Monday, January 30, 2012

Léopold III: mon père

Léopold III, mon père, directed by Nicolas Delvaulx, is a moving RBTF documentary, available for sale on DVD. Princess Esmeralda, the King's youngest daughter, contributes richly to the film with her insights into her father's humanity. For the first time, she also discusses at length the fateful, heart-wrenching decision that fell to his lot, as to whether he should remain in Belgium to assist his people during the Nazi occupation or escape into exile with his government before being forced to surrender to the Germans.

In Esmeralda's company, we visit important places in Leopold's life, such as Eton, where he studied as a youth, suffering from the separation from his parents, King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth, during World War I. We travel to the castle of Hirschstein, on the Elbe, where he was held hostage with his family under harsh conditions from 1944-1945. Born in 1956, Esmeralda was fortunately spared this terrible experience.

On a more cheerful note, there is interesting footage of Leopold's tropical expeditions in his later years, supplemented with images of his collections of zoological specimens gathered from around the globe. We also gain a glimpse of the chalet of Hinteriss, in the Austrian Alps, a family holiday home charmingly decorated by Esmeralda's mother, the King's second wife, Princess Lilian.

Esmeralda's reflections upon her mother's life are quite poignant. As she used to tell her daughter, Lilian had the good fortune to marry the Prince Charming of her dreams. However, her wedding day, which ought to have been the happiest of her life, was actually the saddest, as she had to marry her beloved in secrecy and mourning, in a sombre black dress, in fact. The relentless hatred and opprobrium she faced for the rest of her life rendered her especially sensitive and emotionally vulnerable. She even remarked, with a certain ironic humor, that she was glad she would not be around to see all the brutal articles which would appear in the papers after her death. Also poignant are the interviews with Esmeralda's late brother, Prince Alexandre, who passed away during the production of the film. He comes across as a thoughtful, sensitive person.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Art of Evariste Carpentier

Here are a few examples of the paintings of the Belgian impressionist, Evariste Carpentier (1845-1922). As Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians was such a great patroness of the arts, it seems appropriate to share them on this blog. Carpentier's paintings seem more cheerful to me than the works of many French impressionists.


A magnificent panoramic view. The site of so much suffering on the part of King Leopold III and his family, the castle was later turned into a children's sanatorium.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Royal Family in Captivity: Part III

Prince Baudouin, the heir to the throne, at Hirschstein
(Continued from Part I and Part II)

As we recently celebrated Epiphany, perhaps it is appropriate to recall how the royal hostages spent their first Christmas in captivity at the dreary fortress of Hirschstein. Shortly before Christmas, Hitler had sent a message to his prisoners, grandiosely inquiring if they had any wishes he might grant. Wary of being placed in their enemy's debt, King Leopold and his family had only one request: they would be glad to have a priest to celebrate midnight Mass. A man in clerical garb promptly arrived, claiming to be a priest from the medieval monastery of Klosterneuberg, founded, ironically enough, by St. Leopold of Babenburg, Margrave of Austria. Posing as sympathetic and solicitous, the man offered to hear the prisoners' confessions. The quick-witted Princess Lilian, who was familiar with Klosterneuberg, had the good sense to cross-question him first, to determine whether he were an impostor. Finding that he was unable even to give a correct reply concerning the location of his supposed monastery, she quietly told her husband that the man was certainly not from Klosterneuberg, and that she doubted whether he were a priest at all. As described in Un couple dans la tempête, however, King Leopold indulged his ironic sense of humor by agreeing to let the man hear his confession and by submitting to a series of highly indiscreet questions under the guise of fatherly pastoral care. As the impostor prepared to deliver absolution, however, his royal penitent stopped him and sent him away, unmasked. Together with his family and small band of faithful followers, all King Leopold could do to commemorate Our Savior's birth was to sing Minuit Chrétien and Stille Nacht, to piano accompaniment. Princess Lilian gave the royal children watercolors she had painted using a box of colors smuggled into her luggage on the journey from Brussels. She had fashioned the picture-frames out of branches gathered in the small garden of Hirschstein.

As always, the King was determined that his household should display dignity and courage in adversity and resist the temptation to despair. Christmas was not the first time that they had bravely improvised a humble, poignant celebration.  On July 21, 1944, just over a month after their deportation, they had fervently celebrated their national holiday, albeit with meagre means. They had managed to construct a Belgian flag, using strips of red, yellow and black fabric, stitched together with vegetable fibers. The flag was draped over the poorly tuned piano, and M. Weemaes was able to play a few measures of the Belgian national anthem, the Brabançonne, bringing tears to the eyes of his fellow sufferers. Throughout the long months at Hirschstein, the King and his officers wore their uniforms at table and the children's lessons and games continued. Princess Lilian even composed and directed a play, Pygmalion, giving roles to the different members of the family. Whenever possible, the children exercised outside, in the small garden. They suffered severely from malnutrition.  Albert eventually developed hunger edema; little Alexandre, rickets. In January, 1945, while the princes were helping to build a sled, Albert also seriously injured his thigh. Mishandled by an S.S. officer, the wound became dangerously infected and began to putrefy. At Lilian's insistence, the family's gaoler, the S.S.  Colonel Lürker, perhaps afraid of being blamed for the death of a royal hostage, summoned a distinguished physician from Dresden, Professor Lang, to treat the prince. The man was obliged to disinfect and bandage the gangrenous wound in silence, as he had been forbidden to speak with the prisoners.  Thankfully, Albert's leg was saved. A Nazi physician, Dr. Ghebart, also arrived to examine the boy, sadistically seizing the opportunity to shock Leopold and Lilian with descriptions of the experiments he had secretly performed upon political prisoners in concentration camps. The King's blood froze with horror. Leopold and Lilian also had the frightening feeling that their tormentor did not expect them to live to repeat the revelations. Further traumas would follow in February, with the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden. The inferno was clearly visible from the windows of Hirchstein, so dazzling that night and day were equally bright. On Ash Wednesday, the capital of Saxony lay in ashes. The icy Elbe carried countless charred and mangled corpses past the royal family's horrified eyes. Lilian especially remembered seeing the bodies of two women, floating hand in hand, surely mother and daughter. 

Meanwhile, at the beginning of February, in an ominous new development, the King had been threatened with separation from his entourage. Due to the advance of the Soviet army, he had been told, the royal family would be transported to a new place of detention in southern Germany. His suite would be moved to yet another location. Leopold immediately protested this scheme, refusing to be divided from any of his companions. To Ernst Kaltenbrunner, chief of the Gestapo, he sent the following telegram: "It has been communicated to me that an order of displacement could soon be given to me and that the persons who have voluntarily accompanied us in captivity would be directed to a different destination. I express the formal desire that these persons, for whose fate I am responsible, may continue to share my captivity and that they may not be suddenly isolated in this manner. In addition, there are, among these persons, three officers, for whom I demand a treatment compatible with their rank". Departure would be delayed until March, and the royal party would be allowed to travel together to their next prison, the villa of Strobl, Austria, opening a new chapter of their weary captivity.

(to be continued)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Belgian Lion

Le Lion Belge
An allegorical depiction of the royal Belgian lion ravaging the imperial German eagle, featuring a poem dedicated to King Albert I at the head of his army. The poet calls upon Rome and Sparta to bow before Belgium's valor and to unite their laurels with hers in order to adorn the tombs of her fallen heroes.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Pillars of the Church

König Albert I. und Königin Elisabeth von Belgien als Kirchenfiguren
An interesting portrayal of Albert and Elisabeth as church figures. I have also seen stained-glass windows with portraits of this couple.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Feast of the Three Kings

Happy Epiphany to all my family and friends! 
When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of King Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. Saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him. And king Herod hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And assembling together the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where Christ should be born. But they said to him: In Bethlehem of Juda. For so it is written by the prophet:
And thou Bethlehem the land of Juda art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come forth the captain that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them. And sending them into Bethlehem, said: Go and diligently inquire after the child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I also may come to adore him. Who having heard the king, went their way; and behold the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was. And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 
And entering the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him; and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having received an answer in sleep that they should not return to Herod, they went back another way into their country.

The Royal Family in Captivity: Part II

The deportation of the Royal Family
(Continued from Part I)

While King Leopold III, brave but forlorn, suffered through his first miserable night at Hirschstein, his wife, Princess Lilian, struggled valiantly at Laeken to protect his family. On the morning of June 7, 1944, immediately following the King's departure, she had been told by Captain Büntinck, an aide of Colonel Kiewitz, that she, too, would be deported to Germany, along with her three step-children and her little son. This second sadistic order came at a particularly cruel moment. Alexandre was still only a toddler, Baudouin was recovering from scarlet fever and Albert suffering from mumps. Joséphine-Charlotte, for her part, was only sixteen. Outraged, Lilian vehemently protested and tried her utmost to frustrate the plan, mobilizing all her connections and managing to gain a reprieve of forty-eight hours. Meanwhile, her mother-in-law, Queen Elisabeth, transmitted a message to Büntinck to convey to Berlin by telephone. Her words were chosen carefully to exploit the official pretext for deporting the Royal Family, a supposed concern for their safety: "Before leaving, the King, my son, unable to do so himself as a result of his sudden departure, asked me to transmit to the government of the Reich the following message: 'It would politically intolerable and have the worst possible effect on the Belgian people to cause the King to depart with all his family and to place them in safety, while the people are suffering and the other prisoners of war are separated from their families.' He did this in complete accord with the Princess, my daughter-in-law. A decision is urgently required."

Not surprisingly, the Queen's effort failed. During the night of June 8-9, with the aid of a chauffeur and two gardeners, the Princess set to work concealing the cars belonging to the Royal Court. She was determined to obstruct the journey as long as possible. By dawn, all but one of the vehicles had been hidden in one of the galleries of the castle. Finding the garages empty, the Gestapo were frustrated and furious, but eventually managed to gather enough cars to form a convoy. Meanwhile, Cardinal van Roey, the President and the General Procurator of the Court of Cassation had been summoned to Laeken to witness the violence done to the Royal Family and the official protest of the Princess. The King's consort gave Captain Büntinck the following message: "On June 7, 1944, learning that the order had been given for the transfer of his family to Germany, the King immediately demanded that they be allowed to continue to reside in Belgium. I share the King's views entirely, and I have advised you of it. On June 8, I associated myself with the demand made by the Queen of the German authorities to obtain the withdrawal of this decision. This morning, at three o'clock, you informed me that the order for departure was being upheld, and that the King's family had to leave the castle of Laeken at two o'clock in the afternoon. I protest the measure of which the princes and myself are the object; we will depart, therefore, only because we are constrained to do so." Prince Baudouin, the young heir to the throne, left a touching note for a friend: "I am writing you a short letter before leaving for captivity in Germany. It is terrible. But events require it. I thank you for your kind letter. See you soon, I hope."

That afternoon, the Royal Family would indeed begin their tedious and traumatic journey, but not before long discussions regarding the composition of the Princess' suite had further delayed departure. Two of the children's nannies, Mme. Schepers and Mlle. Henrard, offered to share their mistress' captivity, and were allowed to accompany her. The governor of the heir to the throne, the Vicomte du Parc, and one of the attachés of the King's cabinet, M. Weemaes, were also authorized to join the forlorn little party. (Initially, a physician, Dr. Rahier, was permitted to come, but was later ominously ordered to return to Belgium before reaching the Royal Family's place of detention). Towards evening, Princess Lilian and her fellow hostages finally had to bid a heartrending adieu to a tearful assembly of the rest of the royal staff.  Following in the the footsteps of their husband, father and Sovereign, but cruelly kept in ignorance of his fate or their own destination, the anxious prisoners finally reached Hirschstein on June 11, towards nightfall. To their relief, they found the King alive. Lilian, however, was particularly exhausted after many frightening adventures. In her hotel room in Weimar, with Joséphine-Charlotte's help, for instance, she had been obliged to secretly burn her husband's "Political Testament", to prevent it from falling into the hands of the enemy. En route, she had also been forced to protest vehemently for hours to prevent the S.S. from separating Princes Baudouin and Albert from the rest of the family. Worse, however, was yet to come.

(to be continued)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Queen Elisabeth by Herman Richir

Portrait de la Reine Elisabeth (Par Herman Richir, peintre bruxellois)

Two colorful portraits of Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians by Herman Richir, dating from 1930. She was 54 years old at the time.

La Reine Elisabeth de Belgique, 1930. (Par Herman Richir, peintre bruxellois)

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)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Congratulations to H.I.R.H. Archduke Imre of Habsburg-Lorraine on his recent engagement to Miss Kathleen Walker, a prominent American pro-life activist and journalist. The Archduke's betrothal coincides with that of his brother, the Archduke Christoph, to Mademoiselle Adélaïde Drapé-Frisch. May God richly bless both couples in this Christmas season. Through their mother, Marie-Astrid of Luxembourg, daughter of Joséphine-Charlotte of Belgium, the young Archdukes descend from King Leopold III and Queen Astrid, King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth, King Leopold I and Queen Louise-Marie of the Belgians. Here are some pictures of the Archdukes and their brides-to-be celebrating Christmas in Brussels with Queen Fabiola and other relatives. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

"Life must go on, in spite of all..."

A poignant story in Emile Cammaerts' biography of King Albert I seems appropriate to share at this time of year. A theme throughout the book is Albert's anxiety for the future, which often seemed menacing during his life. His efforts to restore his devastated country after World War I suffered from serious internal tensions between Catholics, Liberals and Socialists, Flemings and Walloons. Meanwhile, the clouds of a new, even more terrible world war were gathering on his borders. At the beginning of 1934, his concern surfaced in his last New Year's letter to his beloved sister Josephine: "Life must go on, in spite of all." Sadly, however, within weeks, Albert's own life would come to a tragic end. Nevertheless, his brave and hopeful greeting still seems comforting in an often frightening world.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!

Colorful spring garden
Wishing a very happy new year to all my friends!