Monday, January 5, 2009

Albert I of Belgium


(Adapted from the Wikipedia article on Albert I)

Albert I ( 1875-1934 ), was the third King of the Belgians. Born Albert Léopold Clement Marie Meinrad in Brussels, he was the fourth child and the second son of Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders, and his wife Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. Prince Philippe was the second son of Leopold I, Prince of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and the first King of the Belgians, and of Louise-Marie of Orléans, and the younger brother of King Leopold II of Belgium. At birth, Albert was fourth in the line of succession to the Belgian throne. When, however, the only legitimate son of his uncle, Leopold II, died as a child, and Albert's older brother, Prince Baudouin, also died young, Albert, at 16, became the heir-presumptive to the Belgian throne. 

Retiring and studious, Albert prepared himself conscientiously for the task of kingship. Albert was seriously concerned about the situation of the working classes in Belgium and traveled incognito around working class districts, to observe the living conditions of the people. Shortly before his accession to the Belgian throne in 1909, Albert undertook an extensive tour of the Belgian Congo, which had been annexed by Belgium in 1906. He found the area in poor condition. Upon his return to Belgium, he recommend reforms to protect the native population and to further technological progress in the colony.

In 1900, Albert was married in Munich to Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria (1876-1965), a Wittelsbach princess whom he had met at a family funeral. It was a happy and devoted marriage. Albert and Elisabeth shared an intense commitment to the good of Belgium and a keen interest in human progress of all kinds. They were also both great intellectuals who cultivated the friendship of prominent scientists, artists, musicians, and philosophers, turning their court at Laeken Castle into a sort of cultural salon. 

Albert and Elisabeth had three children: Leopold (1901-1983), later King Leopold III of the Belgians; Charles (1903-1983), later Regent of Belgium, and Marie-José (1906-2001), who married Prince Umberto of Savoy and became the last Queen of Italy. Albert and Elisabeth raised their children in a tender and intellectually stimulating environment, while seeking to inculcate in them a rigorous morality and a high sense of duty to their country. Albert was very close to his daughter, Marie-José, and to his eldest son and heir, Leopold. 

Upon the death of his uncle, Leopold II, Albert succeeded to the Belgian throne in December, 1909. He innovated by taking the accession oath in both Flemish and French; previous kings had done so only in French. An important aspect of the early years of Albert's reign was his institution of reforms in the administration of the Belgian Congo. 

At the beginning of World War I, Albert resisted the illegal German demand to move troops through neutral Belgium in order to attack France. Albert's refusal was based on a respect for international law, which required that Belgium constitute a neutral buffer zone between Britain, France, and Germany. Albert was also motivated by a concern to preserve Belgium's independence by maintaining the balance of power between its three powerful neighbors. When Germany invaded Belgium, following Albert's rejection of the German ultimatum, the King took personal command of his army, and held the Germans off long enough for the Entente powers to prepare for the Battle of the Marne. Albert led his army through the Siege of Antwerp and the Battle of the Yser. On the River Yser, the Belgians, driven back to a small strip of their territory near the North Sea, succeeded in halting the German advance. Here, in coordination with the Allied armies, they took up a war of position which was to last four years. The war inflicted terrible suffering on Belgium, since the country was subjected to a harsh German occupation. 

During this period, Albert remained with his army, in the small portion of Belgium free of German occupation, and shared the dangers of his troops. His wife, Queen Elisabeth, worked tirelessly as a nurse at the front. The King also allowed his teenaged son, Prince Leopold, to enlist in the army and fight in the trenches. Albert tried to play a moderating role in the war and worked through secret diplomatic channels for a negotiated peace between Germany and the Entente based on the "no victors, no vanquished" concept. He considered that such a resolution to the conflict would best protect the stability and future peace of Europe. His efforts, however, were unsuccessful. At the end of the war, as commander of the Army Group Flanders, Albert led the final Allied offensive that liberated occupied Belgium. He then re-entered Brussels to a hero's welcome. 

King Albert attended the Paris Peace Conference, where he defended the interests of Belgium, but opposed a policy of excessive humiliation of defeated Germany. Albert feared that such a policy would only provoke German revenge and lead to future wars in Europe. He also considered that the dethronement of the Central European monarchs would threaten the future stability of the Continent. His views, however, did not prevail in the decisions of the Peace Conference.

 Albert spent much of the remainder of his reign assisting in the post-war reconstruction of Belgium. He was admired throughout the world for his noble character and affable personality. 

A passionate alpinist, King Albert died tragically in a mountaineering accident in Marche-les-Dames, near Namur, Belgium. His death was mourned universally. He is interred in the Church of Our Lady, Laeken, Belgium.

References:

Barjansky, Catherine. Portraits with Backgrounds. 1947.
Bronne, Carlo. Albert 1er: le roi sans terre. 1983.
Dujardin, Vincent et al. Léopold III. 2001.
D'Ydewalle, Charles. Albert and the Belgians: Portrait of a King.2005
Gérard, Jo and Hervé . Albert 1er, insolite: 1934-1984. 1984.
Graham, Evelyn. Albert, King of the Belgians. 1929.
Keyes, Roger. Outrageous Fortune: The Tragedy of Leopold III of the Belgians. 1984.
Regolo, Luciano. La regina incompresa: tutto il racconto della vita di Maria José di Savoia. 2002.
Marie-José, Queen, Consort of Umberto II, King of Italy. Albert et Elisabeth de Belgique, mes parents. 1971.
Thielemans, Marie-Rose and Emile Vandewoude. Le roi Albert au travers de ses lettres inédites (1882-1916). 1982.
Thielemans, Marie-Rose. Albert 1er: Carnets et correspondances de guerre. 1991.

2 comments:

Christina said...

I love the story from Theo Aronsen's "Crowns In Conflict" or King Albert riding to his coronation and not looking too elated by the crowds' applause.
"They would be cheering just as loudly," he said (paraphrased), "if I were on my way to my execution."
A great man who understand 'the mob'! Thank you for a lovely post on a lovely blog :-)

Matterhorn said...

Oh my goodness, this post is so old I did not expect anyone to comment on it. Thank you!

Yes, I love that saying of his (I believe he returned to that theme more than once, as there are similar stories of him making comments like that when he was applauded on official occasions later in his reign). He knew there was but a thin line between throne and scaffold.

Another line of his was "Louis XVI was acclaimed, so was Nicholas II, and so were the Habsburgs..."