Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Monarch Profile: King Albert I of the Belgians
Part of this new tone was to be the domestic life of the Royal Family. In 1900 he married Duchess Elisabeth of Bavaria in Munich, beginning what would be a very long, happy and fruitful marriage marked by mutual respect and devotion. The succession was also quickly secured as the following year Princess Elisabeth gave birth to the future King Leopold III. In 1903 another son was born, Prince Charles Theodore, giving Belgium an “heir and a spare”. In 1906 the family was completed with the birth of Princess Maria Jose, the future Queen of Italy. Albert was a very devoted husband and father who set a fine example in his private life. This, in itself, was quite significant given the unhappy marriage of King Leopold II and Queen Marie Henriette of Austria. Together, Albert and Elisabeth would project a united front of domestic fidelity.
Prince Albert also made himself familiar with every section of Belgian society. He studied the problems of the working class and came up with recommendations to improve their working and living conditions. A firm believer in the principle of “go thyself”, in 1909 he traveled to the recently annexed Belgian Congo to see the situation for himself and what conditions were like for the natives. He had, perhaps, learned from the experience of his uncle, King Leopold II, that it was not safe to simply take the word of officials as to what life was like in the central African colony. He took seriously his duties to all of his future subjects, Belgians and Africans alike, and when he returned home presented a detailed report and recommendations on improving the lives of the natives and for further modernization in the Congo. His role in the rapid improvement in conditions in the Congo is not often stated but it was significant.
Later that year, in December 1909, King Leopold II passed away and his nephew was formally sworn in as King Albert I of the Belgians. Whereas Leopold II wanted his reign to be known for grandeur and greatness, King Albert I, at least in his own life, was best known for his simplicity and moderation. He was a hard working monarch not at all enthralled by pomp and ceremony. He was also a very humble man, reluctant to accept any praise or adulation no matter how well deserved. He wanted peace, prosperity and contentment in Belgium but he was not blind to the growing threat across the border in Germany. He tried to strengthen the Belgian army and give them more up-to-date weapons but was hampered by an uncooperative government and the fact that Germany itself was the source of most of their rifles and artillery. In 1912 his generals estimated that it would not be until 1918 that the military was fully prepared to successfully defend the national territory. As we know, Belgium was not to have that long.
King Albert, after being forced to withdraw from Antwerp, pulled back behind the Yser River and established a defensive line on the last corner of his native soil from which the Germans could never dislodge them. It was important to him to remain at the front, with his soldiers, on Belgian soil. He oversaw the rebuilding of the army which had been shattered in the initial invasion and in time they were better armed and equipped than they were at the outset. This was an extraordinary feat considering that almost the entire country was under German occupation and the sector the Belgians had to defend, the Flanders coast, was easily the most miserable on the western front, low, open and constantly waterlogged. As commander-in-chief he also had to oversee the operations of the Belgian colonial forces in Africa, where they met much success. It was a very trying time for the King, but his deep and sincere faith helped sustain him. A devout Catholic, King Albert impressed the importance of religion on his children and when Pope Benedict XV called for a peaceful end to the war he was the only Allied head-of-state to take the issue seriously. Unfortunately, his efforts to arrange peace with the Emperor Charles of Austria-Hungary were thwarted by the other Allied powers.
The interwar years were a period of recovery and King Albert I was kept very busy. He became the first reigning European monarch to visit the United States, paying tribute to the men of the AEF who helped clinch the Allied victory in the war, he opened the first national park in Africa in the Belgian Congo and he showed solidarity with the Dutch-speaking community of Flanders whose region had suffered the most in the war. He also saw his son Leopold married to Princess Astrid of Sweden and his daughter married to Crown Prince Umberto of Italy. When he did have some time for himself he loved mountain climbing. He was climbing in the Ardennes, near Namur, when, on February 17, 1934 he died in a tragic accident. His sudden death was a cause of great mourning and it is probably accurate to say that he was the most beloved King the Belgians ever had up to that time. He was upright, hard working, devoted to his God, his family and his country, courageous in the face of disaster and humble in the face of praise and adulation. He was a great man and a great king.