Obituary for the Belgian Franc: Part I

by Andrew Schloss

At the birthplace of the Euro, there is little nostalgia for the Belgian Franc. Unlike the Germans or French, who still mourn the loss of their beloved marks and francs, Belgium was all too ready to dump their faithful currency in favor of a vision of a united Europe. The Belgian Franc may have always played second fiddle to its southern neighbor (after all, it couldn’t even stand on its own two feet, always being proceded by the modifier “Belgian”) but if nothing else it had a visage that was remarkably reflective of the nation it served. Spanning only 175 years, the coinage of modern Belgium comprises a short series when compared to its neighbors. Nevertheless, coins of Belgium rival any other contemporary series in terms of aristry and historical significance. Far from being made of chocolate as one might expect, Belgian numismatics provide an excellent case-study of the ability of coins to peer into the soul of a nation.

Belgium looks to the future as the epicenter of European integration. No doubt this is partly the result of a traumatic post-World War II history in which the monarchy nearly faced dissolution, an African debacle left Belgium the poster child for decolonization gone awry, and the devolution of the unitary state along language lines threatened the kingdom’s very existence. In its struggle for national identity, Belgium has been described as “a hopelessly broken marriage which is held together only because the partners could find no other place to live” (Van Wie, p. 146). A look at Belgian coinage through these historical contexts provides insight into understanding as to why the current situation at the heart of the European Union remains uncertain.

The first part of this article will focus on the crisis in the monarchy that ensued Belgium’s liberation at the close of WWII and the way in which the contemporary coins reflected Belgians’ changing perceptions toward the institution. The second installment will focus on the traditional rivalry between Dutch-speaking Flanders and francophone Wallonia and how the language schism and the accompanying tension has come to dominate nearly all aspects of Belgian society.


From 1831 until the German Occupation of WWII, all coins of Belgium fetured either a bust of monogram of the ruling sovereign in its design. 20 Francs of Leopold III, 1934. (ANS 1935.999.286).

For more than a century the coins of Belgium have featured a portrait of the king and the inscription “King of the Belgians.” However, this image has not remained static and each variation in the coinage reflects the change in both the perception of the monarch and his interaction with his government. When Leopold I of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was crowned King of Belgium in 1831, he received the title “King of the Belgians.” Likely influenced by the 1830 revolution in France and the election of Louis Phillipe as “King of the French,” the title was considered by contemporaries to be a paradigm of a “new” monarch, the citizen-king as the figure head of a constitutional monarchy. The coins of Belgium from 1831 onwards featured either the monogram or bust of the king, accompanied by his royal title. The king continued to play an important role in Belgian politics as a force of influence until the outbreak of WWII and the ensuing German occupation. Belgium’s unease toward the role of the monarch in the years after WWII is reflected in the coinage of the era. Subsequently, royal imagery on Belgium coinage has mirrored the role of the monarch as a neutral and moderating force between dueling internal factions.

Occupation and Betrayal

The German invasion of the Lowlands came unexpectedly by air on May 10, 1940. The Luftwaffe and German paratroopers destroyed the air forces of the Netherlands and Belgium on the ground and seized key bridges and forts throughout the region (http://www.expatonline.com/moving/belgium/History/history_since_1945.cfm). Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg fled along with their respective governments to London where they continued an active resistance against the German aggressors. However, while the Belgian government joined the exiled nations of Europe in London, King Leopold III broke the ranks of solidarity and after a brief eighteen day campaign surrendered his country unconditionally to the German advancers (Van Wie, p. 151). The shock amongst the Belgian government was total. With no minister by Leopold’s side to countersign the capitulation, the government in exile regarded the surrender as invalid and continued plans of cooperation with the Allies. Although Leopold was taken prisoner and held at his palace at Laeken, his policies during the occupation smacked of German collaboration. Leopold and his family were taken to Austria after the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944, and while in exile they refused to show any support of the resistance movements while simultaneously calling the Allied liberators “occupying powers” (Witte, p. 170). While the image of Wilhelmina was removed from the coins of occupied Holland, as was the case of the other monarchs of occupied nations, Leopold’s bust remained on Belgian coinage throughout the Nazi occupation, a revealing clue about the absence of animosity between Leopold and the Germans (Van Wie, p. 151).


Unlike neighboring Netherlands and Luxembourg, where national heraldry was either radically changed or dropped altogether, Leopold III continued to grace the coins of Belgium during the Occupation. 5 Francs of Leopold III, 1941 (ANS 1951.177.2, gift of J. A. Yockers).

Crisis

Parliament convened in Brussels for the first time since 1940 on September 19, 1944 and in the absence of Leopold the legislature appointed his brother Prince Karel as regent. The character and actions of Leopold III during the occupation immediately sparked an intense conflict between the left and right wings of the Belgian political spectrum. The Communists, who attained considerable prestige in the years immediately after 1945, called for Leopold’s abdication while the conservatives vehemently opposed anything other than the king’s full reinstatement (Balthazar, pp. 80-85). In 1945 Prime Minister Van Acker left Belgium for Leopold’s temporary residence in Austria in order to negotiate an agreement. Van Acker was given instructions that Leopold was to publicly laud the Allied forces, purge his entourage, and renew his commitment to parliamentary democracy. The crisis deepened during Van Acker’s absence when the Christian Socialist Party (CVP), a conservative party backing the king, insisted on a public referendum to solve the debate. The largely socialist and liberal Parliament refused and in defiance the CVP left the government (Witte, pp. 170, 180).

As a result of van Acker’s successful mediation, Leopold returned to Belgium amidst this scene of political chaos which only worsened with the resignation of the Communists and the complete collapse of the coalition government. The elections held in 1949 saw the spectacular rise of the conservative right wing, with the CVP capturing 105 seats in the 212 seat Chamber. With a near majority, the CVP was easily able to force a referendum on the Royal Question. In a referendum held on March 12, 1950, 57.6 percent of voters favored the return of Leopold to the throne. The results however polarized the country: 72 percent of Flanders voted for Leopold while fewer than 50 percent in Wallonia and Brussels supported the king. Sensing the transformation of the Royal Question into a full-fledged regional conflict, Leopold offered a compromise in which he would temporarily abdicate and return when the situation had cooled down a bit. This solution pleased no one, with the Socialists and liberals wanting even more restrictions and the Christian Conservatives demanding full reinstatement. Amidst this snowballing crisis was another wave of elections that increased the CVP’s power in Parliament to an absolute majority. This parliament quickly voted to reinstate Leopold and on July 22, 1950 Leopold III returned to Laeken Palace (Witte, pp. 179-181).

The decision to reinstate Leopold as King of the Belgians sparked waves of protest through Wallonia. The Walloon industrial belt went on a general strike and was joined on July 26 by the transportation sector of the economy. There were plans to bring the entire steel industry to a standstill and calls for a Walloon Republic. Four people were shot dead by State Police at Grace Berleur. With the country at the verge of civil war, Leopold started a new round of negotiations with the government on July 31, 1950 in which it was finally agreed that Leopold would abdicate in favor of his son Baudouin. The bloody epilogue to the Royal Question crisis occurred on July 16, 1951 during the inauguration of Baudouin I when Julien Lahaut, Chairman of the Communist Party, shouted out “Vive la Republique” during the royal oath ceremony. Lahaut was shot dead one week later in front of his home in Seraing. The murder was never solved (Witte, http://www.resistances.be/).

Iconoclasm and Reconciliation

Belgium’s unease towards the role of the monarch in the years after WWII is reflected on the coinage of the era. The coins of Belgium from 1831 onward featured either the monogram or bust of the king, accompanied by his royal title. The years 1945-1947 saw a continuation of the series that had circulated prior to and during the German Occupation in a policy similar to other European countries who favored instilling a sense of continuity from before the war rather than immediate reforms. A complete redesign of Belgian coinage was unveiled in 1948 during the core of the crisis regarding the Royal Question. The new designs were a radical shift towards republican iconography. The portrait of Leopold III was completely removed from all of the denominations. Replacing him were allegorical representations of agriculture, commerce, and industry. The one and five franc denominations pictured the goddess Ceres, symbolizing agriculture, accompanied by a small horn of plenty (Van Wie, pp. 151-152). The theme of renewal was appropriate considering that the coins were introduced when Europe’s battlefields were still smoldering and is a motif common to the coins of many nations after WWII including those of France, West Germany, and Italy. The only reference to Belgium’s status as a monarchy was the crown on the reverse. The twenty and fifty franc pieces replace Leopold’s bust with a portrait of the classical god Mercury, a traditional symbol of commerce and prosperity. On these pieces even the crown on the reverse was omitted. The 50-centime coin features a portrait of a miner, symbolizing industry (Raymond, p. 2). The only post-WWII coin that Leopold III appears on is the 100 franc denomination, and even then he is portrayed on a tableau with his three predecessors, again stressing continuity after the war (Wie, pp. 151-152). The 100-franc coin also bears resemblance to a denier of ancient Gallic Belgium, further reinforcing the de-emphasis on Leopold himself and the focus on historical continuity (Pauwels, p. 75). King Leopold was also removed from the coinage of the Belgian Congo and replaced by an elephant motif (Raymond, p. 16).


Removed from every denomination save one, Leopold III was relegated to the infrequently seen 100-franc coin, where he shared the obverse with his three predecessors. 100 Francs, 1948. (ANS 1965.68.13, gift of Henry Grunthal).


Replacing Leopold III on the 20-franc coin in 1948, Mercury marked a dramatic shift from over a century of a continual royal presence. 20 Francs, 1949. (ANS 1965.68.11, gift of Henry Grunthal).


Even Belgium’s colonies in Central Africa felt the pressure of the Royal Question, as Leopold was replaced in the Belgian Congo with an elephant. Belgian Congo 5 Francs, 1947. (ANS 1950.122.509, gift of Wayte Raymond).

The subsequent return of royal imagery on Belgian coinage starting in the 1960’s and continuing until the present day is reflective of the role the monarch has played as a neutral and moderating force in the ever-increasing tensions between the Walloons and the Flemings as well as his standing as a rare source of national Belgian pride (http://www.expatonline.com/moving/belgium/History/history_since_1945.cfm). Baudouin first appears on a commemorative coin celebrating the 1958 World’s Fair held in Brussels. As a commemorative, the coin was only minted in small quantities and did not generally circulate. It was only in 1969 that the King’s portrait returned to Belgian coinage, although without any name or royal title. Earning the affection of most Belgians, Baudouin became a symbol of Belgian fortitude during a decade of economic stagnation exacerbated by the loss of the Belgian Congo (1960-1961) and the military debacles in Rwanda and Burundi (1962). The Belgian government slowly phased in coins from 1980-1989 with Baudouin’s portrait and royal name replacing the classical symbols of the immediate post-war years (Van Wie, pp. 151-152). The return of the Belgian monarch as a symbol of pride and national unity was complete in 1999 when Belgium chose to picture King Albert II on the national side of its Euro coins. Today, the monarchy is one of Belgium’s most cherised institutions, with Albert embraced on both sides of the political spectrum and the lives of the royal family covered exhaustively by the tabloids.


Reconciled with the monarchy, Belgium chose King Albert II to represent Belgium on the national side of the new Euro coinage. 1 Euro 1999 (ANS 2002.24.71, gift of Coast to Coast Coins).

The crisis in the monarchy had a happy ending. It took decades of patience and tact by the royal family, but at last their sins have been forgiven by the Belgian people. The major crisis of the post-war era, the splintering of Belgium into two, and then three, separate societies has a less optimistic prognosis. In the next part we will look at the intense rivalry between Flanders and Wallonia and its severe impact on Belgian life, including its numismatics.


See also: Obituary for the Belgian Franc: Belgium’s Post-War Political Landscape Reflected Through Its Coinage, Part II: Belgie, Belgique, Belgia?

Andrew Schloss is spending his second summer interning at the ANS. An undergraduate student at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y., Schloss is both a coin collector and an avid student of history. He is spending the current academic semester interning with a Member of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium.