Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Trials of Leopold III

From 1945 to 1950 Léopold, having been kept in Austria by his German captors since they lost control of Belgium, lived in Switzerland, while Brussels' politicians debated - with what conclusiveness could be predicted from their pre-war antics - the issue of whether he should be allowed to return. Those who argued that he be kept out included, unsurprisingly, Pierlot and Spaak, who (displaying a sheer balletic agility which deserved a nobler purpose) now maintained that the pro-Léopold pronouncements in 1941-1944 should be disregarded, and that their anti-Léopold pronouncements of 1940 should alone be believed. In their latest volte-face they burdened themselves with the same credibility problems faced by the constant liar invoked in first-year logic lectures, who admits to being a constant liar; but they at least ensured a state of limbo for Léopold himself, which threatened (or promised) to become permanent. After five years successive coalitions having risen and fallen on the specific issue of what to do about Léopold, and the Fleming-versus- Walloon rift having widened anew - the Flemings being predominantly pro-Léopold, the Walloons predominantly anti - a referendum could be put off no longer. 
At the polls on 12 March 1950, 57.7% of voters favoured Léopold's return with full kingly powers. Four months later Parliament itself voted on exactly the same subject, and sanctioned Léopold's return by a similar margin. Accordingly, Léopold made his way back to his kingdom. When he set foot on Belgian territory, his popular support vanished like a dream. Strikes broke out in essential industries, as Spaak threatened the King that they would; police firing on rioters in Liége, killed three men; and foreign reporters spoke in complete seriousness of civil war. Most alarmingly of all, an angry mob charged Laekens gates, demand that Léopold abdicate or face the punishment of any other collaborator. Leading this mob was (who else) Spaak.
After a week, the authorities concerned reached the type of mutually unsatisfying judicial solution that Esquire once unforgettably described as 'everyone gets to take home half the baby'. Léopold agreed, not only to resign the crown in a year's time - when his son and heir Baudouin would have turned twenty-one - but to forfeit all the rights of kingship on 11 August. Until Baudouin attained his majority, monarchial functions would repose in Léopold's younger brother Charles. Meanwhile Spaak would continue to control the Cabinet (as he had done de facto since 1937), in the role of either Prime Minister or Foreign Minister, and sometimes in both roles at once. In early 1969 Spaak gave a television interview of what the Evening Standard's Paris correspondent Sam White called 'almost embarassing frankness'. Spaak freely conceded that Reynaud, when accusing Léopold of deliberately concealing from Britain and France his intention to surrender, had not merely mistaken but actively mendacious; and that Léopold behaviour in l940 had Spaak's full approval. As White noted in the Evening Standard of 3 January 1969, 'Even though it comes a quarter of a century too late it is good of M. Paul-Henri Spaak ... to have finally come clean regarding the events of 1940'. Spaak died in 1972, nine years after Pierlot; Léopold lived till 1983; Baudouin survived his father by a decade.