WHEN Belgium's independence was guaranteed under the Treaties of 1839, a regime of perpetual neutrality was imposed on her. In 1918, the British and French Governments recognized that the changed situation in Europe made the restoration of this regime out of the question. For four years the Belgian Army fought side by side with the British and French Armies to free Belgium's national territory. After the armistice, she shared the occupation of the left bank of the Rhine with them. In 1920, the Belgian and French General Staffs reached an agreement fixing the technical details of military co-operation between Belgium and France in the event of a fresh unprovoked aggression by Germany. At that time, Germany was far from having reduced her armaments to the limits laid down in the Treaty of Versailles. At the same time, Belgium was anxious to conclude with Great Britain an arrangement providing for her security. But she was unable to overcome the objections raised by the British Government. A proposal was, however, made in 1922. It provided that should Germany make a direct unprovoked attack on Belgium, Great Britain would immediately come to her assistance with all her naval, military, and air forces, on the understanding that in such a contingency Belgium would defend her own frontiers with all her military, naval, and air forces. This proposal was turned down by the British Government because the condition laid down by Great Britain--a similar agreement with France--could not be fulfilled.
The International Situation of Belgium Before the Conflict
Belgium hoped to obtain new guarantees through the League of Nations. She played an active part in drawing up the Covenant. She was a Member of the Council
without a break until 1926. In 1920, her Minister for Foreign Affairs was President of the Assembly. On many occasions, particularly over the Corfu incident, she did not hesitate to insist on the application of the Covenant to Great Powers with whom she was on friendly terms. In 1936, despite her ties with Italy, her first Delegate declared that Belgium would carry out all her obligations with regard to the application of sanctions. She assisted actively in the League's attempts to secure the limitation and gradual reduction of armaments, and several of her delegates played an important part in this field.
In 1925, Belgium, together with Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, signed the Locarno Agreements. She assumed a rôle in the organization of Western Europe which was subsequently to prove out of all proportion to the force at the disposal of a small State. That is to say, she undertook to assist Germany in the event of a French aggression or France in the event of a German aggression. But the risk seemed quite theoretical at that time. Europe appeared to be entering upon a period of pacification, concord, and international co-operation.
Before long, however, matters took a very different turn and disillusionment set in. The economic depression of 1930 had a shattering effect on Europe. Unemployment and poverty increased the feeling of discontent that was already beginning to find expression among the unsatisfied nations, and their nationalism became increasingly revolutionary and aggressive in character. The coming into power of the Hitler regime precipitated matters. It is only necessary, by way of a reminder, to mention a few of the more outstanding events.
After Hitler became Chancellor of the Reich on January 30th, 1933, Germany withdrew ostentatiously from the League of Nations and the Disarmament Conference. This happened on October 14th. On June 14th, 1934, Hitler and Mussolini had their first meeting at Venice; on March 16th, 1935, Germany repudiated the military, naval, and air clauses of the Treaty of Versailles, and announced that
conscription would be introduced. This followed upon the announcement, a few days earlier, of the formation of a military air force; on October 2nd of the same year, Italy invaded Ethiopia in flagrant violation of the provisions of the Covenant of the League of Nations. On March 7th, 1936, German troops reoccupied the left bank of the Rhine and the Treaty of Locarno was repudiated; on July 4th, the League of Nations admitted that sanctions had failed and discontinued them. On July 17th, civil war broke out in Spain.
These events, which followed upon one another with increasing rapidity and were of increasing gravity, were a warning to Belgium of new threats to the peace of Europe and consequently to her own security. By reducing her own armaments, Great Britain had allowed Germany to steal a march on her which she was unable to overtake; France was weakened by a long financial, industrial, and social crisis. The international order created after the World War was no longer secure.
In 1930, Belgium took certain measures to strengthen the defenses of the country. Parliament passed a plan for restoring and modernizing the Belgian fortifications. In particular, the positions of Liège and Namur were reinforced. New lines of defence were established along the canal from Maastricht to Bois-le-Due, the canal joining the Meuse and Escaut and the Albert Canal.
The protection of the eastern frontier, based mainly on the destruction of a number of roads, was entrusted to new formations (frontier cyclist units, "Chasseurs Ardennais").
In the spring of 1935, these measures were almost complete, but even then they were no longer adequate. A conflagration might break out suddenly. There was not sufficient protection against such a risk. In order that the safety of the country might hat all times be ensured, the period of military service had to be prolonged, and provision was made for this in a new Bill, but it was opposed by a large section of the public. This was due, to a considerable extent, to suspicion of Belgium's international engagements:
it was feared that they would involve her in conflicts far from home. The Coalition Government, consisting of Catholics, Socialists, and Liberals, then in power, had so far been unable to break down this prejudice. It was then that the King, conscious of his constitutional duties, made a new attempt to convince his Ministers of the need for improving the defences of the country, while at the same time allaying the anxiety of those who feared the risks involved by Belgium's international obligations. That is the significance of the statement he made at the meeting of the Council convened at the Palace on October 14th 1936 (Appendix 1). His speech made a great impression on the members of the Government; it was thought likely to remove the objections of the opponents of the Bill, and the King was asked whether it might be made public. The precise significance of the speech was not understood abroad; it was taken as a new departure in Belgian policy. The only passage to attract attention was that relating to the international situation of Belgium. At first sight, it was not realized that, from the Government's point of view, the object of the speech and the reason why it was published was to gain the support of the Belgian public for the proposal to strengthen the national defences.
The British and French Governments, who had been better informed, had no doubt as to the position. They recognized that, in the existing state of affairs in Europe, Belgium's attitude was justified. They readily admitted that any aggression of which she was the victim would constitute a direct threat to the neighbouring Powers; that by protecting access to her territory, Belgium was making the most effective contribution towards the security of the surrounding States; that in this way she was doing her utmost to fulfil her function in this part of Europe which was so often exposed to the ravages of war.
It was in these circumstances that the Franco-British Declaration of April 24th, 1937 was made (Appendix 2).
The British and French Government took note of Belgium's determination, expressed publicly and on more
than one occasion, to defend her frontiers with all her forces against any aggression or invasion, and to prevent Belgian territory from being used, for purposes of aggression against another State, as a passage or as a base of operations by land, by sea, or in the air. They therefore released Belgium from her undertakings to render assistance under the Locarno Treaty, while maintaining their own undertakings to render assistance to Belgium under the Treaty.
The British and French Governments also took note of the renewed assurances of the Belgian Government "of the fidelity of Belgium to the Covenant of the League of Nations and to the obligations which it involves for Members of the League." Belgian policy was always based on that principle, but experience had shown that the coercive measures provided for in Article 16 of the Covenant were inoperative. In practice, as was clear at the time of the Sino-Japanese dispute in 1931, they were regarded as optional. This was explicitly recognized by most of the Members of the League of Nations at the 1938 Assembly, and their application was not even demanded when Germany committed acts of aggression in 1939. It may be remarked here that the Treaty of Locarno could not have been invoked had it remained in force. It did not guarantee Poland, but only the status quo on the Rhineland frontiers. Belgium was only to assist France in the event of an unprovoked act of aggression by Germany, and to assist Germany in the event of an unprovoked act of aggression by France. Neither of these two contingencies occurred. The decision of the British and French Governments to release Belgium from her obligation was not therefore in any way to change her position with regard to the events which marked the opening of the European conflict.
Nevertheless, the negotiations undertaken after the repudiation of the Treaty of Locarno by Germany with a view to replacing the Treaty by a new general Act continued. England had not at that time lost all hope of bringing them to a successful conclusion. No doubt she had begun to rearm. But in November 1936, the Prime Minister, Mr.
Baldwin, admitted that there had been some delay, and in the spring of 1937 his successor, Mr. Chamberlain, showed his determination to combine the strengthening of defence measures with "a substantial effort to remove the causes which are delaying the return of confidence in Europe." This attempt was to continue until 1939, and it was only abandoned a very few months before the beginning of the war.
That, at any rate, was the atmosphere in Europe in 1937. In January, Chancellor Hitler declared that he was prepared at any moment to recognize the inviolability of Belgian territory. Following up this intention, he made a declaration to the Belgian Government on October 13th, the most important passages of which repeat the words of the Franco-British Declaration of April 24th (Appendix 4).
The two declarations sanctioned what the Belgian Government has described as a "policy of independence." It used this expression in order to draw a distinction between that policy and the neutrality of Belgium, as laid down contractually before the German aggression in 1914; it intended at the same time to indicate that it reserved full liberty to act at any time in the interests of the country. If, bearing in mind the unstable situation in Europe, it restricted Belgium's international undertakings, that was first form motives of honesty: it did not want to undertake obligations which were regarded as excessive by a large section of the public and which it was not sure of being able to fulfil. Secondly, it was with the intention of concentrating the national forces. If they were all to be mobilized, it was necessary that the country should concentrate on one urgent and indisputable duty, and one only--national defence. it was essential that immediately an act of aggression was committed, the whole nation, fully aware that it was blameless, should rise up as one man, just as it did in August 1914 (Appendix 3).1
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