King Lopold was an advocate of a more independent foreign policy for Belgium before World War II, Leopold twice urged mediation of the conflict between NAZI Germany and the Western Allies in the months immediately before and after the outbreak of war in 1939. Belgium remained strictly neutral, but was invaded by the Germans for a second time in the Spring of 1940. King Leopold before the War had promoted the construction of important defensive fortifications from Antwerp to Namur in front of the German border. His actions as Commander and Chief of the Army during the German invasion of 1940 has been criticized by some Belgians and the British and French. Leopold, with the bulk of the Belgian Army, was surrounded by the Germans, and capitulated. Leopold ordered his army to surrender and refused to flee with officials to form a government-in-exile in England. His actions were resented by some Belgians. His surrender at a crucial point in the battle for the low countries left a critical gap in the Allied ring around Dunkirk and could have made the evacuation impossible if the Germans had pressed their attack. King Leopold aroused further criticism by his marriage in 1941 to a commoner, who was some looked on as pro-NAZI. To many Belgians, Leopold's surrender to the NAZI's forces were in stark contrast to his father's gallant resistance to the Kaiser's Army during World War I. Other Belgians believe that the King has been unfairly criticized. King Leopold showed great courage by subsequently refusing to administer his country under German control and lend any appearance of legitimacy to the NAZI occupation government. Leopold was held prisoner by the Germans until the end of the war, first in his castle at Laeken, Brussels, and later deep in Germany itself.
Everything goes back to Belgian withdrawal from the Locarno pact. When the NAZIs reentered the Rhineland in 1936 and nothing was done, Belgium decided to go its own way with a policy of "armed neutrality". One of the prevailing thoughts behind this was, if the Dutch could avoid war as it did in 1914-18, perhaps Belgium could do so as well. In order to accomplish this Belgium devoted an incredible amount of its GNP for national defense. One estimate suggests 23 percent. With a population of 8 million people, Belgium had 650,000 men in service. This was the maximum that a small country like Belgium could muster. Neither the French or British made anywhere similar proportional preparations. [Wybo] The funds were used to build border fortifications and to secure raise a new army. The Belgians decided to focus on fixed fortifications rathrer than armor or aircraft.
King Leopold was an advocate of a more independent foreign policy for Belgium before World War II, Leopold twice urged mediation of the conflict between NAZI Germany and the Western Allies in the months immediately before and after the outbreak of war in 1939. Depite the German invasion in 1914, Belgian after the War returned to a policy of neutrality. King Leopold's policy of "armed neutrality" was whole heartily supported by the Belgian people. [Wybo] After the outbreak of War, the King gave a radio speech in English to the United States . He told America that the Belgian people's attitude came from "Whose feels have evolved from age long struggles" Everyone fought their fights on Belgian soil! The Belgian people wanted to be left alone and left in peace. So, no matter how the Allies or Axis countries think, Belgium wanted to be left out. (October 1939)
Belgium remained strictly neutral, but was invaded by the Germans for a second time on May 10, 1940 the start of the long anticipated German offensive in the West. King Leopold before the War had promoted the construction of important defensive fortifications from Antwerp to Namur in front of the German border. Belgium declared its neutrality and refused to allow the British Expeditionary Force to enter the country. The BEF defied the Belgian order, but had no effect. The Belgian Army was shocked at the onset with the fall of border defenses. Fort Eban-Emael was a large underground fort dominating three well defended bridges over the Albert Canal. It was modeled on the French Maginot Line forts and considered impregnable. The Fort was manned by over 1,200 Belgian soldiers. A 400-man German glider force silently attacked at dawn on May 10. The German landed nine gliders directly on top of the Fort. They blasted their way through the roofs of the gun emplacements and quickly disabled the guns. With the defending artillery destroyed, the remainder of the German force was able to quickly secure two of the three critical bridges over the canal. The German armored forces were then able to cross the heavily fortified Belgian border without a fight, in a matter of hours.
King Leopold without consulting the cabinent or the Allies surrendered the Belgian Army and capitulated to the Germans on May 28. The British on the same day began the evacuation at Dunkirk. [Rempel] King Leopold's actions were widely resented in Belgium. His surrender at a crucial point in the battle for the Low Countries left a critical gap in the Allied ring around Dunkirk and could have made the evacuation impossible. Inexplicably Hitler ordered the Panzzers stopped and the Germans had pressed their attack. There is considerable difference of opinion as to the circumstances surrounding the caotic course of events in late May. His actions as Commander and Chief of the Army during the German invasion of 1940 have been sharply criticized. To many Belgians, Leopold's surrender to the NAZI's forces were in stark contrast to his father's gallant resistance to the Kaiser's Army during World War I. The King's surrender incurred the disapproval of many Belgians people and Parliament. Not all Belgians were critical at the time. A Belgian source rells us that the King's actions were praised by the over 2 million refugees trapped in the pocket encircled by the Germans. He also reports that the majority of Belgians are Flemish and the Flemings were supportive of the King. [Wybo] King Leopold saw the situation as hopeless. He thus decided to spare his soldirs and people further bloodshed in a lost cause. There was some support for this view. British Admiral Sir Roger Keyes was at the King's headquarters during the fighting and insisted that King Leopold had no military option but to surrender. This almost certainly true, but a few more days of resistance would have made it easier for the British and French at Dunkirk. The British and French were especially critical of the King's actions and there was considerable criticism in the Allied countries. Reynaud broadcast a vitriolic diatribe calling his majesty a traitor! One observer believes that the French, whose army was desintigrating, needed a scape goat. [Wybo] There is a reasonable qestion of who abandoned who. The Belgians were never informed that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was abandoning them. [Deightons] Certainly in thefinalmanalysis it was critical that the BEF be succesfully evacuated. If the Germans had destroyed the BEF at Dunkirk, it is difficult to see how Blgium could be liberated in 1944. Of course it understandably looked very different to many at the time.
Belgian representatives after King Leopold surrendered the Belgian Army assembled in Limoges, France. They condemned the King's action in surendering rather than helping form a governmnt-in-exile. Some Belgians are also critical of those who formed the Government in Exile. One reader reports, "The Government-in-Exile waffled three times during the occupation. That same Government had to save face and get rid of Leopold. It was a constitutional problem." [Wybo] The Belgian government on June 18 established a Belgian Government-in-Exile, temporarily at Bordeaux, France. They declared the King deposed. When France also was forced to seek an armistace, Belgian political leaders (Spaak and Pierlot) fleed to London. They formed the Belgan Legion. The Government in exile retained control of the Belgian Congo and Rawanda and recrited a small force.
King Leopold on May 27 asked the NAZIs for an armistace. He ordered his army to surrender on May 28 and refused to flee with officials to form a government-in-exile in England. The King bravely shared the fate of his troops and people. [Wybo] He made a solemn promise to his troops "what ever occurs I will share your lot." King Leopold met with Adolf Hitler in November 1940 at Berchtesgaden. One source indicated that he managed to achieve the release of 50,000 Belgian prisonors of war and an improved food supply for occupied Belgium. A Belgian source indicates, "Hi Majesty during the occupation was credited with negotiating the release of over 100,000 prisoners of war. He never treated with the enemy. He was influential in negotiating better terms for Belgium than that of other occupied countries." [Wybo] The western Allies and many Belgians looked on him as a collaborator. It must be said, however, that Leopold showed great courage by subsequently refusing to administer his country under German control and lend any appearance of legitimacy to the NAZI occupation government. [Warmbrunn, p. 72.]
Sone Fascist groups and politicans like Hendrik de Man, a Socialist politican, decided to work with the NAZIs. Many thought that the staggering Germn victories in 1939-40 meant that they had on the War andtht that was no choice but to make the best of the situation. . De Man headed the collabraiinist regime. The Wehrmacht (the German army), under General Alexander von Falkenhausen and
his administrative chief General Eggert Reeder, were in control and administered the oc upation regime. The German military government administered for civil affairs down to the most personnel matters.
NAZI occupation policies varied greatly from country to country, depending primatily in the racial make-up of the population. Te NAZIs attempted to gain adherents for the New Order. The NAZIs attempted to gain the support of populations which they saw as having Aryan blood. The NAZIs organized a Flemish and a Wallonian "legion of volunteers against
Bolzhevism" in the East. Many never returned. They had no imact on the Wastern Front, but significantly depleted the numbers of pro-NAZI supportes. NAZI authorities were sure that blood the end would tell and that Aryan Belgians would eventually adhere to the New Order.
The NAZIs began he persecution of the Jew within a few week of seizing control. As in the Netherland the first steps were inocuous as the NAZIs wanted to set up an organized system and did not want to intilly arouse the local population. Resourceswere limitedand policies not yet finalized. [Marrus and Paxton, p. 695.] Soon they begun forcing the Jews to register. Belgium had a rather small Jewish population. Only about 20,000. Deportations to the Polish death camps began in July 1942. The Breedonk camp served as a collection and transit camp. Thre were about 56,000 Jews in Belgium, but only a small number were Belgian citizens--about 7 percnt. NAzI authorities gradually issued more and more decrees confining and restricting the Jews. They were reuite to wear yelloe stars idenifying them. (May 1941) he perscution of the Jes wa led by the Anti-Jewish League and the Flemish SS which included looting shops and burning synagogues. were burnt on April 14, 1941. [Mechelen Museum ]
The NAZIs began deportations beginning with non-Belgian Jews. (August 1942). Eventually over 25,000 Jews were deported, among who only 1,200 survived. [Proceedings, p. 212.]
There was at first no organized resistanve to the NAZIs. The German vicory was just overwealming. Gradually th Resistance began to form. Resistance organizations were formed by the communists as well as
Flemish (Witte Brigade), royalist (National Royal Movement), Christian Democrat (Liberation Army), socialist. The NAZIs caught several hundred Resistance workers and executed them. Others were arrested and interned in concentration camps.
King Leopold aroused further criticism by his marriage in 1941 to a commoner, a Flemish commoner whom he loved. Leopold married Marie Lilianne Baels (1916-2002), later created Princess de Rethy, in a religious ceremony on September 11, 1941, during the German occupation. The civil ceremony took place on December 6, 1941 at Laeken Castle. Her father was Henri Baels and her mother was Anne Marie De Visscher. This marriage was not popular in Belgium. Not only was his wife a commoner, but some Belgians viewed her as pro-NAZI. We have no information on this. Hopefully our Belgian readers will provide us some information on the Princess. We know of no actual evidence to substantiate that she collaborated and there was no legal action taken against her after the War. One Belgian source believes that the negative feelings towards Leopold from his own people really came when he decided to marry Baels. He objects to even mentioning that these rumors existed and reports, "Lillian Baels was no more pro Nazi than you are!" [Wybo] Before her death she published Leopold's memoirs on the 18-day campaign of 1940.
King Leopold was held prisoner by the Germans until the end of the war. He was interned in his castle at Laeken, Brussels. As the Allies approached Belgium, the retreating Germans took the King and his family with them as they retreatd into Germany. He was finally liberated by American soldiers in Austria.
The Government in Exile (Spaak and Pierlot) organized the Belgian Legion which fought with the Allies in France after the D-Day Invasion (June 1944). The Belgian Legion entered Bussels with the Allied armies (September 1944).
Many Belgians resented King Leopold. Leopold's brother Charles was elected as regent in 1944. The Government in 1945 extended the regency indefinitely. A commission of inquiry in 1946 exonerated Leopold on the grounds that he had not capitulated without first informing the other Allied powers and that following his surrender he had refused to govern under the Germans. The controversy concerning his loyalty continued, however, and Leopold remained in exile in Switzerland after the end of the war.
King Leopold III returned to Belgium in 1950 and tried to resume his role as king. Widespread protests, especially by left-wing
groups, forced him to abicate in favor of his eldest son, Prince Baudouin. Some Belgians believe that it is an outrageous tragedy the way King Leopold has been portrayed in history. I believe that "... his majesty was branded a scape goat during those terrible days in May 1940". [Wybo] Baudouin was crowned in 1951 and reigned for 42
years. The longest period of any Belgian monarch. He did much to restore the prestige of the Belgian Crown. He died died of
heart failure in Motril, in the south of Spain on July 32, 1993. As he had no children, he was suceeded by his brother Albert.
Sources consulted include:
Deightons, Len. Blood Tears and Folly.
Marrus, Michael R. and Robert O. Paxton. "The Nazis and the Jews in Occupied Western Europe 1940-44" in The Journal of Modern History, v. 54, December. 4, 1982.
(The) Mechelen Museum of Deportation and Resistance. Belgium under the German Occupation of 1940-42: Setting the Nazi Trap for the Jewish Community".
Proceedings of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets.
Rempel, Gerhard. "Hitler Moves West", December 18, 1995.
Warmbrunn, Werner. The German Occupation of Belgium 1940-1944. (New York, Peter Lang Publishing, 1993).
Wybo, Daniel A. National League of Veterans of King Leopold III, E-mail message, October 20, 2002.
Other pertient works not yet consulted include:
Leopold III. The Eighteenth Day.
Roger Keyes. Outrageous Fortune.
A R Arrango. Leopold III and the Belgian Royal Question, Was Leopold a Traitor
Belgium 39/40 the official account,
The Prisoner of Laeken
Leopold III Kroongetuige (Kroon memories?).
Princess Esmeralda. Leopold III Mijn Vader.
Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site royal pages:
[Main Leopold III page]
[Main Albert I page]
[Main Leopold III page]
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