|Leopold III & the Minister of War|
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|
|Staf de Clerq, Flemish Nazi|
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 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|
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.