Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Vännen min

Portrait de la Reine Astrid (Par Herman Richir)
In 1985, a Swedish historical novelist, Countess Anna Sparre, published her recollections of her friendship with Queen Astrid of the Belgians, niece of King Gustav V of Sweden. The book, Vännen min, has since been translated into French as La reine Astrid: mon amie à moi (1995) and as Astrid mon amie (2005). Under Anna's pen, Astrid's subtle personality comes to life. Tender, sensitive and loving, although not without her strict side, she was a loyal and devoted wife, mother and queen. Anna sensitively portrays Astrid's blossoming, through love, from a painfully shy, fearful, rather melancholic child into a radiant, dignified young woman, courageously assuming the role of royal consort under tragic circumstances. While carefully avoiding betraying confidences, Anna offers insight into her friend's spiritual depth and development, through her discussion of Astrid's conversion from Lutheranism to Catholicism. In a particularly haunting passage, Anna also mentions Astrid's mysterious premonitions of her death, shortly before her fatal car accident. However, she does not discuss the rumor that Astrid was expecting her fourth child at the time. Anna provides an affectionate portrayal of Astrid's beloved husband, King Leopold III, and father-in-law and dear friend, King Albert I. Throughout her life, the Countess remained close to Astrid's son, King Baudouin, who referred to Anna as an honorary aunt. By contrast, Anna found Astrid's mother-in-law, Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians, to be aloof and distant. This is surprising, since so many other personal accounts, such as the memoirs of Russian sculptress Catherine Barjansky, describe Elisabeth as natural, spontaneous, and extremely approachable. Perhaps Anna and Elisabeth simply had incompatible personalities? In any case, the rather derisive tone Anna adopts in Elisabeth's regard is one of the few aspects of the book I disliked. Otherwise, Vännen min is a noble, beautiful tribute to faithful friendship.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal

Here is a review in French of Michel Verwilghen's wonderful book Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal (2006). The article includes elegant photographs of Princess Lilian, Princess Esmeralda and Argenteuil, the home of the second family of King Leopold III from 1961 to 2002. I highly recommend Verwilghen's work to anyone who reads French. It is a careful, erudite history of the estate of Argenteuil, yet beautifully written, with humanity, poetry, passion and wit. Thanks to the charming style, the account is easy and fun to read, despite all the intricate details of changes of reign, transfers of ownership, legal disputes and political controversies. Verwilghen takes to task a number of malicious myths about Leopold and Lilian, such as the endlessly repeated story that they stole all the furniture from Laeken while moving to Argenteuil. Verwilghen also offers many astute, and often amusing observations regarding the political biases in the Belgian press. There are wonderful photographs in the book, including a few rare, touching images of an aged Princess Lilian with her granddaughter, Alexandra. Verwilghen's fascinating, moving, nuanced description of Lilian is probably the finest in print. Without falling into hagiography, he magnificently illustrates her faith, hope and charity.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas blessings...

...To all who have visited The Cross of Laeken in 2011. May the Prince of Peace grant you true and lasting joy.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Mother of Kings

A famous allegory of the young Countess Augusta Reuss-Ebersdorf (1757-1831), mother of King Leopold I, and grandmother of Queen Victoria, as Artemisia. The portrait was painted in 1775 by Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Elder. Augusta, who later married Duke Francis of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and bore him ten children, was considered one of the most beautiful women of her time, and her good looks seem to have been inherited by her Belgian descendants. Determined and ambitious, through her children's strategic marriages, she overcame the ruinous debts of her husband's family to become the ancestress of many European royal lines.

Friday, December 23, 2011


The future Queen Astrid of the Belgians with her older sister, the future Crown Princess Märtha of Norway, mother of King Harald V. In her memoirs, Anna Sparre describes Märtha as being much more confident and outgoing than the young Astrid, and as the daughter most admired by their mother, Princess Ingeborg of Sweden. In fact, Anna believed that Ingeborg's constant praising of Märtha contributed to Astrid's insecurity and shyness.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"With my heartfelt hope that spring will bring quiet joy to you..."

On the eve of the accession of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth to the Belgian throne, I was delighted to come across this beautiful letter from Einstein to Elisabeth, then mourning the loss of her husband and daughter-in-law. I was also pleased that Einstein mentions another good friend of the Queen, the Russian sculptress Catherine Barjansky, whose memoirs of the Belgian royal family I have often featured here. 
Dear Queen, 
Today, for the first time this year, the spring sunshine has made its appearance, and it aroused me from the dreamlike trance into which people like myself fall when immersed in scientific work. Thoughts rise up from an earlier and more colorful life, and with them comes remembrance of beautiful hours in Brussels.
Mrs. Barjansky wrote to me how gravely living in itself causes you suffering and how numbed you are by the indescribably painful blows that have befallen you.
And yet we should not grieve for those who have gone from us in the primes of their lives after happy and fruitful years of activity, and who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.
Something there is that can refresh and revivify older people: joy in the activities of the younger generation—a joy, to be sure, that is clouded by dark forebodings in these unsettled times. And yet, as always, the springtime sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding; and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond reach of the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest form.
Have you ever read the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld? They seem quite acerbic and gloomy, but by their objectivization of human and all-too-human nature they bring a strange feeling of liberation. In La Rochefoucauld we see a man who succeeded in liberating himself even though it had not been easy for him to be rid of the heavy burden of the passions that Nature had dealt him for his passage through life. It would be nicest to read him with people whose little boat had gone through many storms: for example, the good Barjanskys. I would gladly join in were it not forbidden by “the big water.”
I am privileged by fate to live here in Princeton as if on an island that in many respects resembles the charming palace garden in Laeken. Into this small university town, too, the chaotic voices of human strife barely penetrate. I am almost ashamed to be living in such peace while all the rest struggle and suffer. But after all, it is still the best to concern oneself with eternals, for from them alone flows that spirit that can restore peace and serenity to the world of humans.
With my heartfelt hope that spring will bring quiet joy to you also, and will stimulate you to activity, I send you my best wishes.
[March 30, 1936]

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Portrait of Princess Juliane

This is a painting by the great Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun of Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1781-1860), an older sister of King Leopold I of the Belgians. The portrait was destroyed by bombs during the Second World War. As a young girl of fourteen, Juliane married Grand Duke Constantine of Russia, a brother of Tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I, converting to Orthodoxy and changing her name to Anna Feodorovna. The marriage was deeply unhappy, however, and soon fell apart. Anna subsequently had several lovers and illegitimate children.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Testimony of Felix Kersten, masseur of Heinrich Himmler

For some time, I have hesitated to use this account, because Dr. Kersten apparently had a tendency to distort the facts in order to portray himself in a more heroic light. However, I have never heard of his testimony regarding Leopold III being challenged, although it has often been neglected. It has been taken seriously by respected scholars, such as Jean Vanwelkenhuyzen, an eminent Belgian authority on the Second World War. It is discussed by Michel Verwilghen in Le mythe d'Argenteuil (2006) and by Christian Laporte in an article dated March 1, 1996, and published in Le Soir, a testimony all the more surprising and compelling since it comes from a paper traditionally hostile to Leopold III. Kersten's description of Heinrich Himmler's venom against the King squares with the revelations of General Alexander von Falkenhausen, military governor of Belgium during the Nazi occupation, and with the memoirs of Paul Schmidt, Hitler's interpreter. Both men indicated that there was no love lost between the Nazi hierarchy and their royal captive, despite continuing claims that Leopold sympathized with their regime. The recent television documentary, Léopold III, mon père, mentions that highly placed Nazi leaders, towards the end of the war, were considering the deportation and even the execution of the King of the Belgians. As is well known, Leopold and his family would indeed be deported to Germany at the time of the Allied landings in Normandy, although they managed to survive their ordeal. In the light of all this, Kersten's testimony seems plausible.

Dr. Felix Kersten's story is a fascinating one. A talented Finnish masseur of Estonian origin, he was approached by the SS to soothe the stomach cramps of Heinrich Himmler. Although Kersten appears to have exaggerated his role at times, he was also genuinely heroic in using his privileged position to save the lives of many. Himmler seems to have spoken quite freely in Kersten's presence, fulminating against the King of the Belgians on several occasions. Kersten, in turn, secretly kept a diary of his patient's confidences. In 1995, four documents relating to Leopold III were discovered among Kersten's papers by Professor Léon Masset of the University of Amsterdam and published in an issue of La Révue générale dedicated to the Second World War, with a commentary by Jean Vanwelkenhuyzen. King Leopold's devoted widow, Princess Lilian, was intrigued and pleased by the discovery of the documents concerning her late husband, as well as stunned by the fact that it had taken fifty years for the materials to come to light. According to Kersten's testimony, far from viewing Leopold III as a friend, Himmler saw him as an obstinate, bitter foe, a puppet of the Jews and the Roman Catholic Church. He was outraged that the King, the son of a Coburg father and a Wittelsbach mother, should have resisted the German invasion. He was furious that Leopold had rebuffed Hitler's attempts to entice him into collaborating with the Third Reich. Himmler also hated Leopold's sister, Princess Marie-José, for her opposition to Hitler. Like her brother, he insisted, she had betrayed her German blood. With a great deal of patience and tact, however, taking advantage of the fact that Himmler needed his services, Felix Kersten managed to persuade him to treat Leopold in a humane and dignified manner. By March, 1945, however, Himmler had changed his mind, and decided to have him killed. Kersten had to intervene once again to save his life.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Lady in Black

Queen Louise-Marie, I suppose in mourning?

Albert and Elisabeth

They shared a love of great passion and purity. Here, Elisabeth seems to gaze at her bridegroom in wonderment.


I came across this painting of the beautiful place near Lake Lucerne where Queen Astrid perished.

Albert of Belgium: Defender of Right

I recently read Emile Cammaerts' Albert of Belgium: Defender of Right (1935), a famous and beautiful biography of the brave, thoughtful, gracious and beloved third King of the Belgians. It is tinged with sadness by the terrible events of the First World War and by the violent, untimely death of the King in a mountaineering accident. Opening with his courageous decision to defend with arms Belgium's right and duty to be neutral, it tells the dramatic story of his life in a noble, rigorous and eloquent manner. His love for God, his fellow man, his family and the people of Belgium are all conveyed with poignant intensity. Rare and beautiful photographs and samples of the King's delicate, even handwriting, assist in bringing to life a rich and sensitive personality. Particularly moving are the pictures of the royal couple's pilgrimage to the Holy Land, including a beautiful scene of Albert and Elisabeth in the Garden of Olives. I was glad that Cammaerts emphasized the role of Catholicism in the lives of the King and Queen, as it tends to be overlooked today. It is generally known that Albert's mother, Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, was a fervent Catholic who gave her children a strict religious upbringing; it is less well known that her son continued his theological studies, on his own initiative, for several years after becoming heir to the throne. At his desk in Brussels, he kept a bronze cast of Cardinal Mercier's hand, holding a small crucifix, so that he could not raise his eyes from his work without seeing the image. A lady who hosted him during the war noticed that he kept a prayer-book on his night-stand and read a few pages every evening. The Imitation of Christ was always at his bedside. At the royal family's idyllic country retreat of Ciergnon, he used to go to Confession at the village church, humbly taking his place in line, and refusing to go before his turn. He was an ardent admirer of monastic and missionary discipline. Simple and conscientious in his daily religious practice, Albert was also capable of moments of mystical exaltation, as the author illustrates through the testimonies of his intimates. One morning, for example, during a Mass in the Belgian Congo, the King was deeply touched by the sight of a poor, ailing, miserable old negro, approaching Holy Communion alongside some white officers. It was one of the few times that Albert expressed strong emotion in public. On another occasion, when the King and Queen were shown, in Jerusalem, the site of Pilate's praetorium, they were so moved by the words of their learned guide, a Father of the École Biblique, that they both spontaneously knelt before the steps leading to the first station of the Via Dolorosa. The King of the Belgians, who would himself die tragically, only a year later, at the feet of a rustic crucifix in the Ardennes, contemplated the sacrifice of Christ where the King of Kings had suffered.  Cammaerts notes that he was never able to discover an instance of Albert acting against his conscience. Although some of his decisions may have been mistaken, the author indicates, the King never appears to have adopted a course of action he did not sincerely consider just as well as prudent. He was a man of rare nobility and sweetness of soul.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Little Sister

A younger sister of Queen Louise-Marie of the Belgians, Françoise d'Orléans, the daughter of Louis-Philippe and Marie-Amélie who died as a toddler. Her grieving mother consoled herself with the thought that her child was now a saint in heaven.