Wednesday, May 25, 2011

May 24-25, 1940: The Tragedy of Wijnendale


Today, we remember King Leopold III of the Belgians and his heroic but tragic refusal to accompany his government into exile in the last, desperate moments of the Belgian army's resistance to Hitler's onslaught. As is well known, the night before, in the Flemish castle of Wijnendale, where the King had established his headquarters, the four exhausted, harried Cabinet ministers, M. Pierlot, the Prime Minister, M. Spaak, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, General Dennis, the Minister of Defense, and M. Van der Poorten, the Minister of the Interior, who had been trying to convince the King to flee the country for days, made their final, futile appeal. Leopold insisted that his duty, as Commander-in-Chief, required him to remain with his army to the end. The ministers countered that his duty, as Head of State, transcended his duty as Commander-in-Chief. As Head of State, Leopold must avoid falling into the hands of the enemy at all costs. As King, however, Leopold firmly believed that he must remain with his people. In humanitarian terms, he was convinced that he could better assist the Belgians, during the rigors of a cruel occupation, by remaining in Belgium. Nothing could persuade him to flee. 

Please leave a comment to tell me whether you think the King made the right decision. I used to view it as absolutely correct, and hotly contested all suggestions that Leopold III should have departed into exile. Now I am not so sure. The King's motives were undeniably noble. He bravely risked life, limb and liberty to assist the Belgian army and people in their most terrible trial. Well aware that his decision to remain in Belgium during the Nazi occupation would place him in an endlessly difficult, complex and potentially compromising position, exposing him to the world's misunderstanding, scorn and derision, he bravely risked his reputation, too. Yet, since the King and the government must always act politically in concert, according to the Belgian constitution, the fracture between Leopold and his ministers created an anomalous, explosive situation, as emphasized in the recent RTBF documentary, Léopold III, mon père. The King's inviolability was threatened because his actions could no longer be covered by the government. Of course, Leopold realized that he could not act politically without his ministers; this is why he emphasized that his capitulation to the Germans on May 28, 1940, was a strictly military action. It is also why he had to refuse to reign under the Nazi occupation, insisting upon his status as a prisoner of war.

Nevertheless, the fateful parting of ways at Wijnendale set the stage for many disastrous controversies to come; the odious accusations of treason, leveled at the King by Pierlot and Spaak following the Belgian capitulation, further tensions and suspicions between monarch and ministers, over the next four years, despite an apparent reconciliation after Leopold was publicly vindicated by figures such as Cardinal van Roey and Admiral Keyes, the shattering rift sparked by the King's stern and unyielding memorandum to Pierlot, dated January 25, 1944, requiring a solemn apology for the ministers' accusations in 1940, and, finally, Leopold's dispute with the Allies over the validity of certain treaties, including agreements regarding shipments of Congolese uranium to the Americans to assist in the development of the atom bomb. The King contended that these treaties lacked validity, since they had been concluded without his signature, on the Belgian government's sole authority. In other words, the separation between Leopold and his ministers on May 25, 1940, initiated the chain of events known as the Royal Question, which shattered the King's reign and ultimately threatened to destroy the monarchy and cast Belgium into civil war. By remaining in Belgium, as his people's advocate during the Nazi occupation, Leopold III undoubtedly comforted and benefited the Belgians and saved lives through his humanitarian interventions. Yet, he also placed himself in an extremely delicate position, and, as it happened, imperilled the political structure of Belgium after the war. In Léopold III, mon père, his youngest daughter, and close, loving confidante, Princess Esmeralda, startled me by suggesting that her father might have been better advised to go into exile in London in 1940. She suggested that Leopold himself had been haunted by doubts, in later years, as to the wisdom of his decision at Wijnendale, and that he felt that the destiny of his entire reign had been played out in only a few hours, in that tragic castle. Yet, she added, it is hard to judge a decision taken at a moment of such tremendous physical and mental tension.

6 comments:

Lee said...

He did what he felt he had to do at the time. He must have been under tremendous pressure.

If he was haunted by doubts as to what he could have done differently, that only suggests he was a man of great sensitivity and feeling.

In hindsight, lots of things could be done differently. He had to make life and death decisions, and he obviously did not make those lightly.
Maybe it would have been better for HIM to go to exile, politically, but hindsight is always 20/20.
I see Marie Esmeralda's point.

MadMonarchist said...

Those who had it in for him would have done so in any event I think. Had he done as the government wished, as commander-in-chief of the army he could have been charged with desertion. He probably would have still been somewhat better off if he had, but would the country? Was he able to help their situation by remaining in the country? I don't know, but I know those so base as to attack him for doing his duty would have probably accused him of cowardice for fleeing when the situation became hopeless, abandoning his people and all that sort of thing. I'm not up on all the details but usually the hardest choice is the right one.

rtaylor1802 said...

A commander must make decisions based on the situation on the ground. On this day seventy-one years ago, the Belgian army was on the verge of annihilation, Belgium's allies were retreating to their home countries, the Soviets were allied with the Nazis and the United States remained neutral. In the midst of this hopelessness, the King had to make a decision. A good one or a bad one, a decision had to be made. To stay in Belgium was the bravest and noblest course of action in the dark days of 1940, but as the fortunes of war reversed was it the wisest? Probably not. Would the King have reigned for another forty-three years had he gone into exile? Most likely. We can argue for years the consequences of what Leopold had hours to decide.

I once thought Leopold was a vile man. Thousands of Americans were killed in wounded in or near Belgium during the winter of 1944-5, including members of my family, and I was concerned that they were giving their lives in a country whose king was collaborating with the enemy. I could go on and on, but to be brief, after studying the issue, I no longer believe the King was a collaborator. In fact I have some admiration for him. After his abdication, he made a new life for himself, pursued new interests, did not seem bitter, tended to be forgiving of his enemies and seemed happy. Admirable attributes. He may not have been a great king, but he was a fine man.

Lee said...

He was still a good King.

Those who have accused him as being a collaborator ought to be ashamed. (Churchill, etc)

Daniel said...

As commander in chief of his army, he maintained his promise to his troops to share their fate.
Now, some 71 years later, our hearts still remember his promise to our troops: “Mijn lot zal het uwe zijn” (“Your fate will be mine”). Many a Belgian can recall that the King stayed; he did not run away, he kept his promise.

His Majesty became the scapegoat for the French Premier, Paul Reynaud and the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

I RECALL THE WORDS OF OUR KING ,
" OUR CAUSE IS JUST AND PURE"
WE ARE WAITING FOR THE IMPARTIAL VERDICT OF HONEST MEN

FOR ME THE FACTS ARE CERTAIN,THAT THE KINGS PROMISE TO HIS TROOPS TO SHARE THEIR LOT WHATEVER HAPPENED RESULTED IN THE BELGIAN ARMY SACRIFICING ITSELF IN REAR-GUARD ACTIONS TO THE LIMITS OF ITS MEANS THEREBY ENABLING THE BRITISH ARMY TO ESCAPE AT DUNKIRK;WHICH FEAT IS RECOGNISED BY EVERYBODY AS BEING THE BASIS OF FINAL VICTORY

Matterhorn said...

Yes, the effects of the King's decision on the morale of his army and the consequences for the British at Dunkirk, are points which tend to be overlooked in discussions of his decision to remain in Belgium.

He was certainly a very noble and courageous man who made a vital, and usually forgotten, contribution to the ultimate Allied victory.