This study investigates internationalism through the prism of a small European country. It explores an age in which many groups and communities – from socialists to scientists – organised themselves across national borders. Belgium was a major hub for transnational movements. By taking this small and yet significant European country as a focal point, the book critically examines major historical issues, including nationalism, colonial expansion, political activism and international relations. A main aim is to reveal the multifarious and sometimes contradictory nature of internationalism. The Belgian case shows how within one particular country, different forms of internationalism sometimes clashed and sometimes converged. The book is organised around political movements and intellectual currents that had a strong presence in Belgium. Each of the main chapters is dedicated to a key theme in European history: nationhood, empire, the relationship between church and state, political and social equality, peace, and universalism. The timeframe ranges from the fin de siècle to the interwar years. It thus covers the rise of international associations before the First World War, the impact of the conflagration of 1914, and the emergence of new actors such as the League of Nations. With its discussion of campaigns and activities that ranged beyond the nation-state, this study is instructive for anyone interested in transnational approaches to history.
The term ‘internationalism’ was widely used in the early twentieth century, albeit in a somewhat diffuse manner: it could refer to an outlook, a movement or a process. The introduction addresses such terminological issues and considers the existing literature on internationalism and transnational exchanges. The chapter examines the extent to which the period between 1880 and 1930 can be described as an ‘age of internationalism’ – a period characterised by a plethora of campaigns and congresses with international features. It draws attention to the particular role of small states in this period. Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries all hosted a variety of international meetings and movements. Belgium hence provides a fitting case to study transnational processes in their national context. Accordingly, the final section introduces the specific Belgian settings of internationalism, including the political currents and social milieus to which it was connected.
Internationalism is often perceived as the anti-thesis of nationalism. In contrast to such views, this chapter tackles the interrelated nature of these two phenomena. Representations of the Belgian nation depicted the country as a ‘microcosm’ or ‘crossroads of Europe’. Internationalism thus fed into a discourse of national exceptionalism. To illustrate this point, the chapter considers the writings of a range of Belgian intellectuals, notably Henri Pirenne, Edmond Picard, Louis Frank, Louis Piérard, Irénée Van der Ghinst, Louis Dumont-Wilden, Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine. The notion of Belgium as an ‘international nation’ was not confined to intellectuals: it was also staged at international congresses and world’s fairs. Indeed, between 1885 and 1935, Belgium hosted more international exhibitions than any other country. Such events helped to promote the project of ‘Belgian expansion’ in which nationalism, internationalism and colonialism intersected.
Few aspects of Belgian history have caused as much controversy as the country’s colonial past. Leopold II’s rule in the Congo was characterised by exploitation, violence and a devastating death toll. This chapter examines the complex relationship between empire and internationalism. It shows how internationalism could be placed at the service of empire while also providing the means to challenge imperial designs. In their quest for expansion in Africa, Leopold II and his supporters used international law and international conferences. They presented the colonisation of the Congo region as part of an international struggle against slavery. The Brussels Conference of 1889–90 – a major diplomatic event – typified this approach. Yet, in its turn, the attack upon Leopold’s Congo Free State also used international conferences and transnational communication channels. The chapter shows how E. D. Morel, the famous British campaigner for Congo reform, built links with activists in other countries, including the Belgian politicians Emile Vandervelde and Georges Lorand. The final section extends the discussion to the interwar period. It considers the role of the Belgian Congo within the new international order and examines the interactions between colonial officials and the League of Nations.
The culture wars between Catholics and secularists were at once inter- and transnational: international, because they occurred in many different countries, and transnational, because both camps maintained connections across national borders. In Belgium, such conflicts manifested themselves in the ‘School Wars’ of 1879–84. During the subsequent decades, the relationship between state and church continued to be heavily contested. As a result, the country became a key site for two competing kinds of internationalism: one based on Catholic beliefs, the other underpinned by secular principles. The country was a major hub for political Catholicism and Catholic lay activism, yet it also hosted an international organisation of secularists, the International Freethought Federation. As a whole, this chapter analyses the conflict between Catholic and secularist internationalism. It discusses their respective associational guises, but also the ways in which they engaged with questions of science, nationhood and social justice.
Many people associate the term ‘internationalism’ with socialism and the notion that class solidarity overrides national boundaries. Belgium was a key site for this type of internationalism, as represented by socialists such as Emile Vandervelde, Camille Huysmans and Louis de Brouckère. Between 1900 and 1914, the International Socialist Bureau coordinated the work of the Second International from its base in Brussels. The chapter also looks beyond socialist politics and considers anarchism, feminism and non-socialist campaigns for social reform. In doing so, it explores the links between different internationalisms, for instance the relationship between socialism, feminism and freethought. Furthermore, the chapter shows how the Great War caused ruptures within many international movements. After the war, socialists operated within a different environment, which is highlighted by their tensions with communist internationalism.
For Belgium, the international rule of law was a matter of survival, both in light of the country’s location and history. This chapter considers peace campaigns and examines the interaction between visions of global order, transnational activism and diplomacy. For many activists, the extension of international law – as reflected in the principle of arbitration – was a major objective, and this focus was underlined by Belgian involvement in the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the International Peace Bureau. However, the German attack of 1914 revealed the limitations of an international order based on law. As a result, the wartime plight of Belgium became a matter of concern for internationalists elsewhere. This chapter traces the engagement with peace and international organisation beyond the First World War. It shows how some activists mobilised public opinion in support of the League of Nations or promoted European integration. Others, however, adopted radical stances that ranged from communist antimilitarism to an ‘integral’ pacifism based on conscientious objection.
At the fin de siècle, Belgium experienced a period of great cultural dynamism, as reflected in influential artistic movements, literary periodicals and manifold efforts for social reform. This chapter considers two individuals whose endeavours seem to embody the optimism of this period: the bibliographer Paul Otlet and his friend Henri La Fontaine, a Socialist senator, pacifist leader and Nobel Peace laureate. The two started their collaboration in the circles of Brussels-based sociology, and subsequently launched various international projects, including the International Institute of Bibliography, the Union of International Associations, the Palais Mondial in Brussels and the project of a world capital (Cité Mondiale). Their efforts covered science, politics and the arts, constituting an internationalism with universal ambitions. The chapter draws attention to the settings in which activists such as Otlet and La Fontaine operated. To this end, it looks beyond the Great War and addresses wider subjects, such as the League of Nations’ work for intellectual cooperation.