Saturday, February 28, 2009

Brothers, Sisters, & Cousins

King Leopold III of the Belgians with his wife, Queen Astrid, and their children.
Leopold's sister, Queen Marie-José of Italy, with her husband, King Umberto II, and their children. 

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Royal Palace of Brussels

A photograph of the Royal Palace of Brussels by Matthias Zepper. Licensing information here.

Not to be confused with Laeken Castle (the residence of the Belgian royal family on the outskirts of Brussels), this is where the King performs his official functions. 

Belgium's Lost Prince

Above, we see a photograph of King Albert's older brother, Prince Baudouin of Belgium (1869-1891). Baudouin was the first child of the Count and Countess of Flanders. As the only legitimate son of his uncle, Leopold II, died as a child, Baudouin was raised as the heir to the Belgian throne. A young man of great promise, he died tragically of pneumonia (according to some accounts, complicated by renal hemorrhage) at age 22. He was deeply mourned by his family and people.

Baudouin was particularly close to his eldest sister, Henriette (pictured below). As their niece, Marie-José, describes in her memoirs, the two siblings shared a sense of family, and a love of religion, duty, country, and tradition. According to Henriette:

À vingt-et-un ans, Baudouin avait déclaré qu'il serait toujours un traditionnaliste, que seule dans la tradition subsiste la force. Il se déclarait: ni révolutionnaire, ni libéral, ni moderne... Il fallait du courage pour avouer cela dans notre démocratique Belgique!

At 21, Baudouin had declared that he would always be a traditionalist, that strength lay in tradition alone. He declared himself neither revolutionary, nor liberal, nor modern... It took courage to say this, in our democratic Belgium!

In contrast to his shy younger brother, Albert, Baudouin moved with ease in high society and enjoyed the companionship of his peers. Whereas Albert hated hunting and lacked interest in riding and dancing, Baudouin excelled in the traditional aristocratic pursuits.

In her diary, Henriette described Baudouin in the highest terms:

Baudouin était né chef. Depuis son enfance, il nous tenait tous trois en main. Comme il serait complété avec son frère Albert s'ils avaient été deux à servir leur patrie. Le cadet, Albert, a toujours préféré être le second et servir un chef plutôt de l'être lui-même... Albert a un coeur d'or, mais dès sa plus tendre enfance, il était coléreux et d'une extrême susceptibilité, tandis qu'en Baudouin nous n'avons jamais pu découvrir un seul défaut, à part sa trop grande modestie.

Baudouin was a born leader. From his childhood, he held all three of us by the hand. How well he would been complemented by his brother, Albert, if the two had been able to serve their country together! Albert, the younger one, has always preferred to take second place, and to serve a leader rather than to be one himself... Albert has a heart of gold, but, from his earliest childhood, he was irascible, and extremely sensitive, whereas, in Baudouin, we were never able to find a single fault, apart from his excessive modesty.

Henriette also discussed the similarities between the two brothers:

Albert a, comme Baudouin, cet instinct de la recherche: voir pour lui-même afin de ne pas être dupe et d'être armé pour gouverner... Tous deux parlaient le flamand et le wallon que ni le conte de Flandre ni le roi Léopold II ne connaissaient, et ils s'amusaient à s'exprimer en marollien et d'autres patois.

Albert, like Baudouin, has this instinct for finding things out: to see them for himself so as not be duped and so as to be equipped to govern... Both brothers spoke Flemish and Walloon, which neither the Count of Flanders nor King Leopold II knew, and enjoyed expressing themselves in Marollian and other dialects.
Albert greatly admired, and regretted, his older brother. During World War I, he told Henriette:

"Ah! Si Baudouin avait vécu, comme notre vie eût été differente et plus heureuse! Quelle force d'être deux au lieu d'un! Il aurait tout mieux fait que moi."

"Ah! If Baudouin had survived, how different our life would have been, how much happier! What strength to be two instead of one! He would have done everything better than I."

After Baudouin's death, the press launched a lurid campaign to slander his reputation. Malicious rumors circulated, to the effect that he had been killed over a love affair. In her grief and indignation, Henriette wrote:

Comment a-t-on lancé, après sa mort, ces tragiques et douloureux mensonges? C'est incompréhensible. Il est vrai qu'on ne peut admettre la vertu des princes et qu'on croit si facilement le mal! Il était le plus fort de nous tous, mais il a été terrassé en deux jours! Le tort a été de n'avoir pas annoncé qu'il s'était alité avec une forte fièvre. On inventa des histoires de rixes, d'assassinat même... pour une femme. On fit des rapprochements avec le drame de Mayerling, alors que Baudouin devenait agressif et violent lorsqu'il parlait de Rodolphe. Il avait ressenti une impression de dégoût dans ce qu'il avait vu à Vienne lors de l'enterrement de l'archiduc...

How could they launch, after his death, these tragic and painful lies! It is incomprehensible. It is true that people cannot recognize the virtue of princes, and that they so easily believe evil! He was the strongest of us all, but he succumbed in two days! The mistake was not to announce that he had been taken to bed with a high fever. People invented stories of brawls, even of murder... over a woman. They made comparisons with the drama of Mayerling, although Baudouin became agressive and violent whenever he spoke of Rudolf. He had experienced an impression of disgust at what he saw in Vienna during the Archduke's funeral...

Baudouin's fate prefigured that of his family; for years to come, tragedy and calumny would continue to stalk the Belgian royal house.
(above: one of the artistic works of the Countess of Flanders, dated not long after Baudouin's death; the sombre tones, perhaps, express his mother's grief)

The Belgian Countryside

In the Ardennes. 
Polders on the Yser River.
The Semois valley, near Bouillon, close to the French border.

(Credits and licensing information here, here, and here)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

King Leopold & the Deportation of Belgian Workers

All too often, in discussions of the Nazi occupation of Belgium, King Leopold III is portrayed as taking a weak and passive stance in regard to his country's oppressors. On the internet, I have seen claims such as "The King failed to protest against any of the measures of the Nazi occupiers... he did not, for example, raise his voice against the deportation of Belgian workers to Germany." Similarly, during the campaign to force Leopold's abdication, his enemies spoke of the "Silences of Laeken."

This is sheer calumny. General Alexander von Falkenhausen, the military governor of Belgium during the German occupation, (and, in fact, an important anti-Nazi, who did his best to moderate the treatment of the Belgians during the occupation), asserted in an interview many years after the war: "... A single preoccupation dominated (Leopold's) thoughts during the war: alleviating the miseries of his people." He described how Leopold repeatedly intervened on his people's behalf, sometimes using the General himself as an intermediary.

The truth is that Leopold had to walk a tightrope. As a conscientious and dedicated Sovereign, he wished to protect his people, to the best of his ability, from oppressive measures. Yet, public protests carried the risk that the Nazis, in retaliation, would institute an even harsher regime in Belgium. As Jean Cleeremans describes in his book, Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple, sous l'occupation, this was a very real danger; in the Netherlands, for example, when the Dutch bishops protested openly against the Nazis' racial policy, it merely led to an intensification of anti-Jewish persecution. The King, in his vulnerable position as a prisoner of war, also had to weigh the personal risks he would take by protesting publicly. Grand gestures of defiance might simply lead to his deportation - or worse - without benefiting his people, whom he would no longer be able to help. In this delicate and dangerous situation, the King avoided public protests, seeking to aid the Belgians in more discreet ways that - while still involving serious risk - seemed better advised. Nonetheless, Leopold certainly did "raise his voice" against the "measures of the Nazi occupiers," repeatedly, in very firm letters to Hitler, and in personal protests addressed to Von Falkenhausen. The deportation of the Belgian workers, in particular, is one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of Leopold's wartime humanitarian interventions.

In October, 1942, the Nazis began to organize the deportation of Belgian men between the ages of 18 and 50, and of single Belgian women between the ages of 21 and 35. The intention was to use them as forced labor to further the German war effort. Penal measures and reprisals were inflicted upon those who failed to appear when summoned for deportation, and upon their families.  The Belgians, naturally enough, dreaded the prospect of forced labor; girls began to contract mariages blancs to avoid deportation. The upper echelons of the civil service, which had remained in Belgian hands, addressed a courageous protest to the German military administration. The Court of Cassation indicated that the deportations violated the Hague Convention.

On November 3, the King wrote a letter of protest to Hitler:
L'annonce de cette déportation massive cause dans toutes les couches de la population un émoi dont il est aisé de mésurer l'ampleur. Ma conscience m'interdit de passer sous silence le mal qu'entraîne, pour les ouvriers, l'obligation d'abandonner leurs foyers, leurs terres, leurs usines, pour metter en pleine guerre leur activité au service direct de l'Allemagne. J'ajoute que la population belge a gardé des déportations de 1916-1917 un souvenir exécré et que si, sous l'une ou l'autre forme, elles se renouvelaient, elles soulèveraient ... une haine ineffaçable contre l'Allemagne. 

The announcement of this massive deportation is causing, throughout the population, an emotion whose amplitude it is easy to measure. My conscience forbids me to pass over in silence the harm which the workers will suffer if they are obliged to abandon their homes, their land, their factories; in order to put their activities, in the midst of the war, at the direct service of Germany. I add that the Belgian people continues to remember, with execration, the deportations of 1916-1917, and that if, under one form or another, they were renewed, they would arouse ... an ineffaceable hatred of Germany. 

The King's protest was unsuccessful; Hitler, not surprisingly, merely responded that the deportations were necessary for the German war effort. At this point, the Belgian government-in-exile succeeded in conveying a message to Leopold, urging him to protest publicly against the deportations, whatever the consequences, while admitting that the chances of any positive result were extremely slim:
...Son intervention produira-t-elle un résultat? C'est extrêmement douteux... Mais la question n'est pas de réussir, elle est d'accomplir ce qui est ... un devoir de la fonction royale. Sous quelle forme l'intervention du Roi devrait-elle se traduire? Elle devait être publique, affichée sur les murs. S'il devait en résulter une réaction de l'ennemi et un attentat de sa part contre la liberté de la personne royale, malgré la gravité de ses conséquences, pareille perspective ne devrait pas motiver une hésitation... En écrivant ces lignes, le gouvernement se rend compte combien il est délicat de donner pareil conseil, alors qu'il se trouve à l'étranger et que, par conséquent, il ne partage pas les risques de la résistance.

Would (the King's) intervention produce a result? It is very doubtful... But it is not a question of succeeding, but rather of accomplishing... a royal duty. What form should the King's intervention take? It should be public, posted on all the walls. If there resulted a reaction and an assault on the enemy's part upon the liberty of the royal person, despite the gravity of its consequences, such a prospect should not inspire hesitation... In writing these lines, the government realizes how delicate it is to give such advice, as it is abroad, and, in consequence, does not share the risks of resistance.

The King feared that such a gesture would merely lead to Nazi reprisals against Belgium. To decide upon the appropriate course of action, he convened, at Laeken Castle, a meeting of representatives of Belgian industrial workers and entrepreneurs, on December 15, and sought their counsel. After a careful discussion, all the representatives advised against a public protest.

Leopold, however, continued to defend his people through other means. The day after the conference at Laeken, he addressed a letter to Dr. Nolf, a physician of the royal family and the President of the Belgian Red Cross. I find the letter, and the patriotic devotion it expresses, very dignified and touching:
Le pays connaît la nouvelle et cruelle épreuve du travail forcé, qui oblige nos ouvriers et nos ouvrières à quitter la Belgique pour mettre leur activité au service de l'Allemagne en guerre. Le sort des femmes surtout est digne de pitié: des jeunes filles isolées, envoyées dans une terre étrangère dont elles ignorent jusqu'à la langue, sont exposées à des dangers dont ceux d'ordre moral ne sont pas les moindres... 

The country is experiencing the new and cruel ordeal of forced labour, which obliges our workers, both men and women, to leave Belgium in order to put their activity at the service of Germany's war effort. The fate of the women, above all, is worthy of pity: isolated young girls, sent to a foreign country where they do not even know the language, are exposed to dangers - not least of which are those of a moral character... 
The King then described his protest to Hitler, and its fruitless outcome. He continued:
....(J)e manquerais au devoir que me dicte ma conscience si je n'essayais d'alléger les souffrances qu'entraîne un travail forcé inéluctable. Dans le vif désir de venir en aide aux déportés et à leur famile, je m'addresse à la Croix Rouge et je lui demande d'étudier les moyens les plus appropriés pour réaliser cette oeuvre d'humanité. Je la prie d'examiner avec une sollicitude particulière un problème qui me tient profondément à coeur et de me faire connaître le plus tôt possible les mesures qu'elle préconise.

I would fail in the duty dictated by my conscience if I did not attempt to relieve the sufferings caused by this unavoidable forced labour. Keenly desirous of coming to the aid of the deportees and their families, I address myself to the Red Cross and I ask it to consider the most appropriate means of realizing this work of humanity. I implore it to examine, with particular care, a problem very close to my heart, and to let me know, as soon as possible, what measures it plans to take.

On January 5, 1943, the King met with Von Falkenhausen at Laeken. Leopold asked that all women be exempted from forced labour; or, if this were impossible, he insisted that the minimum age for deportation should be increased from 21 to 25 for women and from 18 to 21 for men. Von Falkenhausen, at great personal risk, tried to intervene with the Nazi hierarchy on the Belgians' behalf (he argued that the deportations and forced labour were unacceptable, and, in any case, would be counter-productive, merely increasing the chances of sabotage of German industry on the part of resentful deportees). On January 12, the King addressed another - long - letter to the Red Cross, insisting that the deported workers not be abandoned to their fate and recommending strenuous measures to assist them and their families.

Unfortunately, a copy of one of the King's letters to the Red Cross fell into Hitler's hands. Furious, he dispatched General Müller to Laeken to read the King a long tirade:
Your Majesty... it appears that you have completely forgotten that you are a prisoner. The assertions contained in your letter... are so monstrous that no rebuke can be harsh enough. By speaking of "cruel ordeals," "forced labour," and "deportation," you evince a disturbing incomprehension of the... worldwide duty of fighting Bolshevism. The tone of your letter is a vulgar insult to the Germans.... As to the moral dangers which, you seem to believe, the young Belgian girls, "isolated," "worthy of pity," would face in Germany ... the mistrust you thereby display in the matter of the conduct of your country's women ... (suggests) that the dangers in question would be, at least, equally great in your own country. I intend, Your Majesty, for you to avoid such unpardonable incidents in the future.... (or) I will be forced to assign you a different residence outside of Belgium.
Despite Hitler's violent, hysterical, and threatening reaction, Leopold won a partial victory: on March 25, the occupying regime suspended the deportation of Belgian women (with the exception of maids and hotel staff).

Clearly, Leopold was far from "passive" in his stance towards the Nazi occupiers. His response to the deportations is only one among many courageous interventions on his people's behalf. Protesting requisitions of food and supplies, seeking to alleviate the treatment of hostages and prisoners of war, petitioning for clemency for political prisoners, funding relief measures for the population, shielding the resistance activities of members of his entourage, Leopold defended his people throughout the Nazi occupation. It is shocking that the old calumnies of the "Silences of Laeken" persist to the present day.


Jean Cleeremans. Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l'occupation. 
Roger Keyes. Échec au Roi: Léopold III, 1940-1951. 

The Young Albert

King Albert I as a child, an adolescent, and a young man. 

(I am sorry that the pictures are so small; to see a larger version, just click on the image)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mary Magdalen

A painting of St. Mary Magdalen by Rogier van der Weyden, from the right panel of the Braque Family Triptych (1450).

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and prayer marking the beginning of Lent. From the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The name dies cinerum (day of ashes) which it bears in the Roman Missal is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates from at least the eighth century. On this day, all the faithful according to ancient custom are exhorted to approach the altar before the beginning of Mass, and there the priest, dipping his thumb into ashes previously blessed, marks the forehead - or in the case of clerics upon the place of the tonsure - of each with the sign of the cross, saying the words: "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return"... 

More here

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"Chez la Reine des Belges"

The Great War in a Different Light has an article from 1918 by Colette Yver, a French journalist, describing her meeting with Queen Elisabeth of Belgium during World War I. The article, entitled Chez la Reine des Belges, is written in the fervid rhetorical style of the period; nevertheless, it clearly conveys the austerity and simplicity of the royal couple's wartime life, and the Queen's heroism, intelligence, charm, tenderness, and grace.

I found this passage, where the author describes the Queen's concerns for the fate of the family in post-war Europe, particularly interesting:

 Une chose intéresse Sa Majesté: le sort des femmes dans la societé de l'après-guerre; et l'entretien roule maintenant sur les conditions nouvelles où les mettront les exigences de la vie économique. La déficit effrayant des hommes produira dans toutes les branches...un appel puissant de mains féminines. Des millions de femmes devront travailler en dehors de chez elles. Que deviendront de ce fait la famille, la natalité? ...C'est un sujet d'effroi pour la reine, qui a foi en la famille, qui voit dans la famille le premier élément de l'organisme social et qui aime plus que nul autre la douceur familiale, de voir se préparer la faillite d'un ordre aussi vieux que le monde. Sa Majesté se demande qui élèvera l'enfant selon cette nouvelle économie, et s'il devient la proie de l'élevage officiel, comment subsistera le sentiment maternel alors que la mère ne connaîtra plus les êtres qu'elles a appelés à vie... Mais j'ai tort de dire que cette question est pour Sa Majesté un sujet d'effroi, car, ici, Elle a un mot qui met tout au point et montre l'équilibre et la profondeur de sa pensée. "Heureusement il y a l'instinct maternel!"... Tout ce qui s'établit à faux dans une societé, les instincts essentiels le renversent. Telle est la philosophie de ce cerveau lumineux. Intelligence sûre, solide, qui s'exprime timidement, par mots brefs, par phrases-éclair, cette entrevue m'en a montré les aspects divers. Intelligence frémissante, vibrant constamment avec tout ce qui est humain, avec tout ce qui est actuel, on peut dire qu'aucun des problèmes modernes ne lui est étranger, encore moins indifférent. 

One thing interests Her Majesty: the fate of women in post-war society, and the discussion  now turns to the new circumstances into which they will be placed by the demands of economic life. The appalling lack of manpower will produce, in all fields .... a pressing need for women in the workforce. Millions of women will be obliged to work outside of their homes. What will be the consequences for the family, for the birth-rate? ... It alarms the Queen, who has faith in the family, who sees, in the family, the basic element of society, and who loves, more than anyone else, the sweetness of family life, to see the approaching collapse of an order as old as the world. Her Majesty asks who will raise the children in this new economy, and, if they fall prey to state upbringing, how maternal feelings will survive when the mother no longer knows those she has brought into the world... But I am wrong to say that this question is a subject of alarm for Her Majesty, for, at this point, she makes a remark which sets everything straight and which demonstrates the balance and the depth of her thought. "Fortunately, there is maternal instinct!" ... Everything that goes amiss in society will be corrected by essential instincts. Such is the philosophy of this lucid mind. Her sure, solid intelligence, which expresses itself timidly, in brief words and clear phrases, became evident to me, under its different aspects, during that conversation. This vibrant intelligence, alive with all that is human, with all that is contemporary - no modern problem is foreign, still less indifferent, to her. 

Monday, February 23, 2009

Accession of Leopold III

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the accession of King Leopold III to the Belgian throne. On February 23, 1934, still grieving over the tragic death of his father, King Albert I, only 6 days earlier, the 32-year-old Sovereign made his "Joyous Entry" into Brussels and swore his accession oath before Parliament. He then delivered his accession speech in French and Dutch, concluding with the solemn promise: "I give myself entirely to Belgium." His wife, Queen Astrid, transported by the occasion, lifted up her little son, Baudouin, the new Crown Prince, to offer him to the country.
 Above, we see a photograph of the accession ceremony. Interestingly, there are no coronations in Belgium; the new monarch simply swears to "observe the Constitution and the laws of the Belgian people, to maintain national independence and the integrity of the territory."
Here, we see King Leopold and Queen Astrid mourning the death of King Albert. I think the photograph admirably conveys their grief; and, at the same time, their dignity and courage in assuming their difficult new role. 

What sort of man was Belgium's new King? His father, shortly before his death, had confided to his entourage:

"Léopold est bien préparé pour me remplacer. Il a ma pondération et l'énergie de sa mère. Ce qui forme un métal dont la force de résistance est bien grande." 

"Leopold is well prepared to take my place. He has my thoughtfulness and his mother's energy. This forms a very tough metal."

Albert, in fact, had been so convinced of his son's readiness for rulership that he had, at times, considered abdicating in his favor. 

Leopold's former secretary, Robert Capelle, writes in his memoirs:

L'affection qui unissait le père et le fils, leurs entretiens constants avaient contribué à assurer au pays une continuité de vues à la direction de l'État. Élevé dans les sentiments de devoir, désireux d'accomplir sa tâche avec conscience, profondément attaché aux institutions nationales, le roi Léopold, dès son avènement, redouble d'activité et de travail. Son caractère et sa maîtrise impressionnent ceux qui l'approchent. Esprit pondéré et réflechi, il rejette les décisions hâtives. Ses idées personnelles, il désire les éprouver, en les communiquant, à l'appréciation de personnes de confiance....

The affection that united father and son, and their constant discussions, had helped to assure the country a continuity of views regarding the direction of the State. Raised with the sense of duty, desirous of accomplishing his task conscientiously, deeply attached to the nation's institutions, King Leopold, from the moment of his accession, doubled his activity and his work. His character and his mastery impressed those who came into contact with him. He had a thoughtful, reflective mind, and rejected hasty decisions. As for his personal ideas, he wished to test them, by offering them to trusted individuals, for their consideration...

In his excellent work on Leopold's activities during World War II, Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l'occupation,  Jean Cleeremans cites Alfred Willemart, a friend of the King during his youth, in describing Leopold's character. According to Willemart, Leopold's main moral and intellectual traits were: 

...(L)'admiration qu'il vouait à son père et son désir de l'imiter, une extrême loyaute qui sautait aux yeux dans tous ses propos et ses actes... une volonté réfléchie... la recherche de la perfection, la domination de son extraordinaire force physique, et sa mâitrise de soi. D'une grande simplicité, le prince faisait également preuve d'une extrême bonté. Il était doué d'une intelligence dépassant de loin la moyenne... Sa charité chrétienne le poussait à se pencher sur le sort des humbles, des ouvriers notamment...

...The admiration he felt for his father, and his desire to imitate him; an extreme loyalty, which was immediately evident in all his words and deeds... a reflective willpower...  the search for perfection, the mastery of his extraordinary physical strength, and his self-control. A man of great simplicity, the prince also evinced an extreme kindness. He was gifted with an intelligence surpassing, by far, the average... His Christian charity impelled him to concern himself with the fate of the poor, especially the workers... 

King Leopold III, in short, was a very capable man, endowed with rare qualities of mind and heart. 

Friday, February 20, 2009


Searching on the Wikimedia Commons I found these two pictures of 17th century Liège. 

 Liège in 1649. From the Novum ac Magnum Theatrum Urbium Belgicae, by J. Blaeu, published in Amsterdam in 1649.
A view of the city ca. 1650, from an engraving by Matthäus Merian published in Frankfurt.

Political Testament: Part VI

In the sixth section of his "Political Testament", entitled La réorganisation militaire, Leopold III stressed that Belgium should reconstitute its regular army immediately following liberation from German occupation. 

La cessation des hostilités pourrait amener une crise d'autorité affectant une forme violente et qu'il serait malaisé de refréner en l'absence d'une force armée régulièrement constituée et formée d'éléments d'un patriotisme éprouvé indemnes de toute passion partisane.

Pour des raisons de tranquillité à l'intérieur et de prestige à l'extérieur, je recommande de reconstituer dans le plus bref délai une armée belge formée de militaires de carrière valides, complétée par des volontaires, de préférence soldats ayant vu le feu. A cet effet, il faudra exiger le repatriement immédiat de nos officiers et soldats prisonniers en Allemagne et de tous ceux qui seront encore à l'étranger.

The cessation of hostilities could lead to a crisis of authority, which might take a violent form, and which it would be difficult to control without a regular army, formed of elements of a proven patriotism immune to all partisan passion. 

For reasons of internal peace and external prestige, I recommend that a Belgian army be formed, as rapidly as possible, consisting of able professional soldiers, reinforced by volunteers, preferably soldiers who have seen action. To achieve this end, it will be necessary to insist upon the immediate repatriation of our officers and soldiers who are prisoners in Germany, and of all those still abroad.

The passages testifies to Leopold's prudence, in anticipating the civil disorders which might ensure after liberation, before normal government could be re-established. The King's emphasis on the need for a strong army also highlights his concern for national security and prestige.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Parents of King Albert I

Prince Philippe of Belgium (1837-1905), the Count of Flanders. He was the younger brother of King Leopold II of Belgium. Although, constitutionally, he was in the line of royal succession, his unfortunate deafness effectively disqualified him from the throne. An avid reader, he had an extensive library. His love of books was inherited, to a large extent, by his son, Albert. 
Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (1845-1912), the Countess of Flanders. She was distinguished for her piety and charity; her brother-in-law, Leopold II, used to call her "Our Lady of Flanders." She was also an accomplished artist.

In contrast to the irregular private life of Leopold II, the Count and Countess of Flanders were known for their domestic virtues. Philippe and Marie had four children: Prince Baudouin, a promising youth, who, tragically, died at age 22, Princess Henriette, Princess Josephine, and Prince Albert, who would later, due to his uncle's lack of a direct heir, become Belgium's beloved King Albert I. 

The Brabançonne

In 2007, in honor of the "King's Feast," (a Belgian national holiday held on November 15) Flemish singer Helmut Lotti sang the Brabançonne in Belgium's three languages: French, German, and Dutch. Members of the royal family were present.

A Queen in a Park

In Chapter 14 of her memoirs, Portraits with Backgrounds, entitled "A Queen in a Park," Catherine Barjansky recalls Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. Mme. Barjansky had met the Queen during the 1920's at an exhibition of the artist's sculptures in Brussels. She was soon invited to do the Queen's portrait, and a friendship arose between Elisabeth and herself. Mme. Barjansky portrays the Belgian queen as a deeply poetic and intellectual woman of great charm, simplicity, warmth, kindness. The artist writes:
After a half-dozen sittings my wax sculpture of the Queen of Belgium was finished, but in the meantime a sort of friendship had grown up between us. She was easy to talk to because she was understanding, direct, and sincere, and entirely lacking in pose. She began asking me to stay after my work for the day was finished, and then to lunch as well.

That too was completely informal. Luncheon was served in her drawing-room; a table already set was rolled in on wheels by two footmen, another table was brought in on which silver-covered dishes stood on electric heaters, and coffee was served in a blue thermos bottle. The footmen left, and we were alone, waiting on each other. Once I remember the Queen smiled her mischievous smile as she offered me a new dish. "Do try some," she urged me. "It is our national dish. I have never liked it, but as I never dared tell the cook, I am always having it."

I liked her not because she was a queen, but because she had the soul of an artist and of an elf, a strange, half-human, half-divine being from legendary forests. She loved the great park at Laeken; her real life was centered on it. She and the King had a warm friendship with the old gardener, Monsieur Parat... I often saw him walking with the King in the park, where he had a little house in which he lived with his family...

In the river that crossed the park there were hundreds of swans, white ones and black. Often the gardener came to tell the Queen that a new swan had been born or to show her nests where there were swan's eggs. 

Once at luncheon the Queen started to tell me something about the greenhouse. "What!" she exclaimed. "You have never seen it? Quick, let's finish lunch and go there." I followed her light quick steps as we hurried to the greenhouse. It was celebrated in Brussels, with its exotic flowers, orchids, and a pergola miles long over whose arch hung fuchsia. It was fantastically beautiful. It was that day she discovered I loved flowers, and never again did I leave the palace without my arms filled with them, placed in the carriage for me at the Queen's orders.

We began to take long walks in the park, talking, talking, for her interests were universal. One day she said she would like to paint in the park with me.

"Madame, I should be delighted," I replied, and I began to tell her some of my ideas about painting.

"Wait a minute," she exclaimed, and she ran out of the room and came back with some water-colors. "Now show me what you mean."

As we were bending over her work the door opened, and an unusually tall man with a beautiful head, even features, blue eyes, and blond hair appeared. 

"Am I disturbing you?" 

"Oh no," she said. "Come in."

That was Albert, the King of Belgium. He spoke slowly, in a low voice, with a pronounced Germanic accent. He squinted near-sightedly through a pince-nez. With almost as much simplicity as his wife, he talked to me for a moment about my husband, whom he knew, and about my son. Then he urged the Queen to go to some audience. Compared with her husband she was tiny... 

The Queen of Belgium did not live in accordance with the usual ideas of court life. She rose early and after a light breakfast began to practice violin, either alone or with her teacher. If it were necessary, she went to the palace in Brussels for an audience or to receive a delegation, and she visited a number of charities and exhibitions. Every day she took a lesson in Flemish, which is not an easy language, as she was obliged to reply in that tongue when she opened bazaars in the Flemish part of Belgium. In the afternoons she often made music with other musicians or had someone play for her. In the evenings, if their presence was not required for an opening of some sort, the King and Queen remained alone at Laeken, taking long walks in the park or sitting before the fireplace while she read aloud to him. They were a devoted couple. 

Once, when I knew her better, I asked: "Where did you meet the King for the first time?"

"Oh, that was in Paris in the house of my aunt, the Queen of Naples."

"And was it at once the coup de foudre?"

Her eyes sparkled. "I thought he was wonderful," she said simply.

They were a love match and they were happy. Together they visited all the corners of the earth, to see people, to learn about things. Like her, the King was insatiably curious and unwilling to be hedged around with court etiquette. They were wonderful companions and devoted parents to their three children, the handsome Prince Leopold, the strange and gloomy Prince Charles, and Princess Marie-José, who was extremely tall, with a thick bunch of curly blond hair and blue eyes...

More and more often I visited the Queen during that three-month visit to Brussels, and always after that, whenever I returned to Belgium, I spent most of my time with her in the park...

On a very gray day the Queen sent for me. She was waiting impatiently when I arrived and said: "Don't take off your coat. Come out into the park. I must show you something." 

We hurried downstairs and into the park, walking until we reached a part which I did not know at all.

"Now," she said in excitement. "Close your eyes and give me your hand. Don't open your eyes until I tell you." We walked for a few moments, and then she said triumphantly, "Now!"

We stood in a little field completely blue with forget-me-nots, with a few trees laden with yellow blossoms. The sky was a deep heavy gray, and the whole composition gave the effect of an impressionistic picture.

The Queen was radiant. "Isn't it beautiful?" she exclaimed...

Court circles are rarely noted for their brilliance, but the Queen preferred to surround herself not with the usual court groups but with creative people - musicians, artists, writers, scientists. She wanted to know them, to grasp their ideas, and, as a result, she had a number of close friendships among such people. 

And sometimes, during those long hours, I asked her about the First World War in which she proved herself to be a splendid nurse.

"Looking back now," she said, "I don't know how I was able to do it. When I first visited the hospitals and saw the wounded, I would cry. Finally the doctor told me I could not behave like that. Unless I pulled myself together, I would do more harm than good. It is amazing what you can endure, how much suffering and sorrow and blood and wounds and dead bodies one can see.

Once I remember visiting a battlefield after a battle. The sun had just gone down. The earth was black and damp, and there was a little pool of water red with blood. Lying beside it was a handsome boy, so blond, his helmet beside him. The doctors and I buried him, and I sent his medal to his mother. Oh, it was terrible. I could not do it again!" 

But the next day a telephone call came from the palace, asking me not to come. There had been a great disaster at the mines, and the Queen had gone, smiling and compassionate, to console the distraught wives of the miners. Once more she was making the effort that she had said was impossible.
Soon, Mme. Barjansky was teaching the Queen the art of sculpting.
The Queen loved sculpture, and she had the satisfaction, rare for royalty, of knowing that she had accomplished it all herself. I never touched her clay. After her first lesson she was still so excited that I stayed on, and for two hours we walked in the park while she bombarded me with questions about sculpture. I remember, because it was a typical gesture of this elfin queen, that on the way back she caught a firefly and held it to her watch to tell the time...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Portrait of a King

In Chapter 15 of Portraits with Backgrounds, entitled "Portrait of a King," Russian sculptress Catherine Barjansky movingly recalls Albert I of Belgium. The author and her husband, famed musician Alexandre Barjansky, happened to be in Egypt at the time of the King's tragic death in a climbing accident in 1934. Alexandre Barjansky had been giving a series of concerts in Egypt, and his wife was doing some work for the Egyptian department of the Belgian Museum. Mme. Barjansky writes: 

...(W)e were staying at the same hotel as Jean Capart, director of the Belgian Museum. One morning when my husband and I were breakfasting with Monsieur and Madame Capart, the director was called to the telephone. He went out into the lobby where we heard him utter a loud exclamation. We ran out to him. 

"How terrible!" he exclaimed. "Our King is dead."

We went at once to the embassy, crowded with Belgians in tears. There was no one who did not have great esteem and admiration for this man, so good and noble, so just and intelligent. For me, it was the first genuine grief of my life. I had known him well, had talked with him for many hours. He was a rare human being, completely unselfish, a scholar and a philosopher, simple and shy and good. 

And I remembered how he had told me once: "If I were free to do what I like, I would go to the mountains and remain there. I would rather do that than anything in the world." 

Ceremonies, receptions, official affairs were torture to him. His greatest happiness had been the evenings that he spent alone with the woman whom he referred to not as "the Queen" but as "my wife." They loved to spend their evenings together, dining in the park, sitting on a bench at a rustic garden table, eating cold food from a tray, or in front of the fireplace while she read aloud to him. 

King Albert had the highest admiration for the cleverness, culture, and intelligence of his Queen, but he was very humble about himself...

He bitterly despised both Hitler and Mussolini. On one occasion he told me: "I am constantly amazed by the King of Italy. If such a thing were to happen here in Belgium I would pack my baggage and get out, but I would not permit another man to rule the country in my place." He made this statement quite openly, though his daughter at that time was married to the son of the King of Italy.

Another time, speaking of dictators, he said to me: "I think I have prepared my son to be a king far better than any man could be prepared to be a dictator"... 

It is a curious thing that in Egypt, the land of death, I took part in the mass for the King.

"What am I to do?" the Belgian minister said. "I must have music for the church ceremony."

"I will provide that," my husband offered.

"In the church there is to be an empty coffin. It should bear a royal crown, and how is that to be done?"

"I will do that," I said. "Give me a drawing of the Belgian crown"...

...I made the royal crown of wire... I gilded it, and put inside a piece of red velvet and modeled two scepters of plaster. The crown was then placed on the coffin and two velvet cushions at its foot, while my husband, behind the altar, played and conducted a little orchestra in Bach and Gluck and played the Brabançonne (the Belgian national anthem) with muted strings, while his moving and wonderful sonority was so filled with his grief that those who were praying in the church were touched to tears. It is a strange thing that we two foreigners should both have contributed, far away in Egypt, to the ceremony for the King we esteemed and loved so much. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Marche Funèbre

The Marche Funèbre from Chopin's opus 35, played by Valentina Igoshina.

In her memoirs, discussing her father's last years, Marie-José writes: 

En effet, plus les années avançaient et plus mon père semblait se détacher des contingences de ce monde. Son esprit voyait les problèmes d'une manière de plus en plus élevée, n'en rétirant que l'essentiel. Une grande tolérance envers l'humanité tempérait toujours davantage son esprit critique....Par contre, son émotivité s'était accrue avec les années. Je me souviens des larmes qui embuèrent ses yeux au dernier accord de la Marche Funèbre de l'opus 35 de Chopin que je lui jouai un jour, à cette époque. 

In fact, the more the years passed, the more my father seemed detached from the contingencies of this world. His mind saw problems in a more and more elevated manner, only taking from them what was essential. A great tolerance towards humanity tempered, ever increasingly, his critical spirit... On the other hand, his emotivity had grown with the years. I remember the tears which filled his eyes at the last chords of the Funeral March of Chopin's opus 35, which I played for him one day, during this period. 

Listen to the Marche Funèbre and say a prayer for King Albert's soul on the (75th) anniversary of his death. 

In Memoriam: King Albert I of the Belgians

On February 17, 1934, King Albert I of the Belgians died tragically in an apparent mountaineering accident in the Ardennes. His daughter, Queen Marie-José of Italy, tells the famous story in her memoirs:
17 février 1934!

La nouvelle de l'accident fatal me parvint le 18 au matin, mais sans aucun détail. Accident de montagne en Belgique, comment était-ce possible?

Avec son affectueuse délicatesse, Umberto me fit comprendre que tout espoir était perdu. Frappée par la soudaineté du choc, je ne parvenais pas à réaliser l'étendue de mon malheur. L'immobilité m'était intolérable, je marchais de long en large. Umberto restait à mes côtés, cherchant à me reconforter.

La mort avait surpris mon père dans le site sauvage et solitaire des falaises de la Meuse. Afin de s'entrâiner pour ses ascensions d'été il escaladait, dans l'après-midi du 17 février, les rochers abrupts de Marche-les-Dames, plus précisément la roche dite du Bon Dieu. La crête à laquelle il avait accroché la corde céda brusquement, l'entrâinant dans une chute vertigineuse. Précipité en arrière, il se fracassa le tempe contre une arête douze mètres plus bas, mais roula encore une trentaine de mètres. On ne retrouva sa dépouille que tard dans la nuit, enfouie sous un amas de feuilles mortes.

Ma mère, surmontant son chagrin, m'écrivit: "Mon immense douleur ne m'empêche pas de penser à la tienne. Je sais combien tu es malheureuse. Papa t'aimait tant. J'espère que ce choc n'a pas nui à ta santé, doublement précieuse en ce moment (j'attendais mon premier enfant). Mon malheur est infini et le vide se fera sentir journellement plus grand."

February 17, 1934!

The news of the fatal accident reached me on the morning of the 18th, but without details. A mountaineering accident in Belgium, how was this possible?

With his affectionate delicacy, Umberto led me to understand that all hope was lost. Struck by the suddenness of the shock, I could not take in the extent of my misfortune. Immobility was intolerable to me; I walked up and down. Umberto remained at my side, trying to comfort me.

Death had surprised my father in a wild and solitary place, among the cliffs of the Meuse. To prepare for his summer ascensions, he was climbing, during the afternoon of February 17th, the steep crags of Marche-les-Dames; in particular, the one known as the "Cliff of the Good God." The rock to which he had attached his rope gave way unexpectedly, so that he fell from a dizzying height. Hurled backwards, he shattered his temple against a ledge twelve metres below the cliff, but rolled thirty metres further. His body was not found until late in the night, buried under a heap of dead leaves.

My mother, overcoming her grief, wrote to me: "My immense grief does not prevent me from thinking of yours. I know how unhappy you are. Papa loved you so much. I hope that this shock has not damaged your health, doubly precious at this moment (I was expecting my first child). My grief is infinite, and my loss, each day, will feel greater."


above: Le Calvaire du Bon Dieu de Pitié, Marches-les-Dames
below: Commemorative cross, where Albert's body was found (credits and licensing information here)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Leopold & Astrid

During the post-war "Royal Question," Leopold's political enemies repeatedly opposed the memory of the immensely popular Queen Astrid to her husband. In anti-Leopoldist propaganda, the Queen was always portrayed as the much-regretted  pure et sainte Astrid, while the King was reviled as a traitor, a pro-Nazi, and a libertine. His second wife, Princess Lilian, was similarly branded a fascist sympathizer and an unscrupulous adventuress. One propaganda poster, which promoted the idea of Leopold's abdication in favor of his son, Prince Baudouin, featured a soulful picture of Queen Astrid, with the caption: Majesté, vous demeurez notre Reine, votre fils sera notre Roi ("Your Majesty, you remain our Queen, your son will be our King").

This is sheer demagoguery. I am not denigrating Astrid; on the contrary, I think she was a wonderful woman of great purity, humility, and generosity. Her popularity was fully merited. Yet there is a contradiction in the opposition of Leopold and Astrid. The couple were always known for their deep mutual love. It is an insult to Astrid's memory, as well as to Leopold, to present the King as a worthless scoundrel; the implication is that Astrid foolishly bestowed her love on a villain. Those who try to exalt Astrid at Leopold's expense indirectly undermine the Queen's prestige as well.

Astrid's close friend, Swedish noblewoman Anna Sparre, in her book, Astrid mon amie, counteracts any false oppositions between the King and the Queen. She calls Leopold and Astrid "kindred souls," remarkably alike in character. She makes this point especially clear when she cites a Belgian contemporary of the royal couple, who, in thoughtful terms, described both Leopold and Astrid as deeply good, and as so clearly so that they immediately conquered their people's hearts:
Le roi et la reine sont certes beaux, doués, et bons, mais il y a d'autres personnes belles, douées, et bonnes dans le monde qui, même s'il elles avaient été à leur place, ne seraient pas devenues aussi populaires. Ce qui distingue le couple royal, c'est qu'il est également capable de montrer toutes ces qualités de la manière la plus adéquate... Ils sont tous deux foncièrement bons et savent montrer qu'ils sont ainsi...Le roi et la reine méritent la popularité qu'ils ont acquise et qu'ils garderont car ils sont vraiment sincères.

The King and the Queen are, certainly, handsome, gifted, and good, but there are other people who are handsome, gifted, and good in this world who, even if they were in their place, would not have become so popular. What distinguishes the royal couple is that they are also able to demonstrate all these qualities in the most adequate manner...They are deeply good and are able to show that they are so...The King and the Queen merit the popularity that they have acquired and that they will keep, for they are truly sincere.
Sadly, while Astrid never lost her popularity, a long campaign of calumny would ruin Leopold's reputation. Particularly cruel and unjustified was the idea, promoted by the King's enemies, that Leopold was unworthy of Astrid, a charge reinforced by the widespread portrayal of his second marriage as a "betrayal" of his first wife's memory. The opposition of Leopold and Astrid, at times, went to fantastic lengths. As Roger Keyes relates, in Outrageous Fortune, after the Belgian capitulation in World War II, when a number of Allied leaders were falsely accusing Leopold of collaboration with the Nazis, certain newspapers even charged the King with deliberately causing the car accident in Switzerland in order to murder his wife! In addition, the "ghost of Queen Astrid" reportedly appeared to several London mediums, presumably to corroborate the French and British condemnations of Leopold's political conduct.

Of course, such absurd stories could not last long, but the exaltation of Astrid at Leopold's expense has persisted to the present day. In contrast, we have Astrid's own words to a close friend (cited by Keyes): "I do not believe there is any man in the world who better deserves to be loved."

On Leopold's side, there is a tragic yet beautiful testimony of his deep love and regard for his wife, recorded in the memoirs of his secretary, Robert Capelle, Dix-huits ans auprès du roi Léopold. Following Queen Astrid's death, the King, still weak and shocked from the accident, and recovering from serious injuries, confided, in a voice broken by sobs, to Capelle:
"Pourquoi le Bon Dieu me-l'a-t-il reprise? Nous étions si heureux!...Elle l'est encore...Mais moi! J'ai tant besoin qu'elle me protège... L'an dernier, nous étions tous deux à supporter une peine immense... Maintenant, je suis seul..."

"Why did the good God take her away from me? We were so happy!... She is still so... But me! How I need her to protect me... Last year [the date of the death of his father, King Albert] there were two of us to endure an immense grief... Now, I am alone...."
Both Leopold and Astrid come across as very noble people.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


As some of my readers may have noticed, I have removed some photographs and articles from my blog. I am planning, in the future, to post fewer photographs on their own, and to try, instead, to integrate pictures with articles. (I have, for instance, removed some photos from the sidebar and added them to older posts). I am also planning to re-work some of the material I had previously quoted from Mrs. Barjansky's memoirs.

Portraits with Backgrounds

In 1947, Russian sculptress Catherine Barjansky, wife of celebrated cellist Alexandre Barjansky, published her memoirs, Portraits with Backgrounds. Through her work, as an itinerant artist, specializing in wax modeling, she became acquainted with many of the great European figures of her day ; under her pen, their personalities come to life - portraits in words to match her portraits in wax. She writes with warmth of heart and depth of soul. 

The author and her husband were friends of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, and Mrs. Barjansky devotes several chapters of her memoirs to the Belgian royal family. Her portrayal of Albert and Elisabeth is charming, intimate, and touching; she obviously felt great admiration and affection for them. Albert Einstein, another friend of the Belgian royal family (and, in fact, of the Barjanskys) once described Albert and Elisabeth as two individuals characterized by a rare "purity and kindness." Mrs. Barjansky's description of the Belgian royal family creates the same impression of nobility and generosity. 

I will be posting on Catherine Barjansky's portrayals of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth. 

Accession Speech of Albert I, 1909

King Albert on his accession day

Here are some excerpts from the accession speech of King Albert I. I think they provide interesting insights into his political goals and ideals.  

... Gentlemen, more and more the moment has come for Belgium to recognize her destiny and to look the facts of the future in the face. In the course of an existence of three-quarters of a century she has realized- surpassing the most optimistic previsions of her founders - that she is happy and that she is rich. But riches create responsibilities for countries, as for individuals. The intellectual and moral forces alone of a nation are the foundations of its prosperity.

It behooves us to prolong a brilliant era by embuing ourselves with the ideas and principles which are the tradition of the Belgians - the steadfast attachment to all our constitutional liberties, the love of our independence, wisdom and reasonableness in public affairs - it is thus that the Belgian people will maintain intact their sacred patrimony, created by the labor of so many generations. They will march on towards the pacific conquests of labor and service, while the artists and writers of Flanders and Wallonia will strew the way with their masterpieces... 

Gentlemen, I have a very clear conception of my duty...It is necessary that the Sovereign should hold himself with entire loyalty above all parties. It is necessary that he should be watchful for the maintenance of the vital forces of the nation. It is necessary that he should be ceaselessly attentive to the voice of the country, and be watchful with solicitude over the welfare of the poor. The Sovereign should be the servant of the law and the upholder of social peace. 

May God help me to fulfill this mission! As for myself, I shall always be ready to second the efforts of those who work for the grandeur of the country and who, filled with the spirit of concord and social advancement, raise the intellectual and moral level of the nation, develop education and instruction, and assure to the masses greater well-being.

I love my country; the Queen shares my sentiments of unalterable fidelity to Belgium; we imbue our children with them, and we awaken in them at the same time love of their native land, love of their family, love of labor, love of good. These are the qualities which render nations strong.

Gentlemen, the reception which has been given to me has touched me profoundly. I see in it a proof of confidence which honors me as well as sustains me. I will exert myself to merit it. In taking the constitutional oath, I swear to myself and to the country, to fulfill scrupulously my duties and consecrate all my forces and all my life to the service of the Fatherland. 

(Quoted by Evelyn Graham in Albert, King of the Belgians)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Two Marriages

Engagement of Prince Leopold of Belgium and Princess Astrid of Sweden, 1926. 
Engagement of King Leopold III and Lilian Baels, 1941. 

Queens & Mothers

Queen Elisabeth of Belgium with her two sons, Leopold and Charles.
Queen Marie-José of Italy with her son, Victor Emmanuel. 
Queen Astrid of Belgium with her son, Prince Albert (the present King of the Belgians, as Albert II), shortly before her tragic death. 

"Il leoncino di Laeken"

A photo of Princess Marie-José of Belgium as a little girl. Luciano Regolo entitled the first chapter of his excellent biography of Marie-José Il leoncino di Laeken, or "The Lion-cub of Laeken." It is easy to see why! There is an amusing story behind this nick-name. Once, when Eugene Ysaye, the famous Belgian violinist (and an intimate of the royal family) met the princess as a child, he exclaimed: "Here's the lion-cub!" Little Marie-José responded: "Watch out! Lions are carnivores!"