Monday, May 11, 2009

Baudouin I of Belgium: Part I

Baudouin I (1930-1993) was the fifth King of the Belgians. He possessed the patriotism and high principles of his predecessors, Albert I and Leopold III, yet his reign, tragically, saw Belgium's political and moral decline.

Born Baudouin Albert Charles Leopold Axel Marie Gustave at Stuyvenberg Castle, near Brussels, on September 7, 1930, he was the eldest son of Prince Leopold and Princess Astrid of Belgium. His sister, Josephine-Charlotte, had been born in 1927; his brother, Albert, would follow in 1934. The year of Baudouin's birth coincided with the centenary of Belgian independence. The arrival of the long-awaited royal heir was a joyful event for his family and people. Princess Astrid wrote to a friend proudly announcing the birth, underlining the words "our son" several times. "You understand how happy we are that it is a boy," she wrote,"it is a joy not only for us, but for everyone here in Belgium..."(Sparre, p. 130)

Yet this happy period was soon shattered. On February 17, 1934, Baudouin's grandfather, King Albert I, was killed while climbing the cliffs of Marche-les-Dames. Belgium was plunged into deep mourning, and for Baudouin's parents, this tragedy brought stark new responsibilities. On February 23, Prince Leopold swore his constitutional oath in Brussels, becoming King Leopold III of the Belgians. Queen Astrid attended the ceremony, accompanied by her two eldest children, Josephine-Charlotte and Baudouin (she was expecting her third child, Albert). Leopold concluded his accession speech with the words: "I give myself entirely to Belgium," and Astrid, deeply moved, lifted up 3-year-old Baudouin to offer him to the country. Baudouin was now Crown Prince, and acquired the traditional title of Belgian royal heirs: Duke of Brabant.

On August 29, 1935, another tragedy struck the royal family. Queen Astrid (with her unfortunate husband at the wheel) was killed in a car crash in Küssnacht-am-Rigi, Switzerland. Like King Albert, Queen Astrid had been immensely popular; for a second time, in a year and a half, the Belgians were overwhelmed with shock and grief. King Leopold was left a devastated widower; his children, motherless orphans. As Leopold found it too painful to continue living at Stuyvenberg, filled with memories of Astrid, he moved, with his children, to Laeken. The menacing international situation, in addition to the family tragedies, made the 1930's a very grim period for the royal house.

On May 10, 1940, when Hitler invaded Belgium, the 9-year-old Baudouin and his siblings were sent to safety in France, and, later, Spain. Under desperate circumstances, King Leopold was obliged to surrender to the Nazis on May 28. His action brought slanderous charges of treason from French Premier Paul Reynaud and even Leopold's own ministers, who had fled to France several days before the Belgian capitulation. Leopold effectively became a scapegoat for the Allied disasters in 1940, and French and British newspapers began to vilify him as the "Felon King." It must have been very painful for young Baudouin, who greatly admired his father, to see him so horribly attacked.

On August 2, 1940, Baudouin and his siblings returned to Belgium. Their father was a prisoner of war, held under house arrest at Laeken, but the royal children lived as normal a life as possible under the circumstances. They continued their studies, either at Laeken or at the royal family's country chateau of Ciergnon, until 1944. Meanwhile, in 1941, the King had married Lilian Baels, the daughter of a Flemish politician. Lilian declined the title of Queen, but was styled "Princess of Réthy" and "Princess of Belgium." "She was a ray of sunlight for us all," Leopold later recalled, and this was certainly true for his children, who now had a warm, affectionate, and vivacious step-mother. The royal couple encouraged the children to take part in various healthful activities on the family estates; in fishing, farm work, and riding. At one point, Lilian arranged a Christmas play for the children, with her infant son, Alexandre, in the role of the baby Jesus. Baudouin and his siblings developed a deep attachment to the Princess.

In June, 1944, the period of the Allied landings in Europe, the Nazis deported King Leopold to Germany. Almost immediately afterwards, they ordered the deportation of Leopold's wife and children. Princess Lilian and the Queen Mother, Elisabeth, protested vigorously, but in vain. It was a frightening moment; Baudouin left a letter to a friend discussing his family's imminent deportation."It is terrible," he wrote, "but circumstances require it... Farewell, until we meet again, I hope." Guarded by the SS, Lilian, the four royal children, and a few members of their entourage began a harrowing journey to Germany. They were kept in ignorance of Leopold's fate and their own destination. At one point, the Nazis wanted to separate Baudouin and Albert from the rest of the family. Lilian's vehement protests, however, finally prevailed, and the Nazis allowed the royal party to continue traveling together. They eventually reached their destination, the grim fortress of Hirchstein, where they found King Leopold. They would later be transferred to Strobl in Austria.

The prisoners' conditions were harsh, and their diet was insufficient. Leopold and Lilian homeschooled the royal children, and the family tried to remain calm and composed despite the constant fear that they would be murdered by the SS as a vindictive measure on Hitler's part. At one point, a Nazi official presented Lilian with a box of blue pills, claiming they were nutritional supplements, and encouraging her to distribute them to the whole family. Lilian was duly suspicious and did not take the pills or give them to anyone else. She kept them, however, and later, the pills were tested and found to contain cyanide.

The rescue of Leopold and his family by American troops, in May, 1945, ended the nightmare of captivity. Yet, another painful period began, that of the "Belgian Royal Question." Falsely accused of collaboration with the Nazis, Leopold was prevented from returning to Belgium upon his liberation. The royal family left Austria in October, 1945, and moved to the villa "Le Reposoir" in Prégny, Switzerland. They would remain there until July, 1950. During this period, Baudouin attended high school in Geneva. In 1948, he traveled to the United States. Meanwhile, in Belgium, a commission of inquiry had exonerated his father of treason, but agitation against the King continued. Leopold's "inability to reign," originally due to his captivity, was artificially prolonged by his political enemies.

On July 22, 1950, King Leopold, reinstated by plebiscite in his royal prerogatives, was finally allowed to return to Belgium. Baudouin and his brother, Albert, accompanied their father. Leopold's return, however, sparked further violent agitation and, to preserve the peace, the King asked the government and parliament to delegate his powers to Baudouin. On August 11, Baudouin assumed the King's powers and became known as the "Prince Royal." The following year, Leopold abdicated in his son's favor. It was a tragic moment for Baudouin. Deeply loyal to his father, he painfully felt Leopold's humiliation. Baudouin embraced him and promised: "I will do everything to show myself worthy of being your son." He swore his accession oath on July 17, 1951.

At 21, after a traumatic youth, and inadequate preparation, Baudouin became the fifth King of the Belgians. His reign would see the deterioration of relations between Flanders and Wallonia, increasing national disunity, and the loss of Belgium's traditional religious and moral values. Despite his high principles, Baudouin, hampered by severe political restraints, would be unable to halt these trends.


Cleeremans, Jean. Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l'occupation. 1987.
Désire, Claude and Marcel Jullian. Un couple dans la tempête. 2005.
Dujardin, Vincent, van den Wijngaert, Mark, et. al. Léopold III. 2001.
Keyes, Roger. Echec au Roi: Léopold III, 1940-1951. 1986.
Sparre, Anna. Astrid mon amie. 2005.


MadMonarchist said...

Very interesting and I look forward to the next installment. I think King Baudouin was one of the greatest monarchs of his time. Unfortunately, in a "popular monarchy" there is not much that the monarch can do when popular opinion is going in a certain direction, but he refused to dirty his hands with the process and he set a great example. I also think there were still enough people back then to respect him even if they disagreed with him. Seems to be less of that today.

May said...

He was a great king. It is amazing what he was able to achieve, given his traumatic past and the limitations of the system he had to work with. I'm sure his influence did benefit the country, but as you say, the regime made it very difficult to remedy social trends. He was, indeed, very loved by the people in general, although now there seems to be an ever increasing trend in Belgium to disparage all the kings (especially with the Flemish separatists who tend to be republican and violently against the monarchy).

Brantigny said...

Ma l'Oseau-mouche, I have an ebook for you you might find interesting.



May said...

Thank you for the link. Unfortunately, somehow it is not coming up. What is the title of the book? Perhaps I could do a search.