August 25, 1830  Night at the Opera

In 1914, Imperial Germany took a straight line through neutral Belgium into France, believing that Great Britain would never honor a “scrap of paper” signed back in 1839. 

In 1830, what is now Belgium was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, a fusion of territories brought about in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, formerly belonging to the Dutch Republic, Austrian Netherlands, and Prince-Bishopric of Liège. It was a Constitutional Monarchy,  ruled by the first King of the Netherlands, King William I.

The “Southern Provinces” of King William’s polity were almost all Catholic, and mostly French speaking, in contradistinction to the Dutch speaking, mostly Protestant north.  Many southern liberals of the time thought King William a despot and tyrant, and high levels of industrial unemployment made for widespread unrest among the working muette

La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) is an opera in five acts by Daniel Auber.  Generally recognized as the earliest of the French Grand Opera, it was first performed at the Paris Opéra on February 29 1828.   During an August 25, 1830 performance, a riot broke out during one particularly patriotic duet, Amour sacré de la patrie, (Sacred love of Fatherland).  Soon it was spilling out onto the street, a full-scale riot spreading across Brussels and igniting other riots as shops were looted, factories occupied and machinery destroyed.

King William committed troops to the southern provinces in an effort to restore order, while radicals asserted control of rioting factions and began talk of secession.  Dutch military units experienced massive desertion of recruits from the southern provinces, and had to pull out.

The States-General in Brussels voted in favor of secession and declared independence, assembling a National Congress while King William appealed to the Great Powers for help. The resulting 1830 London Conference of major European powers came to recognize Belgian independence, and Leopold I was installed as “King of the Belgians”.Leopold_I_of_Belgium

King William made one more attempt to reconquer Belgium militarily, in 1831.  France intervened with troops of its own and the “Ten Days’ Campaign” ended in failure.  The European powers signed the “Treaty of London” in 1839, recognizing and guaranteeing Belgium’s independence and neutrality.

The German Composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner remarked on the events decades later, saying that “[S]eldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection with a world-event”.

In August 1914, Imperial Germany’s plan in the event of war could be likened to one guy against two in a bar fight, (Germany vs France & Russia).  The plan was to take out the nearer one first (France), before turning to face the second.  Imperial Germany took a straight line through neutral Belgium into France, believing that Great Britain would never honor that “scrap of paper” signed back in 1839.

In this German calculations were grievously mistaken.  A regional squabble had begun that June, with an assassination in the Balkans.  That miscalculation would plunge the world into two world wars.

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