts. They also rejected the notion that France was contemplating its own violation of the treaty; in fact, the Belgian government had already received assurances from the Republic that no incursion was to be made by its forces. Belgian neutrality would be defended, by force if necessary, and no foreign army would be permitted on its soil unless it arrived in response to the aggression of another nation. Accordingly, Belgium had already received a guarantee of such support from Great Britain should their sovereignty be violated. Yet, when confronted with a war on two extended fronts, the German Empire proved willing to default on the treaty obligations of its member states, and thereby turn two erstwhile neutral nations into enemy combatants. Under different circumstances, the German states had demonstrated their commitment to the 1839 Treaty of London. In 1914, however, the treaty became, as Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg put it, a mere “scrap of paper”.
Click to continue to Part II of the Introduction.