Since the events of August, 1914, the
status of Belgium as a perpetually neutral country has been constantly discussed in
public in such a manner as though, from the point of view of international law,
it rested on absolutely solid ground.
In reality, that status has been, for more than
half a century, one of rather uncertain legal foundation.
It is sufficient to point out that, in 1870, Mr.
Gladstone formally asked the Cabinets of Paris and Berlin whether they
considered the treaties which, originally, guaranteed Belgium's neutrality, as
"still binding," and that twice within the last four years the
Belgian Government has itself felt so uncertain in this matter that it
proceeded to ask two of its neighbor governments for assurances as to their
attitude toward Belgium's neutrality.
The legal uncertainty as to Belgium's neutrality is well illustrated by the fact that
the numerous authors who have written on this subject of late
118 THE NEUTRALITY OF BELGIUM
refer quite indiscriminately to the treaty of 1831 and
to those of 1839, whilst the Belgian Delegation which, in autumn 1914, visited
States, in its semi-official pamphlet1 even brings in a
"Treaty of 18 Articles" which, in reality, does not exist.2
The British Government
which announced to the world that England had gone to war "to fulfil
a solemn treaty obligation,"3 studiously avoided in its
negotiations with Germany to name that treaty "to which Germany is a party in common with themselves."4
In an official despatch to the Japanese Government, Great Britain made the extraordinary assertion that Belgium's neutrality was "guaranteed by the Triple
Alliance and by an understanding between the Great Powers."5
Belgium's official claim concerning her perpetual
Case of Belgium in the Present War, published
for the Belgian Delegates to the United States by the MacMillan
Co., 1914, page 3.
2 See page 47, where it is clearly
set forth that the Eighteen Articles which style themselves
"preliminaries" were nothing but a draft of a separation treaty
between Belgium and Holland which was
flatly repudiated by the latter country. The reason why the Belgian Delegation has seen
fit to give this out as a "treaty" is obviously this, that those
"preliminaries" contained a specific guarantee of the Powers with
regard to Belgium's neutrality, while the treaties
of 1839 contain merely a general
collective guarantee concerning the provisions of the Twenty-Four Articles.
3 See page 107, footnote 3.
4 See page
5 See page vii.
INTRODUCTORY REMARKS 119
neutrality is that it rests on "the treaties of 1839,
confirmed by the treaties of 1870," and that this neutrality is
"under the guarantee of the Powers and notably of the Government of His
Majesty the King of
The second part of the
present study will examine whether, according to the accepted rules of
international law, the treaties referred to—as far as they are on record
and do not rest on fiction like the alleged guarantee of the Triple
Alliance—imposed obligations regarding Belgium's neutrality on the Powers
concerned in 1914, and whether, if Germany was under such obligations, she had
legally valid reasons for disregarding them.
1 Belgian Gray Book, No. 22.
OBLIGATIONS OF THE GUARANTORS OF
THE QUINTUPLE TREATY
When on August 3, 1914, Sir Edward Grey reported to the House of
Commons on the traditional attitude of Great Britain toward the obligations of
the guarantors of the Quintuple Treaty, he quoted part of a long speech of Mr.
Gladstone, made in the same hall, on the same subject, forty-four years before,
and expressly declared that England could not take a more narrow or less
serious view of those obligations than that taken by Mr. Gladstone's
Government. The quotation begins with the following words:
"There is, I
admit, the obligation of the Treaty. It is not necessary, nor would time permit
me, to enter into the complicated question of the nature of the obligations of
that treaty. . . ."1
These words show very plainly that, as far back
M. P. Price, Diplomatic History of the War, Appendix, page 93.
OBLIGATIONS OF QUINTUPLE
as 1870, the British Government did by no means
consider the obligations on the guarantors of the Quintuple Treaty so self-evident
and beyond any doubt that one might be allowed to style them
"sacred," but, on the contrary, of a rather "complicated"
In what then consisted those obligations, according to the text of the
original instruments and according to the British state doctrine, before Mr.
guarantee of the five Great Powers in Art. XXV of their treaty with Belgium of November 15, 1831, was assumed with regard to "the execution of all the preceding
In the Quintuple Treaty, the
guarantee clause is contained in the treaty of the Great Powers with Holland (Art. II) as well as in
their treaty with Belgium (Art. I) and states, in either case, that the Twenty-Four Articles of October 14, 1831, are "placed under the guarantee of their said Majesties,"
i.e. of the rulers of Austria, France, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia.2
There is, thus, a marked
difference between the wording of the guarantee clause in the treaty of 1831
and of that in the Quintuple Treaty. The guarantee given in the former called for
1 See page 50.
2 See page 55.
122 THE NEUTRALITY OF BELGIUM
tion" and, as stated above,1 was in
fact invoked by Belgium to oblige England and France—the two Powers which had unconditionally ratified it—to materialize the
provisions of the treaty. The fact that the guarantee clause was worded
differently in 1839 indicates very plainly that the Great Powers did not want
that guarantee any longer to oblige them to draw the sword in order to have the
stipulations of the Twenty-Four Articles respected. Otherwise there would not
have been the slightest reason for formally abrogating the treaty of November 15, 1831, and replacing it by a new one the text of which was absolutely
identical with that of the former instrument, except for the guarantee clause.2
The guarantee given toward
the upholding of the provisions of the Twenty-Four Articles by the Great Powers
in 1839 can not, therefore, be considered as putting any of the Great Powers under
the individual obligation to use coercive measures in case of a violation of
the said provisions. It was, evidently, nothing more than an affirmation
before the world that the then existing state of affairs, based
2 The only other exception is that the mutual assurances for peace and
friendship (Art. XXVI of the treaty of November 15, 1831) were not repeated, which is
quite consistent with the international custom to make such assurances only in
the first treaty with a new Power.
OBLIGATIONS OF QUINTUPLE GUARANTORS 123
on the Twenty-Four Articles, was in conformity with
the wishes of the Great Powers and that they would resent a change in that
state of affairs.
As has been stated above, the
guarantee of the Powers, in the treaty of November 15, 1831, as well as in the Quintuple Treaty, did not in
any particular way concern the perpetual neutrality of Belgium, but a great
many other things at the same time which, then, were of much greater importance
to the contracting parties. As for the establishment of that neutrality in
particular, the aims and intentions of the framers of the Quintuple Treaty are
quite evident from the various ways in which, in the course of the
negotiations, the article in question has been worded—first stage (Protocols of
January 20 and 27, 1831): the
very positive and specific guarantee "the five Powers guarantee it"
(i.e. Belgium) "that perpetual neutrality"; second stage (Protocol of
June 26, 1831): the clause is inserted "without wishing to interfere in the
internal affairs of Belgium"; third stage (treaty of November
15, 1831): no specific
guarantee with regard to the neutrality, but merely a general collective
guarantee of the Great Powers for the "execution" of all the
Twenty-Four Articles of which the neutralization of the new kingdom formed only
one small item; and fourth stage (treaties of April 19, 1839): no specific guarantee and—as shown above—a
124 THE NEUTRALITY OF BELGIUM
more modified general collective guarantee with regard
to the same Twenty-Four Articles, without any promise of "execution."
A close examination of the
wording of the Protocols of January 20 and June 26, 1831, with the text of the treaties of 1831 and 1839, reveals still another striking
point of difference. In the former documents the Powers expressed their
willingness to guarantee Belgium "that perpetual neutrality as well as the
integrity and the inviolability of its territory,"1 whilst in
the treaties of 1831 and 1839 their general guarantee only referred to Belgium
as "an independent and perpetually neutral State."2 From
this divergence the conclusion has been drawn that the integrity and
inviolability were purposely not guaranteed by the Great Powers—an opinion
which is upheld by none less than Professor Ernest Nys,
one of the leading Belgian jurists and a Member of the International Tribunal
of the Hague.3
According to this
authority it would seem that whoever considers the Quintuple guarantee as still
in force in 1914 would have to admit that, since it did not cover the
inviolability of Belgium's
frontiers, the German invasion was no violation of Belgium's guaranteed rights.
1 See pages 37 and 46.
2 See pages 49 and 55.
droit international, les principes, les theories, les faits,
Bruxelles (1912), Vol. I, page 424.
OBLIGATIONS OF QUINTUPLE
Regardless, however, of
which Belgian state rights were covered by the Quintuple guarantee, the above
juxtaposition of the wording of the guarantee clause during the different
stages of the proceedings leaves no doubt that the Quintuple guarantee was a
general collective guarantee with regard to the arrangements of the Twenty-Four
Articles, without any promise of execution.
What such collective
guarantees mean to Great Britain has been authoritatively defined by her
responsible Ministers, in 1867, in the sense that a collective guarantee
involved no specific obligation on the part of any of the single guarantors.
This doctrine was particularly emphasized "ex cathedra" by Lord
Stanley, on June 14, 1867, when he was asked, in the House of Commons, why, by the signature of
the treaty guaranteeing perpetual neutrality to Luxembourg, signed five weeks before that debate, he had
assumed burdensome obligations for England. He replied to that question:
guarantee now given is collective only. This is an important distinction. It
means this, that in the event of a violation of neutrality,
all the Powers who have signed the treaty may be called upon for their
collective action. No one of those Powers is liable to be called upon to act
singly or separately. It is a case, so to speak, of 'limited liability.' We are
bound in honor—you cannot place a legal construction upon it—to see in concert
with others that these arrangements are maintained. But if the other
126 THE NEUTRALITY OF BELGIUM
Powers join us, it is certain
that there will be no violation of neutrality. If they, situated exactly as we
are, de-cline to join, we are not bound single-handed to make up the deficiencies
of the rest. Such a guarantee has, obviously, rather the character of a moral
sanction to the arrangements which it defends than that of a contingent
liability to make war. It would no doubt give a right to make war, but it would
not necessarily impose the obligation.
"Take an instance from what
we have done already. We have guaranteed Switzerland; but if all Europe combined against Switzerland, although we might regret it, we
should hardly feel bound to go to war with all the
world for the protection of Switzerland. We were parties to the
arrangements which were made about Poland; they were broken, but we did
not go to war. I only name those cases as showing that it does not necessarily
and inevitably follow that you are bound to maintain the guarantee under all
circumstances by force of arms."1
In the House of Lords, the Earl of
Derby defined the British Government's views in the following manner:
"A several guarantee binds
each of the parties to do its utmost individually to enforce the observance of
the guarantee. A collective guarantee is one which is binding on all the
parties collectively; but which, if any difference of opinion should arise, no
one of them can be called upon to take upon itself the task of vindication by
force of arms. The guarantee is collective and depends upon the union of all
the parties signing it; and no one of those
1 Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 3 series,
Vol. 187, page 1922.
OBLIGATIONS OF QUINTUPLE
parties is bound to take upon itself the
duty of enforcing the fulfillment of the guarantee."1
Lord Derby, it is true, tried to make
it appear as though the guarantee of the Powers with regard to the neutrality of
Luxembourg were of another nature than that with regard to the neutrality of
Belgium, and it seems that Sir Edward Grey who, on August 2, 1914, specially referred to Lord Derby,2
still held the same opinion. It is, however, perfectly obvious that, though
politically the neutrality of Belgium may be of greater importance to Great Britain, legally the guarantee assumed by the
Powers in 1839 with regard to Belgium is the very same collective guarantee as that
assumed with regard to Luxembourg in 1867. Lord Derby, more-over, himself admitted
this by quoting from the Protocols concerning the Luxembourg Treaty the
stipulation that the intention of the contracting parties had been that
"Luxembourg should enjoy the same guarantee of her neutrality as Belgium."3
Besides, on a previous occasion, the same British
statesman had expressly stated, in Parliament, that
"the former guarantee" (i.e. the guarantee assumed under
the Quintuple Treaty), "which was under the collective guarantee of all
the Powers of Europe, declared that Lux-
1 Hansard, Vol. 188, page 968.
2 British White Papers, No. 148.
3 Hansard, Vol. 188, page 969.
128 THE NEUTRALITY OF BELGIUM
embourg should continue to form a part of the possessions of the King of
Holland, whereas the present guarantee" (i.e. the guarantee assumed under
the Luxembourg Neutralization Treaty) "which is also under the
guarantee of the collective Powers, declares that that territory shall be
Thus, the legal significance
of the collective guarantee logically, in the case of Belgium, could not be different from that laid down with
regard to Luxembourg, in the words of Lord Stanley, that such a
guarantee would no doubt give a right to make war, but it would not necessarily
impose that obligation.
other words: England might find it expedient to go to war on account
of a violation of Belgium's neutrality, as for any other pretext—but she does not consider
herself under any "sacred" obligation to do so.
When, therefore, on August 6, 1914, Mr. Asquith, in the House of Commons,
attempted to justify England's intervention in the present war by asserting
that she was by law and honor bound "to fulfil a
solemn international obligation," the British Prime-Minister found himself
at complete variance with the previously established state doctrine of his
country concerning its obligations resulting from collective guarantees.
1 Hansard, Vol. 187, page 79.
OF QUINTUPLE GUARANTORS 129
Even if the Quintuple guarantee could
still be considered as binding in 1914-which, as the subsequent chapters will
show, was not the case—England was, according to the statements of earlier
British statesmen, not legally bound to take action when Belgium was
invaded by German troops.
She was, of course, at
liberty to take that step for political reasons, in connection with Belgium or otherwise. But the attempt of her responsible
statesmen to justify their cause before their country and the neutral world by
pointing at alleged solemn treaty obligations was, to repeat Mr. Ramsay
MacDonald's criticism, nothing but "a pretty
little game of hypocrisy."
It is gratifying to note
that one English newspaper at least, the Labour Leader,
has had the moral courage of showing up this political hypocrisy of the Asquith
Cabinet by pointing at England's attitude toward a threatening invasion of Belgium in 1887. At that time, the so-called "Schnaebele incident" brought Europe to the verge of a repetition of the Franco-German War of 1870, and the
possibility of a Belgian invasion by either Germany or France was widely discussed in England. Then, however, as the Labour
Leader shows, in the two articles reproduced in the Appendix,1
neither the Conservative nor the Liberal party held the opin-
1 See pages 236-248.
130 THE NEUTRALITY OF BELGIUM
ion that such a contingency would impose on England the obligation of going to war in defense of Belgium's neutrality. The Pall Mall Gazette, the leading
Liberal newspaper, proved at some length that no such obligation existed. The
Standard, leading organ of the Conservatives, then in power, pointed out that
there was "all the difference in the world" between a permanent
occupation of neutral Belgium by another state and the "momentary use of
the right of way" through that country by either prospective belligerent
in order to reach the other's territory. The paper asserted that the former
might be a serious question for England; but with reference to the latter, said "it
would be madness for us to incur or to assume responsibilities unnecessary when
to do so would manifestly involve our participation in a tremendous war."
These utterances of the
Conservative party organ in 1887 seem to prove conclusively that Germany's
demands on Belgium for the right of way, in connection with a most explicit
guarantee of her integrity and independence after the restoration of peace, as
expressed in the German note of August 2, 1914, would not
have failed to fully satisfy Lord Salisbury's government, twenty-seven years
ago, and would have effectively secured England's neutrality.
it to be surmised that, with regard to the ful-
QUINTUPLE GUARANTORS 131
filment of "a solemn international obligation"
on the part of Great Britain, the sense of honor of the Right Honorable Lord
Salisbury was less alive than that of the Right Honorable H. H. Asquith?