Thursday, May 27, 2010

Le Roi Prisonnier

A few weeks ago, I provided some links to earlier posts on the tragic events of May, 1940, which spelled disaster for Belgium and King Leopold III. Here is an account of Leopold's interview with the victorious German general, shortly after the capitulation of the Belgian army. The original is in French; the translation is mine. The account, by Hubert Rumbouts, a Belgian officer who witnessed the meeting, is drawn from Col. Remy's Le 18ième Jour (1976). This is one of those scenes where you might be hard pressed to tell victor from vanquished...

On Tuesday, May 28, 1940, the day of the capitulation of his army, which had taken place that very morning, King Leopold III was at Bruges, in the hotel of the provincial government of West Flanders.

It was 15:15 when General von Reichenau, Commander of the 6th Army, presented himself at the provincial palace, surrounded by a brilliant military staff and followed by numerous reporters of the German press... The General asked to be received by the Sovereign. He was coming, on Hitler's orders, to (salute) the King of the Belgians, with the mission to express to him the Führer's friendly sentiments.

The King was waiting in the great salon on the first floor, where he had been able to observe the entry of the court of honor of General von Reichenau, and his imposing suite. He sent for Major Van den Heuvel, then commander of the royal palaces, and asked him to make known to the German general that he refused all spectacular manifestations.

Major Van den Heuvel asked me to assist him in this delicate task. It was difficult to persuade the victor of the day to bend before the formal wish of the Sovereign, but, in the end, we succeeded.

After he had sent away his staff, with the legion of journalists, General von Reichenau was introduced, alone, into the great salon.

At the back of the room, standing, behind his desk, His Majesty was fixed in the rigidity of a military attitude.

After launching a vibrant "Heil Hitler," the German general approached the King, his hand outstretched. But, impressed by the cold impassivity he encountered, he halted, right in the middle of the room, although he had ten meters or so left to cross.

Then the King spoke. "I only have one question to ask General von Reichenau," he said, "what is happening to my army?"

The General remained embarrassed for a moment, then stammered : "I have no instructions in that regard, Your Majesty. But we must recognize that a conquered army is an army taken prisoner..."

The King held his peace for a long time, before declaring, with great calm: "Under these conditions, let General von Reichenau consider me his first prisoner."

The German turned white. Disconcerted, he found nothing to reply. The King let a whole minute pass, before adding, in a firm voice: "I consider that the meeting between General von Reichenau and myself is over. Gentlemen, lead the general away."

2 comments:

Matthew Palardy said...

Now that is true courage. A material victory for the Germans, yes, but a moral victory for Belgium.

Viola said...

I agree. This is an excellent example of how a true King should behave.