Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Talk with General von Falkenhausen

In 1960, Jo Gérard, author of a number of popular works on the Belgian monarchy and the Royal Question, interviewed General Alexander von Falkenhausen, military governor of Belgium during the Nazi occupation, at his chalet in Nassau. As governor, Falkenhausen had attempted to moderate the Germans' treatment of the Belgians. Towards the end of the war, he was even dismissed from his post and imprisoned by the Nazis for conspiring against Hitler. Nevertheless, after Germany's defeat, the General was put on trial by the Allies and sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment for atrocities committed during the Nazi occupation of Belgium. A few weeks into his sentence, however, he was released, after overwhelming evidence came to light that he had tried to save as many Belgian and Jewish lives as possible. As he left Belgium, where he had been imprisoned, and crossed the border into Germany, he told a group of journalists: "Ungrateful Belgium, you shall not have my bones." Nine years later, Jo Gérard would visit this veteran Prussian aristocrat and warrior, wittily remarking: "Instead of your bones, I come to ask for your memories." The interview covered many topics, spanning across the General's entire life. I was especially interested by Falkenhausen's thoughts on the Belgian royal family. During his imprisonment by the Allies, the General related, he was pressured to testify falsely against Leopold III: 
-Does General von Falkenhausen have a testimony to add to the dossier, already so voluminous, of the Royal Question?
- In the prison camp where I had been interned, I received, on September 10, 1945, a visit from two delegates of the Belgian judicial authorities, or, at least, these policemen introduced themselves as such. They said to me: "You were at Laeken Castle, on the night of June 6-7, which preceded the day of the deportation of King Leopold? "Yes," I answered. The two men then asked: "Is it true that the Sovereign, to manifest the joy this decision caused him, drank, in your company, a bottle of champagne, since he was so happy to become a 'martyr of patriotism' in the eyes of his people and the Allies?" I answered, without hiding my astonishment: "Champagne? Certainly not! We drank nothing, the King and I." They told me: "But a palace lackey is definite, you drank champagne, that night; this man remembers it all the better, since he served it to you himself!" I retorted to the two policemen: "Confront me with this 'lackey'". They were silent; then, one of them murmured: "He's dead..." 
-Since we are discussing the deportation of the royal family, what can you tell us of it, today?
-It was June 6, 1944, the very day of the landings in Normandy. I was dining at the Plaza hotel, when I received a telephone call. It was Laeken, Colonel Kiewitz [The German officer in charge of guarding the King] was at the other end of the line: "Come at once," he told me, "Leopold III is to be sent to Germany, it's very serious." I hurried into my car and arrived at the palace, where I was soon introduced into the King's presence. He received me, standing, very pale, in his office, and handed me a piece of paper where I read, with a single glance, the violent protest which he had just prepared and which he asked me to convey to Hitler. This text was so brutal and so haughty at the same time that I advised Leopold III to give the letter a form a bit more in accord with protocol: "I believe, Sire, that you ought to consider this document an official piece, not a personal message." Leopold III fixed me straight in the eye and told me: "Yes, General, wait half an hour, I will bring you my final text." Knowing Himmler, the man who, in my opinion, was behind the measure taken against the King, I realized perfectly well the futility of this letter. Nevertheless, I promised Leopold III that it would be immediately sent to Berlin. I kept my word.
-Had you been informed, in advance, of the deportation of the Sovereign?
-On my honor as an officer, I assure you I knew nothing of it.
-Were you often the King's guest, at Laeken?
-He summoned me there, several times, to speak to me of problems of food supply, to ask me to intervene in favor of people condemned to death or prisoners whose weakened health justified repatriation. Should I say that Leopold III is a man of great loyalty and rigor of principle, allied with a keen sensibility? He is incapable of committing a base action. He was, for us, an adversary of a rare nobility of soul. A single preoccupation dominated his thoughts during the war: relieving the miseries of his people.
-You were certainly involved in the preparation of the appeal Leopold III made to Hitler, on November 19, 1940, to obtain the liberation of prisoners and substantial improvements in the nutritional regimen of our population?
-Yes, I can even tell you the preliminaries of that interview. It was not the idea of Leopold III, but, in fact, that of Princess Marie-José. She had a long discussion with Hitler, in October, 1940, and she relayed it to the King, suggesting that he meet with the Führer. Leopold III asked my opinion of the efficacy of such an initiative. I did not hide my skepticism, for I knew about these sorts of visits to Berchtesgaden, from those who had already experienced them. The scenario was always the same: Hitler received his guests with courtesy, yet never allowed them enough time to explain their point of view, and, pacing up and down, launched into an interminable monologue. This was the case with Leopold III, who returned, very disappointed, from his journey. Still, he had obtained pardon for three young Liégeois, who had been condemned to death; but I knew that, how shall I put it...the stiffness and reserve of the King had made a very irritating impression on Hitler, who was used to receiving more pliant personalities.
-Did you know about the idyll of Leopold III and Liliane Baels?
- I knew, from Kiewitz, that she was visiting the palace of Laeken, but not being an...intimate of the royal family, I learned of the marriage the way everyone else did.
-When you met with Leopold III, was it one-on-one or in the presence of other members of the royal family?
-Most of the time, the King received me alone, but, on occasion, as the French doors of the office of Leopold III were open, Queen Elisabeth or Princess Marie-José came in and spent a moment with the King and myself.
-And Prince Charles? 
- Imagine, we were neighbors during the war! My offices were, in fact, installed at the Ministry of the Colonies, Place Royale, and the prince lived in the wing of the palace situated behind the ministry. The King's brother was barely watched at all. He could travel around in his car and do just about anything he wanted to do. Incidentally, he never gave us any trouble. He disappeared, on July 18, 1944, at the same time as I did, but for another destination; the same day I was deprived of my command in Belgium, Prince Charles departed for Sart, near Spa, where he awaited the end of the war.
-Did you often see Prince Charles during the occupation?
- No. What could we have had to say to each other?
-Did you have conversations with Princess Marie-José of Piedmont?
-Several, yes. She is a very intelligent woman; she did not like Mussolini, despised the Duce's entourage and did not disdain to plot against him a bit. She was interested in military operations and told me her fears regarding the outcome of the war. I predicted to her, for my part, twenty days before the battle of El Alamein, the disaster that struck the Italian troops in Africa. I even drew a quick diagram to show her that these divisions, too far from their food supplies, were heading straight for defeat because they did not have the benefit, as did their British adversaries, of the Suez canal and the caches of weapons and provisions in Egypt. Marie-José, who was following my explanations with passionate interest, promised me to alert the military milieux in Rome. But it was too late, far too late...(Excerpts translated from "Mes entretiens avec le Général von Falkenhausen", Jo Gérard, pp. 303-306, in Mémoires d'outre-guerre: comment j'ai gouverné la Belgique de 1940 à 1944, Alexander von Falkenhausen, Editions Arts & Voyages, Brussels, 1974)


MadMonarchist said...

Very interesting stuff. As is seen by how the general was treated I'm sure there would be some prejudice to his version of events but an impartial observer would take his account seriously. He would, after all, have no reason to be dishonest and were he coming from a staunchly pro-German bias it would have been in his interest to make the King look worse, not better. It is also interesting to note how involved Princess Marie-Jose was, truly a renaissance woman, interesting in such a wide variety of things. It also speaks to her character that she could be against the fascist regime but still concerned with the welfare of the Italian troops who really had it tough during the war.

May said...

I can see the General wanting to exculpate himself, and probably tending to be negative about the Allies, given his past history, but I don't really see why he would want to exculpate the King. What he says in regard to the Berchtesgaden interview, at any rate, was later corroborated by Hitler's interpreter.