Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Black Legend of Leopold III

It is incredible the way books and articles continue to denigrate King Leopold III. In a travel guide to Belgium and Luxembourg, I came across this tendentious passage:
Léopold III (1934-1951). In contrast to his father, Léopold III had the dubious honor of becoming one of Europe's least popular monarchs. His first wife died in a suspicious car crash; he nearly lost his kingdom by remarrying (then anathema in a Catholic country) and he was badly compromised during the German occupation of World War II. Many felt his surrender to the Germans was cowardly and his subsequent willingness to work with them treacherous; others pointed out his efforts to increase the country's food rations and his negotiations to secure the release of Belgian prisoners. His remaining in Belgium fuelled rumours that he was a Nazi collaborator- though his supporters maintained that he had prevented thousands of Belgians from being deported. After several years of heated postwar debate, during which the king remained in exile, the issue of Léopold's return was put to a referendum in 1950. Just over half the population voted in his favour, with opposition to the King concentrated in Wallonia. Fortunately for Belgium, Leopold abdicated in 1951 in favour of his son.

(The Rough Guide to Belgium & Luxembourg, by Martin Dunford and Phil Lee, 2002, p. 416)
In discussing the Nazi invasion of Belgium in 1940, the authors tell us: "This time [in contrast to World War I] there was no heroic resistance by the Belgian King..." (p. 418). The tiresome old calumnies are repeated, as he is portrayed as betraying the Allies by surrendering in indecent haste. So many errors in a few short passages!
  • The death of Queen Astrid. Was the tragedy of Küssnacht a "suspicious car crash?" Certainly, like the death of Albert I in an apparent climbing accident, it aroused popular suspicions. Rumors circulated that secret agents had tampered with the King's vehicle, but no proof of foul play has ever come to light. In any case, the way this tragedy is presented, amidst an enumeration of Leopold's supposed failings, almost suggests that the "suspicious" accident was also his fault!
  • The remarriage with Lilian Baels. When was a widower's remarriage ever "anathema" in a Catholic country? Catholics are only forbidden to divorce and remarry, as the Sacrament of Matrimony is believed to endure as long as both spouses are still alive. Criticisms of Leopold's wartime marriage with Lilian centered instead on the question of whether or not it was appropriate for the King to consider his own happiness while his people and army, whose fate he had promised to share, were suffering, and to take a wife while his fellow Belgian prisoners of war, held in concentration camps, were unable to marry or see their families. Leopold was also blamed for reversing the normal order, prescribed by Belgian law, of the civil and religious weddings. The law required that the civil wedding take precedence. Due, however, to the unusual circumstances and the couple's initial desire for secrecy, they were first married in a private, religious ceremony and, only later, in a public, civil one. It is true that many also portrayed Leopold's second romance as a "betrayal" of his first wife's memory, but this idea has nothing to do with Catholicism.
  • Public reactions to the marriage. Did Leopold really "almost lose his kingdom by remarrying?" We often hear that, when the news broke, the Belgian people were shocked, outraged, disillusioned with their King. We are told that his popularity plummeted. In one TV documentary, the narrator compared the "stupefying" announcement of the marriage with the shocking news of the attacks on Pearl Harbor (with which it coincided). Certainly, the marriage took Belgians completely by surprise and sparked different reactions. Yet, these were far from being uniformly negative (see Léopold III, sa famille, son peuple sous l'occupation, by Jean Cleeremans, Echec au Roi by Roger Keyes, and Un couple dans la tempête by Marcel Jullian and Claude Désiré). The new couple at Laeken received flowers and marks of sympathy from the populace. Cleeremans cites letters, written by Belgians in captivity, taking a respectful and generous view of the marriage. According to Alexander von Falkenhausen, the German military governor of Belgium, the marriage did not, at first, substantially damage Leopold's reputation, except, perhaps, among aristocrats who would have preferred for him to choose one of their daughters (Lilian, of course, was a commoner). In explaining the ultimate inability of many Belgians to accept Lilian, we must take into account the relentless personal attacks, launched by Leopold's political enemies, against this unfortunate woman.
  • The King's capitulation in 1940. How was Leopold "badly compromised" during World War II? The slurs against his valor and loyalty to the Allies are extremely unfair. If Leopold was portrayed as a traitor by many Allied leaders, we have to keep in mind that they needed a scapegoat for their failures in 1940. The King was also defended by many others in high places (see Le 18e jour: la tragédie de Léopold III, roi des Belges, by Colonel Rémy). The testimony of the British war hero and liaison officer, Sir Roger Keyes, who had ample (one might say, unparalleled) opportunities to observe Leopold's actions during the Nazi invasion, is especially weighty. According to Keyes, Leopold "was steadfast in his loyalty towards the Allies and did everything in his power to help their armies." Keyes added: "The Belgians may well be proud of their King, for he has proved himself a gallant soldier, a loyal ally and a true son of his splendid parents." At this point, the Belgians were, in fact (contrary to what this passage suggests), generally "proud of their King." The Belgian government-in-exile joined in attacking Leopold, but his popularity within the country remained high (see especially Emile Cammaerts' account, The Prisoner at Laeken: King Leopold, legend and fact, for a description of how many Belgians, at the outset, took the King's part and viewed his ministers as the traitors. Cammaerts actually tries to maintain a balance between both sides).
  • Leopold's actions during the occupation. How did he "work with" the Nazis? Did he head a collaborationist government, or help the Gestapo round up Jews or resistance fighters? No, on the contrary, he refused to reign under Nazi occupation, and intervened strenuously and repeatedly on behalf of victims of repression, trying (as even the authors of this passage admit) to obtain better conditions for his army and people. He was certainly very brave (and, to some extent, successful) in attempting to protect Belgians from deportation to Germany. It is important to remember that he himself, together with his family, suffered harsh treatment by the Nazis, during his deportation by the SS and incarceration in Germany and Austria from 1944-1945 (not mentioned in the passage). Is this the way you would expect Hitler to treat an ally?
  • The Royal Question and Leopold's abdication. After the war, (as, again, the authors do not mention in this passage), Leopold was actually exonerated of all charges of treason by a commission of eminent public figures representing a considerable spectrum of political persuasions. Nonetheless, his enemies persisted in their attacks, both political and personal (see Léopold III, de l'exil à l'abdication, by Jean Cleeremans). All his actions and motives were portrayed negatively. For five years, he was consistently painted as a coward, a traitor, a fascist sympathizer, a playboy...It is, perhaps, not surprising, then, that, by the time the popular consultation was held in 1950, he had lost the love of many of his subjects. Yet, he still won a majority in the popular consultation! His opponents had to resort to violence in the streets to force his abdication. He accepted this sacrifice in a conciliatory spirit, hoping to see harmony restored in the country. It was, however, a tragic moment. I do not see why it was "fortunate" for Belgium to lose Leopold (although his heir, Baudouin, was also a great King).
As for his "unpopularity," Leopold may have lost the affection of many Belgians, but countless others continued to love him and many of his intimates have left touching testimonies of their deep affection and admiration for this unfortunate King.


Brantigny said...

under the circumstances the King had little choice. On May 15 1940 Holland surrendered to the Germans, after the Germans had bombed Rotterdam. Very possibly Leopold had that bombing in mind when Belguim was overwhelmed.

Blaming others for the incompetance of themselves was a very popular game in 1940-41.


MadMonarchist said...

An excellent defense. I have never been able to understand *why* people want to continue to spread and believe the lies about Leopold III. I know lies repeated often are taken as facts but I cannot understand for the life of me why anyone would believe this, would want to believe it and would want to spread such distortions. I don't see who benefits from it.

May said...

Well, not to indulge too much in "conspiracy theories," but there has been a trend for several centuries now to undermine and abolish Christian (and especially Catholic) monarchies all over Europe. Perhaps, the attacks on Leopold III are related to this movement. Of course, Belgium was *not* a confessional state, but still, the royal family was Catholic, so there was some glimmering of the specter of "Christ the King" left over...

Enbrethiliel said...


One of my more philosophical teachers was fond of drilling into his students' heads that "There is no greater lie than the truth misunderstood."

May said...

As they say: "Truth is the first casualty in war." And also, "a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on."