THE NEUTRALITY OF BELGIUM
LEGAL CONSEQUENCES OF THE BREAKDOWN OF BELGIUM'S NEUTRALITY
As in private life an individual who, under the plea of dire necessity, violates another person's rights, if his action confines itself to the strictly necessary, is free from punishment but, nevertheless, liable to make good any damage caused thereby, so also in international life, if a state unavoidably violates another state's rights, it has to make due reparation. This reparation consists not only in an indemnity for material damage caused by the unavoidable action, but, especially, in an apology to the violated state.
The official note of the German Government addressed to the Belgian Government on August 2, 1914, shows that the former, purposely refraining from manifesting any doubts with regard to Belgium's neutrality, was fully prepared to make ample reparation to Belgium if the latter would grant the German troops the right of way to the Franco-Belgian frontier. In particularly entreating language, the Imperial Government emphasized that the proposed advance of its troops through Belgium was unavoidable for the clearly stated reasons, and that it was void of any hostile character, as far as Belgium was concerned. Besides, the Imperial Government specially promised to evacuate the temporarily occupied Belgian territory as soon as the military situation would permit it, pledged itself that Belgium's independence and integrity would be maintained at the end of the present war, and offered to pay for all the needs of its troops as well as the damage inadvertently caused by their passage. Moreover, the German Chancellor stated in the Reichstag: "The wrong which we thus commit, we shall try to make good as soon as our military aim is attained."
Unfortunately, Germany's offer was declined by Belgium, and, when it was repeated, after the fall of Liége, it was declined a second time.
Supposing that Belgium's neutrality had not been impaired, what would have been her rights as opposed to the German right of invading Belgian territory, to forestall a threatening French attack, in self-defense ?
Doubtless Belgium had not only every right to oppose the German invasion; the rules of perpetual neutrality obliged her even to resist the passage of German troops through her territory. On the other hand Belgium, just as well as Germany, could have invoked the supreme right of self-preservation and refrained from offering armed resistance. In the face of the considerable odds which the German army represented, Belgium would have been free from blame if she had confined herself to a diplomatic protest against the violation of her neutrality and, otherwise, submitted to the dire necessity, reserving herself freedom of action for the time when peace would be restored. At any rate, after having entered the strongest possible protest by the determined defense of Liége, without impairing her honor or her international obligations, she might have given up further resistance.
Some writers declare it open to doubt whether Germany's invasion of Belgium, with no other object but a passage through her confines in order to reach the northern parts of France, and after formal assurances as to Belgium's independence and integrity had been given, constituted ipso jure a breach of Belgium's neutrality.
At all events, the question whether, under those particular circumstances, Belgium should submit to the German invasion or offer a hopeless armed resistance, was not of such a nature that it could be decided only from the viewpoint of national honor without giving the fullest consideration to the national interests of the Belgian people. For to the statesman who realizes to the fullest his high responsibility toward his people, not the honor but the welfare of the country is, and must be, the guiding principle of his decisions. Salus publica suprema lex.
History records a number of cases where neutral countries have submitted to the passage of belligerent troops through their territory without resorting to armed resistance. As one of the best known instances may be adduced the case of Prussia, during the Third War of Coalition against Napoleon, in which she had declared her neutrality. In the course of that war, in the summer of 1805, it happened that a French army under General Bernadotte, on its way from Hanover to the upper Danube, passed through the Prussian territory of Ansbach, without even asking for previous permission to do so. Prussia was, naturally, aroused about France's high-handed action. But her government, wishing to spare its people a war with France, which even then did not seem unavoidable, did not declare war against France, but contented itself with a diplomatic protest. And that was a Great Power with the proud traditions of Frederic the Great, before her defeat by Napoleon.
In a similar manner, King Albert of the Belgians might have acted in 1914, following the example set by his grandfather, who, in a situation far more painful to Belgian pride, declared to the Powers in 1831 that he "yielded to the imperious law of necessity."(159)
An English writer, Mr. C. H. Norman, affirms:
"Had Belgium surrendered to 'force majeure,' insisting on substantial compensation for the trespass committed by the German troops, no one could have doubted her wisdom, nor suspected her honor."(160)
Belgium declined the German demands, but also declined to become a belligerent, although the German Note of August 2, 1914, presented with a request for an answer within twelve hours, had to be considered as a conditional declaration of war. In fact, in a note to all the Powers with whom Belgium had then diplomatic relations, dated August 5, 1914, she pointed out that, "by virtue of Article 10 of the Hague Convention of 1907, relating to the rights and duties of neutral Powers and persons in the event of war on land," her resistance against the attack on her neutrality could not be considered a hostile act.(161)
This contention falls to the ground as the Convention referred to, signed at the Hague by forty-four Powers in 1907, expressly stipulates, in its Art. XX, that its provisions apply only in wars where all the belligerents are parties to this Convention, which was not the case in the present war, several belligerents, notably England, having failed to ratify it.(162) If, therefore, some doubt may have existed whether Belgium was entitled to invoke the said Convention, on August 4th, England's intervention in the war, at midnight of the same day, made the position of Belgium as a belligerent perfectly clear.
The subsequent discovery, however, that Belgium had secretly renounced her status of perpetual neutrality long before the outbreak of the present war, has further cleared the legal situation in so far as now it is quite obvious that Belgium became a belligerent in the moment when she offered armed resistance to the Germany army---with all the consequences which the status of belligerents entails.
The fact that her perpetual neutrality has failed to afford Belgium an adequate protection in the present world crisis is not necessarily due to any fault of that institution of international law, but to the twofold abuse of it.
Whatever merits her status of perpetual neutrality may have had for Belgium and particularly for the countries surrounding her, at the time when she came into existence as an independent state, there can be no doubt that, in our times, she had fully outgrown it. If Belgium had had the freedom of openly determining her foreign policy to suit her own interests, like any other state of her importance, her fate in the present war might have been different. It may, therefore, justly be called an abuse of perpetual neutrality that Belgium, nolens volens, maintained that status.
However, since she maintained it, it was a very gross abuse that, in concert with England, she used it as a cloak for a plot against a friendly nation.
England's claim that she has taken up arms against Germany to fulfil a "solemn international obligation," in defense of that perpetual neutrality of Belgium, may find favor before the House of Pharisees, but cannot be considered before the Forum of History and International Law.
Future historians will perhaps record it as one of England's most extraordinary achievements in the present war that her statesmen succeeded so far beyond expectation in making a credulous public believe that Old England had gone into this war for high ethical motives, she who by her secret dealings with "neutral" Belgium has added a: rather inglorious chapter to the history of British diplomacy.
Appendix A: The Quintuple Treaty of April 19, 1839
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