Visiting the Three Country Point, near Gemmenich, Belgium: formerly a Four Country Point, including Neutral Moresnet

Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
Three Country Point monument
Three Country Point monument | Source
Postcard from about 1900 of Neutral Moresnet
Postcard from about 1900 of Neutral Moresnet | Source
Flag of Neutral Moresnet
Flag of Neutral Moresnet | Source
Map location of Plombières municipality, Liège province, Belgium
Map location of Plombières municipality, Liège province, Belgium | Source

Complicated local history

Near Gemmenich, Belgium, is a point where the borders of three countries — Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany — meet. In this heavily wooded area, observation towers on both the Belgian and Dutch sides of the border attract many visitors, to whom scenic views are thus afforded.

Interestingly, this point used to be where the borders of four, rather than three, countries met. So, which was the fourth country in question?

Prior to 1920, Neutral Moresnet (French: Moresnet Neutre) was a small territory, based around the village of Kelmis (French: La Calamine), which extended up to the point where the borders of Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany meet.

After 1815, the Dutch King (what is now Belgium did not then exist as an independent country) and the King of Prussia could not agree on the ownership of a lucrative zinc spar mine in the village of Altenberg / Vieille Montagne.

Essentially these two countries agreed to disagree. This institutionalized disagreement was known as Neutral Moresnet. The local mayor thus took on something of an ad hoc head of state rôle, even though this was not formalized into giving the region all the prerogatives of statehood. In addition to the mine, other money-spinning devices were also attempted at various times — a casino, the issue of postage stamps for philatelists — which met with the disapproval of some of the adjacent countries.

In time, these adjacent countries had become Belgium and Germany (with the Dutch territorial connection being tenuously maintained at the Four Country Point)(1). After Belgium became independent in 1830, it inherited The Netherlands' disagreement with Prussia over the zinc spa mine. In turn, a united Germany after 1871 took on Prussian foreign policy with regard to this issue.

Then the zinc ran out.

Or, rather, became uneconomic to exploit. (Which more or less amounted to the same thing.)

But then in World War One, with most of Belgium's territory under the occupation of the Imperial German Army, Germany summarily annexed Neutral Moresnet, but without this being widely acknowledged internationally (and certainly not by Belgium's government in exile).

So what happened after World War One? did Belgium's government restore the status quo at Neutral Moresnet? Certainly not; after World War One, the Belgian government was understandably sore about Germany's devastating and often brutal occupation of most of the country during that war, and it wanted — and successfully obtained — the annexation of borderland territories previously part of Germany (or, strictly, in the case of Neutral Moresnet, under illegal annexation).

Still, what seemed so morally unacceptable for Germany to do a few years earlier when it annexed Neutral Moresnet, suddenly for Belgium seemed acceptable to do, and not only Neutral Moresnet but also other German-speaking municipalities around Eupen, Sankt-Vith and elsewhere. This area of eastern Belgium is now known as the German-speaking Community (German: Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft), with its own elected assembly and Prime Minister.

On the Belgian side of this point, the Route des Trois Bornes connects it with the village of Gemmenich, situated in the municipality of Plombières (Dutch: Blieberg; German: Bleiberg) in Liège province of Belgium's Walloon region (French: Région wallonne). Gemmenich is within the French-speaking Walloon region, although at various times its inhabitants have declared themselves to be both German- and Dutch-speaking, their local speech having similarities with both languages.

March 1, 2013

Note

(1) It is interesting that, while Neutral Moresnet was abolished in 1920, is former presence is still acknowledged on the Dutch side of the border in the name of the road which links the Three Country Point with Downtown Vaals: Viergrenzenweg: i.e., Four Borders' Way.

Also worth seeing

In Gemmenich itself, the church of Saint-Hubert dates partly from the 18th century; Kelmis, 5 kilometres away, has a neo-Gothic church building dating from 1865; Neu-Moresnet, 5.4 kilometres away, has a museum about the region.

Eupen, (distance: 20 kilometres) is the capital of the German-speaking Ostkantone. with a number of historic buildings, including spired churches.

...

How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York (JFK) to Brussels Airport, where car rental is available (distance from Brussels Airport to Gemmenich: 132 kilometres). Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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