Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Tragedy of Leopold III

The life of Leopold III, (1901-1983), fourth King of the Belgians, was marked by tragedy. War, grief, betrayal, calumny, imprisonment, exile, and political disaster took a terrible toll upon this sensitive man. His devoted public service was repaid with ingratitude, contempt, and rejection. Yet, Leopold never lost his dignity, nor the serenity of innocence.

Leopold was born on November 3, 1901, the first child of Prince Albert and Princess Elisabeth of Belgium. He was followed in 1903 by a brother, Charles, and in 1906 by a sister, Marie-José.  In 1909, upon the death of his great-uncle, Leopold II of Belgium, little Leopold's parents ascended the throne as King and Queen of the Belgians. Leopold thus became the heir-apparent to the Belgian Crown. He acquired the traditional title of Belgian royal heirs: Duke of Brabant.

Leopold's parents were strict but loving. Albert and Elisabeth strove to inculcate in their children a rigorous morality and a high sense of duty to Belgium.  At the same time, their tender affection gave Leopold and his siblings an example of kindness, gentleness, and humanity.

Leopold absorbed his parents' lessons admirably. From his earliest childhood, he knew he would, one day, be called upon to reign. He took his future duties very seriously, in a generous spirit. As a young boy, he wrote: "I love my country with all my heart."

Events would put this patriotism to a stern test. At the age of 12, Leopold saw his country overwhelmed by invading German forces during World War I. Leopold and his siblings were sent to safety in Britain. Their parents remained in Belgium, exposed to all the dangers of war. Reduced to a small strip of territory near the North Sea, King Albert, in collaboration with the armies of the Entente, led the Belgian army in trench warfare against the Germans for the next four years. Queen Elisabeth remained at her husband's side, devoting her time to the care of wounded soldiers and Belgian refugees.

Leopold soon insisted on returning to Belgium to take part in the defense of his country. Accordingly, at the age of 13, he became the youngest infantryman in the Belgian army. Throughout the war, the young prince alternated between school at Eton and "vacations" with his regiment. His father, King Albert, had instructed the regiment's Colonel: "Make him dig trenches, so that he may know what it is like to have blistered hands." Every morning, therefore, Leopold used to fill fifty sandbags to reinforce the parapets. He also undertook the complete course of training for the infantry recruit - physical exercises, lessons in handling arms and grenade throwing, drill and the maintenance of equipment.

 Soon, Leopold, still only 13, insisted on being taken to the front line. By Providence, he survived many dangers. On one occasion, he manned an advance post within pistol range of the enemy. Another time, he was nearly hit by a bombshell, but his companion, a 65-year-old soldier, pushed him out of the way in the nick of time.

Allied victory and the return of peace saw Leopold and his family return to Brussels, in a newly liberated Belgium. The popularity of the Belgian royal family, widely admired at home and abroad for their wartime heroism, knew no bounds.

In 1926, Leopold married Princess Astrid of Sweden, a beautiful and gracious young woman. Leopold and Astrid were deeply in love. In 1927, they had a daughter, Princess Josephine-Charlotte, and, in 1930, a son, Prince Baudouin. (A third child, Prince Albert, would be born in 1934, after Leopold's accession to the throne). In the year of Baudouin's birth, Astrid, raised as a Lutheran, converted to Catholicism, the faith of her adopted country. She did so, however, without any pressure from the Belgian royal family, out of genuine religious conviction. Leopold found great happiness in his marriage and family life.

Meanwhile, he worked hard at understudying his father, King Albert, and preparing himself for his eventual role as sovereign. He was especially concerned with the plight of the Belgian Congo, irresponsibly exploited. In 1925 and 1933, Leopold undertook extensive tours of the Congo, and, both times, returned with apt criticisms of the colonial regime and suggestions for reform.

In 1934, while Leopold and Astrid were vacationing in Switzerland, King Albert died tragically in a mountaineering accident in Belgium. Deeply shocked and grieved, Leopold and Astrid returned to Belgium immediately for the King's funeral. Some days afterwards, Leopold swore his accession oath in Brussels, becoming King Leopold III of the Belgians. On this solemn occasion, Leopold declared: "I give myself entirely to Belgium."

His reign would be characterized by misfortune. In 1935, the year after his father's death, Leopold lost his wife under equally tragic circumstances, in a terrible car accident in Switzerland. Injured himself, and shattered by grief and shock, the King returned to Belgium for his wife's funeral. Against his doctor's orders, he insisted on following Queen Astrid's hearse on foot for four miles. To Astrid's close friend, Anna Sparre, the devastated King confided: "My life is over."

Leopold had lost, not only his beloved wife, but his Queen, his chief support and close collaborator in his royal function. Yet, despite his terrible personal grief, he persevered, alone, devoting his energies to Belgium, during a period of mounting political tension in Europe. Hitler and Stalin were threatening; World War II was fast approaching.

In 1937, faced with British and French weakness in regard to Nazi Germany, Leopold led Belgium, previously a party to the Locarno pact, in adopting a policy of armed independence. Leopold hoped, by this means, to give Belgium at least some chance of remaining neutral in a new European conflict. Association with the British and French in the Locarno pact or in another form of alliance would preclude the possibility of remaining outside such a conflict. Leopold realized that the Allies were ill-prepared for war, and, as a result, judged it imprudent to rely on their protection in case of a conflagration. It was better, Leopold considered, to adopt neutrality, which seemed to offer the hope of avoiding war. There was also the possibility that Belgium, by remaining neutral, might be able constitute a buffer zone between the warring powers, for the benefit of Europe as a whole.

The new policy, however, did not exempt Belgium from fighting to defend her neutrality, in the event of its violation by another power. Thus, Leopold devoted nearly a quarter of the national budget to military preparedness. In addition, Belgium had the right to call upon the Allies to aid in the defense of her territory, should the country be invaded by Germany. Although Belgium's neutrality precluded official staff talks with the Allies before the outbreak of war, Leopold arranged for unofficial contingency planning to take place. For example, in the period leading up to Hitler's invasion of Belgium in May, 1940, Sir Roger Keyes, a British military hero of World War I, and a personal friend of King Leopold, served as a liaison officer on secret missions in Belgium. It should also be noted that Leopold maintained secret contacts with the German anti-Nazi resistance during the 1930's.

When Hitler attacked Belgium, on May 10, 1940, Leopold called upon official Allied aid, and, in collaboration with the Allies, led his army in courageous fighting for 18 days. Nonetheless, Belgium was swiftly overrun by the Germans. On May 28, at the end of his resources, Leopold was forced to surrender. Meanwhile, the British, (in large measure due to the protection afforded by the brave Belgian resistance), were able to evacuate many of their troops through Dunkirk. Leopold's ministers had fled to France several days before the Belgian capitulation, but the King insisted on remaining with his army and people and sharing their fate. He became a prisoner of war, and was held under house arrest in Brussels.

In his well-researched and well-documented book, Outrageous Fortune: The Tragedy of Leopold III of the Belgians, the younger Roger Keyes, son of the liaison officer mentioned earlier, describes how Leopold immediately became the Allies' scapegoat. Despite the fact that the King had fought valiantly, had only capitulated when further resistance seemed hopeless, and had made every effort to warn the Allies of his imminent surrender, French Premier Reynaud launched a virulent broadcast in which he blamed Leopold for the Allies' disastrous defeat, branding him as a traitor, a deserter, and a felon. Unfortunately, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, joined in calumniating the King. British and French newspapers began a campaign of vicious slander of Leopold, reviling him as a coward, a traitor, a "King of the Fifth Column," a pro-Nazi, and a libertine. He was even accused of arranging the deaths of his father and his wife!

Fortunately, the elder Sir Roger Keyes successfully prosecuted the Daily Mirror for libel, and thereby achieved a public vindication of the King, who, as a prisoner of war, could not defend himself.

The calumnies of 1940, however, were the beginning of the end for Leopold's reign. His prestige and that of the Belgian monarchy had been irreparably damaged. Other slanders would follow. During the dark years of the war, when Leopold remained with his people, (although refusing to reign under Nazi occupation), managing to obtain better conditions for the civilian population and for Belgian prisoners of war, funding relief measures, and shielding the resistance activities of members of his entourage, negative interpretations of his actions were insidiously disseminated. The King was repeatedly accused of fascist sympathies and of collaboration with the enemy.

After the war, Leopold's ministers and other politicians, seeking to weaken (or even destroy) the monarchy, would use the artificial controversy thus created to cause a public crisis, eventually forcing Leopold to abdicate. Their intrigues were facilitated by the forced deportation of Leopold and his family to Germany, shortly before the Allied landings in Europe in 1944. As a result of his deportation, the King was absent from Belgium at the critical moment of liberation; his enemies, thus, had a free hand to conspire to prevent his return.

The political campaign to force Leopold's abdication, like the slanders of 1940, was cruel and vulgar. Numerous coarse personal attacks were launched against the King and his second wife, Princess Lilian, born Mary Lilian Baels, a Belgian commoner whom Leopold had married in 1941. Despite the fact that Lilian had married the King at a dangerous moment, courageously shared his ordeals, and proved to be a devoted wife to him and an affectionate step-mother to his children by Queen Astrid, she was treated as an unscrupulous social-climber, and viciously attacked.

Leopold suffered profoundly from the war, the long period of captivity, and the continual calumny. Nonetheless, he retained the inner serenity born of a clear conscience, and abdicated in a conciliatory spirit. Through self-effacement, he sought to avoid civil strife and bloodshed, and to preserve, at least, some vestige of the monarchy. With Leopold's abdication in 1951, however, the Belgian monarchy was severely weakened. His 21-year-old son, Baudouin, succeeded to the throne, but his position would be much more symbolic. Never again would the Belgian kings play the important political role of the past.

The tragedy of Leopold III lies in the fact that he was a noble man, who lost his reputation; a great King, who lost his country.


Cammaerts, Emile. The prisoner at Laeken: King Leopold, legend and fact.
Cleeremans, Jean. Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l'occupation.
Cleeremans, Jean. Un royaume pour un amour: Léopold III, de l'exil a l'abdication.
Dujardin, Vincent, Mark van den Wijngaert, et al. Léopold III.
Keyes, Roger. Outrageous Fortune: The Tragedy of Leopold III of the Belgians.
Keyes, Roger. Echec au Roi: Léopold III, 1940-1951.
Kirschen, Gilbert. L'éducation d'un prince. 
Sparre, Anna. Astrid mon amie.


Lucy said...

What a fascinating part of history. I learned so much from your post. I knew of Leopold III and of his great nobility and great sense of duty for his country, but never had read it in such detail.

Cheryl S. said...

What a wonderful post.
Thank you.

May said...

Thank you, Lucy, I'm glad you had heard about his fine character.

Thank you, Cher.128, and welcome to this blog.

veesixteen said...

Queen Astrid was killed when the car driven by King Leopold went off the road near Kussnacht, in Switzerland, in 1934. Has anyone ever heard of a second, similar accident involving King Leopold? In the archives of the Antwerp Gazette, circa 1957, are photos of a custom Cadillac roadster by Pinin Farina that went off the road while en route to Cortina d'Ampezzo, in Italy. It is believed the driver was King Leopold. This time, it seems the press were "gagged".

May said...

Yes, that's true. Leopold and Lilian had gone to Cortina for the inauguration of a memorial to King Albert I (who used to go mountaineering there). On the return journey, their car plunged down a ravine again, about 20 metres, but neither Leopold nor Lilian was injured.

And yes, this was kept rather quiet.

veesixteen said...

Do you know the date when the accident occurred. I have a photo (undated) from the “Gazette d’Anvers” (1957?) showing the site of the accident and the overturned car. Do you know if the car belonged to the King?

May said...

I don't know off hand but I will look into it more when I get a chance.

veesixteen said...

An article published in "Cortina" magazine for summer 2008 mentions the dedication of a bronze bust of King Albert I of Belgium on 1 July 1957. The bust is currently located in the gardens of the Franchesi Park Hotel in Cortina. I guess the accident must have happened a few days after that.