Brussels has frequently had a bad press. Already in the 1860s, Baudelaire, who fled there from the French censors, called the Belgian capital “a ghost town, a mummy of a town, it smells of death, the Middle Ages, and tombs.” To a growing number of Europeans, “Brussels” is a byword for bureaucratic bullying by the so-called Eurocrats.
Donald Trump called Brussels a “hellhole.” Perhaps he was thinking, if that is the right word, of Molenbeek. Densely populated by immigrants, mostly from North Africa, this district has become a symbol of seething European jihadism. Last year’s mass murders in Paris were apparently plotted there; the number of young men and women (around a hundred) who have left Molenbeek to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq is relatively high.
Still, much of the negative reputation of Brussels is undeserved and overblown. Brussels is not a dangerous city—not even Molenbeek, which is shabby, sullen (unemployment 30 percent), socially cut off, but not especially menacing. Many non-Muslim hipsters live there as well. Parts of Brussels are actually quite beautiful. The city has many fine examples of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, as well as the more famous sixteenth- and seventeenth-century gold-gabled buildings on the magnificent Grand Place.
But Brussels is indeed rather chaotic, a political mess of nineteen different municipal districts, each with its own public authorities competing for funds, with an uncoordinated police force prone to conspicuous failures, and different political parties, linked to different language groups, operating their own more or less corrupt systems of patronage. Brussels, which has its own government, is mostly Francophone, but it is also the capital of Dutch-speaking Flanders and the capital of the European Union, whose own “Quartier Européen” is almost like a separate city within the city.
But this political fragmentation, and the consequent lack of strong central control, are also why modern Brussels has been a haven for dissidents, misfits, bohemians, and refugees of one kind or another. Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto there, after he was kicked out of France in 1845. Baudelaire came to Brussels because he could express himself more freely than in Paris, even to pour vitriol onto his city of refuge. It is still one of the freest, most ethnically mixed cities in Europe.
For much of its history, Brussels was occupied by oppressive empires: the Spanish Habsburgs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Austria in the eighteenth century (after France’s Louis XIV had laid waste to the city in 1695), and France from 1795 until 1815, after which it became part of the Netherlands. Belgium became an independent kingdom only in 1830 (under King Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a German, of course),…
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