Section Two:  The Obligations of Belgian Neutrality

       One of the few clear-cut legal obligations in 1914 transcending the divided alliance system was respect for the neutrality and inviolability of Belgium.  The Belgian territory had been the terrible battleground of numerous wars,[1] and in 1831, the European powers were still eyeing it with envy.  Consequently, the great powers got together that year and came up with the solution of making the disputed territory a neutral state.  Among other rationales for neutralizing Belgium were Britainís interest in ensuring that France would not annex Belgium and Franceís desire to keep Holland from doing the same, as well as to create a neutral neighbor for itself as a sort of buffer from Germany.[2]  The other states were just as happy to make the small state off-limits for everyone.  The concept of neutrality was not a novel one, and the experiment in Switzerland had been working well for years, though there were still disputes over the precise obligations neutrality imposed on all sides.  Thus, Austria, France, Great Britain, Germany and Russia established the new state of Belgium and bound its government to respect neutrality toward other states,[3]  a status to which the Belgian people strongly objected but finally were willing to accept in order to obtain recognition as an independent state.[4]

       In 1839, the European powers affirmed the earlier treaty and committed themselves to guarantee the neutrality and territorial inviolability of Belgium.[5]  However, the guaranteeing powers intentionally adopted a vague guarantee, in part because they did not want to bind themselves to action under all future circumstances.[6]  Decisions on the future enforcement of the guarantee would have to be reached when the need arose, and the great powers certainly did not foresee the great debate over the nature of the obligations the guarantee imposed.[7]  In 1870, three of the major powers affirmed the continuing force of the 1839 treaty in the context of the Franco-Prussian War.  Great Britain requested and obtained statements by France and by Germany that they would not violate the permanent neutrality of Belgium, and in response, the British bound themselves to intervene in the war against whichever belligerent would violate that principle.[8]

France's war plan
Germany's Schlieffen plan
      However, beginning in 1905, the German Schlieffen plan (the war strategy named after the Chief of the Great General Staff who devised it) called for a quick push through southern Belgium to avoid the heavily fortified French defenses on the eastern border with Germany.  Speed was of primary importance to the Germans in the event of a major war, because having created enemies for itself to the east and west, they knew they could not sustain a protracted campaign with divided forces.  Thus, the objective was to advance quickly through France, capture Paris, thereby cutting off the French juggernaut at its source, and then concentrate all the German forces against Russia in the east before Russia could fully mobilize its endless supply of troops.[9]  Schlieffen, sensitive to the international condemnation that would likely result from a violation of Belgian neutrality, had intended to induce France to commit that violation first, as the Germans would deploy on the Belgian border, fully expecting France to move into Belgium at Meuse to try to halt the impending German attack.[10]   However, General Moltke (the head of the German command in 1914) decided that time would not allow for such legal posturings, and he convinced the rest of the German government of the need to move through Belgium first to avoid being encircled by Russia and France. 



1.     Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, 1962, p. 99.
2.     Alexander Fuehr, The Neutrality of Belgium, 1915 (see 
3.     James Garner, International Law and the World War, 1920, Vol. II, p. 186.
4.     Fuehr, supra note 2, at Ch. 2. 
5.     Id.
6.     Daniel H. Thomas, The Guarantee of Belgian Independence and Neutrality in European Diplomacy, 1830's-1930's, 1983, p. 575.
7.     Id.
8.     Garner, supra note 3, at 187.
9.     See ìBelgian neutrality before the Great War,î
10.   ìWorld War I, The Schlieffen Plan,î