In 1936, as Hitler, unopposed, reoccupied the Rhineland, the Belgian government adopted a position of “armed neutrality,” refusing to join an alliance with France and Britain while arming Belgium for any future conflict, remembering how their country had been trampled in 1914. As a result, Belgium was one of the better-prepared nations when Hitler marched west in 1940.
Although Belgium did share military information with the Allies, as a proclaimed neutral it could not allow Allied forces to pre-position themselves or march with Belgian forces until it was actually invaded. Oliver Harvey, British Minister in Paris, wrote in his diary in January 1940:
Poor Leopold is in a desperate dilemma. If he commits himself to a military agreement, the Germans will say he has violated his neutrality and so justify a German invasion. If he doesn’t get agreement with us and France we cannot afford him proper help if he is attacked—a vicious circle. Moreover, it can be represented as an Allied interest that Germany should not invade Belgium and therefore Belgium should not provoke Germany. The answer is, I suppose, that Germany will invade Belgium if it suits, whatever Belgium does.
Winston Churchill took a dim view of neutrals. For him there were only two options in the face of Hitler: fight or surrender. Each neutral, WSC said on 20 January 1940, “hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last. All of them hope that the storm will pass before their turn comes to be devoured. But I fear—I fear greatly—the storm will not pass.”
But Leopold’s stance was based not on Churchill but on the governments that ruled France, Britain and Belgium in the 1930s, which had resolutely refused to oppose Germany’s numerous aggressions. Against that kind of leadership, however forlorn the hope that Hitler would leave Belgium alone, as commander of the Belgian forces, Leopold had few alternatives.
When Hitler attacked in May 1940, Holland went down in four days, but Belgium fought bravely for two weeks, its artillery taking a deadly toll on the invaders. Prolonged resistance contributed to the successful evacuation at Dunkirk, where 340,000 French and British soldiers were rescued. Nearly all the French soldiers refused to join Free French forces in Britain and returned to France. The Belgian government, then in exile in unoccupied France, forbade Belgian soldiers to leave, and even court-marshalled Belgian pilots who had flown to Britain or North Africa, accusing them of having stolen their aircraft!
Leopold had little joy from some of his allies. When General Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, pulled back from the coast to protect access to Dunkirk (leaving the Belgian right flank unprotected) he did not tell the Belgians, nor indeed his own government, until after the fact. Meanwhile General Pownall, commander of British forces in Belgium (the same Pownall who would later assist Churchill in writing his war memoirs) remarked at the time: “we don’t give a bugger what happens to the Belgians.” (Read full article)
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Leopold III: A Traitor?