Friday, January 30, 2009

King Leopold III on the Belgian Capitulation

On May 28, 1940, after 18 days of courageous fighting in collaboration with the Allies, the Belgian army, under the command of King Leopold III, was compelled to surrender to the invading Germans. The King, under desperate circumstances, as the British fled through Dunkirk, had judged further resistance futile and, after making every effort to warn the Allies of his army's imminent collapse, had ordered a cease-fire. He would, nonetheless, be violently attacked in Britain and France; his surrender would be portrayed, extremely unfairly, as a betrayal of the Allied cause, and, even, as a betrayal of his own country. Leopold would, effectively, become the scapegoat for the Allied defeat in 1940; and the charges of treachery would prove to be the beginning of a long political campaign waged against the King, leading, eventually, to his abdication in 1951.

  One of the public figures who defended King Leopold against the slanderous charges was Sir Roger Keyes, a British military hero of World War I and a liaison officer in Belgium during the 18 day campaign. The King also defended his actions in the following letter, dated May 28, 1940. One copy of the letter was sent to Pope Pius XII; a second copy, to US President Roosevelt. It is important to note that King Leopold was known for his truthfulness, and that, since his youth, he had been a loyal and courageous patriot (even volunteering at age 13 for the Belgian army during World War I and insisting on being taken to the front lines). His expressions of his concern to behave honorably and of his love of Belgium, therefore, cannot be dismissed as hypocritical rhetoric. Here is the letter:

Au milieu de la confusion générale provoquée par les événements prodigieusement rapides que nous vivons, et dont la portée est incalculable, je tiens à affirmer que la Belgique et son armée ont accompli tout leur devoir. La Belgique a tenu ses engagements internationaux, d'abord en maintenant scrupuleusement sa neutralité, ensuite en défendant pied à pied toute l'étendue de son territoire.

Attaquée par des forces énormes, notre armée parvint en bon ordre sur une ligne de défense puissament organisée, en liaison avec les armées des garants auxquels nous avions fait appel. Mais des évenements militaires, déroulés hors de notre territoire, ont contraint à évacuer ce champ de bataille et imposé une série de mouvements de repli qui nous acculèrent à la mer. Notre armée se dépensa alors sans compter dans une bataille de quatre jours, menée d'un commun accord avec les armées alliées. Nous nous trouvâmes finalement encerclés sur un territoire extrêmement exigu, habité par une population très dense, envahi déjà par plusieurs centaines de milliers de réfugiés civils sans abri, sans nourriture, sans eau potable, et refluant d'un endroit à l'autre, selon les bombardements aériens. 

Hier, nos derniers moyens de résistance furent brisés sous le poids d'une superiorité écrasante d'effectifs et d'aviation. Dans ces conditions, j'ai cherché à éviter un combat qui, aujourd'hui, aurait conduit à notre extermination sans profit pour les Alliés: personne n'a le droit de sacrifier inutilement des vies humaines. 

J'entends continuer, quoi qu'il advienne, à partager le sort de mon armée et de mon peuple. Sollicité depuis plusieurs jours de quitter mes soldats, j'ai repoussé cette suggestion qui eût été pour le chef de l'armée une désertion. De plus, en restant sur le sol national, je désire soutenir mon peuple dans l'épreuve qu'il traverse.

In the midst of the general confusion, caused by the prodigiously rapid events which we are living through, and of which the results are incalculable, I wish to affirm that Belgium and her army have accomplished their duty to the full. Belgium has honored her international engagements; first, by scrupulously maintaining her neutrality, and later, by defending, foot by foot, the entire extent of her territory.

Attacked by enormous forces, our army reached, in good order, a line of defense, which was powerfully organized, in cooperation with the armies of our garantors, to whom we had appealed. But military events, which occurred outside of our territory, compelled us to evacuate this field of battle, and imposed upon us a series of retreats which drove us to the sea. Our army expended itself, without holding back, in a four-day battle, waged in collaboration with the Allied armies. We finally found ourselves encircled in an extremely small area, very densely populated, already crowded with several hundred thousand civilian refugees without shelter, without food, without drinking water, who were fleeing from one area to another, driven by the bombardments. 

Yesterday, our last means of resistance were shattered under the weight of a crushing superiority of effectives and aviation. In these conditions, I sought to avoid a battle which, today, would have led to our extermination, without benefiting the Allies: no one has the right to sacrifice human lives in vain. 

I intend to continue, whatever may happen, to share the fate of my army and people. I have been asked, for several days, to leave my soldiers, but I have rejected this suggestion, which would be, for the head of an army, a desertion. In addition, by remaining on national soil, I wish to support my people in the ordeal through which they are passing.

I cannot understand why a certain commentator, referring to this letter, while acknowledging it showed Leopold's nobility, wrote that it also illustrated his "somewhat morbid and monkish" character. In my opinion, quite the opposite is true. The King, despite the adverse circumstances, seems calm, courageous, even hopeful. 

Pius XII sent King Leopold a sympathetic reply. The King answered:

J'ai toujours eu la certitude que, dans Sa clairvoyance et Sa juste bonté, Votre Sainteté ne pourrait attribuer ma décision qu'à l'inspiration de mes sentiments chrétiens, comme au souci du bien du Pays dont j'ai le garde et pour lequel je souffrirais mille morts, car subir n'est pas accepter, se taire n'est pas approuver; attendre n'est pas renoncer.

I was always sure that, in Your clear-sightedness and Your just kindness, Your Holiness could not attribute my decision to anything other than the inspiration of my Christian sentiments, and to my concern for the good of the Country that is in my charge and for which I would suffer a thousand deaths, for to endure is not to accept, to be silent is not to approve; to wait is not to give up.

(Quoted by Rémy in Le 18e jour: la tragédie de Léopold III, roi des Belges, 1976)

I emphasized the last phrases of the letter because they became very important for Leopold III. Following his abdication, caused by a long series of political attacks and slanders, the King had to withdraw completely from the public scene, into enforced silence and self-effacement. To preserve national unity, he had to avoid any action which might rekindle the divisive conflict surrounding his person and reign. Thus, from 1951 until his death in 1983, he could not defend himself publicly against the continual repetition of old charges. It was not until the posthumous publication of his memoirs, in 2001, that the King's account of his reign, and of the vicissitudes that led to his abdication, would emerge.


Daniel said...

This link takes you to an article written by Richard Langworth
a magazine published by THE CHURCHILL

The truth is borne out by this magnificent all telling article.

May said...

Thanks!. I have seen that article before and it is, indeed, magnificent. I'm sure other readers will find it interesting too, thanks for providing the link.