Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Untold Truth of Albania

Everyone is probably aware of the popular portrayal of the Italian occupation of Albania. After annexing the Sudetenland, in March of 1939 Nazi Germany marched into the remainder of Czechoslovakia, making Bohemia and Moravia German protectorates and allowing the establishment of an independent Slovakia, closely tied to Germany. Upset at being given no advance warning, and not wishing to be left behind in the gobbling up of small countries, a month later Benito Mussolini ordered Italian forces to occupy Albania. That is the usual story and it is usually told in the context of a long list of German and Italian acts of aggression that finally forced Britain and France to draw a line and eventually go to war over the German invasion of Poland. However, the untold truth is that the situation was not so clear-cut and, as was all too common with the Balkan monarchies of World War II, at least one of the future Allied nations was not, originally, sympathetic to the supposed plight of the Albanians. Everyone well remembered how the last world war had started over a problem in the Balkans and not a few were concerned that the second could start there as well. However, neither Hitler nor Mussolini were the ones most, at the time, were worried about starting it.

Ahmed Zog
Ahmed Zog was the unknown quantity in Balkan affairs. He had first seized power by force in Albania in 1922 but was chased out only to return in 1924 with backing from the neighboring Kingdom of Yugoslavia. He was made president with dictatorial powers but when he refused to give Yugoslavia the special favors they expected for supporting him, the Yugoslav government felt betrayed and relations between the two countries became tense. Having lost their backing, Zog turned to the Kingdom of Italy across the Adriatic which, during World War I, had been given a secret agreement by the Allies recognizing Albania as an Italian protectorate in all but name. In 1928 President Zog elevated himself to “King of the Albanians” and while Italian investment poured into the country, others in the region and around Europe looked on with concern. As in Serbia, and Romania and Bulgaria there was a drive in Albania to expand to a “Greater Albania” and by declaring himself the king of a people rather than a country, many worried that Zog had his eye on territories of neighboring countries populated by ethnic Albanians (Kosovo, then as now, being the #1 ‘hot spot’). This would certainly have played well for the new King among the ranks of the Albanian nationalists and Zog certainly needed support.

Almost everyone in and outside of Albania seemed to have some reason or reasons to be frustrated with Zog. The local chieftains, from whose ranks he had risen, were always squabbling. Zog established a secular state, taking the new Republic of Turkey as his example, and so offended Muslim hardliners. Islamic clerics were also offended by his lifestyle, his love of gambling and his marriage to a Catholic Hungarian-American. This also disappointed Mussolini who hoped that he might marry an Italian princess and so draw Albania closer into the orbit of Rome. Muslim opposition was the most serious (when and where it occurred) in the overwhelmingly Islamic country but, as Zog tried to pull away from Italy he also angered the religious minorities such as when he nationalized all of the Catholic schools in Albania on the grounds that many were operated by Italians. Hitler had been friendly enough at first but the Nazi dictator was certainly not best pleased when Zog made Albania a haven for Jewish refugees. At the same time, there were fundamentalist Muslims who were just as upset at their Muslim king welcoming Jews into the country.

King Zog and Queen Geraldine
Today Zog may be best known as the world’s heaviest smoker but it would not be surprising if he also held the record for having more people trying to kill him than any other world leader. There were reportedly hundreds of plots against him and he survived 55 assassination attempts. Obviously, this forced him to stay out of sight as much as possible and while any other Albanian leader may have been treated the same, it certainly did little to reassure the international community about the stability of his regime. There were lingering tensions with Yugoslavia and considerable animosity with Greece, due to religious differences, historical grievances and suspicion about territorial claims based on Albanian populations in these countries. Things would become so bad that Greece finally had the Albanian population in the northern Epirus region put it concentration camps. What worried leaders in the west was that King Zog might do something in an effort to solve his problems that would end up starting a war. Zog biographer Jason Hunter Tomes wrote, “unable and frankly unwilling to have much faith in any group of his people, Zog strove to keep all classes in unstable equilibrium. Through hours of hideously convoluted talk, he obsessively manipulated his assorted underlings (nearly all older than himself) in an effort to exercise personal control from seclusion”.

Oddly enough, Mussolini was probably the one world leader least concerned by all of this. What sort of ruler Zog was or how popular he was mattered not at all to him and if tensions existed between Albania and Greece and Yugoslavia, there was little love lost between either of these countries and the Kingdom of Italy under the Fascist regime. Yet, what did matter to him was that Italy was getting no return on its investment and Zog was taking further steps to distance his country from Italy. To his Albanian supporters this was the King standing up for independence and national sovereignty against creeping Italian influence. In Italy Zog was seen as having gained all he could from them only to then cast them aside to search for a new benefactor as he had previously done to Yugoslavia. Italian advisors were dismissed from the Albanian army, the previous agreements with Italy were repudiated and Zog sought (unsuccessfully) closer ties with other countries. For Rome, the last straw came when the Albanian parliament announced a moratorium on debt payments to Italy. For Mussolini, this was the pretext on which to take action. It had nothing to do with events in Czechoslovakia but everything to do with the Italian economy and the desire to secure resources which Albania had but Italy lacked.

Italian troops entering Durazzo
This all came in the aftermath of the Italian conquest of Ethiopia over which the League of Nations had imposed sanctions on Italy and the very costly Italian intervention on behalf of Franco in the Spanish Civil War (though not always remembered, Italy gave vastly more assistance to Franco than anyone else). The Italian economy was stretched thin and badly needed Albania to make good on its debts. Furthermore, the sanctions (which particularly infuriated Mussolini) highlighted to the Fascist leadership their need for secure sources of raw materials that foreign powers could not deprive them of to punish or coerce Italian foreign policy. In quick order an ultimatum was sent to Zog, demanding that, if he wished to retain his throne, he agree to basically make Albania an Italian protectorate in both fact and name. Zog, of course, refused and on April 7, 1939 Italian troops began landing on the Albanian coast. It was not exactly an “invasion” as there was practically no resistance. Most of the officers of the Albanian army had fled the country, the New York Times reported that the local population cheered the Italian troops and by the time they came ashore King Zog and his family retinue were already fleeing the country.

Offering Victor Emmanuel the Albanian Crown
As for the other monarch involved, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy had thought the occupation of Albania too risky, in keeping with his conservative, cautious nature. It was sure to upset the French (which it did) but when an Albanian delegation came to Rome to offer him the crown as King of Albania, he graciously accepted. King Zog fled to Greece but could not stay long and soon made his way to France where he was more warmly received. The French were concerned that, with their eastern coast secured by the seizure of Albania, Italy would be a threat to them in the west. The distant United States was sympathetic and Zog’s radio messages to his people were played all over the country so that many more Americans heard his word than Albanians, the vast majority of whom owned no radios. However, what many will find the most surprising among the untold truths of the Albanian situation is the reaction of the British. In public and in the media there was, of course, plenty of sympathy for Albania and condemnations of the actions of Italy. However, for those in the halls of power, who had long worried about Albania and the ‘Balkan powder keg’ the private reaction was quite different.

Mussolini with Albanian school girls
British intelligence agents reported on the swift and efficient Italian occupation and pacification of Albania as providing a stabilizing presence in an unstable region. Once it was done, Sir Anthony Eden, British Foreign Minister and, it should be remembered, a man with a bitter, personal grudge against Mussolini, sent the Duce a personal telegram thanking him for his decisive action and assuring him of British support. This was not widely known at the time, nor are most aware of it today as the outbreak of World War II years later put it at odds with the official narrative of British opposition to a succession of acts by the Axis powers which have since been put forward to justify the Franco-British declaration of war against Germany. So, it was grouped together with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, the conquest of Ethiopia, the China incident, the annexation of Austria, the occupation of Czechoslovakia and then, after the occupation of Albania by Italy, the German invasion of Poland. However, the British government was far from being critical at the time and viewed the Italian occupation of Albania as something that benefited the region. Britain may also have been reacting to a recent change in opinion regarding the Nazi regime in Germany.

Strange as it may seem today, in light of subsequent events, at one time the British seemed more willing to accommodate Hitler and regarded Mussolini as the greater threat. However, when Hitler started grabbing territory in Eastern Europe, there was a sudden about-face in British policy. The year before the occupation of Albania, Britain had recognized the legitimacy of Italian East Africa and King Victor Emmanuel III as Emperor of Ethiopia. The reaction to events in Albania may have been influenced, at least in part, by an effort to woo Mussolini back into a friendlier relationship and to restore his previously hostile attitude toward Hitler. If so, it was too little, too late. The sanctions had infuriated the Duce beyond measure and, as he told a crowd on a visit to Germany, the fact that Germany had not joined in such sanctions was something he would never forget.

King Zog & Queen Geraldine
As for King Zog, he was never to relent in his claim to power in Albania and his efforts to restore his regime. Forced out of France by the advance of the German military, he and his family relocated to Britain and while his family moved to safer environs near Windsor, Zog himself remained in London. There, in the Allied nerve-center, Zog was constantly pressuring Churchill to send him to the front in some capacity to take part in the war against the Italian and later German forces occupying Albania. However, for Churchill and his government, a cold pragmatism ruled the day that sidelined all other considerations besides the quick and complete defeat of the Axis powers. Britain had greater interest in Greece but in Albania, as in other areas, the only concern was who had the most anti-Axis forces to help ensure victory and in Albania, as in those other areas, that force was the communists. Neither Britain nor America was prepared to throw their full support behind a restoration of Ahmed Zog and so almost all Allied support ended up going to the communist partisans which included the future fanatical tyrant of Albania Enver Hoxha. Of course, Zog had his supporters in Albania but with some Albanians supporting Zog, others supporting Italy, others later supporting Germany, the divisions of the anti-communist forces left the pro-communist side with the most potent force on the ground and that was all that ultimately mattered to the high command in London.

King Zog and sisters in the National Guard
Things were set to get much worse for Albania in the aftermath of World War II. However, to end on a more positive note, there was some royal reconciliation after it was all over. The Albanian Royal Family left England in 1946 and was given a warm welcome in Egypt by King Farouk. As it happened, they shared their Egyptian exile with King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy (who had renounced his title as King of Albania), his daughter Queen Ioanna (Giovanna) and grandson King Simeon II of Bulgaria. Queen Ioanna and Zog’s wife Queen Geraldine became close friends and the two women brought about an official reconciliation of the two families which has endured to this day. In 2012 Prince Victor Emmanuel of Naples (along with his son the Prince of Venice) invested Prince Leka II of Albania with the Grand Cross of the Order of Sts Maurice and Lazarus. The royals patched things up but it has been harder putting right all that had gone wrong in Albania itself in the years leading up to and during World War II when Albania, like most of the Balkan monarchies, came away with reasons to be bitter against both the Axis and the Allies.

Additional Note: I cannot help but think that if a more Metternich-like policy had been pursued by the Allies, Albania would be a kingdom today and naturally much better off. Such a policy would have seen Italy allowed to retain its past gains to come alongside with the Allied nations (as was done with many Napoleonic states) or that Zog would have at least been given a battalion, even if it had to be filled with mercenaries, to go home and fight for his country as he stated so often that he wished to. It might not have made the difference but, you never know, might have turned out do quite well. Of course, Metternich never had to deal with the necessity of allying with a regime like the USSR. Alas, Albania would not be the only Balkan country to feel victimized by both sides in the war.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Monarchist Profile: General Jose de la Serna e Hinajosa

Don Jose de la Serna e Hinajosa, first Count of los Andes, was effectively, if not officially, the last Spanish viceroy of Peru but more significantly was in command of the last period of struggle between the forces of the Spanish Crown and republicanism in South America. Born in 1770, like many young Spanish noblemen, he became an officer in the army early in life and had a career typical of the difficult position Spain was faced with in that time and place. At the start of the French Revolutionary Wars, he fought the French. Then, when Spain was forced into an alliance with France, he fought the British. When that alliance ended, he fought the French again, was taken prisoner but escaped and then traveled a bit before making his way back to Spain where he fought the French again in the Peninsular War alongside the British who were then allied to Spain. He saw that campaign through to the end when the French were finally driven from the Iberian peninsula in 1813. Once that war was over and King Fernando VII was safely restored to his throne, attention turned toward the vast Spanish empire in America.

During the wars with France, the Spanish colonies had been isolated and independence movements, some more revolutionary and republican than others, began to break out. The other monarchies of Europe were mostly concerned with events in their own continent and cared little about what happened in other parts of the world where they had no significant interests. On the other hand, the United States was quick to grant recognition and at least moral support to any colony that broke away from Europe and the British Empire did the same while also giving both official and unofficial support to such independence movements as a way of eliminating Spain as a colonial rival and breaking the Spanish monopoly on trade with Latin America. Obviously, for the Spanish empire, this was the moment of the greatest crisis and more revolutionary movements broke out and gained ground under such dynamic leaders as Simon Bolivar, Jose de San Martin and others. Don Jose de la Serna, by then a major general, was dispatched to the Viceroyalty of Peru to take command of Spanish royalist forces there and put down all rebellions against the Crown.

Peru was the strongest bastion of royalist sentiment in South America and the hope was that it could be secured as used as a base from which republican rebels could be suppressed one by one in neighboring regions such as Colombia and Argentina. But, the Spanish faced internal as well as external difficulties. Commanders often wavered according to their politics and discord between officials and generals were far from uncommon. The case of General De la Serna illustrates this. Arriving in 1816, he was first posted to Alto Peru, in what is now Bolivia, and ordered to march against the rebels in northern Argentina by the Viceroy of Peru, Don Joaquin de la Pezuela. However, De la Serna opposed this plan as being too ambitious and was often at odds with the Viceroy who was an old-fashioned royal absolutist while De la Serna was a more liberal moderate, leaning in the direction of a constitutional monarchy. This was hardly uncommon, nor was it unique to Spain. During the American War for Independence most of the British commanders sent to suppress the rebel colonists were Whigs who sympathized with their complaints against the London government. Nonetheless, De la Serna began to move but made it only as far south as Salta in the Lerma Valley of northern Argentina in early 1817 when he was surprised by the appearance of a rebel army under Jose de San Martin who had crossed the mountains from Argentina, conquered Chile and was moving north.

This forced De la Serna to halt his advance and fall back to a defensive position in Bolivia. He soon had his hands full dealing with insurgents in the area which began to rise up with the appearance of San Martin and his Army of the Andes. Frustrated by the situation and his only worsening relationship with the Viceroy, De la Serna finally requested permission to resign and go home to Spain, a request which was ultimately granted in May of 1819. By September, all was in order and he handed his command over to General Jose de Canterac and prepared to return home. However, he did not do so and, in light of subsequent events, one can only wonder if, perhaps, he never intended to retire at all but that this was a charade on his part. As was not uncommon in the Spanish colonies, De la Serna had his own following of loyal supporters who were convinced that he was the only one who could save them from the threat of an invasion by the rebel forces under San Martin in Chile. They applied a great deal of pressure on the Viceroy to have De la Serna appointed to some position of great importance.

Hoping to placate them, De la Pezuela had De la Serna promoted to lieutenant general and made president of the war council in Lima. But his supporters were not placated. In September of 1820 Jose de San Martin landed in the coastal city of Pisco, Peru and prepared to march on Lima. The De la Serna faction then made their real bid for power, pressuring De la Pezuela to resign and make De la Serna Viceroy of Peru. De la Pezuela, however, refused to be pressured and, in what he likely regarded as a test of loyalty, ordered De la Serna himself to put down the uprising that favored him. If it was a test, De la Serna failed, saying that he did not have sufficient forces to suppress them. De la Pezuela had been the victim of a very well managed coup. He was beaten and knew it and so on the evening of January 29, 1821 he resigned and handed power over to Don Jose de la Serna, making him Viceroy of Peru. Sadly, this too was not unusual and, also as usual, the Spanish government simply went along with what had already happened ‘on the ground’ and validated the decision.

Meeting of San Martin and la Serna
By that time, Jose de San Martin was almost upon Lima and the new Viceroy sent a Spanish envoy, who had just arrived with instructions to find a peaceful solution to the crisis, to begin negotiations with the rebels. The talks were long and arduous but ultimately hopeless. The King of Spain was willing to concede practically everything; local self-rule, a new government, complete autonomy, but he would not concede his sovereignty and the rebels demanded nothing less than complete independence. Starting on May 3, the talks continued until June 25 when both sized recognized that no agreement was possible and force of arms would have to decide the issue. Unfortunately for the royalists, their military situation had not improved in the meantime and the following month Lima was evacuated and Jose de San Martin marched in to occupy the city and, on July 15, 1821, issue the Peruvian declaration of independence. Viceroy De la Serna retreated to Cuzco but the forces of the Crown were rapidly falling apart. When the rebels besieged Callao, De la Serna sent General Jose de Canterac to lift the siege with 4,000 men. Unfortunately, he did not succeed and the starving garrison surrendered in September. Royalist forces remaining in Bolivia broke off on their own, refusing to follow orders from De la Serna and internecine dispute among the royalists became more problematic.

In August of 1824 Canterac was defeated at the Battle of Junin by Simon Bolivar as rebel forces from around South America converged on the royalist armies, giving them their first victory in Peru itself. Viceroy La Serna decided to ‘go for broke’ and fight one decisive battle that would settle everything. The result was the Battle of Ayacucho against the rebel army of Antonio Jose de Sucre. The Spanish royalists consisted of only 500 Spanish soldiers, the remainder being local loyalists and native militiamen while the rebel army, not very different in size, included men from all over Spanish America; Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Chile and others as well as the British Legions of volunteers which included men from across the British Isles and Germany who were supporting the cause of Latin American independence. The Spanish forces were also weakened by having troops dispatched to fight other royalists as the conflict between constitutional and absolute monarchists had carried over to America. The result was not difficult to foresee. De la Serna was defeated at the Battle of Ayacucho, forced to surrender and with that defeat, Peruvian independence was secured and the power of the Spanish Crown was removed from South America from that time forward. The rebel victory was so complete and far-reaching that some Spanish historians have speculated that it was all a show rather than a real contest, that the liberal-minded Spanish officers had already agreed in advance to surrender to the rebels. This, of course, is a very serious accusation and one that would be difficult to either prove or refute, however, given the pattern of behavior some royalist officers exhibited, such as La Serna himself, it is understandable that some would suspect a conspiracy.

His Catholic Majesty King Fernando VII, however, seemed to have no doubts about the loyalty of La Serna, granting him the title of Count of the Andes after he returned to Spain. He was given a lofty command appropriate for his rank, Captain-General of Granada, where he finished out his military career. He died in Cadiz in 1832. His life and military career were illustrative of the problems that beset the Spanish empire in the early 19th Century as well as the internal divisions, both in Spain and in America, that precipitated its ultimate demise.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

It's A Girl!

Happy birthday to the new princess of the Royal Family and congratulations to the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge. God Save the Queen!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Monarch Profile: Emperor Francis I of Austria

The man who would be the last “Holy Roman Emperor”(elect) and the first “Emperor of Austria”, Francis II and then Francis I, was born in Florence, Italy on February 12, 1768 to then Grand Duke Leopold II of Tuscany, who was the younger brother of Emperor Joseph II. Named Francis (or Franz as you please) like the founder of the Hapsburg-Lorraine family line, his mother was the Infanta Maria Luisa of Spain, daughter of His Catholic Majesty King Carlos III, he was the second of sixteen children. For little Francis, while his childhood years were happy ones, basking in the bosom of his family and the sunshine of Italy, his parents were not to be a major part of his life ultimately. The liberal-minded, autocratic Emperor had no heirs and so, Francis was obviously the one in whom the future of the House of Hapsburg and its empire would be invested. So, at the age of 16, he was plucked from his family and his uncle the Emperor took charge of his upbringing personally. The experience was one that might have made even the children of ancient Sparta gape in amazement.

Young Francis was deemed to be utterly unsatisfactory, his uncle basically describing him as spoiled, clumsy and dim. He was subjected to a vigorous regime of study and exercise to correct these problems and was shut up in isolation as a way to make him more self-reliant. The Emperor himself said that his approach toward his nephew was, “fear and unpleasantness”. The Emperor, who seemed to turn cold after the death of his beloved first wife, was a man who was beloved by the common people for the actions he took to improve their welfare. However, it would be a mistake to think that this was due to his compassionate nature. Rather, it was because Emperor Joseph II had a fixation, perhaps even obsession, with orderliness, justice and making all things reasonable and rational. Taking any sixteen-year-old boy from any background and trying to make him orderly and reasonable would seem an impossible task for most and may, perhaps, explain why the Emperor could seem such a tyrant. Nonetheless, he filled his nephew with a respect for him that would last as long as Francis lived. Francis admired his uncle with ‘fear and trembling’ and the impact he had on Francis, and which Francis subsequently had on the rest of Hapsburg history, would ensure that Emperor Joseph II would be upheld as the standard by which all Austrian emperors were judged.

When Francis was sent to join the imperial army (a regiment on garrison duty in Hungary) it was probably the least demanding part of his training for the crown. In 1790 Emperor Joseph II died and was succeeded by Leopold II whose reign was to be a very short one. He spent most of his time trying to regain the support of all those his brother had offended while simultaneously retaining most of his policies. Archduke Francis acted on his behalf while his father was engaged in those duties and within a very short time Leopold II grew ill and died. At the age of only 24 on March 1, 1791 Francis became King of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia and was in due course (when all the formalities were attended to) was named Emperor-elect of the Holy Roman Empire of the German People, King in Germany and all the rest as Francis II. He inherited a Reich beset by threats but he was a good man to meet them. On the whole, more traditional than his uncle, he was just as, if not more, pragmatic and would make decisions he thought in the best interests of his empire, whether it cast him in a positive light or not. His first and immediate concern was France where revolution was raging and where revolutionaries were threatening to take their torches beyond their borders to set fire to the whole of monarchial Europe.

If one were to assume that the fate of the Austrian-born Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, was foremost on the mind of Emperor Francis II (Kaiser Franz II), one would be mistaken. He did not really know his aunt and was not prepared to deal with traitors in order to save her. Emperor Joseph II had concocted a scheme to rescue his little sister but, at that time, Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI thought it precipitous and a dereliction of duty to escape the country. By the time Francis II came along, the Queen was a prisoner and while Danton was willing to negotiate for her release (though considering the character of Danton it is entirely possible he was being false in the whole matter) Emperor Francis II refused to make any concessions and in due course the tragic queen was sent to the guillotine. For Francis, the only way to deal with the French Revolution was war and his empire went to war with France the same year he came to the throne. At first, he tried to take matters into his own hands during the failed Flanders campaign but he wisely decided to leave military matters to the experts and handed the army over to Archduke Charles, Duke of Teschen. This was the right choice as the Archduke would prove to be the most formidable continental opponent of Napoleon, even if he was not quite able to best the brilliant Corsican.

The war policy of Emperor Francis was one of resistance whenever possible, peace when necessary but to always strike again when the situation seemed favorable. At the outset, Austria was defeated and Francis decided to come to an agreement with the French republic, ceding land in Germany in exchange for half of the territory of the Republic of Venice which had tried to remain neutral. In the War of the Second Coalition, Austrian troops marched against France again and again in the War of the Third Coalition but both were French victories and most critically saw France take leadership in the German states away from Hapsburg Austria. This greatly alarmed Francis II and he decided to take a drastic and unprecedented step. With the reorganization of Germany and the victorious Napoleon making no secret of his imperial pretensions, Francis feared that the Corsican would apply sufficient pressure to have himself elected Holy Roman Emperor a title which, elections aside, the Hapsburgs had come to view as their property. The idea was too terrible to contemplate so Francis II decided to abolish the empire rather than see it fall into the hands of Napoleon. He dissolved the historic institution, abdicating his throne on August 6, 1806 and became instead Emperor Francis I of Austria.

This is something which some people remain at odds about even today, which is probably unavoidable for a move which was so historic. Did Francis have the authority to do what he did? Ultimately, the whole argument is academic. So much of what had been the Holy Roman (German) Empire was rather vague to begin with, being one thing in theory but something else in fact. It came about in an odd way and survived for so long because it was so changeable. Before the Revolution it had become essentially the Austrian Empire already plus those minor states allied to them with the Kingdom of Prussia being effectively independent. No emperor had actually been fully emperor, crowned by the Pope, for centuries and the electoral nature of it had long been a mere formality. Francis simplified things and brought what existed in fact into existing in name as well. His struggle with France was certainly not over and thanks to his leadership the Austrian Empire would remain as the dominant German power in the end.

In 1809, taking advantage of what Napoleon called “the Spanish ulcer” Emperor Francis I of Austria went to war again but once again suffered a stunning defeat. What was worse, Napoleon was determined to make major changes in regards to his relationship with Austria because of this. After all, if these numerous lost wars can seem disheartening from the Austrian point of view, one must keep in mind that they were extremely damaging to Napoleon even though he was always victorious. Emperor Francis I had the land, the population, the resources and an able general to remain Napoleon’s most dangerous continental foe and Napoleon was tired of having to fight them over and over again. Finally, it seemed, Napoleon had the Austrians where he wanted them. Always a pragmatic man, the Kaiser decided he had no choice but to come to terms with l’empereur. He gave up considerable territory and even the hand of his daughter in marriage to Napoleon as well as joining the “Continental System” the French had set up in an (ultimately futile) effort to starve Britain into submission. This may have been the peak of Napoleon’s career. He seemed to have broken the back of his most powerful enemy on the continent of Europe and by his marriage to Archduchess Marie Louise he gained an heir to his throne and, what was seen anyway as, acceptance into the ranks of the established dynasties of Europe.

However, Emperor Francis II was simply being pragmatic and he would do what was necessary at the moment and bide his time to come out on top in the end. If it meant doing something unfortunate, so be it. The same thing occurred in relation to the great Austrian monarchist hero Andreas Hofer. At one point, the land Hofer had fought so hard for and which he had won in fair combat was handed over by the Emperor to the Bavarian allies of France. It had to be a difficult moment for the loyal Austrian patriot but the Emperor was making the hard choices that were necessary and he would ultimately get it all back. Despite the efforts of his daughter to convince him that Bonaparte was not such a bad guy, Emperor Francis had never truly accepted him as a legitimate monarch and never would. Thankfully for Austria, Napoleon could not resist overreaching and this he did with his invasion of the Russian Empire. The steppes of Russia swallowed the Grande Armee and in the aftermath a sixth coalition was formed, including Austria, to bring Napoleon down. Russian and Prussian armies pushed the French out of Germany, the Swedes hit Napoleon’s Danish ally and the British pushed up from Spain into southern France. At battles such as Kulm and Leipzig, Austrian forces played their part in a string of allied victories. Austria had a talented commander on hand in the person of Field Marshal Karl Philipp, Prince of Schwarzenberg who had actually been picked by Napoleon himself to command the Austrian contingent of the invasion of Russia.

Emperor Francis I risked everything in this war, betting all the chips that Austria had but this time Napoleon was defeated and as the allied armies closed in on Paris in 1814, the French emperor abdicated and was exiled to Elba. A short time later, he would return to make his last bid for power but met with a crushing and decisive defeat at Waterloo after which he was sent to St Helena, never to return. For Emperor Francis of Austria, this was the high point of his reign and a moment of the greatest prestige for Austria. Allied leaders met in his capitol, in the Congress of Vienna, to redraw the map of Europe and organize a new, post-revolutionary international order. The Austrian Empire benefited greatly, giving up territories such as Belgium which was distant and next to impossible to defend while regaining the Tyrol and other areas and gaining new territory in Italy and Dalmatia (what had been the Republic of Venice).

More significant though, was the pride of place that the Austrian Empire received with the creation of the German Confederation, of which the Austrian Emperor was President, and the Holy Alliance of Prussia, Austria and Russia to safeguard religion and monarchy in central and eastern Europe (though Britain, the Pope and the Turks disliked it -an odd assortment). It was a very conservative and pragmatic new order that settled over Europe and that made it very much to the liking of Emperor Francis I whose chancellor, Prince Metternich, had arranged much of it. The Emperor and Metternich understood each other and worked well together, establishing an international order in Europe based on legitimacy and periodic international congresses to resolve disputes that prevented another pan-European war for a hundred years. Perhaps their only failing in this area was in their rejection of nationalism as a whole, thinking it could be suppressed rather than taking hold of it to steer in a beneficial direction. Nonetheless, what they did do produced undeniable results and, on the whole, worked for a very long time.

As a man and as a monarch, Emperor Francis I was probably unlike what most would suppose him to be. For enemies of the Austrian Empire he is often portrayed as a harsh, reactionary tyrant, paranoid and militaristic, cold and calculating. In fact, he was a complex man who understood the enormous responsibility he had as monarch and who tried to always do what was best, not for the sake of popular opinion but as a sacred duty. It is true that he had a very active and extensive secret police and his policies would today be seen as restrictive. They were certainly illiberal but no more so than many that exist in Europe today, the only difference being who they were aimed at stopping and the fact that, unlike modern European leaders, Emperor Francis never claimed to a liberal. His network of spies and use of censorship was a reaction to the horror and world war that came with the French Revolution and he was determined to prevent such words, ideas or movements ever gaining a foothold in the Austrian Empire. Much of Europe today has laws just as restrictive but where Francis banned “revolutionary rhetoric” or “egalitarian” or “anti-religious” and “republican” talk, today what is banned is called “hate speech” or “racist” or in some way offensive and “politically incorrect” talk. His ban on all things Jacobin could be compared to the current ban in Germany on all things Nazi and would be defended on the same grounds; that some ideas are too dangerous to tolerate.

To the charge of being a reactionary (which not everyone would consider a bad thing) Emperor Francis was more nuanced than most realize. He was certainly a man of very traditional and staunchly conservative politics but neither was he a radical legitimist. He favored policies which were as conservative as possible but was never so ideologically zealous as to hinder his pragmatism. This was partly why he opposed nationalism, because it interfered with the sort of monarchial territorial horse-trading that could benefit his empire. So, he had no qualms about northern Italy being absorbed by the Austrian Empire rather than being restored to Venice and he was more supportive of the King of the French, Louis Philippe, than the very traditional King Charles X of France whose policies, though the Emperor was probably sympathetic to, he feared were impractical and could lead to another revolution and potential trouble for the rest of Europe.

Although he famously said that he had no knowledge of “the people” but only “subjects” he was not some distant, aloof sort of autocrat as he is often portrayed. Each week he set aside two half-days to meet with any of his subjects, whether high born or low, who made an appointment to see him. He would listen to their opinions or concerns and was able to converse with them in their own language, no matter what part of his polyglot realms they came from. In that way he was more accessible to the public than just about any republican president in any European country today (or most in the rest of the world at large for that matter). In a way, he inherited qualities from both of his immediate predecessors. From his father, who it was said ran the most successful secret police force in the world as Grand Duke of Tuscany, he had a talent at keeping himself well informed about what was going on within his empire and from his uncle Joseph II he had the ability to talk easily to anyone, be they prince or ploughman.

If Emperor Francis was busy with his public duties, his private life was just as eventful. He married first in 1788 to the charming Elisabeth of Wurttemberg, a bride chosen by Emperor Joseph II, but she died in childbirth in 1790, her baby girl surviving her by less than a year. Later that year he married his first cousin, Princess Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily, who bore him twelve children, though four died young. These offspring included a future Empress of the French and Queen of Italy (while Napoleon ruled), a future Emperor of Austria, Empress of Brazil and Queen of Saxony. They had a successful marriage and mostly a happy one, though she was very lively and he very serious. She died in 1807 at only 34, no doubt thoroughly exhausted. The following year he married another first cousin, Maria Ludovika of Austria-Este, a refugee from the Napoleonic conquest of Italy, but she died in 1816 at only 28. Later that year he married Princess Caroline Augusta of Bavaria who was quite popular and who survived him.

At home, Emperor Francis I kept things calm and orderly. Trade was not much promoted and agriculture remained the primary industry of most imperial subjects. In this area, Francis can be faulted somewhat as his policy, summarized by his words, “I won’t have any innovations,” and “Let the laws be justly applied; they are good and adequate” as this allowed more business-friendly Prussia to have an economy and industry that expanded faster than Austria. The army was also neglected in terms of spending (while the overall debt continued to climb) which had negative effects for Austria later. Dissent in Hungary, however, remained as problematic for Francis as it had been for his predecessors and after a meeting of the Central Hungarian Diet in 1825 he was forced to agree not to raise taxes without their consent. In foreign matters, his primary concern was in suppressing any hints of nationalist or revolutionary sentiment in Germany and Italy. In the short-term, these were successful but in the long-term they proved fruitless. Nonetheless, Francis I was convinced that he was correct and that it only took a firm hand and a sharp eye to ensure that things remained as they were.

After ruling for 43 years, quite unexpectedly, Emperor Francis I of Austria came down with a fever and died on March 2, 1835 at the age of 67. In character to the end, his last advice was to “change nothing”. Additionally, he advised his son and heir to preserve the unity of the Imperial Family. That would be done, though after the traumas of 1848 his eventual successor, Emperor Francis Joseph I, would be forced to make some considerable changes. History, on the whole, has not been kind or very fair to Emperor Francis I, portraying him as a narrow-minded arch reactionary who liked nothing more than fiddling with his wax seals or making toffee. However, in truth, he was the driving force behind all that was Austria for nearly half a century. Metternich usually gets the glory (or the blame, depending on one’s view) but he only persisted in his position because the Emperor wanted him there. Francis I saw Europe torn apart by revolution, took a firm stand in stamping it out and did his best to ensure that it never happened again -and so long as he lived it did not. He could be short-sighted and sometimes he had to make tough decisions for the good of his empire but by his actions, the Austrian Empire survived and finally triumphed over Napoleonic France, regaining the dominant position in German affairs and central Europe. While there were problems in isolated areas, the actions and leadership of Emperor Francis prevented widespread unrest until 1848 and created a system in Europe based on facts rather than idealism, legitimacy rather than populism and established peace and stability for the better part of a century. Not a bad record that.

Monday, April 27, 2015

War Time Monarchs So Far

In case some further background information might be helpful, here is a list of monarchs profiled here in the past from those countries which have so far been discussed in our 2015 theme year on World War II. Please to note that there are others but this list is restricted to those whose countries have been highlighted in the months up until now (not those yet to be discussed). Peruse as you please:

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Should the Low Countries Have Fought World War II?

Should the Low Countries have fought World War II? Obviously, that is a somewhat silly question. They had no choice. They were attacked, invaded and occupied so it is only natural that they would resist and fight to liberate their lands and populations from foreign domination. However, one of the requirements of a “just war” according to the School of Salamanca (building on the works of St Thomas Aquinas) is that it is just to fight a war of self-defense as long as there is a reasonable possibility of success. Otherwise, to do so, would be a futile sacrifice of life that would be immoral. Not a few people would look at the vast disparity in the military capabilities of the Kingdoms of the Netherlands, Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg compared to Nazi Germany and conclude that there was no reasonable chance of success, that any resistance would be futile and thus it was wrong to fight and the Dutch, Belgians and Luxembourgish should have simply submitted peacefully to German domination. After all, we can see with the benefit of hindsight how overwhelming the Nazi blitzkrieg was; Luxembourg was occupied in a day, the Netherlands surrendered in four days, Belgium in eighteen.

Dutch East Indies colonial troops
Yet, there is more to it than that. In the First World War, the Belgians resisted fiercely and, indeed, the Germans never managed to conquer quite all of Belgium. In World War II, even after their homelands were conquered, the Netherlands and Belgium carried on fighting. Dutch forces made a significant contribution to the war against Japan in the Dutch East Indies and colonial troops from the Belgian Congo participated in the Allied conquest of Italian East Africa. Even tiny Luxembourg was not left out of the eventual Allied counter-attack in Europe. None of these countries ever expected to be fighting alone. Regardless of what neutrality pacts they had in place, the only powers that any of these countries could reasonably expect to face hostilities from was France or Germany and in all probability they themselves would not be the target. None would certainly be isolated. If, for some reason, France invaded to get at Germany, they could count on German support whether guaranteed or in any way obligated or not. As did happen, when Germany invaded, they had the support of the French, and eventually the British, in the overall struggle that ensued.

Field Marshal Montgomery & Dutch Prince Bernhard
On their own, neither the Netherlands, Belgium or Luxembourg could hope to defeat the Germans. However, they did not need to be able to in order to have at least a reasonable chance of success (still not considerable, but at least “reasonable”). Going back to the First World War, the only reason to strike the Low Countries was because the low, flat terrain offered a faster route to France for the Germans than to attack directly across the heavily fortified French frontier. Of course, in that conflict, as it turned out, the Germans did extremely well against the French on the Franco-German border even when greatly outnumbered. However, this overall strategic situation meant that neither the Dutch nor the Belgians would have to defeat the Germans outright but rather simply be able to offer enough resistance so that any gain in time that was to be had by advancing through the Low Countries was eliminated or even simply severely mitigated for the Germans. This would make conquering these countries unfeasible even if still totally possible. It was possible for the Low Countries to at least defend themselves sufficiently so that an invading power, while being able to conquer them, would gain no advantage from doing so and thus would choose to avoid them or, if determined to attack, at least be held off long enough for assistance from stronger powers to arrive to assist.

Belgian Congolese colonial troops in Ethiopia
It is rather bewildering that this logic could be lost on those who would argue that any resources devoted to defense for the Low Countries are resources wasted. They have hardly been the only ones to adopt such a strategy. Canada, for example, previously had defense plans in the event that war broke out with the United States. These were made in the Twentieth Century when, obviously, in isolation, there is no doubt that the United States could easily roll over and crush Canada with little trouble. Yet, Canadian resistance would not have been futile as they could conceivably have held off American forces long enough for the British to bring in support from the U.K. and across the empire, along with what was, at that time, a Royal Navy that was stronger than that of the United States so that such resistance could have been offered that any attack on Canada would not have been worth the cost. Likewise, when the Japan Self-Defense forces were first organized, a “shield and sword” strategy was adopted as part of the alliance with the United States. Originally, this was aimed at the possibility of Russian aggression. Today, the overall strategy has not changed but with China as just as if not more likely adversary. The Japanese Self-Defense Force acts as the shield and the American military as the sword, offering sufficiently fierce resistance to delay a Russian or Chinese attack until the massive strength of the American armed forces can be brought to bear to destroy the invader. This is not significantly different from the strategy the Low Countries did or could have adopted prior to both World Wars.

Dutch troops on guard, 1939
The reasons for the swift defeat of the Low Countries must be understood on a case by case basis. Little Luxembourg actually did have a defense strategy seemingly based on that above, with a series of roadblocks and iron gates to slow an invading army until help could arrive, but it was not pursued fully and, when the attack came, the small military corps was confined to barracks. There was little to no resistance to speak of. For the Dutch, too much trust had been put in the notion that Germany would respect Dutch neutrality as they had in the first war. The Netherlands could have made itself a much tougher nut to crack if proper resources had been devoted to the military and if defense plans had been taken more seriously. Even as it was, even surrendering after four days of fighting, the Dutch had held out three days longer than the Germans expected. They could have held out much longer if the army and air forces had not been so neglected by the government and if defensive flooding had been enacted sooner. The hope of neutrality also prevented the establishment of sophisticated plans for allied cooperation and so no significant help could reach Holland in time. Likewise, in the Dutch East Indies, naval defenses could have been stronger and the colonial forces on land had a mentality based almost completely on providing internal security rather than repelling a foreign invader due to the fact that the Dutch never considered any other regional power an enemy that would wish to attack them.

Belgian troops at the start of war
The Belgians, of course, had the most recent experience at fighting a world war. King Leopold III himself had served in the trenches with the small but tenacious Belgian army in the brutal Flanders sector. Defense was taken much more seriously in Belgium, in fact the Belgians had, along with the French, invaded Germany in the Weimar era due to the Germans not being prompt with reparations payments. However, more was obviously still needed in making Belgium fully prepared for another war but it is easy to see why this was lacking. The country had been devastated in the First World War and naturally the priority was in recovering from that. There were also those that thought, or at least hoped, that such an invasion would never happen again, a sort of ‘lightening cannot strike the same place twice’ mentality. The events of the last war had also forced Belgium to abandon neutrality and the kingdom was firmly in the Allied camp. Yet, that was a camp that hardly presented a united front.

Belgian troops in retreat
Relations with Britain and France were very close and the Belgian and Italian monarchies had been linked by the royal marriage of Princess Marie Jose to Prince Umberto of Piedmont, heir to the throne of Italy. However, when Hitler began to seem a menace, the alliance seemed to come apart. Mussolini was angered at having stood alone against Hitler in the first Nazi attempt to grab Austria and later the French and British pushed Italy into the German camp by sanctioning Italy over the war in Ethiopia. There was further alarm when Britain came to a naval agreement with Nazi Germany so that it seemed France and Britain were isolating Italy and reconciling with Germany rather than the reverse. Belgium, not unreasonably, began to lose faith in the Allies to oppose Hitler and so decided, at the last minute, to try going back to the previous policy of neutrality. King Leopold III announced this policy change in 1936 and the following year Hitler pledged to respect Belgian neutrality in any future war -a promise he had no intention of keeping of course. When the war started, defenses were strengthened and Belgium was by far the most militarily powerful of the Low Countries (in fact, the Belgian army was four times larger than the British army sent to France, which goes to show how woefully unprepared the British were if nothing else).

Belgian troops in the field
However, it was too little, too late. Belgium held out longer than the Netherlands and even the Germans remarked about how well the Belgians fought but the neutrality policy had left them quite ill-equipped for serious conflict. There was also poor coordination with the other Allies when the attack on Belgium came so that, in a reverse of the strategy outlined above, it was the Belgians who were basically sacrificed to buy time for the British to retreat from the continent amidst a rapidly crumbling French war effort. The Belgians did not trust the French (partly because of the Franco-Soviet pact that existed prior to Stalin cozying up to Hitler), the Maginot Line was not extended across Belgium because of Dutch-Belgian neutrality and the British, in whom the Belgians placed most of their hopes, had subordinated their own forces to the French whose plans proved to be almost totally ineffective against the ultimate German onslaught. Because of the policy of neutrality, there were no meetings between the French, British and Belgian military leaders prior to the war to make detailed plans for cooperation and, as a result, their forces were poorly coordinated. In the end, Belgium held out for 18 days before the King, seeing the French coming apart and the British about to abandon the continent, decided to save the lives of his remaining soldiers and surrender. He felt the war was over, the Allies defeated and, given the situation at the time, such a view is totally understandable.

Queen Wilhelmina with U.S. President Roosevelt
Obviously, there were numerous reasons for the lack of readiness that led to the Low Countries being so swiftly defeated in the German blitzkrieg to the west. There is also the rather significant fact that the German armed forces comprised a fantastic fighting machine. Putting aside the regime that was giving them orders, the military itself performed with great ability and would have been an extremely formidable opponent for even the most militarily robust nations on earth. They more than once were able to handily defeat the Russians and Americans as well as the French and British so that is clearly a very large part of this equation. However, the Low Countries were not wrong to resist the German invaders to the utmost. The only possible exception is Luxembourg and tiny Luxembourg really didn’t try to resist, knowing that it would be futile. The same was true for Denmark. The Danes, had they better prepared themselves, could have made more of a fight but, as it was, they were pretty much powerless to resist and so they didn’t. For the Dutch and Belgians, however, they were at least capable of making the Germans work hard for their victory and had different decisions been made, would have been able to have done better still. It doesn’t mean that they could have stopped the Germans cold but given what weaknesses they did have and what strengths (though squandered) the Allies had, they could have mounted a defense of their countries that would have, at the very least, had at least some chance of success.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What World War II Did to the Belgian Monarchy

The history of the Belgian monarchy could easily be seen as alternating between extreme high and low points. King Leopold I saw the country emerge as an independent, sovereign state with friendly ties and even considerable influence on some of the most powerful courts in Europe. Then there was King Leopold II who, while leaving Belgium better than he found it, had lost the admiration of his people due to his vilification over the Congo Free State. However, after Leopold II died, mourned by few, he was succeeded by the handsome, young King Albert I who rose to international fame for his staunch defense of his country in World War I. He was loved at home, respected abroad and seemed the embodiment of what a good king was supposed to be. Sadly, another downturn would come with the reign of his son King Leopold III. However, in his case, he was perfectly placed to break the cycle had it not been for the intervention of World War II. King Leopold III had every quality to make a beloved and successful monarch and yet, because of events beyond his control, he has become the most unjustly controversial of Belgian monarchs. Forced to deal with situations none other of his dynasty have had to deal with, the war was ruinous and the Belgian monarchy has never been the same since.

Leopold III & the Minister of War
After the last war, national defense was taken somewhat more seriously but the huge cost of rebuilding still left the generals wanting more. Neutrality had been abandoned but as the French and British adopted a policy of appeasement, King Leopold III became convinced that they would not stand firm against Nazi aggression and so Belgium reverted back to her previous policy of neutrality. The hope was that any war would bypass them but, after the events of 1914-18, everyone knew it was a slim hope. Starting on May 10, 1940 the Battle of Belgium raged for eighteen days. King Leopold III, a veteran of World War I, was in command, in accordance with the Belgian constitution which required the King to take charge of the army personally in time of war. As in the last war, the Belgian soldiers offered heroic resistance and gained the respect of their German enemies who did not fail to remark on their “extraordinary bravery”. However, this was a new type of war for which Belgium was woefully unprepared. Tanks, air power and airborne invasion were all loosed on the Kingdom of Belgium and its fortresses. The first airborne attack in history was against a Belgian fort, the largest tank battle up to that time, was fought in Belgium. With only 22 divisions against 141 divisions for the Germans, there was simply no way for the Belgians to hold out on their own.

Help did come but coordination with the Belgian army was unpracticed and poor. Moreover, the Battle of Belgium was one aspect of the wider Battle of France and that fight was going very poorly indeed. Most, by now, know the story. Morale low, society divided, France tried to fight the Second World War with a mindset from the First. Despite having a large army and heavier tanks than the Germans, the French military was not deployed properly and though it took six weeks for the Germans to conquer France, the issue had been settled even sooner than that. The Germans succeeded brilliantly in swiftly cutting off the Allied armies from each other and it soon became clear to the British that they would have to pull back to the Channel and evacuate or else they would be destroyed or captured entirely by the German onslaught. Despite what many would say later, King Leopold III was very much a “team player” and he and his troops fought to the best of their ability.

King Leopold III at the front
Unfortunately, the Belgians were encircled and it became clear to the King that to carry on would mean the sacrifice of his army, or what was left of it, to no purpose. As even Churchill himself admitted privately, the Belgians were buying time with their lives for the British to escape even though he later publicly castigated the King of the Belgians for giving up the fight. On May 27, King Leopold III requested an armistice to the fury of the British and French governments. Just as controversial was his decision to remain with his army rather than follow the Belgian government into exile in England. For the King, it was a matter of principle. As commander-in-chief in the field, for him to leave before the surrender would have been, to him, an act of desertion. Instead, he chose to stay, to surrender with his army and remain in Belgium in the hope that he might somehow mitigate the effects of the German occupation. On May 28 the Belgians were surrendered, King Leopold III saying, “The cause of the Allies is lost”. That remark has often been used against him, but at the time and place there was no other conclusion to come to. This was not the First World War. France was about to fall and soon German troops would be goose-stepping down the boulevards of Paris. Britain continued to hold out, but if the Germans had not attacked Russia or if the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbor, few doubt that the capitulation of Britain would have been simply a matter of time.

Staf de Clerq, Flemish Nazi
During the war and afterwards, the actions of King Leopold III were grossly misrepresented, portraying him as a traitor and a collaborator with the Nazi occupiers. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was kept under virtual house arrest by the Germans. Unlike Denmark, where the King and government continued to operate under German “protection” the Kingdom of Belgium, there was no government, collaborationist or otherwise, in Belgium for the duration of the war. Of course, there were those who were willing to collaborate with the Germans but the King was certainly not at all in sympathy with them as most were those opposed to the continuation of the Kingdom of Belgium in any form. The most prominent were the Flemish nationalists who wanted to unite Flanders with the Netherlands and then there were the mostly Walloon Rexists led by the remarkable soldier Leon Degrelle. Originally, these were Catholic, monarchist, Belgian nationalists who advocated a fascist-style organization of the country and economy but Degrelle became so taken with the Nazis that he quickly came to embrace the idea of a pan-European Nazi super-state that would have no place for small countries. King Leopold III, of course, hoped to maintain the Kingdom of Belgium as it had always been or at least with as little diminishment as possible.

There was no equivalent of Petain, Mussert, Quisling, Laurel or Wang Jingwei in Belgium. Hitler never ultimately decided what the fate of Belgium was to be and in some ways it served his purposes better that way, keeping collaborationist factions in competition for his favor. Rather, Belgium was placed under military rule led by the aristocratic General Alexander von Falkenhausen, nephew of the last military governor of Belgium in the Imperial German army. He was a former advisor to the Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and had only returned from China after the Nazis had threatened the safety of his family when the Nazis decided to abandon nationalist China in favor of Japan. In understanding the relationship between King Leopold III and General von Falkenhausen, it is essential to understand what kind of man the German general was. He was no Nazi Party loyalist but a veteran of the Kaiser’s army, a man who resented the Nazi betrayal of China and who was close friends with the anti-Nazi monarchist Carl Friedrich Goerdeler and Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben. Both these men were ultimately executed for plotting against Hitler and von Falkenhausen himself finally offered the anti-Nazi plotters his support. General von Falkenhausen was arrested, put in a concentration camp and doubtless would have been executed had not his camp been liberated by the U.S. Army in early May, 1945.

Gen. Alexander von Falkenhausen
The fact that King Leopold III was able to be cordial with such a man should, obviously, not be taken as a sign of the King’s collaboration as the General himself was opposed to the Nazi regime. The King was widely respected in Belgium and the Germans would have certainly been pleased to have him cooperate, but he refused to. He, as a constitutional monarch, could not perform his duties as monarch without his legitimate government and so he regarded himself as a prisoner-of-war. What he could do and which he did throughout the years of occupation was to intervene with the Germans whenever possible to save the lives of his people and to prevent them from being taken away as slave labor in Germany. The King made his case to General von Falkenhausen in person and wrote many letters to Hitler protesting against the kidnapping of Belgian civilians for forced labor. Needless to say, Hitler was unmoved and the deportations went ahead. Yet, because of the King’s persistent efforts, he did at least convince the Germans to desist in deporting women, which all were certainly thankful for. He also worked tirelessly to try to obtain the release of political prisoners, proper treatment for prisoners-of-war, stopping German confiscation of food supplies and so on and so on. He did absolutely everything that it was in his power to do to help his people in their darkest hour.

The question then becomes why, with so many Belgians knowing of his work on their behalf and even the ranking German commander testifying to his efforts, did King Leopold III become so controversial? It basically comes down to a classic case of making him the scapegoat for others. He might have survived such an effort from one quarter but it was heaped on him from several. Hubert Pierlot, the Prime Minister, broke with the King over Leopold’s decision to stay with his army and remain in Belgium while the government went into exile. He thus had a vested interest in substantiating his original position by continuing to hold that the King had been wrong (this also caused a damaging split within the Catholic, conservative political bloc in Belgium). The Allies, in the wake of the defeat of France and the withdrawal of the BEF from the continent also found it convenient to blame their military disasters on the Belgian monarch, even though they knew their story to be a false one. Likewise, the radical political elements in Belgium, whether the Flemish nationalists or the Walloon socialists, also found it convenient to vilify the King in order to further their goals of either breaking up the country or turning it into a Marxist republic.

Prince Charles Theodore
Those with an agenda against the King also made much of his wartime marriage to Lilian Baels, a woman who has also suffered immense and undue criticism based on salacious rumors with absolutely no basis in fact. What is ironic is that, after the war, when the King had to go into exile in Switzerland (he and his family had been arrested and taken to Germany in the last days of Nazi rule), the man chosen to take his place as regent was his brother Prince Charles, Count of Flanders who himself had a rather irregular private life, though it conveniently did not become public knowledge until many years after his death. He and his brother did not get along and the vilification of Leopold III certainly did him no harm as he became, effectively, King in all but name. The communists were the first to demand Leopold’s abdication, which is no surprise as they will seize on any opportunity to oppose a monarch, but the King and his government, after the war, did seem to be on the verge of a compromise but the politicians kept changing their terms. The socialists also began to organize strikes and demonstrations to prevent the King from returning home and resuming his reign as normal.

The abdication
King Leopold III was then declared “unfit” and so Prince Charles became regent in his place until the issue could be resolved. The socialists led the opposition to the King just as they opposed putting the question to the people in a referendum on whether or not the King should resume the throne. Nonetheless, a referendum was held and, as expected, the more conservative Flanders voted by a large majority for him to return while socialist Wallonia voted by a narrow margin against the King, giving him an overall majority to return, which he did in 1950. However, the socialists were not prepared to accept defeat and began organizing more strikes and demonstrations in opposition to Leopold III. These soon turned violent and the threat of a Belgian civil war loomed as a very real possibility. Disgusted by the whole process and unwilling to be the cause of violence after all the trauma already suffered in World War II, King Leopold III decided to abdicate, passing the throne to his son, King Baudouin, in 1951. Threats of civil war and Walloon secession subsided and eventually King Baudouin was able to restore the prestige of the monarchy but things would never be quite the same again.

So it was that World War II did lasting damage to the Belgian monarchy as an institution. It was not anything that Leopold III did. Some actions could certainly be viewed, in hindsight, as impolitic but he certainly did nothing fundamentally wrong. Rather, the war presented an opportunity that leftist enemies of the monarchy gleefully seized upon to further their own agenda for political power. Looking at the Belgian kings before and after Leopold III, one can easily see that Leopold I, Leopold II and Albert I exercised far more influence, played a much more central role and had effectively more authority than Baudouin, Albert II or the current Philip. Leopold III was essentially forced to abdicate, King Baudouin was actually deposed for a day and Albert II was hounded until he felt he had no choice but to abdicate for the good of the monarchy. None of this would have happened as it did were it not for the war. The seeds were already there of course, but the war and occupation gave these seeds the opportunity to flourish.

Why has the legacy of this injustice outlived King Leopold III himself? Because it has continued to serve the interests of certain people to propagate the lies. The spread absolute falsehoods and distort the truth because they are enemies of Belgium and enemies of the monarchy because it is the guarantor of Belgian unity. So, the old whispers are repeated; he surrendered precipitously, he was cowardly, he didn’t really want to resist, he’s half Bavarian remember, he collaborated with the Nazis, he didn’t want the Allies to win and on and on. The only difference today is that the people pushing these lies and distortions have changed from one side of the linguistic divide to the other. After the war it was Wallonia which was threatening to secede and which most opposed the King. Today, the old lies about Leopold III are more likely to come from Flemish nationalists now that Flanders is threatening to secede. In either case, the damage done to the Belgian monarchy persists because it served the interests of those who spread it. It started out of political bickering and the desperation of Britain and France to blame someone for their lost military campaign and it was taken up by the domestic enemies of the Kingdom of Belgium, first the Walloon socialists and then the Flemish nationalists, because they want to see Belgium destroyed and they know that bringing down the monarchy is the way to make that happen. It is also why loyal monarchists must refute their falsehoods with facts, because this is not simply an historical issue relating to the past but one which continues to have an impact on the monarchy today.
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