Friday, May 25, 2012
Consort Profile: Queen Marie Jose of Belgium
The time finally came on January 8, 1930 when the glamorous Belgian Princess was married, in Rome, to her tall and dashing Italian prince. It was a lavish, colorful ceremony, planned to awe and inspire but it was something of an ordeal for the new Princess of Piedmont. She would have preferred something simpler but Prince Umberto, fastidious himself, was determined that the ‘look’ of the event would be one all Italians would always remember. The new couple did have some things in common. They were devoted Catholics, they dreamed of a glorious future for the Italian people and they were both compassionate and good-hearted individuals. Aside from that, there were not many things they shared. For Princess Marie-Jose, the vibrant, outgoing free spirit, there was also the fact that she had married into the Italian Royal Family during the Fascist era and with her background, attitude and character, she clashed with the brutish dictator from the very start. Mussolini disliked everything about her, from the way she spelled her own name (she refused to convert to the Italian version out of nationalism) to how she dressed (Fascists preferred a more dour and matronly appearance) and he certainly didn’t like her ideas on freedom, tolerance and the sort of liberal, artistic people she surrounded herself with. Of course, Princess Marie Jose was just as repelled by everything Mussolini stood for, be it his bombastic, crude manners, his love of war or his fawning friendship with Germany.
Princess Marie Jose served as President of the Italian Red Cross after 1939 and was greatly alarmed by the outbreak of World War II. According to Count Ciano (who also opposed the German alliance) he promised and did tell her when he first he learned of the German plan to invade Belgium so that she might warn her brother King Leopold III, though it did little good. When Italy joined the war, the Princess of Piedmont joined the Queen and other royal ladies in working tirelessly to nurse the wounded and frostbitten soldiers from the front where Prince Umberto held nominal command over the forces that invaded France. Never lacking in courage, she even tried to intervene with Adolf Hitler to obtain the release of Belgian prisoners of war. Showing no lack of devotion to the Italian troops either, Princess Marie Jose nonetheless cultivated her contacts with liberals, anti-Fascists and even some on the far left to try to arrange peace talks with the Allies through the Vatican. The King had no idea this was going on, Prince Umberto did but could not become directly involved for constitutional reasons, however the Fascist authorities certainly had their suspicions and put the Princess under ever increasing scrutiny. The main effort the Princess made in this direction was in 1943, the year that the Allies invaded Sicily and the Princess worked through Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, who would later become Pope Paul VI. However, too little progress was made over too great a time and the Princess and her four children were sent to the far north, removed from court but placed close to the Swiss border, making it easier to escape to safety.
However, at the moment, Italy was devastated and the only ones with real strength were those with foreign assistance and this meant the anti-monarchists, particularly the communists who were backed by the Soviet Union. King Umberto II and Queen Marie Jose were the targets of a great deal of vicious propaganda, spread by the communists but often originating from the Fascists. The monarchists tried to get support from the Allies (primarily Britain and America) but none was forthcoming. Rumors were also spread about the political opinions of Queen Marie Jose, implying that she herself was a revolutionary and did not want the monarchy to continue. This was, of course, absurd. The Queen was interested in politics only insofar as it had an impact on the people and society but she was never ideological. The fact that she was friends with figures from the far left was used by dishonest people to construe that she shared their political views completely. That was certainly not true, she was an out-going woman with a large circle of friends and no political litmus test on who she would associate with. In the end, a referendum was held on the future of the monarchy and the republicans controlled the vote. It was, therefore, fairly easy for them to use a variety of underhanded methods to ensure that the result was in their favor. Some urged King Umberto II to raise his flag in the staunchly monarchist south and contest the results but after all the horrors of World War II, he refused to be responsible for causing an Italian civil war. Without abdicating, the King and Queen left Italy.
She had not had an easy life, although much of it looked very glamorous. Her childhood was dominated by war, her marriage was not a very happy one, another war ruined her hopes for the future and she was forced to leave her adopted country. Relations with her children were not always the best afterwards and she was often lonely. However, she endured it all as simply part of the duty that accompanies royalty. Her mother had given her curiosity, compassion and an open mind. Her father had given her courage, devotion to duty and a ‘never quit’ attitude. She was a great lady and would have undoubtedly been a great Queen. It is to the detriment of Italy that she was not given a chance to fully prove herself in that role.