Five questions to philosopher Philippe Van Parijs on Leopold II and embarrassment in Brussels’ public space

"The little that citizens can be told thanks to an educational use of public monuments is of special importance. And if stains of red paint are left permanently so as to draw more attention, this purpose may be even better served."

Five questions to philosopher Philippe Van Parijs on Leopold II and embarrassment in Brussels’ public space
Credit: Igor Pliner

The worldwide explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, combined with the 60th anniversary of the independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, triggered last year a high level of turbulence related to Belgium’s colonial past.

Demonstrations were organized in several cities, proposals were made for replacing street names that evoked the colonial past, statues of King Leopold II were vandalized or removed. Is this shocking for a Brusseler like you?

Brusselers of my generation grew up with an image of Leopold II as the “roi batisseur”, the building king. For better or worse, the monumental allure of Brussels owes more to him than to anyone else. Without him, we would not have the Palace of Justice, the arcades and the museum complex of the Parc du Cinquantenaire, the basilica of Koekelberg or the Royal Palace in its present configuration.

Without him, we would not have the Avenue Louise leading to the Bois de la Cambre, the Avenue de Tervueren leading to the Africa Museum or indeed the Boulevard Leopold II, where I happen to have lived for the first eight years of my life. That someone who left such a deep mark on the physical identity of our city should be hurled off his pedestal cannot leave Brusselers indifferent. But this does not mean that they should find it shocking.

Why not?

Obviously, what ignited this ire is not, or at least not directly, what Leopold II did in Brussels but what he did, or let people do, in the Congo between the 1885 Berlin conference that endowed him with the “Etat independent du Congo” as a personal property and the latter’s transformation into a Belgian colony in 1906.

His own interpretation of what he did in those years is encapsulated in a sentence that features on a monument in the Parc du Cinquantenaire: “I undertook the work of the Congo in the interest of civilization and for the benefit of Belgium.” Even this edulcorated statement reveals what we find today profoundly wrong in this “oeuvre du Congo”.

One does not need to have an extravagantly romantic image of pre-colonial cultures to find the simplistic opposition between the “civilized” and the “savages” that underlies 19th century colonialism unacceptably contemptuous. Nor does one need to be a radical global egalitarian to find unacceptably selfish that the “work of the Congo” should have been aimed at “the benefit of Belgium”, with the benefit of the Congo and its inhabitants counting for nothing.

I fully understand, therefore, that many people find it problematic, indeed scandalous, that a person who became the symbol of such an attitude and of the atrocities it justified could keep being honoured so visibly in our public spaces.

Should all his statues therefore be removed and Boulevard Léopold II renamed?

If we start doing that, where do we stop? I noticed that the statue of General Emile Storms, on Square de Meeus, has been covered for well over a year with red paint that no one bothers to remove. I confess I never heard of him before this happened and learned from Wikipedia that he was involved in the “conquest” of the Congo before the Berlin conference gave it to Leopold II.

Why does he get the red paint, and not General Albert Thys, for example, who has a whole monument honouring him at the entrance of the Parc du Cinquantenaire? This is the man behind the building of the railway connecting the harbour of Matadi to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) that cost the lives of countless local workers.

And what about Ferdinand de Meeus? Admittedly, he was dead by the time Leopold II started his reign, but he is the founder of the Société Générale de Belgique, the spearhead of Belgian capitalism that gave birth to the Union minière, the main instrument in the economic exploitation of the Congo. Should Square de Meeus be renamed?

Or again, think of the Hotel van Eetvelde, which Victor Horta, the main Art Nouveau architect, built on Square Marie-Louise for Baron Edmond van Eetvelde, head of the administration of the Congo in the period in which most atrocities were committed? Should it be pulled down or at least splashed with red paint?  Where does it stop?

This does not seem to be the way you think we should go.

There is no point in trying to erase from our public spaces and thereby from our collective memory the moments of our history we find today most embarrassing. But there is a point in using these monuments to provide enough factual information to make people understand both why some people were revered as heroes at some point in time and why they were demonized at another.

It is not easy to do this succinctly and in the right tone, but it is important. What we call our “history” is not the accumulation of trillions of events that happened in the past but a tiny selection among them, remembered more or less accurately and framed in a particular way.

Especially for populations that do not share history handbooks and mass media — such as those of Brussels, of Belgium and of the European Union as a whole —, the little that citizens can be told thanks to an educational use of public monuments is of special importance. And if stains of red paint are left permanently so as to draw more attention, this purpose may be even better served. General Storms’s descendants might be outraged, but the paint should stay.

Can you give another example of what you have in mind?

Let me give you one that has nothing to do with our colonial past. In 1370, the small Jewish community living in Brussels was accused of having stolen and stabbed consecrated hosts. As a result, the hosts allegedly started bleeding, thereby proving the real presence of Christ in each of them. This was regarded as a miracle to be commemorated, but also as a crime to be punished severely. The Jews involved were sentenced to death and all Jews were banned from the city for centuries.

To commemorate the “sacrament of the miracle”, as it became called, a “Chapel of the Sacrament” was added to the Brussels cathedral in the 16th century. Emperor Charles V donated a set of stained-glass windows that depict the profanation of the hosts and the murder of Jonathas, head of the Brussels community. In the years leading to the celebration of the 500th anniversary, in 1870, another set of 15 stained-glass windows, with further imagined details of the “crime”, were donated to the cathedral by kings Leopold I and Leopold II and a number of noble families.

The annual processions commemorating the “miracle” came to a halt in the 1940s. But the windows are still there. Should they be destroyed? They are, after all, the visible remnant of the celebration of a pogrom. In 1967, the Consistoire israélite de Belgique requested their removal. Archbishop Suenens decided that, instead, they should be contextualized. Since 1977, a bronze plaque placed under the 16th century windows informs visitors that “in 1968, in the spirit of the 2nd Vatican Council, the authorities of the arch-bishopric of Mechelen-Brussels, having taken cognizance of historical research on the subject, drew attention to the tendentious character of the accusations and the legendary presentation of the miracle”.

Needless to say, within the same space, a firmer and more informative message could have been fitted and should still be. Moreover, the 19th century windows, being more recent and hence arguably even more embarrassing, are no less in need of a warning.  However feebly, this illustrates nonetheless how the preservation of disturbing vestiges could be used to rekindle the painful awareness of what inhabitants of our city were capable of doing and believing and to invite critical reflection about it.

Philippe Van Parijs is a philosopher and a Brusseler. He teaches at the Universities of Louvain and Leuven, and is a Robert Schuman Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence.

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