Thursday, February 26, 2009

King Leopold & the Deportation of Belgian Workers

All too often, in discussions of the Nazi occupation of Belgium, King Leopold III is portrayed as taking a weak and passive stance in regard to his country's oppressors. On the internet, I have seen claims such as "The King failed to protest against any of the measures of the Nazi occupiers... he did not, for example, raise his voice against the deportation of Belgian workers to Germany." Similarly, during the campaign to force Leopold's abdication, his enemies spoke of the "Silences of Laeken."

This is sheer calumny. General Alexander von Falkenhausen, the military governor of Belgium during the German occupation, (and, in fact, an important anti-Nazi, who did his best to moderate the treatment of the Belgians during the occupation), asserted in an interview many years after the war: "... A single preoccupation dominated (Leopold's) thoughts during the war: alleviating the miseries of his people." He described how Leopold repeatedly intervened on his people's behalf, sometimes using the General himself as an intermediary.

The truth is that Leopold had to walk a tightrope. As a conscientious and dedicated Sovereign, he wished to protect his people, to the best of his ability, from oppressive measures. Yet, public protests carried the risk that the Nazis, in retaliation, would institute an even harsher regime in Belgium. As Jean Cleeremans describes in his book, Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple, sous l'occupation, this was a very real danger; in the Netherlands, for example, when the Dutch bishops protested openly against the Nazis' racial policy, it merely led to an intensification of anti-Jewish persecution. The King, in his vulnerable position as a prisoner of war, also had to weigh the personal risks he would take by protesting publicly. Grand gestures of defiance might simply lead to his deportation - or worse - without benefiting his people, whom he would no longer be able to help. In this delicate and dangerous situation, the King avoided public protests, seeking to aid the Belgians in more discreet ways that - while still involving serious risk - seemed better advised. Nonetheless, Leopold certainly did "raise his voice" against the "measures of the Nazi occupiers," repeatedly, in very firm letters to Hitler, and in personal protests addressed to Von Falkenhausen. The deportation of the Belgian workers, in particular, is one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of Leopold's wartime humanitarian interventions.

In October, 1942, the Nazis began to organize the deportation of Belgian men between the ages of 18 and 50, and of single Belgian women between the ages of 21 and 35. The intention was to use them as forced labor to further the German war effort. Penal measures and reprisals were inflicted upon those who failed to appear when summoned for deportation, and upon their families.  The Belgians, naturally enough, dreaded the prospect of forced labor; girls began to contract mariages blancs to avoid deportation. The upper echelons of the civil service, which had remained in Belgian hands, addressed a courageous protest to the German military administration. The Court of Cassation indicated that the deportations violated the Hague Convention.

On November 3, the King wrote a letter of protest to Hitler:
L'annonce de cette déportation massive cause dans toutes les couches de la population un émoi dont il est aisé de mésurer l'ampleur. Ma conscience m'interdit de passer sous silence le mal qu'entraîne, pour les ouvriers, l'obligation d'abandonner leurs foyers, leurs terres, leurs usines, pour metter en pleine guerre leur activité au service direct de l'Allemagne. J'ajoute que la population belge a gardé des déportations de 1916-1917 un souvenir exécré et que si, sous l'une ou l'autre forme, elles se renouvelaient, elles soulèveraient ... une haine ineffaçable contre l'Allemagne. 

The announcement of this massive deportation is causing, throughout the population, an emotion whose amplitude it is easy to measure. My conscience forbids me to pass over in silence the harm which the workers will suffer if they are obliged to abandon their homes, their land, their factories; in order to put their activities, in the midst of the war, at the direct service of Germany. I add that the Belgian people continues to remember, with execration, the deportations of 1916-1917, and that if, under one form or another, they were renewed, they would arouse ... an ineffaceable hatred of Germany. 

The King's protest was unsuccessful; Hitler, not surprisingly, merely responded that the deportations were necessary for the German war effort. At this point, the Belgian government-in-exile succeeded in conveying a message to Leopold, urging him to protest publicly against the deportations, whatever the consequences, while admitting that the chances of any positive result were extremely slim:
...Son intervention produira-t-elle un résultat? C'est extrêmement douteux... Mais la question n'est pas de réussir, elle est d'accomplir ce qui est ... un devoir de la fonction royale. Sous quelle forme l'intervention du Roi devrait-elle se traduire? Elle devait être publique, affichée sur les murs. S'il devait en résulter une réaction de l'ennemi et un attentat de sa part contre la liberté de la personne royale, malgré la gravité de ses conséquences, pareille perspective ne devrait pas motiver une hésitation... En écrivant ces lignes, le gouvernement se rend compte combien il est délicat de donner pareil conseil, alors qu'il se trouve à l'étranger et que, par conséquent, il ne partage pas les risques de la résistance.

Would (the King's) intervention produce a result? It is very doubtful... But it is not a question of succeeding, but rather of accomplishing... a royal duty. What form should the King's intervention take? It should be public, posted on all the walls. If there resulted a reaction and an assault on the enemy's part upon the liberty of the royal person, despite the gravity of its consequences, such a prospect should not inspire hesitation... In writing these lines, the government realizes how delicate it is to give such advice, as it is abroad, and, in consequence, does not share the risks of resistance.

The King feared that such a gesture would merely lead to Nazi reprisals against Belgium. To decide upon the appropriate course of action, he convened, at Laeken Castle, a meeting of representatives of Belgian industrial workers and entrepreneurs, on December 15, and sought their counsel. After a careful discussion, all the representatives advised against a public protest.

Leopold, however, continued to defend his people through other means. The day after the conference at Laeken, he addressed a letter to Dr. Nolf, a physician of the royal family and the President of the Belgian Red Cross. I find the letter, and the patriotic devotion it expresses, very dignified and touching:
Le pays connaît la nouvelle et cruelle épreuve du travail forcé, qui oblige nos ouvriers et nos ouvrières à quitter la Belgique pour mettre leur activité au service de l'Allemagne en guerre. Le sort des femmes surtout est digne de pitié: des jeunes filles isolées, envoyées dans une terre étrangère dont elles ignorent jusqu'à la langue, sont exposées à des dangers dont ceux d'ordre moral ne sont pas les moindres... 

The country is experiencing the new and cruel ordeal of forced labour, which obliges our workers, both men and women, to leave Belgium in order to put their activity at the service of Germany's war effort. The fate of the women, above all, is worthy of pity: isolated young girls, sent to a foreign country where they do not even know the language, are exposed to dangers - not least of which are those of a moral character... 
The King then described his protest to Hitler, and its fruitless outcome. He continued:
....(J)e manquerais au devoir que me dicte ma conscience si je n'essayais d'alléger les souffrances qu'entraîne un travail forcé inéluctable. Dans le vif désir de venir en aide aux déportés et à leur famile, je m'addresse à la Croix Rouge et je lui demande d'étudier les moyens les plus appropriés pour réaliser cette oeuvre d'humanité. Je la prie d'examiner avec une sollicitude particulière un problème qui me tient profondément à coeur et de me faire connaître le plus tôt possible les mesures qu'elle préconise.

I would fail in the duty dictated by my conscience if I did not attempt to relieve the sufferings caused by this unavoidable forced labour. Keenly desirous of coming to the aid of the deportees and their families, I address myself to the Red Cross and I ask it to consider the most appropriate means of realizing this work of humanity. I implore it to examine, with particular care, a problem very close to my heart, and to let me know, as soon as possible, what measures it plans to take.

On January 5, 1943, the King met with Von Falkenhausen at Laeken. Leopold asked that all women be exempted from forced labour; or, if this were impossible, he insisted that the minimum age for deportation should be increased from 21 to 25 for women and from 18 to 21 for men. Von Falkenhausen, at great personal risk, tried to intervene with the Nazi hierarchy on the Belgians' behalf (he argued that the deportations and forced labour were unacceptable, and, in any case, would be counter-productive, merely increasing the chances of sabotage of German industry on the part of resentful deportees). On January 12, the King addressed another - long - letter to the Red Cross, insisting that the deported workers not be abandoned to their fate and recommending strenuous measures to assist them and their families.

Unfortunately, a copy of one of the King's letters to the Red Cross fell into Hitler's hands. Furious, he dispatched General Müller to Laeken to read the King a long tirade:
Your Majesty... it appears that you have completely forgotten that you are a prisoner. The assertions contained in your letter... are so monstrous that no rebuke can be harsh enough. By speaking of "cruel ordeals," "forced labour," and "deportation," you evince a disturbing incomprehension of the... worldwide duty of fighting Bolshevism. The tone of your letter is a vulgar insult to the Germans.... As to the moral dangers which, you seem to believe, the young Belgian girls, "isolated," "worthy of pity," would face in Germany ... the mistrust you thereby display in the matter of the conduct of your country's women ... (suggests) that the dangers in question would be, at least, equally great in your own country. I intend, Your Majesty, for you to avoid such unpardonable incidents in the future.... (or) I will be forced to assign you a different residence outside of Belgium.
Despite Hitler's violent, hysterical, and threatening reaction, Leopold won a partial victory: on March 25, the occupying regime suspended the deportation of Belgian women (with the exception of maids and hotel staff).

Clearly, Leopold was far from "passive" in his stance towards the Nazi occupiers. His response to the deportations is only one among many courageous interventions on his people's behalf. Protesting requisitions of food and supplies, seeking to alleviate the treatment of hostages and prisoners of war, petitioning for clemency for political prisoners, funding relief measures for the population, shielding the resistance activities of members of his entourage, Leopold defended his people throughout the Nazi occupation. It is shocking that the old calumnies of the "Silences of Laeken" persist to the present day.


Jean Cleeremans. Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l'occupation. 
Roger Keyes. Échec au Roi: Léopold III, 1940-1951. 

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