An Oasis in a Troubled Europe

It’s currently impossible to ignore the concept of Europe and our departure from it politically on 31 December 2020. The idea of most of a unified continent working in harmony was never quite completed and now, thanks to Britain’s exit, may be unravelling. Relations between different countries are complicated and have led to numerous wars, so any lessening of bonds is a retrograde step. This Brexit process, though, turned my mind to a small patch of land in western Europe called Moresnet that is unknown to most people. After all, it was only 900 acres, about the size of a large farm.

Coats of arms and stamps of Moresnet and its neighbours on a card posted to Reading in March 1903

Neutral Moresnet was invented to act as a buffer and oasis in an area that had just endured the travails of the Napoleonic Wars. It was established in 1816, administered jointly by The Netherlands (later by Belgium) and Prussia. During World War I, Germany annexed it, but Moresnet was then awarded to Belgium, which incorporated it as the municipality of Kelmis; the only town. Germany had another go at claiming the territory in 1940, but it was returned to Belgium four years later.

Moresnet was an attractive piece of land to competing countries because of a zinc mine (boosting the population to nearly 5000 at one stage), and its joint rule by Prussia and Belgium represented some kind of compromise. From 1885, by which time the zinc had been exhausted and Moresnet had a little autonomy within the joint-rule system, there was an attempt to organise a local postal service with its own stamps, but the Belgian government rejected the idea, although some ‘unofficial’ stamps were printed. A local doctor proposed making the territory the world’s first Esperanto-speaking state, with limited success. By the end of the 19th century, Moresnet had become something of a tourist attraction (you could visit four countries in one afternoon!), so it is unsurprising that picture postcards were published, most showing local people, flags, coats of arms, the stamps of Moresnet and surrounding countries. The postcards are very attractively designed and of interest to philatelists, postcard collectors and students of heraldry. Now these are one of the few reminders the place ever existed.

Article by Brian Lund

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