The Great Belgian Breakup Hoax

If I were going to draw up a list of the top ten hoaxes of 2006 (which I'm not because I don't have enough time), the Great Belgian Breakup Hoax would definitely have to be included in the list, sneaking in right before the end of the year. As has been widely reported, on Wednesday many people were briefly led to believe that Belgium had ceased to exist. An AP story summarized what happened:
Suddenly and shockingly, Belgium came to an end. State television broke into regular programming late Wednesday with an urgent bulletin: The Dutch-speaking half of the country had declared independence and the king and queen had fled. Grainy pictures from the military airport showed dark silhouettes of a royal entourage boarding a plane. Only after a half hour did the station flash the message: "This is fiction."
The Belgian TV station apparently perpetrated the hoax in order to stir up debate about the future of the country. Since the news was being reported straight-faced by a reputable news source, many viewers believed it.

Oddly, this is not the first time we've seen a hoax like this. Back in 1992 the London Times reported essentially the same news, as a joke, on April Fool's Day. It made #90 on my list of the Top 100 April Fools Hoaxes of all time:
The London Times reported in 1992 that formal negotiations were underway to divide Belgium in half. The Dutch-speaking north would join the Netherlands and the French-speaking south would join France. An editorial in the paper then lamented that, "The fun will go from that favorite parlor game: Name five famous Belgians." The report apparently fooled the British foreign office minister Tristan Garel-Jones who almost went on a TV interview prepared to discuss this "important" story. The Belgian embassy also received numerous calls from journalists and expatriate Belgians seeking to confirm the news. A rival paper later criticized the prank, declaring that, "The Times's effort could only be defined as funny if you find the very notion of Belgium hilarious."
Actually, when put that way, there does seem to be something amusing about the notion of Belgium. Though I don't know exactly why this is.

Nevertheless, amusing as Belgium might be, it seems safe to say that it still does exist. So I won't be needing to add it to my list of nonexistent places.

Places Politics

Posted on Sat Dec 16, 2006


"... Actually, when put that way, there does seem to be something amusing about the notion of Belgium. Though I don't know exactly why this is."

I take it you've never been to Belgium, then, or you'd know why.

Anyhow, Belgians are perpetually talking about splitting their country (even more than Texans talk about seceding from the U.S.).
There seem to be major cultural and political divisions (at least, the Belgians see them as big) between the Flemish (Dutch-speaking Belgians) and the Walloons (French-speaking Belgians). To aggravate matters, the Flems are mostly Protestant and the Walloons are mostly Catholic.
So the idea is far from new, but claiming that it actually happened is a fairly audacious prank.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Sat Dec 16, 2006  at  09:16 AM
Allow me to correct: Flemish are not mostly Protestant. Most Belgians are formally "Catholic", though less than 10 % are actually practising Catholics who attend Mass for other reasons than weddings and funerals.

The confusion probably arises from the fact that a majority of Dutch people are Protestant.

There are hardly any Protestants in Belgium at all. It is a very tiny minority, certainly far tinier than the Muslim population.
Posted by Tsitsi  on  Sat Dec 16, 2006  at  02:23 PM
The list of the top five famous Belgians has only one name: Hercule Poirot - the fictional detective.
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Sat Dec 16, 2006  at  04:17 PM
I don't care what happens as long as they keep making good beer.
Posted by Captain Al  on  Sat Dec 16, 2006  at  05:32 PM
Well, it seems you're mostly right, Tsitsi (You weren't named for the fly, were you?).

Wikipedia says this:
"Roman Catholic: 75%; Protestant, Muslim, agnostic, atheist or other: 25%."

So, depending on how much of the "other" they make up, Protestants would be anywhere from 0% to 24% or so of the population. Much less than in nearby countries like Germany, Netherlands, or Great Britain.

I did meet some Protestants when I was in Belgium. I guess I was just lucky.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Sat Dec 16, 2006  at  07:35 PM
Well of course I'm right, I am Belgian after all.

Wikepia has this to say: "Roman Catholicism is Belgium's majority religion, but by 2004 weekly Sunday church attendance has dropped to about 4 to 8% depending on the source. Other religions widely practiced in Belgium are Islam (3.5%), Protestantism and Judaism (both less than 1%)."
Posted by Tsitsi  on  Sun Dec 17, 2006  at  07:14 PM
And by the way, you were VERY lucky to meet any Protestants in Belgium, I've actually never met a Belgian Protestant in my life, though I did meet some American Protestant students while at university.
Posted by Tsitsi  on  Sun Dec 17, 2006  at  07:23 PM
Well, now you've met another American Protestant, if e-mail correspondence counts.😉

By the way, I think it's striking that the Wikipedia author decribes as "widely practiced" two religious traditions that the same article says are followed by "less than 1%" of the population. What would Wikipedia call a tiny minority?
Posted by Big Gary  on  Mon Dec 18, 2006  at  10:47 AM
Herge (the creator of TinTin) was Belgian.

Jean Claude van Damme is Belgian.

They famous enough for you?
Posted by John  on  Mon Dec 18, 2006  at  10:53 AM
Maybe the Protestants are spread evenly across the country making them 'wide-spread'?

Hardly anyone has heard of TinTin, unfortunately. And nobody should have heard of van Damme.

You forgot the Singing Nun. 😉
Posted by Charybdis  on  Mon Dec 18, 2006  at  11:29 AM
Oooh, Audrey Hepburn.

There's one famous person for you.
Posted by Charybdis  on  Mon Dec 18, 2006  at  11:33 AM
As another American Protestant, I have never heard of Tin Tin and the only Van Damme I've ever heard of was the horrible actor. He'd be more INfamous, at least in American. I'd been trying to think of another Belgian and all I could think of was a former queen, Beautiful or something similar I think. When I was stationed in Germany, I went through Belgum a couple of times but didn't know of anything there I wanted to see, so my only experiences were passing through to the ferry.

Was Audry Hepburn from Belgum? Or of Belgian descent? I've seen a few of her movies and enjoyed them, mostly. However, I know little about her. I rarely pay attention to celebraties.
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Mon Dec 18, 2006  at  01:55 PM

That's news to me.

Then there was ... uh ... Jacques Brel. Or was he French? Darn it, now I can't remember.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Mon Dec 18, 2006  at  02:02 PM
According to Wikipedia, she was born in Belgium in 1929 and moved between England, Belgium, and the Netherlands due to her father's line of work.

Her mother took her and her siblings to the Netherlands to ride out the war, thinking they would be safer there, though of course they weren't.

Do to her figure (5'7" and malnourished from the war) she gave up on dancing as a career and started acting (also, because it paid more), starting in British films and quickly moving on to Hollywood.
Posted by Charybdis  on  Mon Dec 18, 2006  at  02:20 PM
What about that other famous Belgian woman, Stella Artois? Oops sorry, that's a beer. My goof.
Posted by Captain Al  on  Mon Dec 18, 2006  at  04:40 PM
Johnny Halliday was Belgian... the French like to pretend he was one of theirs though.
Posted by Owen  on  Tue Dec 19, 2006  at  06:28 AM
I can't believe most here have never heard of Tin-Tin. Does anyone here ever read classic comic books here or watch Boomerang anymore?
Posted by RAMChYLD  on  Tue Dec 19, 2006  at  07:39 AM
Don't forget Plastic Bertrand.
Posted by Tom K  on  Tue Dec 19, 2006  at  08:06 AM
What about Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne?

When it comes to naming famous Belgians, I always find it striking that everyone seems to forget that some of history's most famous painters were Belgians: Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, the Van Eyck brothers, Bouts, father and son Brueghel, Jordaens, Magritte, Delvaux, Ensor, Memling, and many more.
(to be continued)
Posted by robert.wood  on  Tue Dec 19, 2006  at  04:18 PM
Belgium is also famous for the comic book industry: the Smurfs, Lucky Luke, Largo Winch, XIII, Tintin, ... were all created by Belgians, although maybe only Tintin can be considered 'Belgian' in this list).
World-class choreographers Anne-Theresa De Keersmaker and Wim Vandekeybus are Belgians.
There's also Michel Daerden, the politician who got his 15 minutes of youtube-fame when he appeared quite drunk on tv, filled with joy over winning the elections.
Belgian Adolphe Sax invented... the Saxophone.
The list goes on and on. But of course, Belgium IS a very small country, and in comparison with countries like the US, the UK or France, our heritage will seem small. Especially if you're from one of those bigger countries and couldn't care less about the rest of the world.
Posted by robert.wood  on  Tue Dec 19, 2006  at  04:21 PM
"Don't forget Plastic Bertrand."

Hey, who says there aren't many famous Belgians?
Posted by Big Gary  on  Tue Dec 19, 2006  at  05:53 PM
Plastic Bertrand must be famous, because a Web site called "Famous Belgians" says he is:

"He had a massive hit in 1977 with "Ca Plane Pour Moi" and probably remains one of the most famous Belgians to this date even though he has now disappeared into obscurity."

Hmmm, maybe TinTin was a better poster boy.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Tue Dec 19, 2006  at  05:55 PM
I'm familiar with Tintin, and with many of the Belgian artists listed by robert.wood.

This is one of the rare times that I've heard of the UK being called 'one of those bigger countries'. Especially with it being four of them, and all...
Posted by Boo  on  Tue Dec 19, 2006  at  06:51 PM
This is one of the rare times that I've heard of the UK being called 'one of those bigger countries'

LOL - I know, to us Belgians almost any other country in the world is 'one of those bigger countries' 😉

It seems there's already something new to make fun over here in Belgium. Two months ago, a new national airline carrier was introduced, Brussels Airlines, a merger from SNBA with Virgin Express. They showed their new logo on some airplanes, new costumes, etc, the whole stuff.
Today they've announced that they have been forced to change that logo, because there were 13 circles in it. They've had to change that to 14 circles, since especially Italian and American travellers felt very uncomfortable with the old logo.

I can't believe some people start counting the circles that make up a logo, just because they're afraid their might be 13 of them. How do these people get through the day?
Posted by robert.wood  on  Wed Dec 20, 2006  at  02:00 PM
"...How do these people get through the day?"

With lots and lots of counting.

I don't know if the "Procter and Gamble is Satanic" rumor was big in Belgium, but that company (a big, multinational but U.S.-based, manufacturer of things like soap and toothpaste) had to change its logo, which was a drawing of a moon and stars, because people claimed it "proved" that the company was run by Devil-worshippers. The evidence for this was that there were 13 stars in the drawing and the curls of the Man in the Moon's beard supposedly formed the numerals "666" (though I never saw the "666" there).
For a while, the company tried to run ads saying, "No, we don't worship Satan or sacrifice live babies," but that just gave the rumors wider distribution. Finally P&G gave up.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Thu Dec 21, 2006  at  04:22 PM
Boo sez:
"...This is one of the rare times that I've heard of the UK being called 'one of those bigger countries'. Especially with it being four of them, and all..."

Let's see, there's Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and ... uh ... and ... um, that other one ...
Posted by Big Gary  on  Fri Dec 22, 2006  at  02:53 PM
I recall reading a book titled Congo Kitabu written by a Belgian named Pierre Hallet back a few decades ago. It was a good book. Is Hallet not well known among Belgians?
Posted by Vincent J. Fulton  on  Fri Dec 29, 2006  at  10:54 AM
According to a there are, in fact, 259 famous Belgians. Regrettably, despite being Belgian, I haven't heard of most of them!
Posted by Jean-Benoit Louveaux  on  Wed Jan 10, 2007  at  05:12 AM
The sad fact that the English cannot name 5 famous Belgians says nothing about Belgium but about the English. Can you say, "self-absorbed?"

I'll just give you one name, one as or more historically significant than any Brit, one that literally changed the course of history to this day: Charlemagne. No hoax here.

No, Belgium is not "amusing", and neither is English snobbery.

Saddest of all, this laughter is taking place while Great Britain really is in the midst of breaking up right before our eyes. The only difference is, none of us are laughing at our neighbor's demise.
Posted by An American Living in Belgium  on  Tue Mar 04, 2008  at  01:49 AM
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