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.

1 comment:

Henke said...

One of the best articles ever on this highly infalammable subject...