The Kingdom of Belgium (België in Dutch, Belgique in French and Belgien in German) is a small, densely populated country in Europe which covers an area of 11,787 square miles (30,528 square kilometers) and has a population of about 11 million people. It is divided into three regions and three communities, that exist next to each other. Its two largest regions are the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders in the north, which constitutes about 59 percent of the population, and the French-speaking southern region of Wallonia, comprising 41 percent of all Belgians. The Brussels-Capital Region is an officially bilingual (French and Dutch) enclave within the Flemish Region. A German-speaking community exists in eastern Wallonia. Belgium’s linguistic diversity and related political conflicts are reflected in its political history and complex system of governance, made up of six different governments.
Historically, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg (along with parts of Northern France and Western Germany) were known as the Low Countries; it once covered a somewhat larger area than the current Benelux group of states. The name ‘Belgium’ is derived from Gallia Belgica, a Roman province in the northernmost part of Gaul that before Roman invasion in 100 BC, was inhabited by the Belgae, a mix of Celtic and Germanic peoples. A gradual immigration by Germanic Frankish tribes during the fifth century brought the area under the rule of the Merovingian kings. A shift of power during the eighth century led the kingdom of the Franks to evolve into the Carolingian Empire.
The Treaty of Verdun in 843 divided the region into Middle and West Francia and therefore into a set of more or less independent fiefdoms which, during the Middle Ages, were vassals either of the King of France or of the Holy Roman Emperor. Many of these fiefdoms were united in the Burgundian Netherlands of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Emperor Charles V extended the personal union of the Seventeen Provinces in the 1540s, making it far more than a personal union by the Pragmatic Sanction of 1549 and increased his influence over the Prince-Bishopric of Liège.
The Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) divided the Low Countries into the northern United Provinces (Belgica Foederata in Latin, the “Federated Netherlands”) and the Southern Netherlands (Belgica Regia, the “Royal Netherlands”). The latter were ruled successively by the Spanish (Spanish Netherlands) and the Austrian Habsburgs (Austrian Netherlands) and comprised most of modern Belgium. This was the theatre of most Franco-Spanish and Franco-Austrian wars during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Following the campaigns of 1794 in the French Revolutionary Wars, the Low Countries — including territories that were never nominally under Habsburg rule, such as the Prince-Bishopric of Liège — were annexed by the French First Republic, ending Austrian rule in the region. The reunification of the Low Countries as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands occurred at the dissolution of the First French Empire in 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon.
In 1830, the Belgian Revolution led to the separation of the Southern Provinces from the Netherlands and to the establishment of a Catholic and bourgeois, officially French-speaking and neutral, independent Belgium under a provisional government and a national congress. Since the installation of Leopold I as king on July 21, 1831, now celebrated as Belgium’s National Day, Belgium has been a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, with a laicist constitution based on the Napoleonic code. Although the franchise was initially restricted, universal suffrage for men was introduced after the general strike of 1893 (with plural voting until 1919) and for women in 1949.
French was originally the single official language adopted by the nobility and the bourgeoisie. It progressively lost its overall importance as Dutch became recognized as well. This recognition became official in 1898 and in 1967 the parliament accepted a Dutch version of the Constitution.
Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914 as part of the Schlieffen Plan to attack France and much of the Western Front fighting of World War I occurred in western parts of the country. The opening months of the war were known as the Rape of Belgium due to German excesses. Belgium assumed control of the German colonies of Ruanda-Urundi (modern-day Rwanda and Burundi) during the war, and in 1924 the League of Nations mandated them to Belgium. In the aftermath of the First World War, the Prussian districts of Eupen and Malmedy were annexed by Belgium in 1925, thereby causing the presence of a German-speaking minority.
German forces again invaded the country in May 1940 and 40,690 Belgians, over half of them Jews, were killed during the subsequent occupation and The Holocaust. From September 1944 to February 1945 Belgium was liberated by the Allies. After World War II, a general strike forced King Leopold III, who many Belgians felt had collaborated with Germany during the war, to abdicate in 1951. The Belgian Congo gained independence in 1960 during the Congo Crisis; Ruanda-Urundi followed with its independence two years later. Belgium joined NATO as a founding member and formed the Benelux group of nations with the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
Belgium became one of the six founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 and of the European Atomic Energy Community and European Economic Community, established in 1957. The latter has now become the European Union, for which Belgium hosts major administrations and institutions, including the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the extraordinary and committee sessions of the European Parliament.
There is a large economic gap between Flanders and Wallonia. Wallonia was historically wealthy compared to Flanders, mostly due to its heavy industries, but the decline of the steel industry post-World War II led to the region’s rapid decline, whereas Flanders rose swiftly. Since then, Flanders has been prosperous, among the wealthiest regions in Europe, whereas Wallonia has been languishing. As of 2007, the unemployment rate of Wallonia was over double that of Flanders. The divide has played a key part in the tensions between the Flemish and Walloons in addition to the already-existing language divide. Pro-independence movements have gained high popularity in Flanders as a consequence.
Belgium began using national postage stamps on July 8, 1849, when two imperforate stamps, a 10 centime brown and 20 centime blue, collectively known as Epaulettes, were introduced, becoming the ninth country in the world to issue adhesive stamps for the prepayment of letter postage. These first Belgian stamps, like the Penny Blacks of Great Britain, bore no country name. The rationale was that these stamps were only intended for postal use within Belgium. The stamps were engraved, imperforate, and they were printed on paper with a framed monogram watermark.
A few months later a 40 centime red stamp with a new design was issued, for postage to foreign destinations. In 1850 two new stamps of 10 centimes and 20 centimes were issued. These stamps are known as the Medallion issue and many different printings were produced between 1849 and 1865.
New stamps, beginning 1865, had a more “modernistic” look to them, and featured an older, left facing, profile of King Leopold I. The king died in December 1865 but new stamps with his profile were issued through 1867. Though King Leopold II was actually the monarch at that time, the new printing plates, with his profile on them, were not ready until 1869. Stamps with the left facing profile of King Leopold II, began appearing during 1870. Along with the lower denomination numeral stamps, they were the first postage stamps of Belgium to have the country name printed on them. Even though more than half the population speaks Dutch, the country name was in the French “Belgique” only, the official language of the government.
Under the government of Auguste Beernaert, however, stamps began to be issued with the Dutch language “België” too from 1893. Belgian stamps are rarely issued with German text (“Belgien”) as well, including overprinted German Germania stamps during World War I.
One interesting feature of Belgian stamps issued between 1893 and 1914, is the addition of a perforated tab at the bottom of each of the postage stamps. The tab reads NE PAS LIVRER LE DIMANCHE in French, with the same phrase repeated in Dutch. This means “DO NOT DELIVER ON SUNDAY”. The sender would leave the tab attached to the stamp, if they objected to their letter being delivered on Sunday. If the sender did not object to Sunday delivery, they could indicate their preference by removing the tab from the stamp.
King Leopold II died in December 1909. Stamps with his portrait continued to be produced until new stamps with the portrait of King Albert I were issued during 1912. These were the last Belgian stamps to have the perforated Sunday delivery label at the bottom. Due to the German invasion and occupation of Belgium during World War I, no Belgian stamps at all were produced between 1916 and 1918. Stamps reappeared in 1919. With the exception of some special issues for national exhibitions and of various high-denomination pictorial definitive stamps, commemorative Belgian stamps were not issued with any regularity until the 1930’s.
Scott #937 was issued on October 11, 1975, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the foundation of the National Bank of Belgium (Nationale Bank van België in Dutch, Banque nationale de Belgique in French and Belgische Nationalbank in German). Printed by a mixture of photogravure and engraving and perforated 12½x13, the 25 franc stamp portrays an image of bank founder W. F. Orban. The National Bank of Belgium was established with 100% private capital by a law of May 5. 1850, as a Société Anonyme (SA).