Belgium takes its name from the Belgae, a people of ancient Gaul. The Roman province of Belgica was much larger than modern Belgium. There the Franks first appeared in the 3d cent. A.D. The Carolingian dynasty had its roots at Herstal, in Belgium. After the divisions (9th cent.) of Charlemagne's empire, Belgium became part of Lotharingia and later of the duchy of Lower Lorraine, which occupied all but the western part of the Low Countries.
In the 12th cent., Lower Lorraine disintegrated; the duchies of Brabant (see Brabant, duchy of) and Luxembourg and the bishopric of Liège took its place. The histories of these feudal states and of Flanders and Hainaut constitute the medieval history of Belgium. The salient development was the rise of the cities (e.g., Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres) to virtual independence and economic prosperity through their wool industry and trade. In the 15th cent., all of present Belgium passed to the dukes of Burgundy, who strove to curtail local liberties. Simultaneously the wool industry declined, mainly because of English competition.
With the death (1482) of Mary of Burgundy a period of foreign domination began (see Netherlands, Austrian and Spanish for the period from 1477 to 1794). Belgium was occupied by the French during the French Revolutionary Wars and transferred from Austria to France by the Treaty of Campo Formio (1797). After the defeat (1815) of Napoleon at Waterloo, just S of Brussels, Belgium was given to the newly formed kingdom of the Netherlands (the decision was made at the Congress of Vienna; see Vienna, Congress of).
Under King William I of the Netherlands, the Belgians resented measures that discriminated against them in favor of the Dutch, especially in the areas of language and religion. A rebellion broke out in Brussels in 1830, and Belgian independence was declared. William I invaded Belgium but withdrew when France and England intervened in 1832.
Belgian independence was approved by the European powers at the London Conference of 1830–31 (see under London Conference). In 1831, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was chosen king of the Belgians and became Leopold I. A final Dutch-Belgian peace treaty was signed in 1839, and the "perpetual neutrality" of Belgium was guaranteed by the major powers, including Prussia, at the London Conference of 1838–39.
The new country was among the first in Europe to industrialize and soon led the continent in the development of railways, coal mining, and engineering. Under the rule (1865–1909) of Leopold II rapid industrialization and colonial expansion, notably in the Congo, were accompanied by labor unrest and by the rise of the Socialist party in opposition to the reactionary and clerical groups. Social conditions improved under Albert I (reigned 1909–34), who also granted universal and equal male suffrage (the vote was extended to women in 1948).
After the outbreak of World War I (Aug., 1914), Germany invaded Belgium in order to attack France by the easiest route; this flagrant violation of Belgian neutrality shocked much of the world and brought Great Britain, as one of Belgium's guarantors, into the war. The unexpected resistance of the Belgians against such heavy odds won widespread admiration, and German atrocities in Belgium, publicized by the Allies, played an important part in consolidating U.S. opinion against Germany. All of Belgium except a small strip in West Flanders, which served as a battle front throughout the war (see, e.g., Ypres), was conquered by Oct. 10, 1914, and the people suffered under a harsh occupation regime. The Belgian army, under the personal leadership of Albert I, fought in West Flanders and France throughout the war. Under the Treaty of Versailles after the war, Belgium received the strategically important posts of Eupen, Malmédy, and Moresnet, and a mandate over the northwestern corner of former German East Africa.
In World War II, Germany, which in 1937 had guaranteed Belgian neutrality, attacked and occupied Belgium in May, 1940. King Leopold III (reigned 1934–51) surrendered unconditionally on May 28, but the Belgian cabinet, in exile at London, continued to oppose Germany. German occupation inaugurated a reign of terror. Liberation by British and American troops, aided by a Belgian underground army, came in Sept., 1944. The unsuccessful German counteroffensive of Dec., 1944–Jan., 1945 (see Battle of the Bulge), caused much destruction, adding to damage previously wrought by invasion and by Allied air raids.
Belgium's industrial plant had remained relatively intact despite the war, enabling the economy to recover far more rapidly than those of the other nations of Western Europe. The immediate political issue was the return of Leopold III, who was barred from Belgium until 1950. Popular discontent led to his abdication (1951) in favor of his eldest son, Baudouin. An economic union between Belgium and Luxembourg, formed in 1921 (the first of its kind in 20th-century Europe), was superseded in 1958 by the Benelux Economic Union, which also includes the Netherlands. An early proponent of a united Europe and a firm advocate of collective security, Belgium is the seat of many important European Union functions and the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
In 1960 the Belgian Congo was given its independence, with subsequent economic and political turmoil in Belgium, especially after the eruption of violence in the Congo. Belgian forces helped the French in suppressing an indigenous rebellion in Congo (Kinshasa) in 1978. Long-standing tensions between the Dutch- and French-speaking elements flared during the 1960s, toppling several governments and making it increasingly difficult to form new ones. Sweeping constitutional reform begun in the early 1970s created three partially autonomous regions (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels) and three politically recognized ethnic communities (French, Flemish [Dutch speakers], and German), but ethnic discord continued throughout the 1980s. New reforms passed in 1993 gave the regions additional autonomy and created a federal state.
In Dec., 1981, the Christian Democrat-Liberal coalition, under the leadership of Wilfried Martens, came into power in Belgium. His prime ministership saw unpopular economic reforms, and interparty strife toppled the government in 1987. A year later, however, a new coalition took control of the government, again led by Martens, which was composed of the Flemish and Walloon Socialist parties, the Christian Social party, and the Flemish Volksunie party. In 1992 a center-left coalition government of Socialists and Christian Democrats led by Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene of the Flemish Social Christian party came to power.
King Baudouin died in 1993 and was succeeded by his brother, Albert II. Following a food scare involving dioxins found in animal and dairy products, Dehaene's government fell in 1999, and Guy Verhofstadt became the new prime minister, leading a coalition of Liberals, Socialists, and Greens. Elections in 2003 resulted in a victory for the Liberals and Socialists, but the Greens lost most of their seats and were excluded from Verhofstadt's new government. In July, 2004, the Flemish Bloc, an anti-immigrant, Flemish separatist party, won nearly a quarter of the vote in regional and European elections in Flanders, but the party was subsequently convicted (Nov., 2004) of being racist and forced to disband and reform.
The parliamentary elections in June, 2007, led to gains for the Christian Democrats, and losses for the Liberals and Socialists. Ethnic and political divisions, particularly the question of increased devolution for Dutch Belgium, stymied the formation of a new government for more than six months. In December the king asked Verhofstadt to lead an interim government for up to three months, and in Mar., 2008, Christian Democrat Yves Leterme became prime minister of a five-party coalition government.
Four months later, Leterme submitted his resignation over the broad-based government's failure to reach an agreement on increased regional autonomy. The king, however, rejected it and called for further negotiations on autonomy. Accusations of government meddling in a court case concerning the sale of the Belgian operations of Fortis, a troubled bank and Belgium's largest private sector employer, led to the government's resignation in December. The same five parties subsequently re-formed a government, with Flemish Christian Democrat Herman Van Rompuy as prime minister. When Van Rompuy resigned (Nov., 2009) to become president of the European Union's European Council, Leterme succeeded him as prime minister.
Language-community-related issues led to the collapse of the coalition in Apr., 2010. The June elections resulted in a narrow victory for the separatist New Flemish Alliance, but it only won slightly more than one sixth of the lower-house seats. The formation of a new government became an even more prolonged affair than in 2007–8, continuing until Dec., 2011, when Flemish and French Socialist, Christian Democrat, and Liberal parties formed a six-party government with French Socialist Elio Di Rupo as prime minister. In July, 2013, the king abdicated and was succeeded by his son Philippe.