Friday, July 6, 2012
Monarch Profile: King Baudouin of the Belgians
When the Allies invaded Europe in 1944 Leopold III, and later Prince Baudouin and the other children, were taken to Germany, closely watched by the SS. They were all almost killed when they were given cyanide pills which the Nazis told them were vitamin tablets. Thankfully, Princess Lilian was suspicious and did not distribute them to the family as instructed. After being transferred to Austria and enduring grueling conditions the family was finally rescued by the United States Army in May of 1945. However, a government hostile to Leopold III had established itself in Brussels which attempted to blame all the ills of the war on the King and named his brother as regent. Unable to return home, the family moved to Switzerland where they stayed until 1950. Prince Baudouin attended high school in Geneva, visited the United States and finally saw his father cleared of the ridiculous and slanderous charge of “treason” by a government commission. Prince Baudouin and his brother Prince Albert accompanied their father back to Belgium in 1950 after a plebiscite found in favor of fully restoring Leopold III to his proper place.
King Baudouin had certainly not been anxious to take the throne under such circumstances, in fact, according to some, he was not anxious for the position of monarch at all and would have preferred to have renounced his royal status and become a priest. However, after all the pain surrounding the abdication of King Leopold III (the first abdication of a Belgian monarch in history) Baudouin was persuaded that two abdications in a row would be something the monarchy might not survive. Instead, King Baudouin was charged with restoring the prestige of the monarchy, reuniting the country and leading the country in recovering from World War II and facing all the new challenges already upon western Europe as a whole. One area that quickly became a point of crisis was the Belgian Congo, though this was not immediately evident. King Baudouin visited the vast central African colony for the first time in 1955 and was given a very warm and enthusiastic welcome by huge crowds of Congolese people who spoke of him adoringly as the “handsome young man” who was very concerned with their wellbeing and progress. However, the rabble-rousers and revolutionaries were hard at work in trying to stir up the public for total independence from Belgium and even toward hatred for Belgians and Europeans in general.
However, it was not to be. The revolutionary hero Patrice Lumumba then took the stage, making an impromptu speech in which he castigated the Belgians, accusing them of years of “injustice, oppression and exploitation” as well as racism, giving some slight credit only in not openly fighting against the independence movement. The native revolutionary elements were fired up by the speech and the Belgians were embarrassed and infuriated. The King very nearly ended his visit then and there and returned to Brussels but swallowed his pride and continued with the planned schedule. In any event, any hope of Belgian-Congolese friendship and cooperation from that point on died an early death. Only a few days after the ceremony the Congolese army mutinied and went on a bloody rampage, chaos reigned in the cities and Belgians and other Europeans, those who were not killed, fled for their lives back to Europe or neighboring African countries. King Baudouin would visit the Congo again, on more than one occasion, when relations between the two countries improved but the lasting friendship and cooperation he sought were never achieved, mostly due to the political leaders who never tired of using past wrongs to advance their own careers and blaming Belgium for every misfortune, even decades after independence.
ña Fabiola de Mora y Aragon. Some in the Catholic Church had helped bring the two together and they were a perfect match for each other, especially in the deep faith they shared. For the rest of their lives they were a devoted and loving couple, a strength and a comfort to each other in good times and bad. Although not much was made public, there was plenty of sadness as the Queen proved unable to have children and suffered a succession of miscarriages. However, their shared faith in God saw them through such difficulties. King Baudouin was often counseled by Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and supported the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement. The King often made pilgrimages to Catholic shrines, most frequently to Paray-le-Monial in France. He sought at all times to reign as a Catholic monarch and to look beyond materialistic concerns to moral problems in Belgium and around the world. This was no small task as his reign saw the rise of increasingly strident socialism, secularism and a growing hedonism among the young generation in particular. There were also many issues of national concern.
King Baudouin oversaw the sending of a Belgian contingent to participate in the Korean conflict with other UN partners, the first time Belgian forces had been sent so far to fight. There were strikes to be dealt with as the labor union movement grew in power but most significant was the growth of the Flemish nationalist movement and an increasing division of the Kingdom of Belgium along linguistic lines. Institutions older than Belgium itself split into Walloon and Flemish divisions and in 1962 a linguistic “border” was drawn across the country. 1970 saw the first of a series of “state reforms” in Belgium as the country was divided into cultural communities. In 1980 these gained their own governments and in 1993 Belgium completed the transition from a unitary to a federal state with communities and regions having their own directly elected governments to administer their own affairs. This coincided with a decline in support for the monarchy in Flanders which in itself caused Wallonia to become more monarchist by default as with these greater divisions it became more clear that the Crown, represented by King Baudouin, was one of the few sources of unity left in Belgium and something that had to be shared.
In that year the Belgian parliament passed a new law legalizing (to a very liberal extent) abortion. Up to that point, King Baudouin had been distressed by the changes in the country but still cooperative. With this bill, however, the King could no longer compromise. Not wishing to make things more difficult than necessary, King Baudouin informed his ministers that if presented with such a bill, his conscience would not permit him to give it Royal Assent, necessary for the bill to become law. Prior to this point in Belgian history, Royal Assent had always been regarded as a mere formality. A bill may have been withdrawn at the request of the King but no monarch had ever before refused to sign something passed by parliament and set before him. On this issue, however, King Baudouin refused to budge. He regarded the bill as immoral, harmful and something he could not, under any circumstances, put his signature to. The politicians tried to find a way to make the King more compliant, arguing that he could sign it in his official capacity as King while opposing it in his private capacity as an individual. King Baudouin would have none of it. He would not sign it, could not sign it and that was that. A full-blown crisis seemed unavoidable.
All of this weighed heavily on King Baudouin. The moral decline and the increasing division in Belgian society hurt him terribly and it is no surprise that he was known as “the sad King”. By his own example and the causes he championed he tried to promote traditional values and he did his best to bring the two sides of the linguistic divide together but to little effect. No one man could have succeeded in such circumstances but it speaks to his dedication that he did everything that it was in his power to do in an effort to right the wrongs that were plaguing his country. Even while his views were often ignored by his squabbling subjects, his presence was a comfort and a source of reassuring stability in a country undergoing dramatic and often bitter and bewildering changes. King Baudouin was, to some extent, rather taken for granted and it came as all the greater shock when, quite unexpectedly, the King died on July 31, 1993 of heart failure while on holiday in the south of Spain. Belgium was shocked and immediately plunged into mourning. As one young woman said, “We have lost our King, and only now do we realize what we have lost”.
King Baudouin had lived a modest life and was perhaps loved best by those with the least in his country. He was shy, polite but could also show anger in private, particularly when he found he had been given incorrect information on some subject or other. He had known many heartaches during his life, starting with the loss of his mother, World War II, the unjust and even vicious treatment of his beloved father, an increasingly divided country, strikes, natural disasters and moral decline. His most difficult moment was surely to be found in the Congo in 1960 where his hope that his presence would bring calm and friendship ended in animosity and chaos. However, he had inherited a monarchy gripped by crisis (through no fault of King Leopold but a fact nonetheless) and he had solidified it and made it a source of national pride and unity in a fractured land. His staunch Catholicism was lived out in his personal example and even while his people did not follow him, they respected him for his integrity. Most of all though, at the times of the greatest difficulty for him during his reign, whether it was the Congo in 1960 or abortion in 1990, King Baudouin showed that he had the moral courage to do what was right even if he knew it would not be what was popular. That alone would suffice to make him a great King and a great man. King Baudouin was the last living member of the Supreme Order of Christ, the most rare and prestigious of papal honors and Pope John Paul II, after visiting the resting place of King Baudouin, paid tribute to him as a man who put Christ at the center of his life and as a monarch who defended God, human rights and the rights of the unborn. His cause for canonization has been talked about but without progress. Nonetheless, King Baudouin was and is an example to all of a dutiful, dedicated and upright Christian monarch.