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.
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.
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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.
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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.