Friday, July 15, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Belgium. Long United Long Divided by Samuel Humes

We’ve recently returned from a family vacation in Europe, primarily Germany but we also stopped in Denmark and Belgium (Bruges). I’ve wanted to visit Bruges forever, since it’s a medieval jewel and the site of the intriguing assassination of Charles the Good.

However, as much as I loved Bruges, I was frustrated by how little knowledge I have of Belgium. Its history is complicated. It’s part of "the low countries," a designation I’ve never really understood. So, while browsing the small English language section in a touristy bookstore, I came across a "brief" history of the country: Belgium. Long United, Long Divided by Samuel Humes. Although relatively short, it’s densely written and gives a great overview of how the country formed and of the forces that threaten to tear it apart.

The country has always been an amalgamation of different parts. In the past, the biggest threats were from without, as it passed back and forth between French, German, and Dutch hands. Currently, its greatest threat is from within, as the Walloon (French-speaking) and Flemish (Dutch-speaking) natives of the country vie for primacy and political control.

Interesting as the current debates are (and discussion of them permeated the book), I was more interested in the history. The book starts in Roman times and carries us through to the modern day. It is necessarily superficial in its detail, but covers a good deal of ground. I came away with a much better framework for understanding the history of this area. I only wish I had read it before my visit!