Hier Wird Deutsch Gesprochen

On September 16, 2009 · 3 Comments

With ongoing tensions between Flemish-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia receiving lots of attention in recent years, it may not be as widely known that there’s actually another distinct Belgian linguistic community, the German-speaking people of the East Cantons. This community represents ~70,000 people, a little less than one percent of the nation’s population. However it retains a level of political independence and even its own parliament within the legal framework of the Belgian constitution.

I first encountered this geo-anomaly while researching Neutral Moresnet for an article I posted about a year ago. The existence of tiny slices of German culture within the confines of Belgian territory fascinated me. Here German is the nearly universal mother tongue, complete with German-language television, a newspaper, radio broadcasting and a web presence. I don’t speak German – and apologize in advance for the likely mangled title on this article (blame Google Translator) – so I can’t provide any further information other than to confirm that all of these sites seem to be catering entirely to a German-speaking audience within a ".be" Internet domain.

Belgium's German Speaking Municipalities

SOURCE: Parliament of the German-Speaking Community

National boundaries changed frequently in these crossroads areas of Europe, through cycles of treaties, annexations, warfare and social movements. The East Cantons provide an interesting case in point. They were part of the Low Countries extending back to medieval times and became part of Belgium when it declared independence in 1830. However, the East Cantons bounced to the German Confederation when the Dutch signed a treaty recognizing Belgian independence eight years later.

Belgium continued to claim a historical connection to the territory even after the loss. The lands eventually returned to Belgium as compensation after the First World War. Germany re-annexed the area during the Second World War and it returned to Belgium once again upon its conclusion. Thus, while residents retained a linguistic and cultural identity, they switched nationalities six times in barely a hundred years. Confusing? One of the better overviews I’ve seen was provided by the United Nations Refugee Agency, although I don’t think there are too many worries about a refugee situation here.

The current configuration is a bit complicated. The East Cantons are a constitutionally established and protected cultural community with German is the official language. Residents directly elect 25 deputies to the Parliament of the German-speaking Community for five year terms. The parliament maintains legislative power over matters of language, culture, education and the like within its 854 square kilometre domain.

Nonetheless the German community still falls geographically within the province of Liège, itself a part of French-speaking Wallonia, within the Kingdom of Belgium. Thus, it’s somewhat akin to being a state within a state within a state,

It gets more tangled. There are two separate German-speaking enclaves forming East Cantons, the District of Eupen and the District of Sankt Vith, which in turn are divided into nine municipalities.

View Larger Map

The District of Eupen is the smaller, northern enclave, bordering Germany and just touching the Netherlands at the BE-DE-NL tripoint. It is broken into four municipalities, Kelmis, Lontzen, Raeren and Eupen. The municipality of Eupen serves as the focal point for the East Cantons, analogous to its capital of a sort, the location of its parliament at Kaperberg, a focal point for tourism and a home to 25% of the population of the German-speaking areas. Lower-Frankish Limbourgian is a dominant dialect.

Notice in the detail from the map of Eupen above that the majority of street names are listed in German. None of this should be surprising when considering that Eupen is right on the border and a mere 20 kilometres away from the city of Aachen in Germany.

View Larger Map

The District of Sankt Vith is the larger more rural enclave to the south, with borders along Germany and Luxembourg. Here there are five municipalities, Bütgenbach, Büllingen, Amel, Burg Reuland and St. Vith. Moselle Frankish (Luxembourgish) is a common dialect.

Nationalistically, from what I’ve been able to uncover in my research, the preponderance of this ethnically-German population considers itself to be fully integrated within Belgium. Their Flemish and Wallonian countrymen also seem to be accepted them in the same manner. There seems to be little concern that their minority cultural identity will be impinged.

Nonetheless they are the quiet partner, overshadowed by much larger French and Flemish speaking communities.

On September 16, 2009 · 3 Comments

3 Responses to “Hier Wird Deutsch Gesprochen”

  1. Matthias says:

    Did you know that south of Aachen, Germany, there’s a road going from Germany, to Germany, but going through Belgium? No odditiy there, but if you look at a map, you can see that the name of the road changes, but there’s no connexion to any Belgian roads!


    By the way, I came back from my trip in the North East. Great as I expected it would be. Unfortunately, my friends aren’t geogeeks as I am, so we couldnt see many oddities.
    Still, I found some. For example, if you drive from the east to the west in PA, and if you go south of Pittsburgh and head to Cleveland, you’ll soon be, for 3 miles maybe, in West Virginia.
    Another one, but I think people reading this should already know it: the Statue of Liberty is on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, but belongs to New York State. Even more weird: the island of Ellis Island belongs to New Jersey since it’s on the NJ side of the Hudson, but the building is in NY State.

    • A great list of oddities, Matthias, and welcome back from your trip. That little section of West Virginia is known as the Northern Panhandle. I’ve been meaning to post an article about it but somehow keep getting diverted by other topics. The Ellis Island example is particularly fascinating and was the subject of a legal action that was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Until 1998 the entirety of Ellis Island was considered the territory of New York but the Court ruled that all parts of the island created artificially actually belonged to New Jersey. That was actually most of the island.

      I really enjoyed the German-Belgian-German road you mentioned. Here it is, and as you noted, there doesn’t appear to be any way to exit the road during its brief stretch through Belgium. Very cool. My knowledge of Euro-oddities is much less than North America, so any others you find interesting please let me know!

      Agrandir le plan

  2. Matthias says:

    I don’t have any oddity in mind right now, but did you notice that on your Eupen map, every street is in German, except one which is in French?

Comments are closed.

12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
Don't miss an article -
Subscribe to the feed!

RSS G+ Twitter
RSS Twelve Mile Circle Google Plus Twitter
Monthly Archives
Days with Posts
September 2017
« Aug