100 years ago Belgium annexed Europe’s second smallest territory

Under the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles Belgium was awarded not only an area of what had previously been German territory that included the towns of Eupen, Sankt-Vith and Malmedy, but was also given control over what had been Europe’s second smallest territory. Only Vatican City (44ha) is smaller than the territory that prior to 10 January 1920 was known as Neutral Moresnet. 

Neutral Moresnet came into existence as a condominium in 1816. Initially it was jointly administered by the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and Prussia. After the southern provinces broke away from The Netherlands to form what is now Belgium, Belgium and Prussia jointly administered the 344 hectares that made up the territory of Neutral Moresnet.  

The condominium’s northern most point was at what is currently the point at which Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands meet at the Vaaslerberg.

During the World War I Germany annexed Neutral Moresnet. This was not recognised by allies. The November 1918 Armistice forced Germany to withdraw not only from Belgium, but also from Neutral Moresnet.

A year later war reparations were imposed on Germany under the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. On 10 January 1920 the territory was annexed by Belgium to become (part of) the municipality of Kelmis. Today Kelmis is one of the 9 municipalities in the East of Liège Province that make up the territory of Belgium’s German Language Community. Like the other German-Speaking municipalities, Kelmis has special linguistic dispensations for Francophone residents.

However, the area is of special interest to scholars of another language, Esperanto. In the early 20th century initiatives were taken in Neutral Moresnet to found an Esperanto-speaking state called “Amikejo” (Place of Friendship). Neutral Moresnet’s status as a condominium came to an end on 10 January 1920.

Population grew more than tenfold in the 1900's

The territory was governed by two royal commissioners. These commissioners were commonly civil servants from the Belgian town of Verviers as from what was then the Prussian town of Eupen. The Mayor was appointed by the commissioners. The legal system in Neutral Moresnet used Napoleonic civil and penal codes. As there was no court in the territory Prussian and Belgian Judges had to decide on cases using Napoleonic law.

From 1859, Neutral Moresnet had a greater measure of self-administration by the installation of a municipal council of ten members. The council, as well as a welfare committee and a school committee, were appointed by the mayor and served an advisory function only.

The Vieille Montagne mining company was omnipresent in the territory. Not only it was the major employer but also owned a lot housing and operated shops, a hospital and a bank. The mine attracted many workers from the neighbouring countries. From just 256 in 1815 the population grew to 2,275 in 1858 and had reached 4,668 by 1914. 

Low taxes and no import tariffs

Those living in Neutral Moresnet benefited from low taxation and no import tariffs on goods bought outside the territory. Prices in the shops there were lower than those in neighbouring towns and villages in Belgium or Prussia.

A downside to the special status was the fact that the people of Neutral Moresnet were considered to be stateless.  

Many immigrants settled in Moresnet so they would be exempt from conscription. However, in 1854 Belgium began to conscript its citizens who had moved to Neutral Moresnet. Prussia followed suit from 1874 and from then an exemption from military services applied only to descendants of the original inhabitants. 

Life after 10 January 1920

The history of Neutral Moresnet post annexation is a history that it shares with the area transferred from Germany to Belgium under the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. The area was re‑annexed by the Germans during World War II, but returned to Belgium in 1944. Since 1973 the municipality of Kelmis has been part of the German Language Community.

The Göhtal Museum, a small museum in Neu-Moresnet includes exhibits on Neutral Moresnet. 100 years since the territory ceased to exist some 50 of the 60 border posts (photo above) that marked the boundaries of Neutral Moresnet are still standing.

On 26 October 2016, Catharina Meessen became the last surviving citizen of the former territory.