Joel at Far Outliers quotes a chunk of Tony Judt’s new book in a fascinating and depressing post about how identity politics can splinter a country. Of course we’re familiar with this from many other examples (Sri Lanka is a poster child), and of course there’s no blood in the streets, but somehow one doesn’t think of ethnic rivalry going so far in prosperous, peaceful Belgium. Read it and weep.
Just so you’ll have something to take your mind off current political messes, here’s Papa’s Diary Project: “The 1924 diary of Harry Scheurman, transcribed and annotated by his grandson, Matt Unger.” It starts here, on New Year’s Eve, 1923 (“I don’t feel like going out with friends celebrating the N. Year”—but he did anyway: “My New Years Eve, was at an end at an East Side joint where prohibition drinks were freely served, I reached home 4am”); Matt is posting an entry a day, and I look forward to catching up as his Papa (from Snyatyn in Galicia, in the Austro-Hungarian empire when he was born and now in Ukraine) discusses baseball, dating, and Jewish life on the Lower East Side, accompanied by his grandson’s annotations and relevant illustrations. Great stuff. (Via this NY Times article. Thanks, Bonnie!)


  1. The Belgium section in Postwar was largely adapted from an article in the NYRB, which is well worth reading on its own. The big open question, for me, is whether Judt actually knows any Dutch – since the Flemish and Wallonian media are so little read outside their respective speech communities, it is a significant problem that the outside world only gets to hear the Francophone side of the story.
    Ingrid von Timber, a Dutch scholar with a mastery of French and a painstaking will to accuracy has produced the best summary of the current Belgian crisis you are likely to see in any langwidge.
    Belgium isn’t going to split this time, as far as anyone can tell, and it isn’t even really that anomolous in Europe – the current crisis has prompted some of the frothier theorists of regions to dust off their wibblings about a Europe of the Regions in which Catalonia, the Basques, the Flemings, the Welsh, the Scots and god knows who else will prove that nationalism is a tedious waste of everyone’s time whatever scale it’s practised on, or something. (Frisia, to its considerable credit, doesn’t tend to play this games.)

  2. One think that I think is happening is that the smaller nations have little reason to exist any more, so they might as well split up. Independent Flanders would have about as much influence in the EU, the UN, or the American Empire as Belgium does — nearly none. England and France are about the smallest nations capable of playing a role in the world.
    So maybe “nations” should just split up into meaningless little sentimental cultural zones under the big EU-UN-US umbrellas. Ernest Gellner suggested something like that.
    Belgium never really had much reason to exist except as a buffer state (which is no longer needed.) It’s not very old and apparently has little sentimental value to anyone.

  3. komfo,amonan says

    Don’t forget about the Lombards of Padania! — I have a theory that prosperous nations don’t split … anymore. The last example I could come up with was Ireland’s departure from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Maybe a hundred years from now things’ll be different.

  4. The drive to create huge nations was conditioned by the geopolitics of the time. Peoples who didn’t like each other all the at much got together to defend themselves against the folks they hated (or who hated them). (Also, of course, some of those “nations” were forcibly created by outsiders.) Now, the need is gone, and even friendly unions are breaking up, with the loss of the outside pressure, or the inside strong man. Look at Yugoslavia. Will they actually break apart? Who knows – not I, that’s for certain.
    But it might be a good lesson when we start pontificating about, say, the lack of patriotism in a nation that was created by others less than a century ago. What’s up with the “Iraqi people”, pundits cry; the answer is that many of these “peoples” never really existed.

  5. Well, there’s always the embattled Conch Republic.

  6. The Conch Republic is no doubt a shell of its former self–or perhaps its future self.
    It may seem kind of sad that the last nations to escape their empires and become states in their own rights have almost no potential to control their own destinies. But in cases like Belarus and Turkmenistan, the inability of noxious dictators to control the destiny of their populations might be something to cheer rather than mourn. And considering the mayhem many nation-states have achieved in their heyday, well, maybe it’s not so bad after all.

  7. I thought the position of Brussels – a francophone enclave within a Flemish-speaking region – was the biggest stumbling-block to the break-up of Belgium. That and arguments over who gets to keep the Plastic Bertrand albums after the divorce.
    I can’t really see them separating any time soon. It’s like Quebec leaving Canada – it’s always about to happen, but somehow it never does.

  8. Say what you will about PB, but the first Hubble Bubble LP is a Belgian punk classic that just got reissued by Radio Heartbeat.

  9. The Economist had an editorial last month calling for Belgium to break up sooner rather than later. But I would be sad if Tintin became stateless.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Tintin speaks French.
    Everyone already knows the joke, right? The only Belgians are the royal family and the Jews.
    Like how the number of Spaniards fluctuates between 40 million and two.

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