The Blurred Boundaries of Belgianness: Walloon Intellectuals, Pride, and the Development of Regionalist Rhetoric, 1884-1914

Open Access
Hensley, David J.
Graduate Program:
Master of Arts
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
May 29, 2008
Committee Members:
  • Sophie C De Schaepdrijver, Thesis Advisor
  • intellectuals
  • pride
  • nationalism
  • regionalism
  • Wallonia
  • Belgium
  • identity formation
Most analyses of regionalist sentiments in Belgium are hindered by an overly finalist interpretation of Belgian history, in which Belgium is an "artificial" construct in which two "real" populations, Flemings and Walloons, have uneasily coexisted, waiting for the eventual break-up of the state. From this perspective, the Flemish and Walloon Movements are the "awakenings" of these primordial groups. I argue instead that regionalism is a form of discourse, a "political idiom" which historical actors develop and use in the course of political debates on a wide array of issues which are portrayed as connected to regional identities. In particular, I examine the Walloon Movement in the three decades before World War I. I propose that this movement was the domain of ambitious but frustrated men in the literary and political fields who felt symbolically "dominated" by a clerical, "Flemish" government. The development of Walloon regional identity was inextricable from anti-clerical and broadly "leftist" political viewpoints, which conflated "Wallonia" with the values of liberty and progressivism, thereby excluding Catholic Walloons as well as progressive Flemings from its rhetoric. The Walloon Movement's rhetoric emphasized three overlapping forms of identity as sources of pride and prestige: Walloon, French, and Belgian. I study the way in which Walloon Movement used each of these three forms of identity in elaborating a politicized regional discourse. Finally, I argue that as a discursive formation, we cannot see Walloon regionalism as the inexorable outcome of historical forces, but rather a contingent phenomenon, constructed in a particular set of political and social circumstances. A teleological narrative focusing on the "inevitable break-up of Belgium" is grossly inaccurate and denies the role of contingency in history.