Friday, March 27, 2009

The Queen & Her Son

In his later years, Leopold III rendered a fervent homage to his mother, Queen Elisabeth (1). While others, he said, might remember her as a war heroine, or a great patroness of the arts, he would always think of her, above all, as a true mother. For Leopold, Elisabeth was a mother "in the noblest sense of the term, one who, throughout her entire life, would assist, protect, and love me." 

Elisabeth, indeed, deeply loved and cared for her eldest son. She was devastated by the loss of her husband, King Albert, but forced herself to rally, after Queen Astrid's death, in order to support her grieving son and assist his motherless children. Leopold would later recall: "Following the tragedy of Marche-les-Dames, my mother seemed shattered, as if she had been struck dead. She only came back to life after I, myself, was touched by fate. I returned from Switzerland, frightfully affected by a death which followed, by barely a year and a half, that of my father. My mother came to me and said she would make herself live again. She felt, once more, that she was needed." (2)

Elisabeth must have suffered tremendously to see Leopold so cruelly attacked during the Royal Question. Her grief and indignation at the calumnies Leopold endured appear clearly in the letter she addressed to French Premier Paul Reynaud, on May 29, 1940, the day after his virulent broadcast blaming the King for the Allies' desperate military situation:

Monsieur le Président du Conseil,

Vous avez accusé le roi Léopold d'avoir commis un acte de trahison et de félonie!

Pareille injure m'a profondément indignée, et je ne puis taire le ressentiment que cette blessante injustice provoque en moi.

Vous l'ignorez sans doute; l'armée belge s'est héroïquement battue aux côtés des admirables soldats français et britanniques. 

Subissant un sort dont elle n'est pas responsable, encerclée, acculée à la mer, épuisée, elle était arrivée aux dernières limites, quand le Roi, son chef, a donné l'ordre de cesser une résistance affreusement meurtrière, qui n'avait plus d'utilité pour personne.

Vous avez affirmé que mon fils traite avec les Allemands.

Cette affirmation est fausse, le roi Léopold, qui entend partager le sort de ses officers et de ses soldats, est leur prisonnier. 

Il subit leur loi. 

Aucune négotiation n'est en cours.

Voilà la vérité!

Voilà la vérité que vous connaissez maintenant, et que vous aurez à coeur de faire connaître aux Français- si vous êtes un honnête homme!

En opposant le roi Albert au roi Léopold, on porte atteinte à la mémoire de l'un et à l'honneur de l'autre. Comme son père, mon fils a été courageux dans la bataille. Il est digne et loyal dans la défaite.

Votre attitude si profondément inique à son égard m'est d'autant plus pénible qu'elle vient d'un Français, parlant au nom de la France, amie de la vérité et de la justice, cette France à laquelle m'unissent tant de liens de sympathie et d'admiration.

Recevez, Monsieur le Président du Conseil, l'expression de mes sentiments douloureux.

Elisabeth


Mr. President of the Council,

You have accused King Leopold of committing an act of treason and felony!

Such an insult has deeply outraged me, and I cannot silence the resentment that this wounding injustice provokes in me.

You are doubtless unaware that the Belgian army fought heroically beside the admirable French and British soldiers.

Enduring a fate for which it was not responsible, encircled, driven back upon the sea, exhausted, it came to end of its resources, whereupon the King, its commander, gave the order to cease a resistance, which was frightfully murderous and of no further use to anyone.

You have asserted that my son is negotiating with the Germans.

This assertion is false, King Leopold, who intends to share the fate of his officers and soldiers, is their prisoner.

He is subject to their law.

No negotiation is underway.

This is the truth!

This is the truth, which you now know, and which you must have at heart to make known to the French- if you are an honest man!

By opposing King Albert to King Leopold, you assault the memory of the one and the honor of the other. Like his father, my son was courageous in battle. He is dignified and loyal in defeat. 

Your attitude - so profoundly unjust - in his regard is all the more painful to me since it comes from a Frenchman, speaking in the name of France, friend of truth and justice, that France to which I am joined by so many ties of sympathy and admiration.

Receive, Mr. President of the Council, the expression of my sorrowful sentiments.

Elisabeth.

After World War II, while Leopold and his family were in exile (first in Austria, and then in Switzerland), Elisabeth wrote her son many letters overflowing with maternal affection. In one, dated December 14, 1945, after passing on political information, Elisabeth wrote:

"...J'ai été il y a deux jours, à Louvain, à un concert dans l'aula de l'université. Quinze cents étudiants et étudiantes m'ont reçues aux cris de Léopold. C'était très émouvant. J'ai dit que je te l'écrirais...Je vous embrasse tous avec le coeur si gros de ne pas être avec vous. Je pourrais peut-être venir vous voir plus tard, le printemps, mais je vais te téléphoner plus souvent, au moins entendre ta voix, mon si cher petit Léop."

"...Two days ago, I was at Louvain, at a concert in the university hall. Fifteen hundred students, men and women, welcomed me with cries of 'Leopold!' It was very moving. I said to myself I would write to you about it...I kiss you all with a heart that is so heavy not to be with you. I could, perhaps, come to see you later, in the spring, but I will 'phone you more often, at least to hear your voice, my very dear little 'Léop.'"

On another occasion, for Leopold's birthday, Elisabeth wrote him a poignant letter:

"Mon cher Léop. Encore une fois je ne serai pas avec toi pour ton anniversaire. Je penserai tant à toi. Quel souvenir! Un des plus beaux de ma vie d'entendre le premier cri du premier enfant. Tu étais si joli et plus tard si beau! Mais cela, tu n'aimes pas qu'on te le dise, ou au moins pas trop crûment. Depuis cela, tant de joies, tant de tristesses!"

"My dear Léop. Once again I will not be with you for your birthday. I will be thinking of you! What a memory! One of the most beautiful of my life, hearing the first cry of my first child! You were so pretty, and later, so handsome! But you do not like people to say this, or, at least, not too bluntly. Since then, so many joys, so many sorrows!"

(recorded by Jean Cleeremans in Léopold III, de l'exil à l'abdication)

Elisabeth loved Lilian, too, very tenderly, calling her "my dear little Lilly." The Queen, in fact, had played a major role in arranging the marriage of Leopold and Lilian.

Elisabeth evidently had a very loving heart, and a gift for comforting those in anguish. She used these qualities to great effect in supporting her son during the darkest moments of his life. 
The royal family in exile. Despite the political anxieties, their home life was happy.

(1) recorded by Gilbert Kirschen in L'éducation d'un Prince: entretiens avec le Roi Léopold III.
(2) in an interview  on the life of King Albert, which Leopold granted to the Révue Générale, in 1975

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