Monday, May 10, 2010

Monarch Profile: King Leopold II of the Belgians

It is safe to say that no other Belgian monarch is as controversial as King Leopold II. He was born in Brussels on April 9, 1835 to King Leopold I and Queen Louise-Marie and named Louis Philippe Marie Victor. His childhood was not a very happy one. His mother thought his prominent nose made him look deformed and his father referred to him as “the little tyrant”. Whereas his brother Philippe was jovial and popular and his sister was the charming and studious favorite of their father, Leopold was shy, awkward and walked with a limp. He seemed to be always compared to his siblings and his widely respected father and never favorably. It is not surprising that much of his future reign would be devoted to succeeding in the task his father was never able to, namely making Belgium an imperial power.

In 1853 Prince Leopold entered the senate to begin gaining some experience at statecraft and on August 22 married the teenage Archduchess Marie-Henriette of Austria. The couple went on to have four children; Princess Louise-Marie, Prince Leopold, Princess Stephanie and Princess Clementine. However, their marriage was not a happy one. Some said Leopold could be charming when he wished but he seldom seemed to wish it in the domestic setting, he was an unfaithful husband and had a rather scandalous private life before and after the passing of his long suffering wife in 1902. It was on December 17, 1865, after the death of his father, that Leopold II took his oath as the new King of the Belgians but there were troubles from the very start. The delegation he sent to Mexico to announce his accession to his sister, Empress Carlota, was attacked by republican bandits and massacred. There was an uproar in Belgium and Leopold II closed the recruiting office for the Belgian Legion, which his sister naturally regarded as almost an act of betrayal; her brother leaving her high and dry in a distant and increasingly hostile land. When the Mexican adventure ended in disaster and Carlota returned home insane with grief over the loss of her husband and adopted country Leopold took relatively little notice of her.

Leopold II was obsessed with achieving international greatness for Belgium and in 1876 he convened an international conference on the exploration of central Africa. This led, the following year, to his sending out the intrepid Henry Morton Stanley to sign treaties with local chieftains and lay the foundations for colonial expansion. Stanley did his work well and in 1885 the Berlin Conference recognized Leopold II as King-Sovereign of the Congo Free State which was to be in personal union with the Crown of Belgium. This effectively made Leopold II private owner of a vast central African empire some 80x larger than his entire country. In 1890 King Leopold II organized a military campaign from the Congo Free State to eradicate the Arab slave trade in central Africa which was still booming at the time.

This expedition was a success but Leopold also set up a framework for the economic development of the Congo which eventually led to immense profits from the rubber trees there (which greatly took off after the invention of the bicycle and automobile) but also immense cruelties inflicted on the Congolese population. It is for this horror that Leopold II is most remembered these days but a few key facts should be kept in mind. First of all, a lot of the numbers that are tossed about as to the number of people who died are quite often simply absurd, at times ranging from 50% to the entire estimated population of the Congo. Obviously, if these extreme statistics are believed absolutely no one would have been making any profit at all. Perhaps most importantly though is that Leopold II was not inflicting these atrocities intentionally. That is often the image that is portrayed with the King being compared to Hitler. Undoubtedly the King was a hard man and often an unsavory character but it is an absolute lie that the horrors of the Congo were purposely carried out by him. Where he can be blamed is in setting up the system whereby his local officials were paid based on the amount of rubber they produced -which would have seemed to make economic sense but which provided an incentive for unscrupulous officials to brutalize the natives in order to enrich themselves. Also, contrary to what many believe, Leopold was troubled by the reports that began to circulate about the savagery going on in the Congo but, and he can be blamed for this, he was all too willing to believe advisors who assured him these were malicious lies.

Eventually, however, the reports and international criticism became too great to ignore and in 1904 (though he is seldom given credit for this) it was King Leopold who sent a commission to the Congo to investigate these reports. Many have dismissed these inquisitors as hand-picked “yes men” Leopold knew would never report anything negative. Again, this is untrue as the commission met with native people and leaders as well as colonial officials and returned with a very balanced report. They cited the advances made by the King’s investments; the roads, schools, hospitals and local infrastructure that had been created, the humanitarian work done by the often heroic missionaries but it also reported that a great many abuses were going on as well, many people had died, many mutilated and many more exploited. Once this was done King Leopold issued new regulations to correct this situation and in 1908 the Congo Free State became a colony, the Belgian Congo, under the control of the government rather than being the personal property of the King.

All of this is said in an effort to be fair -not to sugar coat the facts. One does not have to intentionally wipe out an entire population to be a ‘bad guy’. Whether it was his cold, autocratic nature toward his family or his scandalous private life there is no doubt King Leopold II would have been seen as an unsavory character regardless of what happened in Africa. The suffering was immense but the fact remains that his guilt lies in setting up a system which inadvertently encouraged exploitation rather than a deliberate campaign of genocide. Such accusations in that direction are certainly untrue. He was not a completely heartless man and was reluctant to have even criminals whose guilt had been proven put to death. He wanted Belgium to become an imperial power and to embellish his country and this he certainly did. Long known as the “Builder King” many of the most magnificent buildings and national monuments in Belgium, such as the Cinquantenaire were built by Leopold at his own expense.

However, on the international stage Leopold II was mostly unpopular among his peers. Part of this, it must be said, was due to jealousy over his success and the fact that many larger countries felt little Belgium had achieved a status out of proportion to her size. Much of it though was due to the King himself, because of the private scandals and the suffering in the Congo associated with him. In personal dealings the King put people off and made them uncomfortable, partly because of his own character and partly, no doubt, because of the image portrayed of him in the anti-monarchy and anti-colonial press. Nonetheless, he insisted that he cared nothing for popularity, though this may have been a defense mechanism rather than a genuine sentiment. One other thing Leopold II always stressed was his belief in a military policy of armed neutrality with defense based on military preparedness rather than simply trusting international agreements. As he was on his deathbed the conscription act he had long sought was finally passed. In this area too the coming Great War would prove the unpopular monarch to have been correct.

Also, five days before his death, Leopold II married his long-time paramour, a woman of ill-repute by whom he had two illegitimate children, in a religious ceremony (there was no civil marriage). He died on December 17, 1909. He said he wanted only a small, private funeral but he was given the full royal treatment though there was not exactly widespread grief at the passing of this man who seemed to have been unpopular since the day he was born. His own family was aware of how the reputation of the Belgian monarchy had suffered during his reign. When he came to the Belgian throne in 1865 King Leopold II declared that, “all that I desire is to leave Belgium larger, stronger and more beautiful”. If that was his only standard of success Leopold II was a successful monarch as he did do all of those things. However, his name will forever be tainted by the many scandals of his reign, paramount amongst them being the horror that existed in the Congo Free State. Thankfully, his successor would be a man of impeccable character, embodying everything that a good King should be.


  1. I don't intend to redeem Leopold II, but I think that he may have had some degree of autism. He was very self-centered, he was selfish, lacked social abilities....all qualities that fit with autism (maybe Asperger syndrom). What do you think?


    1. Even if he did have some degree of autism, he was clearly high-functioning. It would neither redeem nor condemn him; it neither mitigates nor aggravates his guilt in the Congo abuses.

  2. This is the best bio of Leopold II I have ever seen, congratulations.

    On a related note, there is a fascinating diary of his nephew, the future Albert I, regarding his journey through the Congo in 1909. He acerbically remarks: "The motto of the Congo Free State was, 'work in the Congo, gold in Brussels'." The concerns for reform Albert expresses illustrate not only his genuine humanitarianism but also a shrewd sense of Belgium's long-term interest; the prince indicates that mistreating the Congolese for quick profit was not only a crime but also a foolish mistake from the economic point of view, since a precondition for an enduringly profitable colony was a healthy and prosperous population.

    If only Leopold II had taken the trouble to visit the Congo and see how matters stood with his own eyes.

  3. Jorge, that may be true but I don't know of anything in his behavior that would be conclusive. However, I suppose it's possible, many royal figures have been speculated about having Aspergers. Prince Albert II of Monaco has recently been though to be a possible sufferer from that.

    Thanks Matterhorn -that means alot coming from you. I don't mind saying this one took a long time, starting over again and again, going on too long, starting again -I finally just set a deadline and did it. Other issues I may deal with later in greater detail. King Albert was quite right and this was an issue I had a big problem with the first time I saw one of those sensationalist "documentaries" on Leopold II. Of course they claimed that up to 20 million people died in the Congo (which would have been the entire estimated population they themselves gave) and saying things like, 'the more people who died the richer Leopold became' or 'the more he was pleased'. Obviously, anyone with an ounce of common sense and honesty will know that *no one* is going to make a profit (even from an exploited workforce) if they massacre the entire population that is doing the work! It is absurd and just the sort of thing that is tossed around to sound as shocking and horrifying as possible with little to no regard for the facts.

    I would also add that I have yet to see a popular treatment of Leopold II that did not seek to "blame" as it were modern Belgium and the modern Belgian monarchy for all of the lurid crimes (real and exaggerated) of Leopold -which positively infuriates me to no end.

    1. MadMonarchist,

      Thanks so much for this great BIO. Where did you get your information? Do you have some book recommendations? I'm interested in getting to know more about KIng Leopold II as it is rumored that his blood runs in my veins. Apparently my Grandfather was one of his Bastard children. I'm interested in getting to know him posthumously.

  4. It's a shame really that Leopold II has become associated with the "Heart of Darkness" (i.e. Belgian Congo). To this day, it remains an example of how NOT to do colonization (and a favorite tool to demonstrate its evils). He he really bothered to look into it, perhaps his reputation would have been better salvaged.

    And perhaps there'd be less "destroy Belgium" types running around.

  5. He did finally look into it and that is what got the ball rolling toward reform but the whole thing could have been handled better from the start -if he had only carried out the humanitarian agenda that he claimed when first getting involved in central Africa he would certainly be regarded in a very different light.

    Then as now however all too many people use the suffering in the Congo to further their own agendas. I have seen the case used to attack not only Leopold and colonialism but even the modern nation of Belgium, the current Royal Family and even Christianity through the Christian missionaries -which is particularly outrageous because they were making great sacrifices themselves in their work and were even instrumental in bringing to light the abuses that were going on.

  6. As good a short biography of Leopold II as I have seen, but Leopold III might well give Leopold II a good run for the category of most controversial Belgian monarch. . .

  7. I wouldn't go quite that far though he's probably #2 (and that is a *gross* injustice). At worst Leopold III is accused of being in sympathy with Hitler (absolutely untrue!) whereas Leopold II is accused of being like Hitler himself -which is also untrue as Hitler was deliberately trying to exterminate people whereas Leopold II was guilty of, at worst, inadvertently allowing others to abuse and exploit people to the point that many died. I don't think Leopold II deserves the purely villainous image he has been given -but at the same time he does deserve an unsavory reputation and was certainly not a swell guy. He may not have been guilty of the worst he is accused of but that doesn't mean he wasn't ultimately responsible for alot of very terrible things.

    King Leopold III, on the other hand, is completely innocent of what he has been accused of, his character is the polar opposite of how many portray him. Leopold II to some extent deserves the criticism of him whereas Leopold III absolutely does not; he was a very good, upright and moral man. Unfortunately, as you say, he is still a very controversial figure just because so many lies and misleading images of him have been accepted over the years.

  8. In general I agree with you on Leopold III, although I think he made a bad mistake in 1940 in electing not to go abroad with the government. It was laudable of the king to wish to share the travails of his people, but as the head of state, he needed to remain a free agent, and not place himself in Hitler's power. But in the context of 1940, it was a hard call. Queen Wilhelmina made the right call, King Leopold, alas, did not.

  9. El Jefe, it was not simply a matter of sharing the travails of his people in a symbolic sense, but also of trying to alleviate their sufferings in a tangible way, and LIII was partly successful in this. Aside from his various humanitarian interventions, which he would probably not have been able to do as easily from abroad, it has been argued that his very presence in the country, by itself, aided the people. Note that countries with their monarchs in residence (Denmark, Belgium) were treated better than those without them (Holland, Norway). In the case of Belgium, the country had a military governor rather than an SS one, and, if I remember correctly, the governor in question, Alexander von Falkenhausen, commented to a prominent Belgian that if King Leopold were removed from the country, he (Falkenhausen) would be dismissed and an SS Gauleiter imposed in his place.

    As far as continuing the war as a free agent, the government-in-exile was able to do that. I don't really see how the King's absence hampered their task. Rather, it seems like it ought to have been a good "divison of labor," as the King himself later commented in his memoirs. He remained to help Belgium from within, the government went abroad to help Belgium from without.

  10. I would also point out that it is easier to judge with hindsight. Keep in mind that no one at the time knew how the war would turn out -if anything at the time, especially after the fall of France- it looked to be over with Germany and Italy successful. If that had indeed been the final result all the monarchs that had gone into exile would never have been able to return. I have nothing but respect for those monarchs who chose to flee and continue to resist from abroad but, as Matterhorn pointed out, this (and not for the first time in history) gave the conquerors the legal justification to say that there is no valid government in the country and impose their own in whatever manner they wished.

    I think Leopold III also took very seriously his role as commander-in-chief (viewed as a ceremonial thing these days on the part of royals and to a large extent even then). According to the law, when war broke out the King automatically took charge of the army and I think Leopold III considered it his duty, as commander-in-chief, to offer the surrender when resistance was no longer possible and to share the fate of his troops, as a soldier, whose life was no more precious than any of the brave men he commanded.

  11. Yes, Leopold III took his role as commander-in-chief very seriously, following in the footsteps of his father, Albert I. In those days in Belgium, it was seen as much more of a genuine rather than a ceremonial responsibility. I think Leopold felt he could not flee during the campaign, even at the last moment when surrender seemed inevitable, because it would it be desertion. This, by itself, automatically meant he would become a prisoner of war.

    I would also like to note that Queen Wilhelmina's departure was not really voluntary, at least not at the outset.

  12. Quite right, as I recall the combative Queen threatened to arm her servants to defend the palace! More realistically she planned to go to Zeeland I think and join her troops to continue the fight. It was only after a German air attack made that impossible, and she was already on a British warship for the trip, that she was forced to go to England instead.


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