Expansion vs. Neutrality. How Belgian Diplomats dealt with the 'military question', 1895-1914.

This article investigates the attitude of Belgian diplomats in the debate about the creation of a stronger army in the decades before the First World War. Closely reading the writings of three members of the diplomatic corps and comparing their discourse with the words of their colleagues, it argues that the current historiographical narrative on the diplomats’ stance towards militarization is in need of revision. The Belgian diplomatic world was no monolithic block of officials whose strict interpretation of neutrality led them to oppose any reinforcement of the military until the final years before the outbreak of war. On the contrary, at least from the mid-1890s onwards, several diplomats jettisoned the reticent attitude which their professional quality required of them and took an active part in the propaganda for personal conscription. Their ideas about the purposes of militarizing the nation were conditioned by the prime importance they attached to the realization of Belgian economic and territorial expansion. They supported their argument for the strengthening of the army by appealing to a concept of patriotism that connected the military question to the need for a larger Belgian empire. This way of understanding patriotism also harbored an elitist concern for proper guidance of the masses. Whereas changes in political culture after the 1893 franchise extension had promoted in members of the upper classes a certain distaste for domestic politics, the diplomats among them had found in King Leopold II’s imperialism a motivation to deal with the politicization of the populace. In their view, the army would not only remove the social threat emanating from the lower classes by instilling discipline in their most virile members, it would also nourish their love for Belgium and, much like the colony had done for diplomats, give them pride as the defenders of a strong empire.