# Introduction

Or the 'Belgium' concept on the international stage

Excerpt from a postcard  - Private collection, Mr. Berthot ©

Excerpt from a postcard - Private collection, Mr. Berthot ©

Since 1831, Belgium had been a "permanently and perpetually" neutral country, as proclaimed by the legal texts in effect after the treaties of 1831 and 1839. Since then, the established fact of this neutrality had become well-established in tradition, despite being sporadically challenged. However, on August 4th, 1914, this neutrality and its underlying principles are violated by Germany after the expiry of an ultimatum that stipulated that troops from the other side of the Rhine had to cross Belgian territory in order to avoid an upcoming offensive by the French army. King of the Belgians Albert 1st sees in this no more than a pretext for an outright invasion of his Kingdom. As such, war seems inevitable. Quite quickly, Belgium comes to be seen as quite a particular case in the starting phase of this conflict; this peculiarity will in fact persist through the four years of battles. Indeed, it's the only country to be invaded for more than 90% of its territory. This invasion implies an almost automatic consequence, namely exodus. Of course, we're referring to the thousands of Belgian refugees who find shelter abroad, including intellectuals who, sometimes after considerable delays and tribulations, make their way to England, near Oxford, or even quite simply the Belgian government that, in October 1914, establishes itself not far from Le Havre, in Sainte-Adresse, from where it will manage the course of Belgium's affairs.

This Belgian peculiarity also ensures the thoroughly unusual nature of all of its relations with the world at large. Right from August 1914, in fact, international opinion immediately seizes upon the tenacious defence of the forts of Liège, while also learning with horror of the details of the massacres in that valiant city's Place du XX août. Moreover, the fact that foreigners are also rounded up by the occupier and executed alongside Belgians contributes to the growing international awareness. The efforts of certain Belgian propagandists abroad, and sometimes of Belgians of international renown such as Jules Destrée or Georges Lorand, will contribute, during the conflict, to ensuring that the voice of Poor Little Belgium continues to be heard in other countries. They travel to Italy, to Romania, and organise missions intended for the United States. People clandestinely travel via the Netherlands in order to reach London and then, sometimes, the Belgian government in exile in Le Havre, in an effort to be useful, one way or another, to their country's cause. Escaping from the occupied territory is essential. Belgium must remain a topic of conversation. The word must be spread. The justifications for the German invasion in August 1914 must be destroyed. In the end, these events and these propagandists will also contribute to the internationalization of the concept of "Belgium". Previously known only to a small part of international opinion thanks to its tramways and its presence in the Congo, this country now makes its way onto the international stage.

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