Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Royal Family in Captivity

King Leopold III after his liberation from German captivity in Strobl, Austria

One of the fullest and best documented accounts of the Belgian Royal Family's cruel captivity in Germany and Austria is provided by Jean Cleeremans in Léopold III, sa famille, et son peuple sous l'occupation and its sequel, Un royaume pour un amour: Léopold III, de l'exil à l'abdication. The ordeal began with the deportation of King Leopold III on June 7, 1944. With the Allied landings in Normandy, the liberation of the Low Countries drew near and the S.S. appear to have considered that it would be valuable to hold the Belgian monarch and his family hostage in an area more securely under German control. (As it happened, Leopold's absence from Belgium at the moment of liberation also proved all too convenient for his Belgian and Allied opponents, who had a free hand to conspire to prevent him from resuming his reign after the war).  On the evening of June 6, while at table with his second wife, Princess Lilian, and his daughter, Princess Joséphine-Charlotte, the King received the alarming news from his sympathetic gaoler, Colonel Werner Kiewitz, that Himmler had suddenly ordered his transfer to Germany. As Kiewitz later described to the King's secretary, Count Robert Capelle, Leopold was outraged. Particularly angered by the prospect of being deported on the orders of the S.S., who had no authority over prisoners of war, he prepared a violent protest to submit to the military governor of Belgium, General Alexander von Falkenhausen, who was also sympathetic to his plight. The general later recalled his meeting with the distressed Sovereign at Laeken:
The King received me with great nervousness and his anger knew no bounds. He gave me a severe letter of protest to read. The terms were so energetic that I feared that false interpretations, arising from a translation, would lead to unfortunate consequences for His Majesty, who found himself in the position of a prisoner of war. I proposed that the King modify some expressions which appeared to me to be too violent, as I had already been reproached several times for transmitting violent protests from the King. His Majesty dismissed me and had me wait for three quarters of an hour, which I spent with Kiewitz in an antechamber. Then the King, in Kiewitz' presence, returned to me the letter of protest which I caused to be conveyed, through Kiewitz, to Hitler. The emotion and the anger of the King were great (Léopold III, sa famille, et son peuple sous l'occupation, pp. 269-270).
Nevertheless, after the war, Leopold's leftist political opponents, including Prime Minister Achille van Acker, would accuse him of secretly conniving at his own deportation, in order to increase his popularity by posing as a heroic victim. The grotesque charge persists to this day in the literature most bitterly hostile to the Belgian dynasty, such as Flemish nationalist Paul Beliën's prodigious work of propaganda, A Throne in Brussels: Britain, the Saxe-Coburgs and the Belgianisation of Europe.  The attempt to blame the King for his own gruesome misfortune is reminiscent of similar spiteful attempts to accuse him of causing the death of his first wife, Queen Astrid, by driving with criminal negligence. It also recalls the malicious rumors blaming his father, King Albert I, for his own death by suggesting, for instance, that he had been murdered by an irate husband whose wife he had seduced. Imprisoned at Liège after the liberation of Belgium, Alexander von Falkenhausen was interrogated by a Belgian official who insisted that King Leopold had rejoiced at his deportation, even celebrating the news, in the general's company, with a bottle of champagne! The accusation was typical of the concerted effort at the time to portray Leopold as a spineless, faithless man of pleasure. Von Falkenhausen gave the lie to the claims with indignant disgust. Kiewitz, for his part, also indicated that nothing could be further from the truth; Himmler and his henchmen had planned "Operation Elbe", the deportation of Leopold III, without informing the King or even his gaoler until the last moment. On May 7, 1949, however, Le Peuple published an anonymous letter, supposedly sent to the Belgian government in London during the war. The letter claimed that the King had left Belgium of his own free will,  and that a lady-in-waiting of his mother, Queen Elisabeth, had even admitted that the royal household had been preparing for the departure well in advance! Thus, by implication, even the fabled heroine of the trenches and the field hospitals of World War I, the widow of the Roi-Chevalier, was involved in a treacherous scheme to betray her country by collaborating with the enemy and misleading her people into believing that her son was a martyr of patriotism. Horrified, the Queen's ladies were obliged to issue a joint statement, categorically denying the charges and protesting the underhand methods used to discredit their King.

On the morning of June 7, 1944, Leopold bid a poignant farewell to his wife and daughter. (His sons, Princes Baudouin and Albert, were at the Royal Family's charming country retreat of Ciergnon at the time). As described in the recent documentary, Léopold III, mon père, the King, departing to an unknown fate, gave Princess Lilian his handsome, sombre photograph, tenderly inscribed, as if he never expected to see her again: "To my adored little Lil, from her Leo forever." As related in Un couple dans la tempête: le destin malheureux de Léopold III de Belgique et de la princesse Lilian, he also gave her a leather purse filled with gold coins. Meanwhile, he had composed a courageous message to the Belgian people: "My dear fellow-countrymen. The German authorities have decided upon my transfer outside Belgium. I have protested with the greatest energy. I would have wished to share, to the end, your trials and anxieties. My thoughts will not leave you. Be courageous, confident, united. God will continue to protect Belgium and will soon return to us peace, concord and liberty. I have faith in the destinies of the country. Leopold, June 7, 1944." Despite the fact that the Belgian government in London had maligned him during the war, he loyally agreed with his aide-de-camp, Raoul van Overstraeten, that his officers should obey the government's orders in his absence. The sad journey, in a heavily armed German convoy, then began.

Kiewitz, who was in charge of the first stretch of the journey, allowed the King to stop at Ciergnon to bid farewell to his sons. Upon his arrival, however, Leopold learned that the princes had already returned to Laeken and that the German authorities had ordered the deportation of his wife and children. Inhabitants of Ciergnon witnessed his great sorrow and distress. Desperately, he composed another protest: "On June 7, at 4 pm, in the course of my visit to Ciergnon, Colonel Kiewitz brought to my attention the fact that new measures, this time relative to the displacement of my family, have been ordered. Yet, it is as a prisoner of war that I am being transferred to Germany, and I desire no attenuation of the measure that has been imposed upon me. I demand that the members of my family be allowed to continue to reside in Belgium". It was all in vain, however. Before leaving, the King had cigarettes distributed to the gendarmes of Ciergnon. Deeply moved, at the moment of parting, they presented arms. Leopold would receive similar sympathy from fellow Belgian captives during his journey. In Échec au Roi: Léopold III, 1940-1951, Roger Keyes mentions a Belgian electrician, employed in a hotel in Luxembourg requisitioned by the Germans, who recognized his Sovereign. In an elevator, the man seized the opportunity to whisper in Leopold's ear that he himself had been deported and forced to work for the enemy. He also expressed touching concern for the King's plight, kindly taking his hand and assuring him that he would pray for his safe return to Belgium. In Leipzig, Belgian prisoners of war laboring on the road also recognized their King.

On the evening of June 9, 1944, the convoy finally reached the sinister, dilapidated fortress of Hirschstein, looming over the Elbe, atop a steep crag.  Colonel Kiewitz was appalled by the state of the fortress, filled with bare rooms, dripping windows, moldy walls and collapsing ceilings. The insalubrious conditions, combined with poor nutrition, would seriously damage the health and endanger the lives of the King and his family. Ferociously guarded by the S.S. and the Gestapo, equipped with barbed-wire fences, police dogs and floodlights, the fortress had obviously already served as a prison, possibly for Russian captives. Here, the Belgian Sovereign would be held hostage for the next nine months. The S.S. Colonel Otto Lürker became his new gaoler. For his sympathetic treatment of his royal prisoner, Himmler severely punished Colonel Kiewitz by arresting him, degrading him to the rank of captain, and assigning him to a punitive regiment on the Russian front where he would lose his right arm. Meanwhile, Princess Lilian, Princess Joséphine-Charlotte, and Princes Baudouin, Albert and Alexandre were soon to join the King in his terrifying prison.

(to be continued)

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