Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Defending the Saxe-Coburgs: Part III

(Continued from Part I and Part II)
Ever since Paul Reynaud's tragic, unjust indictment of the King, on May 28, 1940, an endless series of personal attacks have been launched at Leopold III. In the aftermath of Reynaud's venomous broadcast, accusing the King of betraying the Allies, the man who had been hailed by the world as a hero only a few weeks earlier began to be vilified as a coward, a traitor and a libertine. There were rumors, for instance, that he had a Nazi mistress planted on him by the Gestapo. During the Nazi occupation, lewd pamphlets circulated through Belgium, sometimes with the connivance of the German authorities. Other, more clever troublemakers produced damaging forgeries in the name of intimates of the King, such as his secretary, Count Robert Capelle. After the liberation of the country, during the controversy over the King's wartime conduct, the tradition of personal attacks continued. According to authors such as Roger Keyes and Jean Cleeremans, a special agency was even set up in London to spread scandalous stories about Leopold. Every effort was made to portray the King and his second wife, Princess Lilian, as a decadent, self-indulgent and morally enervated pair, as the Belgian equivalents of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, if not worse.

The royal couple, for example, were accused of "honeymooning" in Austria at the home of a "notorious Nazi". The legend has persisted to this day, appearing in many publications and flaring up all over online forums. In an interview, transcribed in Le Soir, on September 3, 1998, upon the publication of his biography of Princess Lilian, Evrard Raskin insidiously asked why Lord Keyes, in his defense of the King, had "willfully ignored" this episode. The question seems highly disingenuous, since far from "willfully ignoring" the charge, Keyes actually answers it at great length. In Échec au Roi (1986), he demonstrates, in detail, that the King had to travel to Vienna to see a specialist for a delicate jaw operation. His new bride accompanied him on the trip, but it was no fun to travel with the Gestapo on their trail. In addition, Lilian had to care for a husband unable to eat normally for some time following the procedure. It does not seem to have been a very idyllic "honeymoon". Keyes also disputes the claim that the King's host was a "notorious Nazi"; on the contrary, he says, the man in question actually had Allied connections. The journey through hostile territory, moreover, gave Leopold something of an opportunity to reconnoitre. Are these conflicting versions of events merely a case of Keyes' word versus Raskin's? I think not. It's significant that Raskin resorted to pretending that Keyes had ignored the alleged pleasure trip, rather than offering counter-evidence to try to refute Keyes' account. To me, this suggests that Raskin lacked counter-evidence to provide. Besides, is it likely that the same King who took such pains to maintain his passive resistance to the occupying power, evading all efforts to lure him into collaboration, would compromise himself so carelessly by blithely vacationing in Hitler's homeland, by fraternizing with a pillar of Hitler's régime?

By far the most infamous and implausible accusation, though, is the claim that King Leopold, during his visit to Berchtesgaden in November, 1940, to press for the release of Belgian prisoners of war, and for better treatment of the Belgian civilian population, consorted with call-girls, obligingly placed at his disposal by the Gestapo! This allegation, supposedly emanating from an interrogation of a Gestapo official, has been repeated by authors such as Evrard Raskin and Paul Beliën. I would rather not mention such a vile claim, let alone dignify it with a response, but it is important to see how low Leopold's enemies have been willing to stoop. Keyes describes how Leopold's opponents, presumably using the hope of more lenient treatment as leverage, tried to provoke damning "testimonies" against the King from captive Germans, who were themselves compromised by collaboration with the Nazi régime. General Alexander von Falkenhausen, the military governor of Belgium during the occupation, for his part, related that he had been pressured, in prison, to bear false witness against Leopold III. The version of events which, he claimed, some supposed Belgian officials had attempted to cajole him into confirming, like the story of the escorts at Berchtesgaden, cast Leopold in a ridiculously hedonistic light: the King was supposed to have celebrated his own imminent deportation to Germany, in June, 1944, by drinking a bottle of champagne in the General's company. If the Gestapo official in question did, indeed, tell such a disgusting tale, I suspect that similar pressure was behind it. In any case, in his memoirs, written long after the fact, in perfect liberty, Herr Schmidt, Hitler's interpreter, noted the Belgian monarch's stiff, reserved, dignified manner, his adroit skill in avoiding compromising himself, during his visit to the German chancellor. He also indicated that the King specifically, and rather disdainfully, refused the Führer's offer of personal favors...

Unfortunately, the attacks did not come to an end with Leopold's abdication in 1951. As I have mentioned before, in the decades to come, many rumors of conjugal discord and infidelity would swirl around Leopold and Lilian. In 1962, despite the laws protecting the personal lives of private citizens, including the former King of the Belgians at this point in his career, a particularly vulgar and virulent press campaign, combined with the tacit acquiescence of the public authorities, would oblige Leopold to submit a stern protest to the Belga news agency.  Like many other couples, Leopold and Lilian may well have had moments of marital friction. Yet, Michel Verwilghen notes, the lurid tales tended to emanate from the political class. This milieu had much to justify: the rejection of a monarch who had previously been cleared of all charges of treason by a commission of inquiry consisting of eminent jurists, and who had been restored to his royal prerogatives by the majority vote of his people. To compensate for the absence of solid, irrefutable accusations of political misconduct, would charges of personal misconduct not be very helpful? Furthermore, from the beginning of his career, Leopold had been known as an idealist. Even before ascending the throne, for instance, he had irritated colonial interest groups by insisting on responsible rule of the Congo. During the early years of his reign, he had alienated many party politicians by condemning their selfishness; these tensions would later be complicated by his wartime differences with his ministers and allies. "Le monde politique ne pardonna pas au Roi son souci du bien commun et sa grande moralité politique"*. To discredit, as a moral leader, a man who was a reproach to many, would smears not be highly useful? In Leopold's regard, too, the political world and the press did not have much of a record of truthfulness. For example, Prime Ministers Gaston and Mark Eyskens, aided by journalists, promoted the extravagant, absurd, false, but incredibly persistent rumors that Leopold and Lilian had "pillaged" Laeken during their move to Argenteuil. In such a treacherous environment, are we to believe rumors of extramarital affairs?

What of the supposed love children attributed to the King? In A Throne in Brussels (2005) Paul Beliën claims that Count Michel Didisheim, a distinguished Belgian civil servant, is an illegitimate son of Leopold III, fathered during his marriage to the beautiful and beloved Queen Astrid, no less. The claim is based only on the fact that Didisheim "resembles" the late King. In a weaselly footnote, Beliën admits that Didisheim's supposed royal paternity has never been proven. Nevertheless, he says, he has it on the authority of "sources in Brussels" which he considers reliable. The rumor also figures in De Kroon Ontbloot (2008), a sensationalist book by Noël Vaessen, a disgraced former aide to Prince Laurent, the youngest son of King Albert II and Queen Paola. On October 16, 2008, after the appearance of both books, Michel Didisheim issued a press release, published in La Libre Belgique, denying that he was the son of Leopold III. Nevertheless, the claim has recently been reiterated by Leo van Audenhaege.

For several reasons, I find the story highly implausible. First, Leopold adored Astrid. In Vännen min (1985), the Queen's closest companion, Anna Sparre, emphasizes that the King was a completely devoted husband. (And Anna was not one to over-romanticize the past. In fact, she can be quite critical, at times, in her recollections of her friendship with Astrid. For instance, she portrays Astrid's mother-in-law, Queen Elisabeth, rather derisively, something I found to be out of place). Second, Michel Didisheim's mother, Claire Maigret de Priches, seems to have been a lady of high character. An Allied agent during the Second World War, she was deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp, to be starved and tormented by Nazi doctors, who injected typhus into her blood to develop serum. According to a fellow inmate, she bore these terrible experiences with great courage and kindness. I doubt that such a heroine would have been a woman of easy virtue. Third, Michel seems to have been the eldest legal child of Baron René Didisheim and Claire Maigret de Priches, born barely more than nine months after their marriage. Are we to believe that Claire had a tryst with the then Duke of Brabant, around the same time as her wedding night? It's a bit grotesque...And the fact that Michel Didisheim, a littérateur with a keen interest in European royalty, wrote a novel about Valerie Schwalb, an illegitimate great-grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, proves precisely nothing...

Leo van Audenhaege also made headlines last month with a totally weird new allegation, regarding a supposed wartime affair with an "ice princess", the married Austrian skating champion Liselotte Landbeck. According to Van Audenhaege, the young and pretty Liselotte was invited to Laeken to teach the royal children to ice-skate, during the winter of 1939-1940, and Leopold and Liselotte "fell in love at first sight", possibly consummating their relationship on the very first night after they met, at the palace. The result, the author continues, was the birth of an illegitimate daughter in Antwerp a year later. Supposedly, Liselotte's hospital room was "filled with flowers from Laeken" and a signed photograph of the "biological father" of her baby was also prominently on display. Incredibly implausibly, despite all this indiscretion, the story was allegedly kept a dark secret for over 70 years; so dark, in fact, that even Leopold's daughter-in-law, Princess Léa, who has doubtless heard many rumors in her time, was extremely surprised at this "revelation".

It all sounds very suspicious to me. Why would Liselotte Landbeck even be needed to teach the royal children how to ice-skate? I would actually be very surprised if Joséphine-Charlotte, Baudouin and Albert did not already possess this skill. The Belgian royal family were famously athletic, and, surely, this was not the first time the ponds at Laeken had iced over! Even if the children did not know how to skate, surely someone in the royal entourage could have given them lessons? Skating is hardly an arcane art. Could the children's much-loved Dutch governess, for instance, not have served the purpose? The Dutch are famous for their feats on the ice. Furthermore, is it likely that the King, who was quite slow, prior to the war, in his advances towards a much more beautiful, single woman, Lilian Baels, whom he could legitimately court, would fall head over heels in love with Liselotte Landbeck, already married to another, at their first meeting? Is it probable that Leopold and Liselotte would tryst at Laeken, of all places, under the eyes of all the palace staff? (Even Leopold I and Leopold II, who genuinely had affairs, met their mistresses elsewhere). Is it credible that the King, while his reputation was in an extremely fragile position, amidst the flurry of scandalous stories circulating in the wake of Reynaud's indictment, would advertise that he had fathered an illegitimate child, by sending his mistress loads of flowers and a signed photograph, to be seen by doctors, nurses, patients and passers-by?

The semi-satirical Belgian paper, Humo, claims to have interviewed the supposed daughter, Ingeborg Verdun, who allegedly lives in the United States under an assumed name, but Leo van Audenhaege has apparently refused to reveal Ingeborg's current identity, or the location of her mother, merely claiming that Liselotte, now very elderly and frail, lives in southern climes. Supposedly, this discretion is motivated by a concern to protect these ladies from press attention, but it is also all very convenient, since it makes it much harder for a third party to verify Van Audenhaege's story. Frankly, too, if Ingeborg Verdun is willing to expose the entire royal family of Belgium, including a deceased and already much-maligned man, to such lurid press attention, she ought to have the decency and integrity to face the same sort of publicity herself, especially when unheard-of allegations are being made. Furthermore, even if Ingeborg Verdun has, indeed, claimed to the the daughter of Leopold III, it's not necessarily true...Consider, for instance, the elaborate imposture of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.

In fact, the story of Ingeborg Verdun seems incredibly implausible, even aside from everything else, for this simple reason: if it is true, then WHY was it not eagerly unearthed and widely publicized long ago, particularly during the torrential mudslinging of the Royal Question? It would have been very useful to Leopold's enemies to be able to charge him with frittering away his time with a mistress- an Austrian mistress, too, one of Hitler's fellow country-women- while his people were embroiled in war and occupation. Instead, they resorted to trumping up nonsense of Nazi mistresses, honeymoons in Vienna and call-girls at Berchtesgaden. It all sounds quite desperate...

To the allegations concerning Michel Didisheim and Ingeborg Verdun, Leo van Audenhaege has added yet another rumor. He claims that Leopold had a third illegitimate child, a son, conveniently left unnamed, by a young Frenchwoman, during the 1950's. In the press, Van Audenhaege blustered: "What I say is 100% certain. Nobody will be able to refute this". How can anyone be 100% certain about such matters in the first place? Was Mr. van Audenhaege present at the conception of the child? Has he performed a DNA test? Apparently, Prime Minister Achille van Acker (above) reported the birth of the supposed son, among other lurid rumors regarding the royal couple, in his private papers. Achille van Acker, however, was a highly devious individual, a bitter opponent of Leopold III, and a man with a vile mind. During the Royal Question, he tried to frame his Sovereign, accusing him of conniving at his own deportation to Germany, based upon the false testimony of a treacherous friend of the King, Victor van Straelen. (Fortunately, the commission of inquiry investigating Leopold's conduct was able to refute these claims, by demonstrating that the testimonies of all the other witnesses, including Cardinal van Roey, and the rest of the evidence relating to the deportation contradicted Van Straelen's account). It was Achille van Acker, too, who tried to suborn Princess Lilian, offering her ample sums and luxurious advantages, if only she would abandon her husband in exile and return to Belgium with Prince Baudouin. It was Achille van Acker, moreover, who fomented the despicable allegations of an incestuous relationship between Baudouin and Lilian. This is how the Prime Minister, hardly the chivalrous gentleman, referred to the Princess: "Une intrigante qui a la moitié de son derrière sur le trône, et qui se tortille pour y installer l'autre"**. There you have the man. Achille van Acker is not a reliable source concerning Leopold III.

Finally, the 1950's opened with messages of passionate tenderness, overflowing with love for his wife and family, from Leopold to Lilian, and closed with the King's noble tribute to the Princess, on the eve of the wedding of Baudouin and Fabiola. Leopold reminded his son of all he owed Lilian, who had shared her husband's ordeals with the greatest courage, while giving her step-son the affectionate and vigilant care that his own mother, so mourned by all, had not been able to provide herself. It seems rather a surprising admonition on such an occasion. In marriage, a man leaves his father and mother to cleave to his wife, and yet, Leopold saw fit to emphasize the family's debt to Lilian even at this moment. Afterwards, amidst the cruel press campaign against Leopold and Lilian, the former King of the Belgians reiterated the same sentiments of respectful gratitude towards his second wife. Many beautiful photographs from the 1950's also bear witness to the harmony and joy of the royal family in this period. It is during these years that Achille van Acker supposedly claimed that Leopold was having extramarital affairs, spending millions of francs on mistresses, fathering illegitimate children, and even contemplating divorcing Lilian. I think not. In my opinion, Princess Esmeralda described her parents' marriage much better: "Leur seul tort fut de s'aimer"!***

*"The political world did not forgive the King his concern for the common good, or his great political morality".
**"A schemer who has half of her rear on the throne, and is wriggling to set the other half there".
***"Their only fault was to love each other!"

(to be continued)


Christina said...

Thank you for another illuminating post! What is it with the obsession with nit-picking at people's marriages and constantly seeking the worst in people and trying to find faults? How unpleasant it must be to make a living out of trying to find the frailities in others (and particularly kings and royalties) - or worse, not finding any, making them up!
I dare say the people who write and thrive on such stories find it a distraction from their own unhappiness...or perhaps are simply holding up a mirror to their own lives and projecting their sense of guilt...
What an unhappy way to live!

May said...

I do think that in some cases, people are projecting their own failings and permissive attitudes on to these past figures.

Thank you for the lovely comment.