Background: The Napoleonic Wars

Northern France in 1812, at the height of Napoleon's power. The kingdom around Berlin is Prussia. (Excerpt from Wikipedia)

Probably few are aware that Denmark and France once had a common border. Under Napoleonic rule, France stretched all the way to the Baltic town of Lübeck, while the North German duchy of Holstein was under the Danish crown. In contrast, everybody knows that Napoleon finally faced his waterloo at Waterloo in 1815, after having made the most sensational political comeback in world history from his captivity on the island of Elba.

This event was an enormous scare to all the European monarchs, who were assembled at the Congress of Vienna to contain France and re-design the borders of the continent. Denmark had been in alliance with France, so Norway was transferred from Denmark to Sweden. Prussia, on the other hand, had been at war with Napoleon and was awarded much of current western Germany in return.

Napoleon had dissolved the so-called Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (which according to Voltaire was neither holy, Roman nor an empire) and in its place he laid down the Confederation of the Rhine as a client state. As a substitute for this, the Congress of Vienna set up the German Confederation, which was loosely held together by its two dominant members, Prussia and Austria. It was also agreed to create the United Kingdom of the Netherlands as a buffer state between France and Prussia. Luxembourg was designed as a duchy within the German Confederation in personal union with the Netherlands, i.e. having the king of the Netherlands as its duke (just like Holstein with the Danish king).

A micro-state gets created

The personal unions were not the only example of the modern conceptions of democracy and nationalism not being generally accepted yet. When the border was to be drawn between the Netherlands and Prussia, it occurred to no one to hold a referendum about it; the line was dictated by the final document resolved at the Congress of Vienna. But in one place, north of the highway between Aachen and Liège, there was an uncertainty of interpretation. The place held a valuable zinc mine that both countries claimed. They set up a joint commission, which met 50 times without arriving at an agreement. When both sides had finally been tired out, they agreed to put border posts on both sides of the mine territory and to manage the resulting 1 square mile as a common, neutral area. The negotiators must have been really worn out, for at least in one place the border was drawn right through a house!

This tiny enclave was located in a region where the spoken language merges from German into Dutch dialect, but French is spoken immediately to the west, so many places have a different name in German, Dutch and French. Therefore, the zinc mine was known as Altenberg in German and Vieille Montagne in French. The village where the miners lived is called Kelmis and La Calamine respectively, named after the local name for zinc ore. As the mine was located between the small town Moresnet to the west and the even smaller village of Neu-Moresnet to the east, the enclave was known as Moresnet neutre in French, Neutraal Moresnet in Dutch and Neutral-Moresnet in German. Clearly, the spelling "Moresnet" is identical in all three languages, but even though it obviously is a French name, there is considerable variation in whether the “t” and the “s” are pronounced or not!

An island of stability

Moresnet’s neutrality was supposed to be just an interim arrangement, but it persisted for more than a century. In contrast, the United Netherlands soon had to give up calling itself united. If you know about the notorious Belgian language controversy, you can easily fool yourself to believe that the Dutch-speaking Flemings are Protestants and that the French-speaking Walloons are Catholics, but actually the whole of Belgium has a strong Catholic majority (which, incidentally, goes a fair distance up in Holland). From the Reformation till the Napoleonic wars the northern Netherlands had been independent, while the Southern parts had been subject to Spain and later to Austria. The government in Amsterdam tried to link up with the Flemings by making Dutch official and school language in the Flemish-speaking areas, but the Flemings did not take the bait; the language controversy did not gain momentum until the 20th century. In 1830 the Catholic, Flemish peasants made common cause with the liberal French-speaking elite, and brought off the Belgian Revolution.

Site map

1. The Netherlands → Limburg → Holland
2. The Netherlands → Belgium
3. Neutral Moresnet
4. Prussia → Germany
a. Dutch-Belgian border from 1839
b. The road Aachen-Liège
c. Belgian-German border from 1920

Hold on, and use the site map to guide yourself, for now it gets complicated! At the revolution, Belgium was separated from the Netherlands, which is then often called Holland, although North and South Holland are really only two of the country’s current 12 provinces. Luxembourg was divided into a western French-speaking part, who went to Belgium, and an eastern German-speaking part who remained in personal union with the Netherlands until 1890 and in a customs union with Germany until the 1st World War. The south-eastern Dutch province Limburg was divided so that the western part fell to Belgium. As compensation for the loss of western Luxembourg, the eastern part of Limburg was made a duchy of the German Confederation in personal union with Holland. The duchy, however, was again made a part of the Dutch kingdom in 1867.

All that hubbub (and the Franco-German War 1870-72) left our little enclave quite untouched, except that the Netherlands’ administration of Neutral Moresnet went over to Belgium. As a curiosity a four country point arose where the borders between Holland, Belgium, Germany and Neutral Moresnet met. This point (Vaalserberg) is also the highest point in Holland with 322.7 meters above sea level – quite a lot higher than the three hills in Eastern Jutland of about 170 meters, that compete about being Denmark's highest. The four country point is at the same place today, except it has been reduced to a three country point. It is still a tourist magnet, especially for the Dutch, who are welcomed here in a video speaking the local dialect.

Life in Kelmis

Living in a neutral area had certain advantages. The mining company (Société des Mines a Fonderies de zinc de la Vieille Montagne in Liège) was a dominating, but socially responsible employer, that also ran a bank, a hospital, housing rental and some shops. Imports were duty free, taxes and prices were lower and wages higher than in neighboring countries. Population increased about tenfold from 256 in 1816 to 2,572 in 1858. Of these 695 were born in the neutral zone, while 852 were Belgians (probably mostly French-spaking), 807 Prussians, 204 Dutch, and 14 came from elsewhere.

One of the many postcards issued about Neutral Moresnet and the four country point

The disadvantages were less tangible, and they were especially about having no social influence. The neutral zone was managed by a mayor who was appointed by two commissioners, a Prussian in Aachen and a Belgian in Verviers. Once the mayor was appointed, he was practically an absolute ruler. From 1859 he appointed 10 members to a consultative assembly, but the inhabitants never got entitled to vote or to join a trade union. Originally there was no conscription, as no military was allowed to be in the area, but from 1854 the Belgian residents were summoned to the national army, and from 1874 it was the same for the German.

There was no court in Kelmis, so litigation was settled by Belgian or German courts; on this, people were free to choose themselves! Sentences were handed down according to the Code Napoléon, because that was the applicable law when the border was drawn. This body of law was a beacon of 19th century legislation, but no legislature had the power to amend it, and it contained some very formidable criminal provisions; for instance you could be sentenced to a year of hard labor for stealing an empty bag! Law enforcement was, however, leaking like a strainer, and illicit drink-shops as well as gambling houses were in clover. There was a lively smuggling of excise goods, especially moonshine alcohol (not uncommonly in bottles labelled with “Altenberger Mineralwasser”), but also coffee, meat, and even salt.

This diminutive non-country, no bigger than the City of London during medieval times, gradually developed his own identity. Already in 1848 some local coins were minted, although the only legal tender was the French franc (but of course Belgian francs and German marks were used freely). In 1883 they got the idea to make their own flag, a horizontal tricolour in black, white and blue. In 1885 the zinc mine was exhausted, so the residents began to think about how to consolidate their special status economically. In 1903 there was an attempt to legalize a casino, but that made the Prussian king threaten to give away the whole region to Belgium, so it was abandoned. But the “neutrals”, as many of the locals are still proud to call themselves, were optimistic and did not give up so easily.

Wilhelm Molly and Esperanto

Dr. Wilhelm Molly (1838-1919 )

The most remarkable personality in the history of Neutral Moresnet was Dr. Wilhelm Molly. He came to the region in 1863 as a medical practitioner from Wetzlar in Hesse and soon became well-liked for its reasonable prices. At one point, he averted a cholera epidemic, and since then his popularity knew no bounds. Belgium and Prussia covered him with orders, the zinc mine employed him as a their industrial medical officer, and the mayor appointed him as his deputy.

Wilhelm Molly had many interests, among them an avid interest in philately. He got the idea that Moresnet should have its own postal service, so he formed the association “Kelmis Verkehrs-Anstalt zu Neutral Moresnet” which in 1886 issued its own stamps similar to the private postal companies that were known in certain Prussian towns. However, postal service is a state monopoly according to the Code Napoléon, so it was promptly stopped by the commissioners.

His mail initiative, however, pales beside his attempt to turn Neutral Moresnet into an Esperanto-state! He got the idea from Gustave Roy, a language teacher from France, who had lived some time in Aachen. When Roy returned to St. Giron in southern France, he heard about Esperanto, that had its first world congress in 1905. He was not late to put two and two together: The neutral international language Esperanto would be a perfect match with the small enclave at Aachen, wedged between three countries and three languages. In the summer of 1906 he went back to Moresnet and went to see Wilhelm Molly. Undoubtedly, it helped to establish contact between them that both men collected stamps and were freemasons.

Picture from the founding of Amikejo, 1908. The person in the foreground, second to the left of the motor car, is Wilhelm Molly.

The new state was to be called “Amikejo”, which in Esperanto means ‘place of friends’. As a first step, the two men organize a public meeting in the hall of the marksman club, the usual gathering place for the miners. It takes place in summer or autumn of 1907; the exact date seems to have been forgotten, but it was the start of a real enthusiasm for Esperanto in Kelmis and environs. In a brochure from the beginning of 1908 entitled “A project for establishment of an independent Esperantist State in six months” Gustave Roy outlines his vision for a new, global Hanseatic League centered in Amikejo. Madness, you say? He writes: “I know that there is not one in a thousand who will believe in the realization of this project. But just ten years ago there was not one in a million who would believe in the realization of wireless telegraphy.” The world press is bombarded with information about the plan.

Ups and downs

Still, is this whole business to be taken seriously or not? The nearest Esperanto club in Belgium, the one in Verviers, said no. The21st of June 1908 they warned in a letter to the magazine “La Belga Sonorilo” ( “The Belgian Bell”) that this project would make a complete laughing stock out of Esperanto if it failed, what it undoubtedly would. That made Karl Schriewer, a just 19 years old Esperantist from Kelmis, promise Gustave Roy to teach people Esperanto four times a week, twice for children, twice for adults. At the start, 139 people joined. The project had received a draught horse, and with financial support from Molly and other patrons the Esperanto Association's morale was kept up.

At the 13th of August 1908 the Esperanto State Amikejo is to be proclaimed at a big party. Some 100 foreign Esperantists have come to town to lift the mood further. Speeches are given about the new state, and the miners’ brass band play music during the intervals. The banner and coat of arms of Amikejo are solemnly presented. And finally everybody sing “O Altenberg!”, a poem written for the occasion to the famous tune of “O Tannenbaum”.

But again, how literally should it be taken? Karl Schriewer believes it should be understood mostly symbolically, but Molly and Roy really seem to envision an actual secession from Belgium and Germany. Already three days later Roy goes to Dresden in order to implement his next coup. This is where the fourth World Esperanto Congress is taking place and where the World Esperanto Association UEA (ie Universala Esperanto Asocio) is to be founded. The headquarters is supposed to be located in Geneva, but why not transfer it to Amikejo that is just as central and neutral?

Gustave Roy's report to the Esperanto Congress: "How Neutral Moresnet became Amikejo"

In Dresden 1500 Esperantists from 40 countries got together. On 21th of August Roy's project was on the agenda. It met with both enthusiasm and criticism. Some did not believe it was necessary to form an independent Esperanto state, and many were nervous about anything that could be interpreted as political or religious. Someone stated that it would destroy Esperanto if ordinary people spoke it every day, but apparently most of the attendants saw no problem in that. A vote is taken and it recommends Roy's proposal.

Back in Kelmis Karl Schriewer is appointed local “consul” for the UEA, and he immediately begins to set up the office of the world association. Now everybody are just waiting for the delegates from Geneva, who have announced their arrival at the end of the year. They got to wait in vain, but the spirits were simply too high to let the disappointment get them down. As planned, a grand celebration takes place in Amikejo the 27th of December 1908. 150 Esperanto speakers from different countries participate, theatre plays and poetry readings are held in Esperanto, and people sing the national anthem of Amikejo, composed to the melody of “La Espero”, the Esperanto anthem. The song is explicitly devoted to the tireless consul Karl Schriewer.

But in 1909 Schriewer was drafted into the army, and it was as if the whole soul of the enterprise disappeared. The association “Amikejo” continued its activities, but more and more like an ordinary west European slumberous, local Esperanto Association – no more theater performances, no more teaching of children. All over Europe the Esperanto optimism lose some of its impetus, not least due to the so-called ido schism that struck particularly hard in Belgium and Luxembourg.

Reform rumbling and stabilization

Apropos side tracks, there was one of those going from Belgian Moresnet into the zinc mine. Later the track was extended to Aachen along the highway and used for tram traffic. The line is now abandoned.

Ido is a reform of Esperanto that was anonymously submitted in 1907 to the self-ordained “Delegation for the Adoption of an International Auxiliary Language”. For many of the Western European Esperantists, especially the educated, Esperanto was part of a belief in progress that may seem somewhat naive today. Especially the famous Danish linguist Otto Jespersen was convinced that something like “progress in language” existed. That was to be understood in two ways, namely that newer language structures are better mediators for thought than older ones, and that conscious language planning can do more than just levelling dialects. Jespersen was rather alone among his colleagues with this point of view, and it never was backed up scientifically. But it is obvious that it could have an appeal to some Esperanto speakers, especially at a time when it was not politically incorrect to distinguish between more and less developed languages and cultures.

It gives one food for thought that very few of the “foot soldiers” in the Esperanto army “deserted” in favour of Ido, whereas quite a number of “generals” did – and that the mutiny did not take place at a time when Esperanto was facing pressure, on the contrary, it flourished as ever before. Ido went as could have been predicted: The attempt to continuously perfect the language through ordinances did not lead to progress, but only to instability. In the mean time Otto Jespersen had become hostage to its own ideology, and had no choice but to desert for the second time in 1928 with his own project “Novial“, that died out with him in 1943.

The most prominent Esperantist in Belgium was the famous explorer Charles Lemaire, who among other things was the publisher of “La Belga Sonorilo”. During 1908 he used this magazine so much for campaigning for language reforms that the Belgian Esperanto Association finally had to distance itself from him. Lemaire pulled many away over to Ido, but was later completely disillusioned. The Esperanto Group in Luxembourg was the only group that went over to Ido as a whole, and significantly enough, the Luksemburga Esperanto-Asocio was not restored until 1971, even though there were Esperanto activities in the country in the meantime and Ido had long since been forgotten by then. There still remains a small international Ido Union, but it has no representatives in Luxembourg, Belgium or Denmark.

The schism was quite a shock for the Esperanto community, but in the long run it was an advantage to get rid of the reformists. It is no unrealistic estimate that the adherents of all the other constructed languages combined number less than one percent of the Esperantists. What is really thought-provoking in this regard is that there is hardly any linguistic theory that an equally large majority of linguists subscribe to, the most important rift being the one between those who directly or indirectly base their ideas on Ferdinand de Saussure and those who are oriented towards Noam Chomsky . In other words: There is virtually no doubt that Esperanto is the international language, but at the same time it is very uncertain what language actually is. From that point of view Esperanto has considerably more prestige than linguistics has.

The World Wars and the post-war period

The cover of the sheet of music with Huppermanns peace march

But that was a side track. Back in Amikejo the reform bacillus never really got a hold, but so did World War I. It was even more cruel to the intermarriaged Belgian-German(-Dutch-neutral) families in Kelmis. One of the young men who were called to the battlefield by the Belgian army, while his brother-in-law had to fight on the German side, was the musician Willy Huppermann. At the front he composed a peace march that he called “Amikayo” in memory of his lost homeland (fragments of it can be heard here and here). Many years later Dany Huppermans – presumably a relative of Willy – made an ode to Kelmis in the local dialect.

As we all know, Germany lost the war, and in 1919 the Versailles Treaty provisionally awarded Neutral Moresnet to Belgium, together with the German municipalities Eupen, Skt. Vith and Malmédy. In 1920 a referendum was held, but a vehement French pressure made it anything but free, equal, and secret, so that the new land was almost forced upon Belgium. Just six years later Belgium secretly tried to sell it back to Germany, but the French gouvernment got wind of it and prevented it. Anyway, time was running out for this form of indirect slave trade, with states selling people with the land they lived on, as it happened on the Danish West Indies in 1917.

From the start, Belgium was officially French-speaking, although schools taught in Dutch at the elemenary level wherever it was the children's mother tongue. This was seen as “linguistic freedom”, as the bourgeoisie expected that anyone given the chance would naturally prefer to abandon a Flemish patois in favour of standard French. Over time the Flemings, however, became more and more aware of their right to equality for their language, and Dutch slowly but steadily expanded its domain. Starting in World War I, the Flemings struggled to make Dutch the language of instruction at the University of Ghent, and in 1930 they succeeded. That same year saw the founding of Flandra Esperanto-Ligo, and since then the Esperanto initiative in Belgium has mainly been on the Flemish side.

During both world wars the Germans were somewhat successful in playing on the conflict between Flemish and French, and in the turbulent 1930s some Flemings began to agitate for an independent Flanders. On the other hand, eventually the majority of German-speaking Belgians were reconciled with being Belgians, especially since Hitler came to power, and after World War II West Germany did not want to stick its neck out concerning its borders to NATO partners. To make a long story short, today there is a German-speaking Community of Belgium on a par with the French- and Dutch-speaking ones. The municipal website is therefore as a perfectly natural thing in German, although the municipality is part of the French-speaking province of Liège (which is called Luik in Dutch and Lüttich in German). The German-speakers represent 0.73% of the Belgian population.

Oblivion and rediscovery

After World War I, it was as if everyone wanted to forget the whole story about Neutral Moresnet. The area was very small, so perhaps it is not so surprising that it is difficult to find sources from that time outside of Belgium. But the story is not mentioned with one word in the two major reference works in Esperanto, Enciklopedio de Esperanto from 1935 and Esperanto en Perspektivo from 1973, although Esperanto kept “being in the air” in Kelmis. Not unexpectedly, then, one comes across a few misconceptions and inaccuracies when examining the issue online. The most appalling statement I have encountered is that Neutral Moresnet never existed – except as a mapmaker’s deliberate error in order to protect his copyright!

But in 1991 something happens. This year the Dutch television “Nederlandse Omroep Stichting” broadcasts a longish documentary with the title “The forgotten country of Moresnet”. In February 2010 somebody has uploaded it to Youtube in five parts, which can be seen here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5. The basic speaking is in Dutch, the interviews mostly in German, but also in French and Esperanto. It was supposed to be “the ultimate documentary” about the subject, but the 13th of September 1998 the Dutchman Cees Damen sets up the website, and soon it is as if the interest explodes.

In September 2003, the German regional radio Südwestrundfunk broadcasts a feature where Alfred Bertha and other citizens of Kelmis tell the Amikejo story. In December 2004, this is followed up in the nationwide Deutschland Radio where the historian Herbert Ruland puts Bertha's story into a larger context. In December 2006 an article in Die Zeit digs up new aspects of the matter, and in September 2007 Mathieu Schrymecker, the current local UEA consul, is allowed to recommend Kelmis in travel tips series “km42” of Spiegel TV. In May 2008, Deutschland Radio is back on the track with an extremely thorough feature where Herbert Mayer and Detlev Blanke have the opportunity to deepen the Esperanto angle.

The spread of the Internet is probably an important element of this development. Moresnet is a typical example of a topic that an ordinary encyclopedia would leave out, but it is obvious to do an article on it for Wikipedia. The Dutchman Peter Bouhuijs has made a nice little Google video of 12 minutes with subtitles in Esperanto and ... naturally someone has created a facebook group called “We want the return of the mini-state of Moresnet !!!”. This in its turn gives the “hard” media the opportunity to take up the subject again. Arika Okrent has the Moresnet story in her new book, and Tuesday the 6th of April 2010 the Flemish TV-station Canvas broadcast a program on Neutral Moresnet (on the net only a trailer and a few fragments can be seen yet).

Neutral Moresnet was often compared in its own time to Chicago because of the prevailing lawlessness, but considering the peacefulness and relaxed lifestyle of the residents, it is probably more accurate to compare it to the free town of Christiania. On the mildly satirical Dutch blog The Ministry of Resolved Affairs there is a proposal to create a New Neutral Moresnet as a pilot project, including the legalization of cannabis. But that would probably fail considering that the legal position of Neutral Moresnet was even more precarious than Christiania’s is today.

Esperanto in the public domain

The Esperantists of today are well aware that they must work with much longer time scales than half a year if their efforts to are to be meaningful. A world congress or any of the other great Esperanto meetings can only make its mark on a city so long as it lasts, but there are locations where Esperanto is gaining a permanent position in the public domain. That is obvious in the Polish town of Białystok, where the creator of Esperanto L.L. Zamenhof was born in 1859. But equally remarkable is Herzberg am Harz, a town with 14,000 inhabitants situated right in the middle of Germany, 90 km south of Hanover.

One of the first bilingual signs in Herzberg

On the 11th of July 2006 the Municipal Council of Herzberg unanimously decided to officially add “die Esperanto-Stadt” to the name of the town. That was a result of the town's station master Joachim Gießner (1913-2003) having been a very active chairman of both the German and the International Esperanto Association of Rail Workers. The Danish State Railways and other rail companies have had Esperanto versions of the key to signatures in their timetables, but this is less relevant today, where timetables are increasingly read online. In Herzberg there is, among other things, an Esperanto educational centre, a number of bilingual signs in German and Esperanto, teaching of Esperanto in primary schools and an extended Esperanto-based cooperation with the Polish twin town Góra. But you’ll have to wait till another time to hear that story.