Leopold III of Belgium

Summary

Leopold III, born on November 3, 1901 in Brussels and died on September 25, 1983 in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert, was the fourth king of the Belgians from February 23, 1934 to July 16, 1951, and the son of Albert I and Elisabeth of Bavaria. Declared unable to reign from June 1940 to June 1950, he abdicated the following year after a long controversy on the royal issue caused by his controversial behavior during the Second World War.

Young years

Leopold Philippe Charles Albert Meinrad Hubertus Marie Miguel of Saxe-Coburg was born on November 3, 1901 in the palace of the Marquis d”Assche in the Quartier Léopold in Brussels, where his parents lived at the time, just a stone”s throw from St. Joseph”s Church, in the building that has housed the Council of State since 1948.

During World War I, he was drafted as a teenager into the 12th Line Regiment as a private. After the war, he enrolled at St. Anthony Seminary in Santa Barbara, California.

From September 23 to November 13, 1919, at the age of eighteen, he made an official visit to the United States with his parents. During a visit to the Indian pueblo of Isleta in New Mexico, the king decorated Father Anton Docher with the Order of Leopold, who presented him with a silver and turquoise cross made by the Tiwas Indians. 10,000 people took part in the ceremonies.

He met in Stockholm Princess Astrid of Sweden, born November 17, 1905, daughter of Prince Carl of Sweden and Ingeborg of Denmark and niece of King Gustav V. The marriage took place on November 4, 1926; they had three children:

King of the Belgians

His father Albert I was killed on February 17, 1934 in a mountaineering accident. Leopold acceded to the throne by taking the constitutional oath on February 23, 1934, under the name Leopold III of Belgium.

In 1935, a car accident in Küssnacht (Switzerland) caused the death of Queen Astrid and injured the king, who was driving. The death of this very popular queen was felt as a particularly painful national mourning.

On September 11, 1941, he married Lilian Baels and had three children:

Although the children of the King and Lilian Baels have the title of Prince and Princess of Belgium, they are not in the order of succession to the throne.

Leopold III would also be the father of Ingeborg Verdun (born in 1940), and plausibly of another son.

Under pressure from the Flemish Movement and out of antipathy for Léon Blum”s French Popular Front (June 1936-April 1938), the governments and King Leopold III proclaimed Belgium”s neutrality in July 1936, even though it had been an ally of France and the United Kingdom during the First World War. The King of the Belgians, Leopold III, fully supported this so-called “free hand” policy. This meant a return to neutrality, which until 1914 had been an obligation since the international treaty of 1831 guaranteeing Belgium”s existence. The reason for the Belgian decision lay in the weakness of the democracies in the face of the successive German coups de force in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles (reoccupation of the Rhineland, dismantling of Czechoslovakia with the resigned complicity of France and the United Kingdom).

The first consequence of Belgian neutrality was, as early as 1936, to suppress all official contact between the French and Belgian military staffs. In fact, as early as 28 March 1939, General Laurent, the French military attaché in Brussels, began secret contacts with General van Overstraeten, the King”s private military adviser, with the King”s agreement. He obtained valuable information on Belgian military plans from the “Deuxième bureau” of the French intelligence service of the Ministry of Defense in Paris. In addition, in October 1939, after France and the United Kingdom had declared war on Germany, the King agreed with the French General-in-Chief Maurice Gamelin on closer cooperation. In view of the need to complete the rearmament process, and given the wait-and-see attitude of the Franco-British on the front, it was necessary for Belgium to avoid any provocation towards Germany, as the army was not yet ready to resist a German attack that could be felt coming. These Franco-Belgian contacts were revealed by the French general himself in his memoirs and also by the appearance, after the war, of an official French publication. Knowing the existence in Belgium of a “fifth column” of pro-Nazi spies, they had wanted to protect the secret by organizing the transmission of information through the shortest link, ensured by Lieutenant-Colonel Hautcœur, the French military attaché in Brussels who had succeeded General Laurent and who communicated personally with the French generalissimo. Sometimes, the liaison between King Leopold III and the French General-in-Chief Gamelin was made directly, or through the intermediary of General van Overstraeten, the King”s military advisor, who had regular contacts with Hautcœur, whom he knew personally having had him as a student at the Royal Military School in Brussels. With the agreement of the government, whose Prime Minister was the very Catholic Hubert Pierlot and whose Foreign Minister was Paul-Henri Spaak, representing the Socialist Party (then called the Workers” Party), these exchanges continued until the German attack.

In January 1940, the Belgian general van Overstraeten warned the French that the German attack was planned in the Ardennes, as proven by strategic documents seized by the Belgians from a German plane that had made a forced landing in Belgium. Again, as early as March 8, and then April 14, 1940, on the basis of information from the military attaché in Berlin, cross-checked with sources from Allied spies in Germany, the king himself warned General Gamelin, supreme commander of the French army, that the German plan called for an attack through the Ardennes. And the French military attaché in Bern sent a radio message to his staff on May 1 saying that the attack would take place between May 8 and 10, with Sedan as the goal of the main effort. But the French general staff agreed with Marshal Pétain, a prestigious figure and vice-president of the French Conseil supérieur de la Guerre, that the Ardennes was impenetrable for a modern army. So the Belgian warnings were not acted upon.

On May 10, 1940, the dreaded German attack took place. This was to be known as the 18-day campaign. On that date, the Belgian army occupied a 500-kilometer arc from the Scheldt to the Ardennes. Almost all of the 650,000 men (plus 50,000 conscripts and 10,000 militarily equipped gendarmes) were engaged in combat, while the future soldiers of classes 40 and 41 were called up for a total of 95,000 men – who were sent to France on the 15th to receive training with the agreement of the French government – and an order was also issued to prepare for the enlistment of all young people between the ages of 16 and 20 from classes 42 and 43, That is to say 200,000 men, while adding to them the surplus soldiers of the previous classes and the provisional demobilized for public utility (engineers, underground miners among others), that is to say 89,000 men. In theory, the Belgian army was the strongest it had ever been with, more or less, 1,000,000 mobilized men in prospect and a little less than 700,000 men actually engaged. This was a huge number for a country of 8,000,000 inhabitants. This was the plan of the king and the minister Devèze, conceived in 1937. But there was not enough time to organize the entire mass mobilization, because the army was overwhelmed on the Albert Canal, where the fort of Eben-Emael fell within 24 hours, taken by troops dropped by light aircraft and using shaped charges, ammunition that only the Germans had. However, in the north, in three days the lightning defeat of the Dutch army threatened the left flank of the Belgian army. And during this time, as the Belgian intelligence service had warned the French well in advance, the Wehrmacht broke through towards Sedan, in the French Ardennes. The breakthrough began on 12 May, after two days of resistance by advanced Belgian elements, the Ardennes fighters, who fulfilled the role of delaying tactics assigned to them in Bodange, Martelange and Chabrehez, even pushing back German troops with armoured vehicles, who were dropped off by Fieseler Fi 156 light aircraft in the rear of the Belgian army, in the region of Witry, Nimy and Léglise. Meanwhile, the French troops in Sedan, who had been given a final 48 hours to prepare themselves since 10 May, but who were composed of poorly equipped, embryonic defences and B-series reservists, were pushed aside on 12 May and retreated (the “Bulson panic”) before the Wehrmacht, which rapidly reached the Meuse. This was the result of Pétain”s doctrine that there was nothing to fear in the Ardennes.

The king and his staff having placed themselves under the command of the French general-in-chief Gamelin, the Belgian army, retreating from the breakthrough on the Meuse, and also threatened on its left flank by the gap left by the Dutch, linked its movements to those of the French who were retreating to the south. The king had welcomed, as early as May 10, a new senior French liaison officer, General Champon, who had arrived at the Belgian headquarters in Breendonck, bearing allied plans and a delegation of command that the king accepted for himself, as had already been done by the French General-in-Chief Gamelin to General Georges. But the attempts to reunite a Franco-Belgian-English front did not succeed, as the Allied strategy of the continuous front, inspired by 1914-1918, proved unsuitable for the German strategy of powerful narrow breakthroughs led by fast tanks under the umbrella of an outclassed air force.

Finally, after successive retreats in conjunction with the Franco-British allies, to whom it could only bind its fate, the Belgian army found itself cornered on the Lys after two weeks of fighting. But by May 15, the word defeat had been uttered by French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud in an anguished phone call to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Pessimistic rumors began to circulate among the staffs and political personnel of the countries attacked by Germany. They reached the king through friends who had connections in French and English political circles and, in particular, in the English aristocracy.

On May 25, 1940, in the castle of Wynendaele, the decisive meeting between King Leopold III and his main ministers took place, after which the king refused to follow them out of the national territory. This is sometimes referred to as the drama of Wynendaele.

After the hard and costly battle of the Lys fought by the Belgian army during five days, the only stopping battle of the whole campaign of May 1940, King Leopold III decided the surrender of the Belgian forces fighting on the Flanders front. There was no signature of the king, which would have been necessary if it had been a general surrender of all forces. Now, if the constitution states that the king declares war and makes peace, acts considered to be civil as well as military, this entails the co-signature of at least one minister, as for any governmental act of the king. Thus, Prime Minister Pierlot and Foreign Minister Spaak, who had remained in Belgium, intended to be associated with any royal decision to cease hostilities. But, according to the king, this was not an act of government, but a purely military decision concerning only the head of the army, and this under the empire of martial law, which subordinated all the effects of civil laws to military decisions. Believing himself to be the only one entitled to decide on a purely military surrender, not having to answer to any higher authority, the king took the word surrender, on 28 May 1940, in the limited sense of a cessation of fighting in a given zone, which did not concern the forts of the East, the last of which, Tancrémont, did not succumb until 29 May, after nineteen days of resistance under the assaults of the infantry and the German shelling. And the forces of the Belgian Congo were not included in the surrender, unlike the French forces in North Africa that the French agreed to include in the June armistice. The Public Force of the Belgian Congo was thus able to continue the fight. In 1941, alongside the British in East Africa, it would win the victories that would allow Belgium to side with the Allies throughout the war, as well as the reconstitution of Belgian ground and air forces in Great Britain. The surrender of 28 May was therefore a strictly military decision, the exclusive responsibility of the command in the field, and there was no need to involve the government, as the state of war between Belgium and Germany was not in any way called into question. And, to make things clear, it was the deputy chief of staff, General Derousseau, who, in his capacity as the person responsible for the situation of the troops in the field, was charged with going to the Germans and signing a surrender with them in the narrowest sense of the word, since this surrender only concerned the field army. The Germans therefore required a separate surrender order to be sent by radio to the last forts in the east still held by the fortress army – whose command was separate from that of the field army – so that they would agree to surrender. But the army of the Congo was not included in the surrender (this was not the intention of the king or the government, who feared that, in this case, the Belgian possessions in Africa would fall into English hands). The Belgian situation, at that time, was the opposite of what happened during the Franco-German armistice, which included German-Italian control of French troops in Africa.

One cannot therefore speak of a Belgian capitulation, as is generally done, and even less of an armistice, which is a political act between governments, but of a surrender limited to the sole zone where the Belgian field army was fighting. The king considered it necessary to stop the fighting where it was becoming impossible because of the exhaustion of ammunition reserves and also as a consequence of the English retreat to Dunkirk, which had been prepared since 25 May and which did not provide anything for the Belgians. Otherwise, things threatened to turn into a massacre, especially for the refugees, two million Belgian, Dutch and French civilians cornered in a restricted space under the blows of the all-powerful enemy air force and exposed to the risk of reliving the massacres of 1914 as it had already happened in Vinkt.

As soon as he had made his decision, the king wrote a letter to the King of England, specifying that it would be a military surrender and that there would be no question of political dealings with Germany. The king announced his decision by personally addressing General Blanchard, commander of the northern army, on May 26. He described the situation of the Belgian army, giving it little time left to collapse, which happened on the 28th. At the time of the surrender, some troops gave up, both for moral reasons and because the ammunition stocks had run out. The communication of the royal decision was recorded by Colonel Thierry of the French listening services, as specified by a French author, Colonel Rémy. It is not known whether this communication reached the French general staff. Even before taking his decision, the king had noted that his exhausted army was abandoned, on his right, by the British army which was preparing its reembarkation at Dunkirk, so he informed the English liaison officer, Keyes in person, of the consequences that would result. This English officer admits in his memoirs: “I intend not to tell the Belgians yet that the British expeditionary force intends to abandon them”. But King Leopold and the Belgian General Staff, even before being officially warned by Keyes, had been made aware of this by their own soldiers who had noticed the vacuum left on their right by the British abandonment. At this moment, a word that deserves to be called historic was pronounced by the English General-in-Chief Gort. Forced, on express orders from London, to abandon the Belgian army, he said to the English liaison officer Keyes: “Do the Belgians consider us real bastards? It has since been verified, with absolute certainty, that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in agreement with Anthony Eden of the Foreign Office, had given the formal order to Lord Gort to retreat to Dunkirk and to reembark, forbidding him to inform the Belgian high command. The French General-in-Chief Maxime Weygand was unaware of all this, although he had every reason to be pessimistic when he noted Lord Gort”s absence from the Ypres conference of 25 May, which was convened to try to establish a new tactic between the French, the British and the Belgians. But the English troops had been ordered to “make for the sea”, as the English military attaché put it in his memoirs.

General Raoul Van Overstraeten, personal adviser to the King and hero of 1914-1918, in Belgium and Africa, was of the opinion that the fighting should continue so that it was clear that the Belgians did not give up first. The few Belgian ministers who remained in the country, exposed to fall into the hands of the enemy, were opposed not to the surrender, but to the date of this surrender, which they wanted at least to postpone, in any case to allow the king to accompany them to France in order to continue the fight there. But the king told them that he thought, on the contrary, that he should stay in the country, counting that his royal position, which he believed would be able to impose on Hitler, could allow him to oppose any German undertaking against the national integrity, as had been the case during the First World War when the country had been divided. After dramatic confrontations with key ministers, including Hubert Pierlot, Prime Minister, and Paul-Henri Spaak, Minister of Foreign Affairs, who wanted to convince him to evade the enemy, the king gave up the constitutional right to dismiss them. It is important to know that the dismissal would have been valid if only one member of the government had signed it. The Minister of Defence, General Denis, was ready to do so. But the king renounced this measure, which would have deprived Belgium of a government, and let the ministers with all the legal powers go. This was to prove highly profitable for keeping Belgium in the Allied camp until victory.

Behind the appearance of authority, King Leopold III of Belgium showed, according to some witnesses, signs of psychological collapse. Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot described the king as “disheveled, staring and, to put it bluntly, haggard… Under the influence of the emotions of the last few days.” The weaknesses that the democracies had shown before the war, the military insufficiency of the Allies, including the Belgians, in front of the German army, added to the English abandonment, constituted, for the king, a sum that suddenly left him alone and naked in front of the evidence of a defeat that seemed to him an abyss in which Belgium risked to disappear. Based on an aristocratic conception of his royal function, he believed that he could, all by himself, hinder German activities against the survival of the country.

But when he made his decision, it was not a question, for Leopold III, of concluding an armistice between Belgium and Germany. The King informed the British liaison officer, Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, that “there is no question of doing anything resembling a separate peace”. The army, exhausted, collapsed, but Belgium remained, in fact, in a state of war. Contrary to what foreign works repeat, Leopold III did not sign any capitulation, it should be remembered, nor did the ministers who went into exile carry all their powers. The act of surrender did not include any political clause, unlike the armistice that the French negotiated three weeks later, committing France to collaboration.

From this surrender arose the whole “Royal Question” which, after the war, led to the abdication of Leopold III. The king was first accused of having betrayed the Allied cause in a radio speech made on May 28, 1940 by Paul Reynaud, President of the French Council. However, Winston Churchill, in his post-war memoirs, cleared the Belgian army of any suspicion of having compromised the Dunkirk landings, but after having condemned it in May-June 1940. The king”s decision to take himself prisoner, taken against the advice of the government, was later condemned by a part of the Belgian Parliament, which had returned to France (to Poitiers, then Limoges), without this having any effect, such as pronouncing the king”s disqualification, since 143 out of 369 present condemned the king”s decision. The simple majority was not reached, considering the insufficiency of the gathered manpower, which is explained by the impossibility of convening all the parliamentarians, much having joined the army, the others having either remained in Belgium, or being unreachable within the mass of the refugees. Moreover, the king had told the ministers that, as he was legally the commander-in-chief of the army, he was not accountable to the civil authorities for deciding to surrender, because of martial law, which, in times of war, gave all powers to the military, This implies, ipso facto, a total power for the king, whereas, for an armistice (in the manner of the French, one month later), the signature of at least one minister is necessary to endorse the royal decision, because it is a political act and not a military one. But, as the king had told the English military attaché, it was not a question of him signing a separate peace. In addition to his civil power, the King of the Belgians held by the Constitution, and like many heads of state, the supreme command of the armed forces. But, unlike most heads of state whose military power is purely symbolic, Leopold III had real authority at the head of his general staff, at the head of which he was constantly present in the uniform of a lieutenant-general during the eighteen days of fighting. It was therefore as head of the army that he intended to stay with the soldiers. He thought he was encouraged to do so by the British military attaché Keyes. According to Keyes, Churchill, when asked about the fate of the royal family, replied: “A leader”s place is in the midst of his army. And it was still Keyes, on 24 May, who transmitted to the Belgian minister Gutt an English memorandum which indicated that the evacuation of the royal family and the ministers was possible, but that it was not desirable, according to the best military advice, to press the king to leave his army during the night. Would English opinion have been different on the 28th? One could not know, because communications with London ceased on the 27th. And, in any case, we know that, in the rigid conception that Leopold III had always had of his royal function, there was no question of him bowing to foreign decisions, even allied ones, and even less so enemies. He was therefore determined not to exercise any power under German pressure, refusing to collaborate in any way, as was the case with the government of Marshal Pétain after the Franco-German armistice in June.

For the king, it was a matter of not abandoning the country whose integrity he had sworn to defend. Did he consider, therefore, that he wanted, by his presence alone, to hinder the dismantling of the country, as Germany had undertaken in 1914-1918? In any case, the last sentence of his proclamation to the army of May 28 explicitly states that: “Belgium must get back to work to raise the country from its ruins”, and he will add: this “does not mean in any way that the Belgians must work for Germany”.

From a military point of view, the king considered himself a prisoner, not having wanted to abandon his soldiers; from a political point of view, he intended to use his presence in the country to stand up to Germany, embodying Belgian legitimacy on his own, without any kind of collaboration, a concept that seemed to bear fruit, at first, as Germany was obliged to manage the country by installing a military governor, without any apparent intention of dividing it. There are three examples, among others, of the king”s faith in a final victory that would drive Germany out of Belgium. On July 6, 1940, a declaration to the rector f. f. of the university of Ghent: “The Anglo-Saxons will win this war, but it will be long… and hard and we must organize ourselves in order to save the essential”. Already, on May 27, 1940, a declaration of the king to the British liaison officer Keyes: “You (England) will have the upper hand, but not without going through hell”. Another declaration, on July 29, 1940, to the deputy mayor of Namur Huart: “I do not believe in a compromise peace with Germany, but in a victory for England, which will not be before 1944 at the earliest.

The ministers, unable to convince the king to follow them into exile, left for France to continue the war there, as the Belgian government had done in 1914-1918. At the beginning, the government had at its disposal only a few Belgian military forces that had been sent to France and the untrained conscripts of the classes 1924 to 1926. There was also the enormous economic potential of the Belgian Congo, whose authorities were inclined towards the Allies. Ministers Pierlot, Spaak and Gutt left Belgium, determined to represent national legitimacy to the foreigners, believing that France would continue the war. A considerable number of Belgians had taken refuge there, but the French defeat brought them back to Belgium, while Prime Minister Pierlot and Foreign Minister Spaak remained in France until the end, that is, until the French defeat. The other members of the government having, for the most part, left for England, the two survivors would see the trust they had placed in France betrayed by the decision of Marshal Pétain”s government to deprive them of all diplomatic protection vis-à-vis Germany. Feeling threatened in their refuge in the village of Sauveterre de Guyenne, and after a vain attempt to contact Brussels, where the silence of the German occupier towards them did not bode well, the two survivors of the Belgian government undertook an incredible and dangerous escape through Franco”s Spain (a de facto ally of Germany) hidden in a double-bottomed van that would take them to Portugal, from where the British government would get them out and bring them to London.

While waiting for these developments, the ministers who arrived in France on May 29 had already been able to measure the collapse of Belgium”s prestige through the radio speech of Prime Minister Paul Reynaud accusing the king of treason for having, supposedly, surrendered without warning to the Franco-British allies. In this case, Reynaud showed his ignorance of the facts. For Leopold III had warned the King of England in person, in a letter dated 25 May, of the collapse of the Belgian army, which he considered to be imminent, a letter that was personally delivered to Churchill”s special envoy, General Dill, in the presence of the military attaché Keyes. And from the French point of view, French Colonel Thierry, head of the French army”s radio telephone exchange, testified to French Colonel Rémy that he had received, as early as May 26, messages from the King to French General Blanchard warning him that he would have to surrender within two days. The king took a decision that gave the Allies a final helping hand by taking advantage of the chaos that accompanied the military debacle to remove the 60th French division, which was fighting alongside the Belgians, from captivity by having it transported in Belgian trucks to Dunkirk under skies occupied by an all-powerful German air force that strafed everything it could with no regard for the 800,000 refugees (and some authors go so far as to cite 2,000,000 refugees for the entire area still held by the Allied forces). With a minimum of military knowledge and common sense, one can understand that these masses of civilians passively opposed their terrorized crowd to the progression of the Wehrmacht troops without the German generals finding a pretext to have them massacred, as they had done a few days earlier when their soldiers used masses of hostages by making them advance in front of them under the fire of the Belgian troops, at Vinkt, during the battle of the Lys. In 1940, massacres of civilians were thus perpetrated in the middle of battle without any military motive, repeating the German atrocities of 1914. After the fighting had stopped, the German army leaders were forced to respect the refugee population that crowded the battle zone if they did not want to face the same accusations as in the previous war about the violent behavior of their army on civilians. The German army wasted another 24 hours trying to make its way through the mess created by the Belgian defeat, a terrain cluttered with ambulances, artillery pieces and destroyed or broken down military and civilian tanks, the Belgian soldiers allowing themselves to be disarmed while taking refuge in total inertia. The Franco-English of Dunkirk gained an extra day to organize their defense. At the end of these eighteen days of war in Belgium, we can quote, among other German testimonies, that of Ulrich von Hassell: “Among our adversaries, it was the Belgians who fought the best”.

In the face of the undeniable fact of real Belgian resistance, one can only explain the speech of the French President of the Council, Paul Reynaud, on 28 May, in which he called the Belgian surrender treachery, by the need to unburden himself of the defeat that was looming on the horizon, but also because it can be safely argued that he was not aware of the latest developments in Belgium. If this can be an excuse, it must be known from a later English confession that Winston Churchill had not informed him of the order he had given to evacuate the English troops, abandoning the Belgians, which would have put them in a desperate situation and would have definitively condemned the fighting to end in defeat, including for the French troops. One has besides another proof of the ignorance of the president of the French Council as for the military events by the fact that, already, on May 16, during a French-English meeting, he had noted that he was not aware of the situation of the French army when he learned from the mouth of General-in-Chief Gamelin that the absence of French military reserves to fill the gap left in front of the German army by the breakthrough at Sedan had been concealed from him, from which it followed that the Franco-Anglo-Belgians were in a dramatic situation, being turned southwards. Obviously, the President of the French Council, Paul Reynaud, did not receive information about the military situation in time.

In any case, and without asking further questions, Paul Reynaud, in a fit of impotent anger at the events, had the king struck off the order of the Legion of Honor. Meanwhile, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, whose army had surrendered after five days, had arrived in London on a Dutch warship that had been unable to land her in Zeeland, where she would have liked to settle in order to embody national legitimacy. The Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg had taken refuge in London on May 10. The Belgian government, which had taken refuge in France and had all its powers, declared the king “unable to reign”, as provided for in the Belgian Constitution when the king was in a situation that made it impossible for him to carry out his duties, which was undoubtedly the case since he was under the enemy”s control. In this case, the constitution stipulates that the government must exercise power collegially, but with the approval of Parliament, which must then appoint a regent. Since it was impossible to assemble a sufficient number of deputies and senators, many of whom had left for the army and the others had either remained in Belgium or taken refuge in some other place, the government decided to dispense with legal formalities and to exercise its power de facto and by force majeure until Belgium was liberated. Finally, in 1944, the chambers assembled in Brussels, shortly after the liberation of the city, ratified the government”s wartime behaviour.

From then on, there was a Belgian government in exile in England and a king under house arrest in the castle of Laeken in Brussels. On November 19, 1940, Leopold III was summoned by Adolf Hitler to hear a prophecy of the fate of a future German Europe included in the “Great German Reich”. The king tried to discuss the fate of the civilian population and the liberation of prisoner soldiers, but without obtaining any results. The meeting was cold. There was no agreement, as with Pétain at Montoire, for a so-called collaboration in honor, in the words of the Marshal. Unlike France, Belgium was still at war, the king having not signed an armistice like the French, and nothing was done to make one believe in a separate peace. The king spent the war prevented from taking any political action.

However, there was no shortage of Belgians who dreamed of King Leopold III leading an authoritarian regime, or even a “royal dictatorship. This could have been in line with some of his known inclinations for authoritarian solutions in pre-war Europe. His open opposition to the government at the time of the capitulation might have suggested this, although he had given up the right to dismiss ministers. But he had the right to do so on condition that he had the signature of a minister to endorse his decision, which was the case since the Minister of Defence was ready to devote himself. That he did not do so can only mean that he did not want to deprive Belgium of a government. He could not, in fact, appoint another one, since the impossibility of convening Parliament in the middle of the war and under German occupation precluded the prospect of a hypothetical parliamentary vote to enthrone a new government. The legal powers defined by the constitution were, in effect, suspended by the very fact that power was being assumed by a German governor. To let the legal government leave in possession of all its powers was therefore, from May 27, 1940, to avoid a political vacuum that could be fatal for national sovereignty vis-à-vis the foreigner. It was the guarantee that Hubert Pierlot”s government could legally exercise its sovereignty over what remained of free Belgian territory, i.e. over the Belgian Congo. It was to remove the temptation for the British to invoke the political vacuum left by Belgium in Africa to exercise their sovereignty over the colonial domain (Congo, Ruanda, Burundi). The supporters of Leopold III saw in this the proof of a clever patriotism based on a double game towards Germany. In this perspective, it was, according to the laws of war, to leave to the Germans the responsibility of managing the country while keeping a free government escaping their authority and which, from abroad, could preserve Belgian sovereignty over what remained of free Belgium. Free Belgium was the Congo (at that time Belgian territory), with its strategic mineral wealth, and the merchant navy, and also the few troops available in France, a small part of which, including a few dozen airmen, had been able to reach England.

On the other hand, the unofficial encouragement given to collaborationist personalities in occupied territory, such as Robert Poulet, was to be proven. But Hitler”s decision on June 4, 1940, to consider King Leopold III a prisoner of the German army, forbidding him to engage in any political activity, and following the Belgian government”s observation in June that it was impossible for a prisoner King of the Belgians to reign, effectively protected Leopold III from any temptation to take power.

The only way for the king to exercise power legally would therefore have been to preserve his constitutional power. To do this, he would have had to negotiate an armistice, which is not only a military act, but a political one, requiring governmental agreement. But there was no political armistice, contrary to a still widespread opinion. The state of war was thus, in fact, maintained. Otherwise, the king might have obtained from the Germans to retain his legal power, as was the case when the French obtained, on June 17, that the Germans recognize the legal power of Marshal Pétain over France. The Marshal could then, it was believed, legitimately exercise his authority under French law, and “with honor” in the face of Germany, as he declared in a speech to the French (which was to prove illusory). However, on 28 May 1940 – when it was impossible to predict what the choice of the French would be in June – Leopold III, by limiting himself to a military surrender signed only by a deputy chief of staff, had automatically excluded any political agreement with Nazi Germany that might have seemed like collusion. He was right, because this situation of complicity would later be that of the French government with Germany. The result of the royal attitude was that Belgium was immediately treated by Germany as an occupied country without a government. Collusion with the enemy was the work of individuals or parties, not of the state, which existed only in the form of a government in exile, which the allies recognized as having legal power over the Congo and over the Belgians in the world. It was the honor of those who continued the fight to embody a Belgium at war in the name of the legal regime, which was not the case of Denmark, whose king had put himself and his government under the “protection of Germany. This was not the case either in France, which had to collaborate with Germany to the point of participating, as a sovereign state, in the Reich”s war effort and in the persecutions carried out by the Milice. Nothing of the sort happened in Belgium. The unpatriotic actions were only the case of members of the administration and private companies who chose to put themselves at the service of the enemy.

Leopold III, who no longer exercised any legal power, knew that he could only defend the Belgians against the abuses of the occupier by the purely passive obstacle of his presence, especially against intentions to separate Flanders and Wallonia. Also, as early as 1941, Hitler regretted that the King of the Belgians “did not decamp like the King of Norway and the Queen of the Netherlands. As a prisoner of the German army, the king reinforced its power over Belgium under the authority of the military governor Alexander von Falkenhausen (who later proved to be anti-Hitler). According to a military concept that the Wehrmacht high command had managed to impose on Hitler, only a general of the Wehrmacht, and moreover a member of the nobility like Falkenhausen, was entitled to guard a prisoner of the stature of a king, who had, moreover, himself the rank of general commander-in-chief, the highest rank in the Belgian army. This situation prevented Hitler from implementing a Zivilverwaltung in Belgium, i.e., from replacing Governor von Falkenhausen with a German civilian administration, i.e., from putting an SS administration in power. Thus, the royal presence was able to delay the German plans to annihilate Belgium. But the Nazi plans were eventually realized, when the Führer abandoned the legalistic restraint he had used in order to appease the traditionalist generals of the Wehrmacht (also under the influence of German diplomats of the old school). Hitler deported the king and recalled Governor von Falkenhausen, who was put in prison. The separation of Flanders and Wallonia was to follow, with the regions renamed Germanic Gaus being placed under the authority of Belgian traitors who had joined the SS, fortunately too late, as this decision was taken when the end of the war was near.

The choice of Leopold III made him very popular at the beginning of the German occupation, as the distressed population was grateful to him for having remained in their midst on national soil together with his mother, the highly respected Queen Elisabeth, the symbol of anti-German intransigence during the four years of fighting by the Belgian army in 1914-18. The people saw in the sovereign a landmark and even a shield against the occupiers. And the Church, through Cardinal Van Roey, supported the king. Part of the active Belgian Resistance, the so-called “Leopoldists”, also claimed to be the king”s supporters. The attitude of the king was often approved and defended as a form of “passive resistance”, especially by the Catholic and Flemish part of the population.

However, Leopold III had no known sign of solidarity with the Belgian government in exile, whose principal members were, throughout the war, Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot and Foreign Minister Paul-Henri Spaak, who continued the struggle in London. Contacts were made through Belgian agents who had infiltrated from England, but the last of these attempts ended with the arrest and killing of the messenger as he tried to return to England. This contact could have been decisive, as it was Prime Minister Pierlot”s own brother-in-law who had devoted himself to smuggling the messenger into Belgium. He managed to meet the King, but because of his execution, we may never know if this contact could have led to a political agreement for conciliation with the government in exile. What is certain is that instead of this agreement, a deep royal distrust of the political world, and even of the Allies, developed, which is well expressed in the king”s “political testament”.

Thanks to the government in exile, Belgium continued to be present in the war with 28 Belgian pilots engaged in the Battle of Britain. Later, three Belgian squadrons fought in the Royal Air Force and in the South African Air Force. The entire Belgian merchant fleet was put at the disposal of the Allies. Belgian units integrated in the 4th American Army and in the 8th British Army would go to participate in the Italian campaign in 1943-1944. A land force military unit reconstituted in Great Britain, the Piron Brigade, would participate in 1944 and 1945 in the liberation battles in the north of the French coast and in Belgium, as well as, once reconstituted as a regiment, in the capture of the island of Walcheren, from where the Germans were blocking the access of the Allied ships to the port of Antwerp. The Belgian government in exile prepared a new military force of 105,000 men, including infantry, light armor and engineers. Armed by the Allies, rifle battalions went to serve the American troops facing the German offensive in the Ardennes in December 1944. All this was done under the nominal authority of the Prince Regent, who was constitutionally appointed as the head of the army in place of the King. During the final German offensive in the Ardennes in 1944, a battalion of riflemen fought alongside the Americans and then moved to the Remagen bridge on the Rhine to end the war by taking Pilsen in Czechoslovakia. By the end of the war, Belgian troops were engaged on the entire Western Front, liberating the Dora and Nordhausen camps. In Yugoslavia, Belgian commandos fought in the interallied commandos. In Africa, the troops of the colony commanded by Major-General Gilliaert, penetrating East Africa, won the victories of Gambela, Bortaï, Saïo and Asosa in Abyssinia, cutting off the retreat of General Gazzera”s troops, who surrendered with 7,000 men and important equipment.

In addition to the war effort of its combatants, the Belgian Congo participated in the conflict on the side of the Allies through its agricultural capacities and its rubber, but also, and above all, through its mineral wealth transported by the merchant fleet that had escaped from Belgium. These were copper, tin, but also uranium, the basic ore of which, pitchblende, had been discreetly made available to the Americans as early as 1940, stored in New York warehouses on the initiative of the Union minière du Haut Katanga, which depended on the Société générale de Belgique (the latter”s management had remained in Brussels to defend its interests in the face of the German requisitions that were known to be inevitable), while a large delegation of powers was given to the company”s authorities abroad so that they could continue their activities in order to avoid any temptation of sequestration or expropriation by the British and the Americans).

However, even after the capitulation at the end of May 1940, King Leopold III had still tried to exert influence, despite his situation as a prisoner of the enemy, by communicating to the Belgian ambassador to Switzerland, Louis d”Ursel, the “instructions from Berne”, in which he recommended that the Congo be placed in a state of neutrality, adding that he wished the Belgian diplomatic corps throughout the world to be courteous with German diplomats.

Moreover, the Belgian Congo was able to participate in the war by sending troops to attack and defeat the Italians in Abyssinia and by participating massively in the Allies” economic effort.

It was Belgian participation in the Allied economic effort through the agricultural and mining resources of the Congo, especially gold, tin and uranium, that put Belgium in a position of credit, among others, with the Americans, which led to the rapid economic recovery of 1945, faster than that of other countries that had been occupied by Germany.

As for the diplomatic corps, apart from a few resignations, it sided with the Belgian government from 1940.

Leopold III secretly remarried in September 1941 and the announcement was made in all parishes on December 7. He married a young commoner, Lilian Baels, denying her the title of queen and elevating her to the rank of princess of Réthy. This marriage had been imposed by Cardinal Van Roey for whom a Catholic king could not live in sin with a mistress. This concern for morality led to a situation that was three times contrary to Belgian law: first, the king had married religiously before getting married civilly; second, any royal marriage in Belgium had to be approved by the government for reasons of national interest; and third, believing that it would please public opinion to exclude unborn children from the succession to the throne, the Palace (i.e., the king and the Catholic entourage that advised him) anticipated a decision that was normally devolved to the Parliament. But it was undoubtedly a question of showing that the children of the late Queen Astrid did not risk being ousted from their rights, so as not to displease public opinion, which remained very attached to the memory of the deceased queen. But the Belgians were unfavorably impressed by the announcement made by the German authorities that Führer Adolf Hitler had sent flowers and a word of congratulations on the occasion of the wedding, which seemed to give credence to the opinion that the new wife had pro-German sympathies.

The king”s supporters invoked the disappearance of parliament as a case of force majeure to justify the king”s behaviour, which was supposed to rely on a future parliament to ratify his marriage after the hoped-for victory. But in the dramatic situation in which Belgium found itself, the majority of citizens, who did not forget the very popular Queen Astrid who had died in 1935, did not appreciate this remarriage. It seemed to show that Leopold III was not as much of a prisoner as they thought, while the soldiers, prisoners of war, remained separated from their families since 1940 and the people saw their lives becoming more and more precarious due to various shortages (food, heating) and the increasingly harsh actions of the German state police (Gestapo) assisted by traitors.

Many patriots who had joined the active resistance and the clandestine press were arrested, deported, tortured and shot, while the people”s lot was made more and more precarious and aggravated by the black market. In this situation, the king”s proclamation to the Belgian population at the time of the capitulation, saying that he shared the fate of his people, was reduced to nothing as this situation made his powerlessness to relieve the misery of Belgium apparent. Indeed, Leopold III wanted, on two occasions, to show his concern for the fate of the population by protesting in a letter to Adolf Hitler, against the deportations and the shortage of coal, while asking again for the release of military prisoners. In response, he was threatened with deportation himself, which eventually happened.

Belgium therefore no longer had any authority on its territory legitimately entitled to exercise any power in the name of the government that had taken refuge abroad, nor in the name of the king. It must be repeated that the king was unable to reign because of the national constitution, which was clearly established by the Belgian government and supported by the opinion of jurisconsults. The Nazis, with their own reasons, had made the same claim. The country was completely subjugated to Germany, and the senior civil servants and all the administrations, including the burgomasters and police commissioners, had to obey the occupation authorities, and opposition to them could lead to dismissal without pay and even to the arrest of those who claimed to apply Belgian laws against the German will (whereas in France, the Laval government had retained authority over the prefects and mayors, even in the occupied zone). From 1942 onwards, more and more Nazi collaborators, VNV and rexists, were appointed by the Germans to important posts to replace patriotic Belgians who dared to defy the occupier. Business leaders in industry and banking were arrested. Some were even assassinated by Belgian traitors in the service of the SS and the Gestapo, such as the Governor General of the Société Générale de Belgique, considered by the Germans to be playing a double game in secret agreement with the Allies. The Allies, and particularly the British, had set up networks in Belgium intended to initiate actions that would undermine the use of the industries, especially the most important ones, that depended on the General”s group. Another reason for the German hostility was the participation of the companies of the Generale group in the Belgian Congo in the Allied war effort under the aegis of the Belgian government in exile. In Belgium, the mines and factories requisitioned to serve German war production were not only those of large industrial groups, but also of small and medium-sized companies and public corporations such as the Belgian National Railway Company (SNCB), where Germans were installed in various positions, notably to supervise locomotive drivers. A sabotage network influenced by the communists developed within the railroads.

In addition to this, there was a food shortage due to agricultural seizures, which were accompanied by roundups of hostages and Jews; at the same time, the repression of the resistance led to imprisonment, torture and executions. The fort of Breendonk, a former position in the Antwerp fortified belt, had already been transformed into a concentration camp in 1940. The country was crushed by the occupying forces and the king had only an imaginary power left, the power he claimed to be a bulwark against the division of the country. His two letters of protest to Hitler against the deportations having had no effect, the Jews of Belgium – whom the Germans were deporting little by little for a so-called regrouping that offered them a territory in Eastern Europe – decided to send to Germany a non-Jewish Belgian named Victor Martin, a member of the Belgian resistance (the F.I., the Front of Independence) to try to see with his own eyes what was going on. He returned, after reaching the gates of Auschwitz, with the unequivocal information that the fate of the deportees was death.

Over the years, resistance movements developed. Officers and soldiers who were not prisoners had founded, as early as the end of 1940, the Belgian legion, later called the Secret Army, which was recognized as a legal fighting military unit by the Belgian government in exile and by foreign governments at war with Germany. Other movements emerged of various political persuasions, such as the left-leaning Front de l”Indépendance, the Belgian National Movement, and the Royalist National Movement, which had secret contacts with the king (whose members supported the king during the Royal Question, claiming that Leopold III had encouraged them to fight in the Resistance and that a close relative of the king had provided them with weapons from stocks that had been hidden from the Germans). Autonomous groups were spontaneously organized everywhere, in the cities for intelligence and rescue of downed Allied airmen, in the forests of the Ardennes and in Flanders, such as the White Brigade (or Witte Brigade) led by patriotic Flemings, as well as in companies and in universities. The University of Brussels scuttled itself, knowing that it was going to become a German university – which the occupying forces did not have time to install – and engineers from this university founded the “G Group” dedicated to organizing sophisticated sabotage. The result was the “great blackout”, which was caused by the simultaneous destruction of dozens of pylons, stations and sub-stations of the high-voltage network supplying Belgian industries requisitioned by the occupier, as well as German factories that were receiving Belgian electricity.

It was the former head of Leopold III”s Military Household, General Tilkens, who had been released on probation by the Germans, who was active in supplying arms to resistance groups, with, it is said, the king”s approval. In an act of personal support for the resistance, the King approved the appointment by the Belgian government in London of Colonel Bastin as head of the “Forces of the Interior”, the main armed resistance movement. Leopold III was thus able to manifest, in secrecy, what appeared to be an identity of views and action with the Belgian government in exile insofar as his situation of house arrest allowed, which placed him under the control of a German military unit occupying the royal palaces. This apparent concern of the king for a rapprochement with the Belgian government in exile was not to be seen again in 1944 and in the following years.

The reason that best stands up to scrutiny among those invoked by Leopold III to justify his decision to remain in Belgium in 1940 is that it was feared that Germany would resume its 1914-1918 policy of division. The king judged that by his presence alone he could oppose this, being obliged, in order to be faithful to his constitutional oath, to defend the integrity of the territory, failing which he would be a traitor to the fatherland. The army having ceased to exist in Belgium, and the government being abroad from where it managed the interests of free Belgium engaged in the war, a situation was created in which Leopold III felt that it was up to him, present in Belgium, to prevent Germany from doing what it wanted. This choice, which consisted in believing that only one man could oppose the Hitler machine, seemed at first to prevent the worst German projects, thanks to the at least tacit complicity of the German governor von Falkenhausen. The latter, by calculation, did not favor Germany”s collaborators in their separatist aims. A Prussian aristocrat secretly opposed to the Nazis and their aims, he ended up being arrested on Hitler”s orders and replaced in early 1944 by the Nazi Gauleiter Grohé. In the memoirs of the German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, dated March 4, 1944, there is a complaint against the king, which the minister wanted to get rid of at the same time as von Falkenhausen. This was a repetition of the complaints made by the same minister and by Hitler in 1940, when they wanted to eliminate Leopold III so that Germany would be completely rid of the political fiction of Belgium”s survival through its king. This situation contrasted with that of the Netherlands and Norway, where the Nazis had a free hand, the sovereigns of these countries having fled after a symbolic resistance. As for Denmark, which had practically no army, it was occupied from the start. The Germans were able to count on official collaboration by royal decision in agreement with the government without having to proceed with requisitions or dismissals and arrests, as they had to do in Belgium.

Traditionalist German diplomats, who had retained some influence despite the Nazis, managed to impose an old-school reserve at the expense, temporarily, of the Nazi conception of human and protocol relations. This did not prevent the latter from manifesting itself the day after the capitulation, on May 31, 1940, when a German doctor named Ghebhardt invited himself to the home of the king, who had just been placed under house arrest in Brussels. This visitor tried to organize a “spontaneous” meeting with Hitler in order to orient Belgian policy towards an active collaboration like that of Pétain-Laval. This approach did not produce any results. There was a meeting on November 19, 1940, but the king limited himself to demanding the release of all Belgian prisoners and respect for independence. But he did not obtain any commitment from Hitler. It should be noted that during a second forced visit by Ghebhardt in 1943, he even presented the king and his wife with vials of poison, which he tried to make them accept, as if he wanted to make them accomplices of the German leaders, who, he said, all possessed it and would not fail to use it. Leopold III and the Princess of Rethy, who had no reason to commit suicide, as if they had been accomplices of the German leaders, refused this poisoned gift with the impression that their lives were increasingly in danger. Finally, Hitler ordered the deportation of the king and his family in June 1944, as Joseph Goebbels had wanted since 1940. Heinrich Himmler ordered that the family be kept in the fortress of Hirschstein in Saxony from the summer until the end of the winter of 1944-45, and then in Strobl, near Salzburg. Meanwhile, Belgium was divided by the Nazis into two Gaue (territories), as it had been in 1917. Flanders and Brussels were separated from Wallonia, the latter being destined to be Germanized, while Flanders, together with the Netherlands, was to become German within a short period of time through annexation. The fear of Leopold III was thus realized as soon as he was deported. The main reason why the king had decided to stay in Belgium, namely to prevent the division of the country by his presence, finally turned out to have offered only a grace period which ended as soon as he was no longer there.

The king and his family were liberated by the American army on May 7, 1945, in Strobl, Austria, where the Germans had moved them. Meetings with the government that had returned from exile did not lead to an amicable settlement of the dispute that had arisen on May 28, 1940, as neither side was willing to make concessions. The king did not want to admit that he should have left the national territory in 1940, and the government refused to go back on the condemnation of this attitude that he had pronounced in 1940 before the Belgian parliamentarians who had taken refuge in France. Leopold III and his family moved to Switzerland to await a solution, and Belgium began its reconstruction under the reign of the king”s brother, the regent Charles. The regent had the same powers as the king and some people suggested that he became king under the name of Charles I of Belgium. It is said that the king thought about it. But he did not publicly support this project, not wanting to openly scorn his elder brother, and it was not until 1950, after the referendum organized in Belgium on the royal question, that an appeasement intervened with the accession to the throne of the eldest son of Leopold III, Baudouin.

The king could not return to Belgium immediately after his liberation because some of the Belgian political staff and population were opposed to his return until the fundamental question of whether or not the king should have left the country in 1940 to continue the struggle rather than become a prisoner was settled. Under the regency of Prince Charles, his brother who had been called to the post by Parliament and was said to have been more sympathetic to the views of the Belgian government in London and its supporters, dissension arose between Walloons and Flemings. The majority of the former seemed less favourable to the king, whom they demanded, at the very least, an apology for what was seen as his defeatism, which could not be accepted by a man like Leopold III, who believed that royalty had its privileges. A majority of Flemings seemed to be in favour of the return of the king, but it was not possible in 1945 to make a valid estimate of where the majority of Belgian public opinion stood. If there was a crack in the body of the nation, could Belgium”s existence have been threatened at that time? Probably not, but the crown was faltering and therefore the dynasty might have had to leave the scene. One would then have seen one of these ex-sovereign families in exile, like others, settle on the French Riviera or in Switzerland, which, given the financial situation of the Belgian royal family at that time, would not have been an enviable fate. Later, back in private life, the regent Charles had this to say, to justify the regency that allowed him to preserve the throne, “I saved the house”. The simple and familiar side of the ex-regent appears in this apostrophe, which shows him to be very different from his elder brother Leopold, whose aristocratic mentality had prevented him from understanding that Germany and its Führer had nothing to do with the monarchies of the past centuries, with which one could hope to get along among people of good company.

The aristocratic character of Leopold III was clearly shown in his “Political Testament”, which he entrusted to reliable persons at the time of his deportation to Germany and which was intended to be published in the event of his absence when Belgium was liberated. This document, initially kept secret for some time by the Pierlot government on his return to Brussels, was the cause, as soon as it was made known to the Belgians, of a controversy which aggravated the debate within the public opinion. The Belgian government in London, which had never publicly questioned the King during his years of exile and had hoped to the end for a compromise with him, did not like to read that the King was asking for a public apology from the ministers who had “defamed” him, he said, in 1940. Nor did the Allies like the king”s request to reconsider the treaties concluded by the government in exile, which the king considered unfavourable to Belgian interests. This led to a controversy centred mainly on the economic treaties with the United States concerning the delivery of minerals and especially Congolese uranium, which was essential for the construction of American atomic bombs. However, the military participation of Free Belgium in Africa and Europe, as well as the economic deliveries, had been an argument that later played a fundamental role in the payment of the Allied debts, which was the main cause of the country”s rapid return to prosperity. Thanks to the policy of the government in exile, Belgium was thus an exceptional case among the defeated countries in 1940. Neither the Netherlands, deprived of its colony of Indonesia by the Japanese in 1941, nor Denmark, nor Norway put human resources and wealth at the service of the Allies comparable to those that Free Belgium invested in the fight against the Axis forces. It has been estimated that approximately 100,000 people worked and fought, including auxiliaries, sailors, airmen and ground forces in England and Africa. The text of the king”s political will did not, however, express any recognition for the action of the exiled Belgians and Belgian ministers in London, even though by leaving the country they had exposed their families to Nazi persecution (which was the case, among others, of the family of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, This was the case, for example, with the family of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paul-Henri Spaak, whose wife and children had to go into hiding and whose sister-in-law was executed, and with Prime Minister Pierlot, whose brother-in-law took on a secret mission in Belgium that led to his death, and with Minister Camille Gutt, who lost two sons in the service of the Allies). Moreover, Leopold III”s political will reflected a narrow view of the world and focused mainly on Belgian-Belgian problems, saying nothing about the Resistance, which he had supported by authorizing the head of the Royal Military Household, General Tilkens, to provide armed assistance to the Royalist National Movement. Seeing himself excluded from political and military events, with the result that he was forcibly kept in Germany by the Americans who had liberated him and his family, the king was to criticize, in 1946, the persistence of the Allied presence in liberated Belgium as an “occupation. Winston Churchill, struck by the discrepancy between the real situation in Belgium and the worldview revealed in the King”s political testament, remarked: “He has forgotten nothing and learned nothing.

As soon as the sovereign returned on July 22, 1950, unrest broke out, especially in the Walloon provinces. The general strike paralysed a large part of the country, with the Communist Party being particularly active in the anti-monarchical action, especially in Antwerp among the dockers. There were several dozen sabotages with explosives in Wallonia and four deaths, shot by the gendarmerie during a demonstration: the shooting of Grâce-Berleur (a commune on the outskirts of Liège).

On July 31, after a dramatic meeting with former political deportees, King Leopold III agreed to entrust the general lieutenancy of the kingdom to his eldest son, Prince Baudouin, in order to preserve the unity of the country.

After the abdication

Leopold III influenced the reign of his son Baudouin until the latter”s marriage. In 1959, the government asked him to stop living under the same roof as his son and to leave the castle of Laeken. The former monarch then retired to the castle of Argenteuil, near Brussels, in the forest of Soignes and had no further political role.

Leopold III died during the night of 24-25 September 1983, at the age of 81, at the Saint-Luc University Clinic in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert (Brussels) following a major operation on his coronary arteries. He was buried, like all the kings and queens of Belgium, in the church of the royal crypt of Notre-Dame de Laeken in Brussels, alongside his two wives.

During his lifetime, and mainly after his abdication, King Leopold III devoted himself to scientific research and exploration trips to Venezuela, Brazil and Zaire. In this way, he created in 1972 the King Leopold III Fund for the exploration and conservation of nature. And about this fund he declares:

“The idea of creating the Fund came to me, among other things, from the numerous requests for support that I received from people who wished either to mount an expedition, or to publish the results of their research, or to make known to the world the fate of certain underprivileged ethnic groups. One of the goals of the Fund is to encourage such initiatives, provided that they are reasoned, disinterested and marked by a real scientific and human interest (…)”. Thus, throughout his life, mainly before and after his reign, he made many trips.

From September 23 to November 13, 1919, he accompanied his parents on an official visit to the United States. During a visit to the Indian pueblo of Isleta in New Mexico, the sovereign decorated Father Anton Docher with the Order of Leopold, who in return gave them a silver and turquoise cross made by the Tiwas Indians.

He meets the cartoonist Hergé in Switzerland.

In 1964, during an expedition in the Amerindian reserves of Mato Grosso in Brazil, King Leopold III met the chief Raoni.

Leopold III visited the island of North Sentinel (Andaman Islands, Bay of Bengal) in 1974 and tried to approach the Sentinels, an indigenous people living isolated from the rest of humanity; the expedition was repulsed by a lone warrior of the tribe.

Honors

Commemorative medal of the Carol I reign.

External links

Sources

  1. Léopold III (roi des Belges)
  2. Leopold III of Belgium