This edited article about the Second World War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 700 published on 14 June 1975.
In the bitter spring of 1940, as the grim grey-uniformed German Army pushed through Northern Europe, one man made a decision that was, for years afterwards, to divide a nation.
At 4 a.m. on May 28, half a million Belgian soldiers laid down their arms and surrendered to the advancing Germans. This they did not on the orders of their generals, nor on the instructions from their political leaders, but at the bidding of their handsome king, Leopold the Third.
Leopold’s instructions to his countrymen – who had fought bravely and acquitted themselves well – were given after a last desperate attempt by his Ministers to make him change his mind.
The king was adamant. He saw no further use in resistance. He told M. Spaak (then Foreign Minister): “I shall stay here whatever happens. I shall ask them (the Germans) to let me live in a castle in Belgium.”
The news that the Belgian Army had stopped fighting stunned and angered the allies. Tempers, already inflamed by the passion of war, were now inflamed in turn by hatred directed at Leopold. At 8 a.m. on the morning of May 28 M. Reynaud, the Prime Minister of France, broadcast to the French people and spoke in terms of contempt of the Belgian king.
The Belgian Prime Minister, M. Piertot, denied the right of Leopold to give a surrender order without the consent of the government.
The Germans were jubilant. “Under the impression of the devastating effect of the German arms the King of the Belgians has decided to put an end to further useless resistance,” screamed the Goebbels propaganda machine.
In London Winston Churchill sucked gravely upon the inevitable cigar and exhorted the allies to greater efforts. Meanwhile the German armies swept on into France, only the Channel separating them from Britain, and Belgium was occupied and out of the war.
Why had Leopold surrendered? Was he a hero or a traitor? Had the Germans made him promises? Since that day in 1940 the arguments have raged and some, but not all, of the questions have been answered.
While war was still being waged various suggestions filtered to the allies from neutral capitals. Leopold, it was said, had been offered the kingship of Holland by the Germans as an inducement to surrender.
Leopold’s supporters maintained that he had acted from the highest principles. It was obvious that the Belgian armies were outnumbered, that the fight was already lost for them. To prolong it would only have meant further useless bloodshed.
The Dutch royal family sought refuge in England when their country was overrun by the Germans, and from England they were able to encourage the Dutch people. Leopold’s critics pointed out that he would have served his cause better by doing the same, instead of allowing himself to become a prisoner of the Germans.
But a prisoner he became, confined to his own home, the Royal Palace at Laeken, near Brussels. The Germans occupied the right-wing of the Palace, and the captive king had the use of the rest. A German officer, Colonel Werner Kiemitz, was appointed his aide-de-camp, which was a polite term for the man who was, in fact his gaoler.
In the interests of security the German S.S. Leader Himmler decided that he must also have a company of his S.S. men about the Palace. In fact the king never made any attempt to escape and as he had allowed himself to fall into German hands in the first place, it was hardly likely that he would.
Once or twice the possibility of raiding the Palace and dramatically rescuing Leopold was discussed but no firm plan was ever made.
The king still firmly believed that he was serving his country best by being in Belgium and from that view he never departed. Once he went to Hitler at Berchtesgaden, the Fuehrer’s country retreat, to plead with him for extra rations for the Belgian people, but history does not show whether the king’s pleas fell upon deaf ears or not. When Hitler began deporting Belgian young men to work in Germany Leopold wrote a letter couched – for a prisoner – in fairly strong terms. Hitler lost his temper, Leopold had better watch out, he shouted, or he would have him taken to Germany.
What right had he, demanded the indignant Fuehrer, to protest when all he was doing was allowing Belgians to join the Germans in working for a greater and more glorious Europe?
In September, 1941, Leopold was quietly married to Madame Liliane Baels, now known as Princess Liliane de Rethy. Many of the Belgian people were displeased by the marriage. They disliked the secrecy, and they disliked Princess Liliane, whom they regarded as usurping the place of their dearly beloved Queen Astrid, Leopold’s first wife who was killed in a car accident in 1935.
Leopold remained at Laeken most of the war, but a few hours after the D-day landings the Germans took him to Germany, where he was released by the advancing Americans on May 7, 1945.
Then the row over the king really began. Half the Belgians refused to have him at any price. If he returned to take up the throne there was danger of civil war.
The king and his family went to live in Switzerland while his future became a violent political issue in Belgium.
The king wanted to go home. The government did not want him back. Politicians came and went between Geneva and Brussels. There were long and bitter arguments between them and Leopold. At last it was put to the vote.
Five million Belgians went to the polls in 1950 to say what they thought of their controversial monarch. Fifty-seven point-seven per cent, a slender majority, wanted him to come back.
So, in July 1950, Leopold returned – scarcely in triumph – to Laeken Palace which he had last left as a prisoner of the Germans. Still his extraordinary story was not finished.
For a year he remained within the Palace walls, never going into Brussels, while the country seethed, divided against itself. Finally, a year later, he abdicated, relinquishing his throne to his son, King Baudouin, who reigns today.
In 1956 Leopold visited Britain and went to Buckingham Palace for tea with the Queen. All was forgotten as far as our royal family were concerned.
But to this day many Belgians can neither forget nor forgive the king they believe let down his country.
Did he? History has not judged him yet.
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