Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
There were 77,185 people belonging to the German-speaking community of Belgium in 2018. The community’s official area consists of nine districts in the east of the Province of Liège, which is part of the French-language Walloon region. The German-speaking community area is divided into two cantons, that of Eupen in the north adjacent to the Flemish and German borders (which includes the municipalities of Eupen, Kelmis, Lontzen and Raeren), and that of Sankt Vith in the south along the border with Luxembourg and Germany (which includes the municipalities of Sankt Vith, Amel, Bullingen, Burg-Reuland, and Butgenbach). The Moselle Frankish German, or Luxembourgish, spoken in Arlon and Martelange has official recognition from the French-language community. There are other Belgian native German-speakers in central Belgium, but they are largely assimilated with the French- or Flemish-language districts in which they live.
There are two main dialects of German in eastern Belgium. Lower-Frankish Limbourgian is spoken in the northern canton of Eupen and Moselle Frankish (otherwise known as Luxembourgish) in the southern canton of St Vith. Both are quite distinct from standard German. Many members of the community are bilingual in French and German, although bilingualism has declined. German has an equal language status to Flemish and French in Belgium, and German translations of all federal legislation can be requested in German, as decreed by law in 1990.
The majority of German-speakers are Protestant Christians, whereas most other Belgians are Roman Catholic.
The German-language area of Belgium was part of the Low Countries (which included present-day Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) from the late Middle Ages. The northern canton was part of the Duchy of Limburg and the southern canton was part of the Duchy of Luxembourg. When Belgium gained independence from the Flemish in 1830, the government decreed that citizens were free to use Flemish, French or German in dealings with the authorities, and this is enshrined in the 1831 Constitution. In 1839 the canton of Eupen was separated from Belgium and became part of the German Confederation. The canton of Sankt Vith and other territory were taken from Luxembourg and given to Belgium. After 1839 the language of administration and the courts was almost exclusively French. In 1842 primary education was required to cover the basics in all three languages as the need arose. In 1914 the law required teaching at all levels had to be given in the child’s mother tongue, but this was not consistently applied. Secondary teaching continued to be in French.
German became the main language of the community when German forces occupied Belgium during the First World War, but French was restored in 1918. The canton of Eupen was also returned to Belgium in 1918. In May 1940 the invading German forces annexed Eupen-Malmedy and the other German-speaking Belgian municipalities to Germany, but all of Belgium came under German rule. In the eastern municipalities German became the only language for education, administration and the law until 1945. After Belgium regained its independence and these territories, the German language largely disappeared from public life, including schools. At secondary level, education was exclusively in French.
In 1962 a cultural and linguistic border was drawn for the first time between the Flemish and French-speaking areas. In 1963 language laws established Flemish (Flemish), French and German as the official languages for their geographical areas. When the Constitution was amended in 1970 it set up cultural communities, including the German-language community. German became the official language of the German-speaking area.
Devolution from central government to federal structures began to take shape in 1980. In 1984 the 25-member Council (Parliament) and Government (Executive) of the German-speaking community were established with legislative powers over all language, cultural and educational matters. Since 1994 the Walloon region has devolved regional powers to the German-speaking community, which now deals with decisions relating to employment, monuments and listed buildings and the protection of the natural landscape, as well as undertaking the supervision and financing of local authorities.
A 2008 survey revealed that both German-speaking and non-German speaking Belgians would like more attention to be paid to the German-speaking community. In June 2009 Monika Dethier-Neumann was the first member of the German-speaking community to be elected as President of the Walloon regional parliament.
German-speakers elect the parliament of their community. They also elect representatives to the Walloon regional parliament and to the Belgian federal parliament. However, there is no guaranteed representation except for in the Senate of the federal parliament, in which according to the Constitution, there is a Community Senator representing German-speakers. The Community Senator is appointed by the German-speakers’ parliament. Aside from the Community Senator, there are a number of German-speakers currently sitting in various elected bodies at the federal, regional and provincial levels.
In principle, German-speakers have equal cultural and linguistic rights, but many community members are pressing for the creation of a German region, which would give them greater autonomy.
German is the language of instruction in most schools, with French as the first foreign language. There are a small number of French-language schools in the German-speaking community. German textbooks are mostly from Germany, but there are some textbooks published locally.
The German-speaking community provides funding for the arts as well as education.
Knowledge of German is usually a requirement for securing employment, although in the private sector it is implicit rather than being explicit. German is specifically required for public sector posts.