Portraying the fatherland  Share

In 1869, nearly 20 years after its foundation, the National Bank of Belgium first saw big-themed bank notes roll off the presses. Their recognition value to the general populace and the level of detail put in by their creators quickly turned these drawings into a key weapon in combating forgery. The iconography also had a symbolic, nation-building purpose, and in Belgium its allegories and images typically captured the aspirations and successes of the nation state. This ‘In the Spotlight’ provides a snapshot of the way in which the National Bank has portrayed the fatherland on its franc banknotes over time.

By their sheer reach, banknotes were much more suited to serve as flag-bearers of a national identity than were statues or works of art. What is more, the drawings were accessible and understandable to all, regardless of the language people spoke. By the end of the 19th century, Belgium’s banknotes were given over to the concept of progress: history painter Henri Hendrickx, who drew eight banknotes for the National Bank, used a range of allegories to capture Belgium’s wealth and booming economic sectors. His 1869 1000 franc note portrayed the rise of trade and industry in the economy, with Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, and his wife Salacia representing the country’s rivers Scheldt and Meuse. Together, they support a little winged boat symbolising the busy shipping on these key trade routes. The back of the banknote pictures a miner, recognisable by his helmet, pickaxe and coal-filled cart, alongside a metal worker complete with sledgehammer, tongs, angle bar and a piece of folded metal. Both workers are pictured at rest after a job well done.

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Front of 1000 franc note, type 1869 © Museum of the Nationale Bank.

Overtly patriotic themes, such as the Belgian revolution of 1830 or the country’s colonial expansion, did not initially make it onto franc banknotes, and surviving documents about the banknotes’ iconography reveal that national identity-building was not a primary objective. In fact, little would appear to have been discussed about the images and many decisions were completely ad hoc. Banknotes from outside Belgium show better examples of how they could be turned into an instrument of government propaganda. When, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks came to power and founded the Soviet Union as a communist state, they embarked on a drive to firmly embed their ideology in their own country and export it to other areas. Bank notes dating back to 1921 encouraged workers to unite and fight the anti-communists. To spread the message far beyond their national borders, the text on these banknotes was in six key foreign languages: English, French, Italian, German, Chinese and Arabic.

100 kronen Theresienstadt recto

Front of 100 crown note from the concentration camp Theresienstadt © Museum of the National Bank.

However, this Russian display of state propaganda has nothing on the way in which Nazi Germany used bank notes at the Theresienstadt concentration camp north of Prague during the Second World War. To keep up the pretence that the Jewish prisoners were treated with dignity, their captors created a kind of ‘model camp’ to show to worried foreign press and the Red Cross. The coffee houses, schools, shops and banks at the camp were all part of a grand-scale deception suggesting that the prisoners were leading normal lives. The Nazis even went as far as printing banknotes to keep up the illusion of trading activity. The front of these notes portrayed Moses and the Ten Commandments, alongside a text on punishment for forgeries to make them extra-credible. In the real camp-life world these notes were only usable to pay certain taxes to the German authorities and not to buy products.

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Front of 100 franc note, from the National series © Museum of the Nationale Bank.

The turn of the century brought new themes from Belgium’s history. In the First World War, the monarchy grew into the country’s main patriotic symbol, personified by the popular ‘soldier-king’ Albert I and his wife Elisabeth. The 20, 100 and 1000 franc notes printed by the National Bank shortly after the beginning of the war in 1914, for the first time featured a medallion portrait of Leopold I, the first king of Belgium. While under German occupation, the National Bank, which temporarily lost the right to issue banknotes to Société Générale, prepared its post-war National Series with the likenesses of the beloved royal couple. Pictured in a portrait medallion, the profiles of Albert I and Elisabeth gaze solemnly ahead.

The 19th century concept of progress did not quite disappear from the franc banknotes, despite the economic crisis that marked the period between the two wars. The National Series called on familiar iconographic themes, such as allegorical representations of prosperity and a miner at rest against a background of an industrial city and smoking chimneys. Images of the Congo also appeared on the banknotes, emphasising economic progress in the colonies benefiting the mother country. The face of the 500 franc note in the 1945 Dynasty Series showed a portrait of Leopold II, whose colonial ambitions informed the expansion of the colony in the Congo. The middle of the picture is taken up by the city of Antwerp with the Cathedral of Our Lady and the river Scheldt in the background, with the artist Jules Vanpaemel thus linking them to the king’s overseas ambitions: this is where Congo-bound vessels would depart for their voyages to Leopoldville that would last many weeks. On the back of the note the artist chose an exotic scene on the banks of the Congo River, sparking the imagination with a landscape of palm trees, swirling waterfalls, a passing dug-out canoe, a shaman, a woman and children.

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Back of 500 franc note, from the Dynasty Series © Museum of the National Bank.

The launch of the euro put an end to depictions of Belgium on banknotes. The windows and bridges gracing the front and back of today’s euro notes capture a range of architectural styles across Europe and symbolise openness and cooperation between the 19 countries that currently make up the eurozone. Many of these countries had traditions of putting famous people of national import on their banknotes before the introduction of the euro in 2002, but the design of the first series of euro banknotes purposely steered clear of such images, as these might spark controversy or different national interpretations. Today, only the reverse or national side of Belgium’s euro coins still have an image of the country’s monarch.

Jolien Gijbels
Museum Guide


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