KELMIS, Belgium (Reuters) - As the field of Waterloo is dressed in battle colors to mark next week’s 200th anniversary, another corner of Belgium is preparing for a less warlike bicentenary.
In one of the more arcane consequences of the new European borders that followed Napoleon’s defeat outside Brussels, a tiny statelet was born. For a century after Waterloo, the square mile that diplomats named Neutral Moresnet, on the present-day Belgian-German border, thrived in a state of virtual anarchy.
Today’s inhabitants of what is now part of the Belgian town of Kelmis fondly recount a largely lawless but prosperous history of freewheeling independence and are gearing up for their own bicentenary celebrations next year.
“We are very proud of the town’s past, particularly its ability to manage its own economy,” said alderman Erik Janssen. “The history of Kelmis is a fundamental part of the history of Belgium.”
After Waterloo, where British, Dutch and German troops ended Napoleon’s comeback on June 18, 1815, negotiations in Vienna to redraw the map of Europe failed to agree who would control the Altenberg mine following the end of French rule over the region.
A rare source of zinc vital for the brass then essential to the arms industry, neither the Prussian king nor the Dutch, whose territory then included modern Belgium, would give ground, but neither they nor their allies had the stomach for a new war.
In June 1816, they agreed to establish Neutral Moresnet, about the size of Monaco today, and to accord its citizens low taxes and freedom from government; a contemporary observer wrote they were “at liberty to do as they please”.
While the Waterloo bicentenary is marked with military pomp, Neutral Moresnet’s commemorations a year later will be contemplative.
They will include walks through fields that bloom with plants, such as zinc violets that thrive on the mineral-enriched soil, and along the old borders, where the stone posts that marked the frontiers of Neutral Moresnet, still stand.
Visitors can see the history at the museum in Kelmis, a German-speaking town of 10,000. Artefacts include a copy of a bath made of Altenberg zinc that was presented to Napoleon to use on campaign.
An entrepreneurial spirit marked the community, as witnessed by an inventive response when the mine, the territory’s sole raison d’etre, ceased being economically viable in 1885. Local doctor Wilhelm Molly’s solution was to make Neutral Moresnet the home of Esperanto, the then newly invented “world language”.
Renaming it Amikejo - place of friendship in Esperanto - he promoted international congresses for the language and encouraged its use among the 4,000 German-, Dutch- and French-speaking inhabitants.
It is unclear how many took up the offer and the experiment came to an abrupt end with World War One, after which Belgium took the formerly neutral territory over under the Treaty of Versailles.
Libertarian economist Peter C. Earle in his 2014 book on Moresnet, “A Century of Anarchy”, likened it to the Wild West and cited it as evidence for his view that central state power over the law and money was not essential to peace and justice.
Citing low taxes and open borders, he wrote: “As government dominion waned, liberty and prosperity flourished.”
Additional reporting by Foo Yun Chee and Alexander Saeedy in Brussels; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Alison Williams