An uphill battle : campaigning for the militarization of Belgium, 1870-1914
This article reconsiders an often forgotten political attempt to militarize Belgium in the decades leading up to the First World War. Between 1870 and 1914, Belgium was the scene of a distinctly militaristic lobby that issued increasingly strong demands for investment in Belgian military defense. Yet, however intense these campaigns could be at times, they were systematically blocked by a strong antimilitaristic front. The militarists were downgraded in Belgian historiography because of this assumed failure to influence military policy. There is indeed general agreement that despite its surprisingly determined defensive patriotism during World War One, 'poor little Belgium' was barely militarized before the mobilization of 1914. Using new source material in combination with recent insights on militarization processes, this article introduces a new perspective on what is generally considered to be a marginalized militaristic movement. I argue that even though the campaigns failed to fully achieve their political objectives, they left a significant mark on civil-military relations and were able to stimulate militarization processes in Belgium. This reconsideration of militarization in a country that has been labeled as antimilitaristic draws upon new perspectives on the concepts of militarism and militarization in geography and anthropology. Abandoning the concept of 'militarism' because of its inflexibility and negative undertones, these studies analyze militarization as a multilayered and reciprocal exchange process between civilian and military worlds. This enables the researcher to discern more complex and subtle civil-military interactions, and to detect their impact on society. I apply these new insights on the militarist lobby, which was the most explicitly militaristic actor in the Belgian political milieu prior to World War One. An overview of militaristic actions in 1872-1874, 1886-1889, 1897-1899 and 1908-1913 shows that military advocates increasingly pursued alliances with civilian political figures, allowing them to deepen their impact on Belgium's attitude towards its army. I capture this particularly Belgian form of militarization by using the analytical framework of securitization. This constructivist and process-oriented securitization theory uncovers how militarists developed and purveyed their beliefs in order to secure an increase in military spending and gain more public and political support for military reform. This discursive, qualitative analysis follows three successive dynamics, namely (1) the construction of existential internal and external safety threats to Belgium, (2) the reformed army as the only protector against these threats and (3) the reaction of the public to this militarist perspective upon the Belgian state and society. The collaboration between military and civilian actors encouraged a two-way transfer of ideas. The militarists extended the traditional military-strategic function of the army to include a societal mission of protecting and improving the nation's character and identity. 'Civilian' ideas about democratic values, moral regeneration, and social equity became an integral part of how they perceived the army's role in society. Conversely, lobbyists succeeded in convincing a large part of the public of the truth of basic militaristic notions : that Belgium suffered multiple threats to its very existence; and that reforming the military was the only way to safeguard the state's survival. The intense interaction between military and civilian domains that resulted led to a mutual exchange of ideas that had a profound effect on the civilian attitude towards military affairs. At the same time, it decidedly increased civilian political influence in military affairs. This bridging of the gap between the military and civil sphere remained largely hidden behind the face of an anti-militaristic, peaceful Belgium when compared to its neighbors. Yet it is precisely this dynamic that helps to explain the swiftness and determination with which Belgians took up arms in 1914.
Source (journal)
Belgisch tijdschrift voor nieuwste geschiedenis / Jan Dhondt Stichting; CEGESOMA [Brussel] - Gent, 1969, currens
Gent : Fondation Jan Dhondt , 2012
0035-0869 [print]
2295-3744 [online]
42 :4 (2012) , p. 144-+
Research group
Project info
Military service as civic duty? A political-social history of the relationship between army and civilian society in Belgium (1830-1914)
Publication type
Publications with a UAntwerp address
External links
Web of Science
Creation 14.02.2013
Last edited 09.10.2023
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