Monday, September 28, 2009

Albert I: Myth & Reality

King Albert's image has varied widely over the decades, ranging from the shining knight sans peur et sans reproche of World War I propaganda, to (in recent, revisionist historiography) a pacifist, a defeatist, or even a traitor to the Allied cause. But what was the truth? Professor John Rogister attempts to sort through the evidence.


MadMonarchist said...

How is it that someone can be condemned simply for wanting a peaceful end to a war that never should have started? At the time one can understand why -because almost everyone was determined to get something out of the war, Belgium excepted as she was simply in the way. What irritates me the most is the accusation (and this holds true in both wars) that any talk of peace on the part of Belgium was viewed as a betrayal by the other Allies when on both occasions there were plenty of people in high places in Britain and France who were quite content to sacrifice Belgium to buy time for their own operations. The French even had a plan to invade Belgium if the Germans did not do it first. As far as Belgian participation in the war goes, I find it rich that some would criticize King Albert for not wasting the lives of his men on more suicidal charges against German machine guns. But, what about other fronts? In Africa the Belgians undertook a majot offensive that captured the Germans' outer capital of Tabora and the British were desperate to cut them off and did not want the Belgians advancing too far for fear that this would threaten their claim on the bulk of German East Africa at the peace table when the war was over; so that whole accusation strikes me as utterly absurd and contemptible.

Anyway, to my mind the only powers that went to war in 1914 with any justification were Austria (the offended party) and Belgium (who was invaded and had no choice). Isn't it odd that it was the monarchs of these two countries who wanted a peaceful end to the war only to be opposed in each case by their allies on whose behalf they *claimed* to be fighting? Eh, I shouldn't even get started on this subject...

May said...

Thanks for the great comment! Sadly, though, there are those who persistently paint poor Albert as a cynical opportunist, posing as a "neutral" only in order to wait and see who would win and then throw in his lot with them. At best, they portray this as an amoral way of saving Belgium without regard for anyone else, at worst, merely as an abject way of saving his own throne and privileges.

Of course, he did have to consider plans (as his son did in the next war) for Belgium's future status no matter what the outcome of the war (including the possibility of German victory) but any ruler would do this. Besides, trying to preserve as much as possible of Belgium's independence in all scenarios doesn't have to be the mark of selfish opportunism- it could also, by implication, be a way of preserving as much as possible of Belgium's role as a buffer state between the other powers, in the interests of Europe's equilibrium as a whole. And I think he really did believe in this- I don't see his reluctance to commit to one side's goals during the war as just a "screen" used to temporize while waiting to "cash in" with whatever side would eventually win. The fact is, when the Allies did finally win, Albert did *not* eagerly rush to "cash in," on the contrary, he was dubious about the harsh treatment of Germany, Austria-Hungary, annexations of territory etc.

Some use Albert's acerbic and cynical remarks about the politics of his time to make him out to be a cold, unfeeling character likely to betray his allies but the fact is, often the targets of these comments are people or phenomena one cannot blame a Catholic King (albeit a liberal one) for being rather cynical about: the shortcomings of democracy, politicians in general, laicist French Republicans, Freemasons, etc. And his somewhat harsh tone at times is balanced by many other comments showing deep humanity and tenderness.

In an earlier draft of one of his much-decried letters to his German brother-in-law, Count Toerring, he writes of how there are some "abdications (of responsibiliy) to which a nation must prefer even death." He says this to explain Belgium's stand in defending her neutrality at the outset of the war, and also makes comments like "we do not have to blush for ourselves," "we have earned your blows- perhaps that is better than your contempt." Now, he had to tone down this rather fierce letter to make it more diplomatic, but, the fact that these thoughts came to his mind first belies all portrayals of him as a pacifist, coward, defeatist, unprincipled opportunist or traitor.

Pilgrim said...

Sorry! Of course I was wrong, Albert died in 1934. Es´que vous belge? J´en suis wallon. Propz Pilgrim

May said...

Pilgrim, I'm actually a North American, with (like most others of this type) a rather complicated background.

Thanks for reading my blog:)