The Belgian population has increased from 3,785,000 in 1831 to 10,584,534 in 2007. The death rate has diminished constantly, descending from 14.2 per 1,000 in 1913 to 10.32 per 1,000 in 2007, whereas the birth rate, although higher than in several other European countries, has shown an alarming decrease from 22.4 per 1,000 in 1913 to 10.29 per 1,000 in 2007.
Since illiteracy is rare in Belgium, the political awareness of the inhabitants is highly developed. Since the Middle Ages, the inhabitants have, after liquidating the reactionary influence of the nobility and of the oligarchs, taken a great interest in public affairs; but their experience as subjects of four foreign powers (the Spaniards, the Austrians, the French, and the Germans), as well as their brief, forced reunion with Holland, has trained them in the habit of evading laws which do not appeal to their sense of justice.
As a rule, the Belgians take more pride in their past glories than in their remarkable achievements. They carefully perpetuate a number of picturesque folklore traditions, based on history, legend, and religion. Once a year in Binche, the townspeople dance for a whole day, wearing huge plumed bonnets and dressed as the Conquistadores told them the Incas dressed; in Veurne, a procession of penitents stumbles over the cobblestones, wrapped in the hooded cloaks of the Spanish monks. Every fair-sized community in Belgium organizes a promenade of at least a couple of dancing giants, the trolley lines having been dismantled for the occasion. At Geeraardsbergen, once a year, the mayor solemnly quaffs a cup of champagne in which panicky little fish swim. Everywhere the scene of the genre painters, Teniers and Brouwer, is constantly revived.
Such is the land, such are the people of Belgium. When they go out into the world, in which they are known everywhere as thrifty, industrious, reliable, they do so to return home, home to the drizzling rain on their old monuments, home to their cozy cafes where endlessly they discuss politics and the never-changing, but always astonishing, conduct of man, home to the few days a year when the sun shines gloriously on the golden harvests of Flanders, on the lovely primeval forests of the Ardennes, on carefree Brussels, but so well-beloved.