- Aug 4, 2011
Savarin 1896-1897: The Edge of the Knife
By 1896, Belgian politics had tired of Claude Palomer and his antics in the Finance Ministry. Palomer had unilaterally slashed taxes, as per his manifesto, at the cost of military and social programs popular with the both the left and the right. The BCU faced national criticism for the unprecedented austerity; the Portician Society publicly argued that Palomer's cuts were greatly weakening the national military in an increasingly unstable Europe, while the unions lobbied vehemently against his social spending cuts. At the end of 1895, two BSU ministers - Commerce Minister Frederick Burke and Justice Minister Christiaan Loewen - resigned from the cabinet in protest over Palomer's policy. The resignations were greeted with sympathy by much of the Belgian left and right alike. In response, Prime Minister Savarin sacked Claude Palomer and announced that the government would now include the Moderate Liberal Party under a newly negotiated coalition agreement.
Palomer called for a no confidence vote, but this - if anything - backfired on him. Savarin's sacking of Palomer proved to be so popular that the LDP - who were not in government - voted confidence in the Savarin administration and the government found it had the support of three-quarters of the chamber of deputies. Palomer and the rest of his party stormed out of the party in outrage. Most were glad to see them go. A new Savarin government put the GLP in charge of the Finance Ministry, and the Moderate Liberals largely reversed the Palomer-era cuts.
The drama in the Parliament largely masked the success of the De Leeuw Foreign Office's controversial plan to align Spain with Belgium. In January 1896, Spain signed a common market treaty with Belgium and accepted Belgian advisers into proceedings of the communist Spanish politburo.
1. De Leeuw had sought closer ties with the Spanish communist regime, which had alarmed most of Europe
Meanwhile, reform desire in an increasingly industrialized Belgium showed no sign of subsiding. The Ministry of Labor estimated in early 1896 that approximately 20% of the mainland Belgian population now worked in factories, and Belgium was the world's tenth largest industrial power. Another large Women's Suffrage rally in early March again brought the issue of the vote for women to the forefront and had the Savarin government considering further possible reforms, including expansion of the franchise. However, after the failure of the Monarchy Referendum and the Elected Senate initiative, the administration chose to wait to for further reform.
By 1897, the government became very grateful that it had reversed Palomer-era military cuts. In January, the Netherlands suffered a dramatic rebel uprising by the radical liberal so-called "Citizen Guard" - leading for many on the right and in the government to call for intervention. However, after consulting with the King, Georges Savarin announced there would be no Belgian military intervention in the Netherlands. The Dutch military eventually suppressed the rebellion in April - by which time, more pressing matters had grasped Belgian national attention.
In March 1897, a Romanian nationalist shot and wounded Archduke Rudolph of Austria, the aging Emperor Franz-Joseph's sole son and heir, during a visit to the eastern Hapsburg territories. Austria accused Russia of having sponsored Romanian rebels in the region; Russia countered by producing evidence of Austrian violence against ethnic Romanians and demanding the Austrians free the Romanian nation from their control. The growing international crisis demanded Belgian attention, and Belgian attendance at the 1897 Berlin Conference regarding Romania was essentially mandatory.
2. "Romania Breaking Off Her Chains" by Constantin Daniel Rosenthal, an iconic work of Romanian nationalism
The situation exploded in the months ahead of the crisis. In April, North Germany backed Russia's demands for a free Romania. German diplomats encouraged Belgium to do the same, but growing concern in Brussels that France would back their Austrian allies gave the government pause. On May 13th, after an emergency cabinet conference, Savarin ordered the Foreign Office to officially announce Belgium's intention to back Russia in the growing crisis, siding with Belgium's historical North German allies. Savarin hoped the move would encourage the British to join Belgium in supporting Russia's claim before France aligned with Austria. If Belgium, Russia, North Germany, and the United Kingdom stood united and Austria alone, the Hapsburgs would have no choice but to capitulate and, Savarin reasoned, the crisis would be resolved without bloodshed.
Europe did not supply this ideal outcome. The UK remained on the fence after the Belgian commitment and the nation began to prepare for war. Savarin ordered the reserves mobilized and wartime funding supplied the army and navy. 135,000 reservists were called up in the next month and the Belgian military ordered to the French border, on the presumption that the French would back the Austrians. This presumption proved absolutely correct on July 4th, when France declared its public support for Austria's claim on Romania.
3. The French decision was prolonged by French sympathies to the Romanian revolution, which some claimed paralleled the French revolution
With the Berlin Conference just days away, the military and the Belgium people began to grimly prepare for a war with France. The Portician Society published an editorial in the papers declaring that the coming war would not be a repeat of past conflicts and promising "two million bayonets" to defend Belgium against French invasion. In the days before the convention, concerns about insufficient medical care for soldiers and veterans and a general lack of surgeons allowed the Savarin government to push through additional healthcare reform. More than a quarter of a million Belgian troops lined the border, while at the same time, France began to mobilize its reserves.
The attitude in Europe was tense. Even in the distant United States, The New York Times would declare "Europe is sitting on the edge of a knife." In Belgium, one editorial columnist would reflect the sentiment, writing "now we are all dancing on a volcano."
As militaries readied across the continent, only one factor remained unknown. With less than a week remaining, the United Kingdom - the last undecided party - finally publicly backed the Russian claim, siding with their Belgian allies. After much soul-searching, the Hapsburgs and their French allies capitulated, surrendering some of their eastern territories to an independent Romanian state in mid-August. In Belgium and across the continent, reserves stood down - but the razor-thin margin by which Europe had escaped war reminded everyone how imminent the possibility constantly was.
Many possible flashpoints remained, most obviously the rapidly disintegrating former Ottoman Empire, which had undergone two changes in government in one year and was well on its way to suffering a third revolution in early 1898. The currently Communist Ottoman regime had lasted less than three months, and was very close to overthrow by radical liberal forces, with the ultranationalist "Young Turks" appearing close on their heels to overthrow them as soon as they took power. Turkey was looking increasingly like a failed state, ripe for land grabs from nearby Russia, Austria, and even Italy.
4. Pictured, the Ottoman communist revolution, the second of three revolutions in Anatolia in 1897 and 1898
With military necessities becoming increasingly obvious, the Savarin administration released an unprecedented 12.2 million francs to the navy for the purposes of upgrading the port at Bruges to a hyper-modern level. In Africa, for Lucien van Buskirk, the war had not been averted. On the contrary, it had just started - another widespread uprising wracked former Africa, with more than a hundred thousand rebels appearing to fight to end colonial rule. And lastly, in Brussels, another suffragette march left the Savarin government reconsidering expansion of the franchise. And with the scheduled abdication of King Prosper-August now just nine months away, it might well be the last chance for radical reform.
5. The current composition of the Belgian parliament.
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Yeah, yeah. Pictures in a minute.
The government may, if it wishes, suggest a political or a social reform. It may also pass Women's Suffrage.
Political: Upper House Two Per State, Upper House Based on Population, Proportional Representation, Non-Socialist Trade Unions
Social: Good Minimum Wage, 12 Hour Work Day, Limited Safety Regulations, Low Unemployment Subsidies, Low Pensions, Good Health Care