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More Belgian than the Belgians: Who is the German-speaking community of Ostbelgien?

The people from Ostbelgien prove to be at least as proud Belgians as these Red Devil-supporters from Mouscron. foto: Jamain (Wikimedia Commons - CC BY-SA 4.0)

Did you know that there is a German-speaking part of Belgium? It is called Ostbelgien, or Eastern-Belgium. Don’t feel bad, even some Belgians don’t know that. I talked to two German-speaking students about their community and how it is for them to get a higher education in a foreign language.

The German-speaking community is a small minority of some 90,000 people, but they are proud Belgians nonetheless. When the national football team – the Red Devils – have a game, the German-speaking Belgians travel to Brussels from the furthest corners of the land to support their country.

Professor Arvi Sepp, lecturer in German literature at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Universiteit Antwerpen, emphasises the importance of the border-aspects of Eastern-Belgian culture. He points out that the self-definition of the collective identity of German-speaking Belgians has shifted throughout the last decades.

The Treaty of Versailles (1919) signalled the end of World War I. photo: Kallen2021 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

‘That shift in perception of the collective identity is a consequence of the historical context of the community. Ostbelgien was incorporated into Belgium in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, at the end of the First World War. At that time there was a lot of resistance towards the annexation within the community. Because of that, many Eastern-Belgians welcomed the occupation of Belgium by Nazi-Germany in 1940. That led to a strong divide in the German-speaking community during the occupation.’

‘After the defeat of the Nazis and the liberation of Ostbelgien, the Belgian government issued a strong repression towards German-speaking citizens. The people of Ostbelgien were more harshly punished for collaboration with the Nazi-oppressors, even more so than the Flemish collaborators. As a defense mechanism, people from Ostbelgien tried to be more Belgian than the Belgians, in order to avoid persecution.’

The liberation of Belgium from the Nazis in 1944 led to a harsh repression against German-speaking citizens. photo: Public domain (Imperial War Museum)

‘In that period, German was abolished as the official language of the region,’ professor Sepp adds. ‘Even education had to be given in French, in an attempt to completely assimilate the German-speaking community. They tried to turn them into Walloons, which lasted to the beginning of the sixties, when finally German was reinstated as the official language of Ostbelgien.’

Minority

Ostbelgien lies on the borders of Germany to the east and Luxemburg to the south. photo: El Bubi (Wikimedia Commons – (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Being such a small community, it’s not always possible for them to get a higher education in their own country and language. Two options  are available in German in the city of Eupen, capital of Ostbelgien. Those are the teacher-training course and nursing-school. Other than that, there are no German courses at the Belgian universities and colleges.’

‘But that doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem according to professor Sepp,‘Within the community, there is not really a demand for it. There are only some 90,000 German-speaking Belgians, so I don’t think that many universities or colleges will want to invest in German courses.’

Philippe Collard of the German-speaking student association Eumavia Lovaniensis agrees. ‘It is rather logical that for such a small community no special courses are provided. If people really want to study in German, they can do that at German universities, and some do.’ Philippe studies German literature in the Walloon city of Louvain-La-Neuve. He adds that it is a great advantage for students from Ostbelgien to have a decent level of understanding of the other national languages.

 

Proud Belgians

‘Most people from Ostbelgien identify themselves as Belgians,’ says Philippe. ‘However, there are some differences between the northern and southern part of Ostbelgien. In the north, we will more often identify ourselves as Belgians than people in the south. That is mainly because of the fact that the southern part borders both Germany and Luxemburg, while we only have a border with Germany. Furthermore, people in the south will more often have jobs in those neighbouring countries and therefore be less involved in Belgian affairs.’

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Lara Bongartz is a student from Ostbelgien in Louvain-La-Neuve as well. She studies Germanic languages and is also a member of Eumavia. Lara points out that although not everyone knows of the existence of a German-speaking community in Belgium, there is always a great deal of respect for them and their culture.

‘There are Belgians who don’t even know that there is a German-speaking part of their country. When I tell people I am Belgian, first they look a bit strange at me, but then I try to explain to them that there actually is a German-speaking part and that we are proud Belgians. I really feel like a Belgian, I wouldn’t consider myself to be German or French.’

Integration or isolation?

Photo: Eumavia Lovaniensis V.o.G. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Due to the restricted and regionally directed media-landscape of Ostbelgien, it’s hard for the community to stay informed on affairs that are going on in other parts of Belgium. Some people are more oriented to the German region of Aachen, because of its proximity. Both Philippe and Lara stress the importance of having skills in non-native languages for German-speaking Belgians. ‘Most people watch only German TV and are therefore more involved in German affairs than in Belgian ones. Some people do try to stay updated, but it’s hard if you only speak German.’

Both German-speaking students point out the benefits of getting a higher education in a different language for members of their community. ‘It is a great advantage for any Belgian to learn another national language, but very much so for us,’ says Philippe. ‘Often Belgians will need the other national languages in their later lives and careers, and therefore studying in another language can really provide a good foundation for that.’

Intercultural contact

Eumavia Lovaniensis is a fraternity and sorority for German-speaking students in Louvain-La-Neuve, a college city in Walloon-Brabant. ‘Because we are in a student-association, contact with non-German-speaking students comes more automatically for us,’ Philippe points out.

Being a German-speaking student in a French-speaking college town is a great advantage towards further life and career, according to the students of Eumavia. Photo: Berti2603 (Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0)

Lara agrees: ‘For myself there is not really a problem in making contacts with non-German-speaking students, because I am perfectly bilingual. For students who are more German-speaking than French-speaking, it is of course a bit harder. But as their French improves during their academic career, so doesthe contact with other students.’

‘Other Belgians are often interested in our culture, because there are some differences between German-speaking and French-speaking Belgians,’ confirms Philippe. ‘The other students tell us: “maybe your French is not completely as good as ours, but we don’t even speak a word of German.” They have a lot of respect for that and treat us accordingly.’

Text: Michiel Suls, photo: Jamain (CC BY-SA 4.0)