Friday, March 16, 2012
Monarch Profile: King Leopold III of the Belgians
Their union was a very happy one and a year later their first child, Princess Josephine-Charlotte was born, followed by a son and heir, Prince Baudouin, in 1930 and another future King, Prince Albert, in 1934. Earlier that year, King Albert I had died tragically in a mountain-climbing accident in the Ardennes and the grieving young prince was sworn in as His Majesty Leopold III, King of the Belgians. Thoughtful, eager and determined he set out to be the best monarch he could but already tragedy was stalking him. In summer the following year the much beloved Queen Astrid died in an automobile accident while on vacation in Switzerland. King Leopold III, having his beloved wife torn from him, had to face the future as a single parent while also being the new monarch of a country beset by many problems with the rise of extremist and revolutionary parties that would soon lead to World War II. Leopold III tried to be the best king and father he could be but he often seemed to have little support. He often clashed with his ministers as the first tensions began to rise between the two language communities in Belgium. Putting their own careers first, the politicians were often at odds with the King who looked out for the welfare of Belgium as a whole.
As it happened, Belgium held out longer than any of her neighbors. Tiny Luxembourg was occupied in a day, the Netherlands fell after four days but Leopold III and the Belgians held out for eighteen before finally being totally cut off and faced with total annihilation. The King was forced to make the difficult decision of surrendering his army. The Belgian government, with whom he was not on good terms, quickly fled across the Channel to Britain but Leopold III decided to remain in Belgium and face the uncertain future alongside his people in the hope that his presence might be able to help them in some way. This infuriated his government but comforted his people during the dark days of the occupation. Some went so far as to accuse the King of being a collaborator but nothing could be further from the truth. He was a prisoner of war, kept under a close watch by the Nazi authorities while the fate of Belgium as a country remained in limbo. Leopold III had one meeting with Adolf Hitler in which he tried to gain some assurance that Belgium would continue to exist but nothing concrete was ever determined. Emotionally, it was a crushing period for the lonely, isolated prisoner-king. Finally, he obtained some degree of comfort with a new companion, Lilian Baels, whom he married in 1941.
There was nothing outrageous in anything that the King wrote, however, the timing of it aroused great opposition as it was seized upon by competitive ministers (and frankly disloyal people) who portrayed it in the worst possible way, as if the King was preemptively regarding the Allies as potential enemies; though he said nothing of the sort. When the Allied armies were approaching the Nazis took the King and Royal Family into custody, taking them to Germany and very nearly killing them all before they were liberated by the United States Army. By that time a very antagonistic government was reestablishing itself in Brussels and refused the King permission to return, appointing his rather difficult brother, Prince Charles Theodore, as regent of Belgium in his place. Leopold III had no choice but to transfer his exile to Switzerland to await the outcome of events in Brussels where, as he had warned, civil disturbances began to break out. Socialists and would-be revolutionaries took full advantage of the murky political situation to try to accomplish their aims of toppling the monarchy and erecting a Marxist republic.