In the shops of Brussels, they still hang pictures of Leopold's first wife, Queen Astrid, and in so doing not only chronicle their continuing love of that fine and tragic woman. They also chronicle their continuing hate of the commoner they feel usurped Queen Astrid's place.
Dislike of Princess de Rethy abounds. It is not whispered; it is shouted aloud that she inveigled Leopold into their wartime marriage. That she is a pro-Nazi who influenced Leopold's wartime policy. That she is the daughter of a collaborator who made a fortune out of German defense contracts.
All these things are said about Princess de Rethy and said by millions. No defense of her has been made. No defense of her would be countenanced in Belgium.
Yet mark this. While all Belgium gossips about Princess de Rethy with the avidity of suburban spinsters sniping at "the girl next door," there are fewer than 200 of her fellow citizens who have ever met her.
What, then, is the truth about this lovely woman whose life has been ruined by gossip which in its own way has been almost as ruthless and as devastating as the car smash which ended her predecessor's? Is she an evil, malign influence on her husband and on her country? Or is she the most misunderstood woman in Europe?
...Her name was Lilian Baels. Her Flemish father was rich and distinguished and she enjoyed all the advantages that come to a girl who has such a father.
She was brought up in a convent school in London and at fashionable finishing schools in France, Switzerland and Austria.
It was not until 1938 that she met Leopold for the first time.
She was 19 and ravishingly lovely. He was 38 and still carried the sadness he had worn since the day three years previously when disaster, sharp and sudden, had left him a widower with three young children.
Their romance did not start then. For another year she led a heavily chaperoned finishing school life. By 1939, when her name was linked with Leopold for the first time, no more than six months of her adult life had been spent in Belgium.
Then came the war and the event which started in earnest the campaign of calumny against her-her marriage to Leopold in 1941.
..When Lilian Baels married Leopold she entered a Royal household steeped in gloom. Laeken Palace, where the Royal family lived, is a somber, ugly Victorian edifice. It seems to reflect the series of tragedies that have befallen the Belgian Royal House.
Leopold had three children - the present King Baudouin, Prince Albert and Princess Josephine-Charlotte...The children had been under the care of governesses and subject to Leopold's strict discipline.
Almost immediately Princess de Rethy became the center of the children's lives. She introduced a novel gaiety into the palace. The children adored her and within a month were calling her "Mother."
They have continued to adore her. Princess Josephine-Charlotte, especially, is under her step-mother's spell. Just before her marriage to Prince Jean of Luxembourg, her feverish changing of clothes for her step-mother's approval or criticism was a palace joke.
A similarly strong devotion is shown by King Baudouin. While he deeply resents the attack on his father's wartime conduct the attacks on his stepmother leave him pale, trembling with anger.
A close friend of the family told me: "I do not know how that boy can carry on. On one occasion he read a particularly slanderous attack on Princess de Rethy in a Belgian Opposition paper. He dropped the paper and left the room. When he returned a few minutes later, his anger was under control but he felt he could not go on with his day's official duties and cancelled them all."
Is this the picture of an evil woman? Is it conceivable that Leopold's children would be attached to her if she were anything other than a good and fine woman?
It will be argued, of course, that she has been so close to the children that she has been able to dazzle them with her personality. Such an argument is demonstrable nonsense.
It might be possible to fool children over a short period. But not over 12 years. And let it be remembered that these children would be pre-disposed against her since she was taking the place of their own beloved mother.
The fact that she has been able, despite all the propaganda against her, to win and retain the abiding love and affection of her three step-children is proof irrefutable of her tremendous qualities. The case against her as a woman is demolished. For if those who know her best defend her, what right have those who know nothing about her to raise a voice against her?
...What of the other charges against the Princess? Most of the minor ones are based on fantasy.
For example, the suggestion- sedulously spread- that before the war she was a night-club queen with morals no better than they need have been is obvious bunk.
It was sneered that her brother was a deserter from the Belgian army. In fact, his offense was the technical one committed by thousands of other Belgians- of failing to register with the Belgian consul in neutral Lisbon.
As for the story that her father was a wartime collaborator, the truth is that he spent the war years in voluntary exile in France.
For the main accusation that she was a pro-Nazi, who influenced Leopold, there is no evidence either way. But since so many of the stories about her are false, is it not reasonable to suppose that this one is false too?