At the beginning of the 1920s, the municipalities composing these territories were regrouped into three districts: Eupen, Malmedy and Sankt Vith.
After the municipalities’ mergers of 1976-1977, the 11 municipalities sharing the territory of the East Cantons were regrouped to their current status as follows:
District of Eupen:
District of Sankt Vith:
District of Malmedy :
For instance, in Aubel, Baelen, Plombières, Welkenraedt (neighbouring Belgian municipalities), Eupen, Kelmis and Lontzen, the local languages can be classed as Limburgish, or better as Low Dietsch, while the inhabitants of Raeren speak Ripuarian and those of the district of Sankt Vith use the Moselle Franconian (Luxembourgish). On the other hand, most of the people living in Malmedy and Waimes speak French, although there is a minority of German speakers. Moreover, Walloon is still widely spoken in the Malmedy-Waimes area.
The East Cantons as a whole should therefore not be confused with the German language region created in 1963 or with the German-speaking Community of Belgium.
At the Congress of Vienna, the whole area was awarded to Rhenish Prussia. In the North West of the area, Moresnet, coveted by both the Netherlands and Prussia for its calamine, was declared a neutral territory. After 1830, the 50% guardianship of the Netherlands was taken over by newly independent Belgium, and this remained so even after 1839, when Belgium relinquished its claims to neighbouring Dutch Limburg.
This change did not significantly affect the inhabitants of this region. Even in the French and Walloon speaking Malmedy, changes went smoothly since the municipality was allowed to continue to use French for its admnistration.
For instance, during a visit to the city in 1856, the King Frederick William IV would say "I am proud to have in my kingdom a little country where people speak French". For the people of Malmedy, this would eventually change when Bismarck came to power in Prussia and, within the framework of the Kulturkampf, imposed German as the only official administrative language. If this was not a problem in Eupen and St.Vith, it obviously became one in Malmedy-Waimes. There was some resistance to the change: for instance, Roman Catholic priests who were forbidden to preach in French started to preach in Walloon in order to avoid having to preach in German.
However, after several decades, the inhabitants became used to speaking German (which was also the only language tolerated in the schools) with the government, although Walloon was still widely spoken. At the beginning of the first world war, most of the inhabitants considered themselves German and fought for that side during the war.
Frustrated in these attempts, the French sided with Belgium's claim to the "lost" cantons of Eupen, Malmedy and Sankt Vith. In 1920, the Treaty of Versailles awarded all the communities on a provisional basis to Belgium. A five-year transition period under the command of the Royal High Commissioner, General Herman Baltia, ensued. Under pressure from the United States, whose war aims had included popular sovereignty, a plebiscite was planned, and between 26 January and 23 July 1920, it was held on Baltia's orders under Article 34 of the Treaty. However it was not a secret ballot - inhabitants of the cantons who objected to the annexation had to register (by name) at the village hall. This procedure led to mass intimidation - people were led to believe that anyone objecting to annexation by Belgium would not receive Belgian nationality, but be deported to Germany or at least have their food ration cards taken away.
In the event, only 271 people out of 33,726 voted for the communes to remain in Germany.
In 1925, the area around Eupen, Malmedy, and Sankt Vith, together with the former Neutral Moresnet (Kelmis) was finally included in the Belgian state. However, in 1926] Belgium and the Weimar Republic conducted secret negotiations which would have led to the return of the East Cantons to Germany in return for 200 million gold marks - but the fury of the French Government on hearing about the plan led to the break-up of the talks.
After the inhabitants of the East Cantons finally received full Belgian nationality and the vote, parties who favoured a return of the East Cantons to the German Reich got between 44% and 57% of the vote in the East Cantons, achieving high scores even in French-speaking Malmedy. After the accession to power of Adolf Hitler, the socialist party of the East Cantons stopped agitating for a return to Germany. This caused a drop in the irredentist vote but also meant that the pro-Germany vote was now dominated by the openly Nazi "Heimattreue Front".
During World War II the East Cantons (and some other small villages that had been Belgian but German speaking in 1914) were annexed by Nazi Germany, with the clear consent of most of the inhabitants. Support for the German takeover eroded sharply after the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the subsequent conscription of most of the male population into the German army (out of 8,700 drafted new Germans, 3,200 perished in the East). In December 1944 bomber raids first destroyed Malmedy, then Sankt Vith almost completely. Many communities were similarly affected by the Ardennes Offensive of 1944-45. Indeed, the southern part of the East Cantons was the theatre of hard battles including St. Vith, Rocherath-Krinkelt, Bütgenbach and many others.
After the war, the Belgian state reasserted sovereignty over the area, which caused the male inhabitants of the area who had served in the German army to lose their civil rights as "traitors to the Belgian state". After the war, the Belgian authorities opened more than 15 000 inquiries procedures against citizens of Eupen-Malmedy, which represents 25% of the population. In comparison, for the whole of Belgium, these inquiries concerned less than 5% of the population. Even though the ratio of the effective trials and convictions in comparison to the number of files opened was lower than the Belgian national average, it is clear that this repression left scars that needed time to disappear.
The bad blood caused by the reluctance of the Belgian government to remedy the legal situation concerning the annexation (only remedied by an amnesty law in 1989), would lead to the emergence of a German Belgian national party, the PDB, or Party of German-speaking Belgians. The PDB (which at the European level co-operates with both the Scottish National Party and the Greens) has never agitated for a return to Germany, but advocated increased rights for the German minority in Belgium, including full equality with the Flemish and Walloon ethnic groups. This has caused many commentators on recent developments in Belgian politics to muse that the German speakers are now the last Belgians!
The nine German-speaking communities of the East Cantons now comprise the German-speaking Community of Belgium, while Malmedy and Waimes are part of the French Community of Belgium. There are special privileges for the minority language in both areas.