The history of the Belgian monarchy could easily be seen as alternating between extreme high and low points. King Leopold I saw the country emerge as an independent, sovereign state with friendly ties and even considerable influence on some of the most powerful courts in Europe. Then there was King Leopold II who, while leaving Belgium better than he found it, had lost the admiration of his people due to his vilification over the Congo Free State. However, after Leopold II died, mourned by few, he was succeeded by the handsome, young King Albert I who rose to international fame for his staunch defense of his country in World War I. He was loved at home, respected abroad and seemed the embodiment of what a good king was supposed to be. Sadly, another downturn would come with the reign of his son King Leopold III. However, in his case, he was perfectly placed to break the cycle had it not been for the intervention of World War II. King Leopold III had every quality to make a beloved and successful monarch and yet, because of events beyond his control, he has become the most unjustly controversial of Belgian monarchs. Forced to deal with situations none other of his dynasty have had to deal with, the war was ruinous and the Belgian monarchy has never been the same since.
|Leopold III & the Minister of War|
After the last war, national defense was taken somewhat more seriously but the huge cost of rebuilding still left the generals wanting more. Neutrality had been abandoned but as the French and British adopted a policy of appeasement, King Leopold III became convinced that they would not stand firm against Nazi aggression and so Belgium reverted back to her previous policy of neutrality. The hope was that any war would bypass them but, after the events of 1914-18, everyone knew it was a slim hope. Starting on May 10, 1940 the Battle of Belgium raged for eighteen days. King Leopold III, a veteran of World War I, was in command, in accordance with the Belgian constitution which required the King to take charge of the army personally in time of war. As in the last war, the Belgian soldiers offered heroic resistance and gained the respect of their German enemies who did not fail to remark on their “extraordinary bravery”. However, this was a new type of war for which Belgium was woefully unprepared. Tanks, air power and airborne invasion were all loosed on the Kingdom of Belgium and its fortresses. The first airborne attack in history was against a Belgian fort, the largest tank battle up to that time, was fought in Belgium. With only 22 divisions against 141 divisions for the Germans, there was simply no way for the Belgians to hold out on their own.
Help did come but coordination with the Belgian army was unpracticed and poor. Moreover, the Battle of Belgium was one aspect of the wider Battle of France and that fight was going very poorly indeed. Most, by now, know the story. Morale low, society divided, France tried to fight the Second World War with a mindset from the First. Despite having a large army and heavier tanks than the Germans, the French military was not deployed properly and though it took six weeks for the Germans to conquer France, the issue had been settled even sooner than that. The Germans succeeded brilliantly in swiftly cutting off the Allied armies from each other and it soon became clear to the British that they would have to pull back to the Channel and evacuate or else they would be destroyed or captured entirely by the German onslaught. Despite what many would say later, King Leopold III was very much a “team player” and he and his troops fought to the best of their ability.
|King Leopold III at the front|
Unfortunately, the Belgians were encircled and it became clear to the King that to carry on would mean the sacrifice of his army, or what was left of it, to no purpose. As even Churchill himself admitted privately, the Belgians were buying time with their lives for the British to escape even though he later publicly castigated the King of the Belgians for giving up the fight. On May 27, King Leopold III requested an armistice to the fury of the British and French governments. Just as controversial was his decision to remain with his army rather than follow the Belgian government into exile in England. For the King, it was a matter of principle. As commander-in-chief in the field, for him to leave before the surrender would have been, to him, an act of desertion. Instead, he chose to stay, to surrender with his army and remain in Belgium in the hope that he might somehow mitigate the effects of the German occupation. On May 28 the Belgians were surrendered, King Leopold III saying, “The cause of the Allies is lost”. That remark has often been used against him, but at the time and place there was no other conclusion to come to. This was not the First World War. France was about to fall and soon German troops would be goose-stepping down the boulevards of Paris. Britain continued to hold out, but if the Germans had not attacked Russia or if the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbor, few doubt that the capitulation of Britain would have been simply a matter of time.
|Staf de Clerq, Flemish Nazi|
During the war and afterwards, the actions of King Leopold III were grossly misrepresented, portraying him as a traitor and a collaborator with the Nazi occupiers. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was kept under virtual house arrest by the Germans. Unlike Denmark, where the King and government continued to operate under German “protection” the Kingdom of Belgium, there was no government, collaborationist or otherwise, in Belgium for the duration of the war. Of course, there were those who were willing to collaborate with the Germans but the King was certainly not at all in sympathy with them as most were those opposed to the continuation of the Kingdom of Belgium in any form. The most prominent were the Flemish nationalists who wanted to unite Flanders with the Netherlands and then there were the mostly Walloon Rexists led by the remarkable soldier Leon Degrelle. Originally, these were Catholic, monarchist, Belgian nationalists who advocated a fascist-style organization of the country and economy but Degrelle became so taken with the Nazis that he quickly came to embrace the idea of a pan-European Nazi super-state that would have no place for small countries. King Leopold III, of course, hoped to maintain the Kingdom of Belgium as it had always been or at least with as little diminishment as possible.
There was no equivalent of Petain, Mussert, Quisling, Laurel or Wang Jingwei in Belgium. Hitler never ultimately decided what the fate of Belgium was to be and in some ways it served his purposes better that way, keeping collaborationist factions in competition for his favor. Rather, Belgium was placed under military rule led by the aristocratic General Alexander von Falkenhausen, nephew of the last military governor of Belgium in the Imperial German army. He was a former advisor to the Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and had only returned from China after the Nazis had threatened the safety of his family when the Nazis decided to abandon nationalist China in favor of Japan. In understanding the relationship between King Leopold III and General von Falkenhausen, it is essential to understand what kind of man the German general was. He was no Nazi Party loyalist but a veteran of the Kaiser’s army, a man who resented the Nazi betrayal of China and who was close friends with the anti-Nazi monarchist Carl Friedrich Goerdeler and Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben. Both these men were ultimately executed for plotting against Hitler and von Falkenhausen himself finally offered the anti-Nazi plotters his support. General von Falkenhausen was arrested, put in a concentration camp and doubtless would have been executed had not his camp been liberated by the U.S. Army in early May, 1945.
|Gen. Alexander von Falkenhausen|
The fact that King Leopold III was able to be cordial with such a man should, obviously, not be taken as a sign of the King’s collaboration as the General himself was opposed to the Nazi regime. The King was widely respected in Belgium and the Germans would have certainly been pleased to have him cooperate, but he refused to. He, as a constitutional monarch, could not perform his duties as monarch without his legitimate government and so he regarded himself as a prisoner-of-war. What he could do and which he did throughout the years of occupation was to intervene with the Germans whenever possible to save the lives of his people and to prevent them from being taken away as slave labor in Germany. The King made his case to General von Falkenhausen in person and wrote many letters to Hitler protesting against the kidnapping of Belgian civilians for forced labor. Needless to say, Hitler was unmoved and the deportations went ahead. Yet, because of the King’s persistent efforts, he did at least convince the Germans to desist in deporting women, which all were certainly thankful for. He also worked tirelessly to try to obtain the release of political prisoners, proper treatment for prisoners-of-war, stopping German confiscation of food supplies and so on and so on. He did absolutely everything that it was in his power to do to help his people in their darkest hour.
The question then becomes why, with so many Belgians knowing of his work on their behalf and even the ranking German commander testifying to his efforts, did King Leopold III become so controversial? It basically comes down to a classic case of making him the scapegoat for others. He might have survived such an effort from one quarter but it was heaped on him from several. Hubert Pierlot, the Prime Minister, broke with the King over Leopold’s decision to stay with his army and remain in Belgium while the government went into exile. He thus had a vested interest in substantiating his original position by continuing to hold that the King had been wrong (this also caused a damaging split within the Catholic, conservative political bloc in Belgium). The Allies, in the wake of the defeat of France and the withdrawal of the BEF from the continent also found it convenient to blame their military disasters on the Belgian monarch, even though they knew their story to be a false one. Likewise, the radical political elements in Belgium, whether the Flemish nationalists or the Walloon socialists, also found it convenient to vilify the King in order to further their goals of either breaking up the country or turning it into a Marxist republic.
|Prince Charles Theodore|
Those with an agenda against the King also made much of his wartime marriage to Lilian Baels, a woman who has also suffered immense and undue criticism based on salacious rumors with absolutely no basis in fact. What is ironic is that, after the war, when the King had to go into exile in Switzerland (he and his family had been arrested and taken to Germany in the last days of Nazi rule), the man chosen to take his place as regent was his brother Prince Charles, Count of Flanders who himself had a rather irregular private life, though it conveniently did not become public knowledge until many years after his death. He and his brother did not get along and the vilification of Leopold III certainly did him no harm as he became, effectively, King in all but name. The communists were the first to demand Leopold’s abdication, which is no surprise as they will seize on any opportunity to oppose a monarch, but the King and his government, after the war, did seem to be on the verge of a compromise but the politicians kept changing their terms. The socialists also began to organize strikes and demonstrations to prevent the King from returning home and resuming his reign as normal.
King Leopold III was then declared “unfit” and so Prince Charles became regent in his place until the issue could be resolved. The socialists led the opposition to the King just as they opposed putting the question to the people in a referendum on whether or not the King should resume the throne. Nonetheless, a referendum was held and, as expected, the more conservative Flanders voted by a large majority for him to return while socialist Wallonia voted by a narrow margin against the King, giving him an overall majority to return, which he did in 1950. However, the socialists were not prepared to accept defeat and began organizing more strikes and demonstrations in opposition to Leopold III. These soon turned violent and the threat of a Belgian civil war loomed as a very real possibility. Disgusted by the whole process and unwilling to be the cause of violence after all the trauma already suffered in World War II, King Leopold III decided to abdicate, passing the throne to his son, King Baudouin, in 1951. Threats of civil war and Walloon secession subsided and eventually King Baudouin was able to restore the prestige of the monarchy but things would never be quite the same again.
So it was that World War II did lasting damage to the Belgian monarchy as an institution. It was not anything that Leopold III did. Some actions could certainly be viewed, in hindsight, as impolitic but he certainly did nothing fundamentally wrong. Rather, the war presented an opportunity that leftist enemies of the monarchy gleefully seized upon to further their own agenda for political power. Looking at the Belgian kings before and after Leopold III, one can easily see that Leopold I, Leopold II and Albert I exercised far more influence, played a much more central role and had effectively more authority than Baudouin, Albert II or the current Philip. Leopold III was essentially forced to abdicate, King Baudouin was actually deposed for a day and Albert II was hounded until he felt he had no choice but to abdicate for the good of the monarchy. None of this would have happened as it did were it not for the war. The seeds were already there of course, but the war and occupation gave these seeds the opportunity to flourish.
Why has the legacy of this injustice outlived King Leopold III himself? Because it has continued to serve the interests of certain people to propagate the lies. The spread absolute falsehoods and distort the truth because they are enemies of Belgium and enemies of the monarchy because it is the guarantor of Belgian unity. So, the old whispers are repeated; he surrendered precipitously, he was cowardly, he didn’t really want to resist, he’s half Bavarian remember, he collaborated with the Nazis, he didn’t want the Allies to win and on and on. The only difference today is that the people pushing these lies and distortions have changed from one side of the linguistic divide to the other. After the war it was Wallonia which was threatening to secede and which most opposed the King. Today, the old lies about Leopold III are more likely to come from Flemish nationalists now that Flanders is threatening to secede. In either case, the damage done to the Belgian monarchy persists because it served the interests of those who spread it. It started out of political bickering and the desperation of Britain and France to blame someone for their lost military campaign and it was taken up by the domestic enemies of the Kingdom of Belgium, first the Walloon socialists and then the Flemish nationalists, because they want to see Belgium destroyed and they know that bringing down the monarchy is the way to make that happen. It is also why loyal monarchists must refute their falsehoods with facts, because this is not simply an historical issue relating to the past but one which continues to have an impact on the monarchy today.
Thank you MM for writing this post. Would it be possible for you to do a post on the Rexist party, explaining its real agenda? It's hard for me to understand how a monarchist group could become so quickly pro-Nazi (there's also the confusion coming from the word "Fascist" being used to describe any group that the Left doesn't agree with, as in the so called "Austrofascism").ReplyDelete
I have long wanted to but have yet to get around to it. Of course, it would probably be unpopular with many people as it seemed to me a fairly benevolent movement up until the war. It is also worth mentioning that not all Rexists collaborated, some joined the resistance. They were never so pro-Nazi as the Flemish nationalists of the time were. I would say they were probably first intoxicated by how successful the Nazis seemed to be. After that, as in the case of Degrelle, they had to justify their actions and so couldn't go back to their pre-war principles.Delete
I also agree about the term "fascist". It effectively has no meaning anymore, and had relatively little to begin with. I have tried, such as in posts on Austria, Franco and Romania (even Italy to a degree) show that not everyone labeled "fascist" was the same or entirely malevolent.