At first sight, so many centrifugal forces appear to be at work in Belgium that her existence as a political unit seems paradoxical. Geologically, her northern as well as her southern regions prolong the territorial characteristics of Germany and France. Linguistically, nearly half her population lies in the orbit of France, which country possesses a strongly radiating cultural attraction, whereas the majority of her inhabitants speak the language of her northern neighbors, the Dutch. There are no national boundaries to protect the country from incursions or invasion, and the North Sea coastline is absolutely flat. Thus, throughout her history, technically as well as spiritually, Belgium has been exposed to intermittent pressure from without. Within her boundaries, local linguistic nationalism in recent times has become a problem, but neither the attraction from outside nor the disrupting influences from within have ever endangered her destiny or led to downright dissension. The Belgian people throughout history therefore have supported strongly, and often fought for, the country's national existence. Moreover, it has been the consensus of all observers for centuries that the Belgians have, as a national heritage, a high degree of common sense which they constantly apply in their affairs, and which sometimes is considered a regrettable deficiency that prevents the nation from achieving true greatness. This quality, however, is valued by the majority as a guarantee of stability, justice, and order.
The location of the country, its size, its political adventures in the past, all have contributed to the establishment of a close contact between the two ethnic groups of people, the Flemings and the Walloons, who live in contrasting scenery but who, nevertheless, have bowed to the same economic exigencies, who have been influenced by the identity of their social concepts, and who have experienced with a sense of solidarity the same successive foreign dominations.
About one-fifth of the country was reclaimed from the North Sea between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. Salt marshes, in which more than 40,000 people were drowned in a great flood at one time, became rich ploughland behind a barrier of dikes for which Dante himself expressed admiration in the Inferno. A coastal strip of a depth of almost thirty miles was thus added to the country; at the same time, rivers like the Scheldt (Schelde), which had spread out in broad, shallow deltas, were reduced to navigable proportions. Behind this fringe that touches Bruges (Brugge), and Dixmude (Diksmuide), lies the great northern plain comprising Flanders, the Kempen, Limburg, and part of Hainaut. It is flat country with rich loam and strong vegetation, except for the Kempen, a region of heaths, dunes, and pine woods. In the Flemish plain rise a few mounds which attain no more than fifty feet in height. In the flat regions of the north, the best agricultural terrains are the polders, land reclaimed from the sea and from the Scheldt. The low plateau of Waes in the province of East Flanders has some features which, because of the clay-rich soil, distinguish it from the rest of Flanders.