As part of my English lessons, I force my poor seventh-year students to make short presentations to the rest of the class – they may choose the subject. The other night one student talked about Neutral Moresnet. What is that, I hear you cry, and is it tasty and cheese-based? Well.
After Napoleon had been defeated in 1815 and bundled off to St Helena, the French-occupied territories of Europe were dismantled. Borders were redrawn, and many lands were handed back to their previous rulers. This was not always a straightforward process. On the borders of the Netherlands and Prussia was a small patch of country on which was a valuable zinc mine. Both the Netherlands and Prussia felt it should be theirs, and felt it so strongly that the only solution seemed to be to make it an independent territory until they could reach an agreement about it – and so in 1816 Neutral Moresnet was born.
(Postcard showing Neutral Moresnet with Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Dutch Queen Wihelmina and Leopold II of Belgium; found here)
Neutral Moresnet was triangular in shape and about twice the size of Monaco, consisting initially of a village of about fifty houses, a church, the mine and 256 people. Not having its own legal system or mint, it adopted the Code Napoléon and the French franc – though Belgian, Prussian and Dutch currencies were also in circulation. (Neutral Moresnet did start its own currency but this was always unofficial.) It was governed jointly by royal commissioners from Prussia and the Netherlands at first; in 1830 Belgium won its independence and so took over the Dutch rôle. The northern tip of the Moresnet triangle became thus the border of four nations. The commissioners handled matters of justice, sending in judges to sit on cases, but appointed a mayor to deal with the municipal administration. The mayor appointed ten councillors to help him. None of the inhabitants had a vote of any sort and there was no appeal against any of the mayor’s decisions. However, this was not at all off-putting – by the time Moresnet disappeared, its population had swelled to about 4500 inhabitants – and this was because living in Neutral Moresnet was clearly rip-roaring fun and worth being disenfranchised for.
(The Vielle Montagne Zinc Mine in Kelmis, 1843; found here)
The zinc mine was the principal employer and also established five schools, a hospital and a bank. The mine paid well and taxes were extremely low. There were lots and lots of bars and three gin distilleries. With no import tariffs or customs checkpoints, and thick woodland over much of its territory, Neutral Moresnet quickly became a haven for smugglers, mainly spiriting Moresnetian booze into the Netherlands. Escaped convicts found it an ideal home. Because the people of Moresnet had no voting rights, they were considered to be stateless and were thus exempt from conscription into military service. Unsurprisingly, this made it even more attractive to incomers, especially since Belgium and Prussia were both quite fighty during the nineteenth century. Alas, in the end both nations got wise to this and from 1854 and 1874 Belgium and Prussia started conscripting those of their citizens who had moved there, and their descendants.
It was a testosterone-heavy society; men outnumbered women substantially and there was a lot of sex, booze and brawling. A lantern by the door of a building indicated a bar. Some of these establishments were very rough, others had gambling dens and cabarets and dancers with not too many clothes on. Rooms could be hired by the hour, the week or the month. Working in the mines may have been quite well paid but it was also very dangerous; perhaps this fuelled some of this recklessness. In a bid to curb immorality, the singing of dirty songs was banned.
But actually Neutral Moresnet wasn’t rip-roaring fun for everyone. Widows received no pension, which made them financially very vulnerable. Another vulnerable group was children. Women with unwanted pregnancies travelled to Neutral Moresnet to deliver; their children automatically received Moresnet nationality and were adopted. But at the age of six, the adopted children were old enough to be sent down the mine, poor little things.
(Entrance to the zinc mine; found here)
In 1885 the zinc mine was exhausted and closed. What to do next? Moresnet chose the fun option. In 1903, the tiny state’s first casino opened in the Hotel Bergerhoff: Belgium had forced all of its own casinos to close and the cunning Moresnetters spotted an opportunity. Belgium wasn’t terribly pleased with this and insisted that only twenty people at a time could assemble to gamble – so Moresnet quickly opened a second casino.* Unfortunately, this made Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany very angry and he threatened Moresnet with annexation if the casinos weren’t closed down. So that was that.
Meanwhile, Dr Wilhelm Molly, who had been chief doctor at the mine, proposed that Neutral Moresnet become the first Esperanto-speaking state. It would be called Amikejo, ‘place of friendship’. Supporters learnt the language and an anthem was composed. In 1908 the World Congress of Esperanto declared that Neutral Moresnet was the capital of Esperanto (I don’t suppose there was a lot of competition).
(Postcard showing the meeting point of the four lands with assorted men in uniforms; found here)
You will be unsurprised to learn that the First World War put paid to Neutral Moresnet. When the dust cleared and the invading Germans were thrown out, it and several other German-speaking areas were awarded to Belgium under the Treaty of Versailles. Neutral Moresnet was no more, having existed only a little over a century, raffish and boozy, on the edge of three countries, and what my student described as ‘the closest thing to the Wild West Europe has ever had’.
If you go to the place where Neutral Moresnet once was, you can still see the entrances to the zinc mines, now sealed. The company which once owned them (Vieille Montagne) still exists, now as VMZINC, part of Umicore. Of the sixty boundary markers, fifty are still in place around the old borders. If you are a stamp collector, you will now that the stamps of Neutral Moresnet, produced for only seventeen days, are extremely valuable. And amazingly, there is one inhabitant of Neutral Moresnet who is still alive: Catharina Meessen, born in 1914.
It is also the only place on earth where the yellow zinc violet grows (photograph from here).
If you are interested, there is a more detailed and properly sourced article here by Peter C. Earle; I have also supplemented what my student told us with Dutch Wikipedia and an article from historiek.net. My student was inspired by a book by Philip Dröge, Moresnet (Houten, NL: Spectrum, 2016, in Dutch).
* This is what my student told me but I have not found anything online to back it up.