Leopold III took the constitutional oath and became the fourth King of the Belgians on the 23rd of February 1934, one week after the death of his father, Albert I. He bore a heavy load. The thirties were characterised by major political instability. Between 1934 and 1940, Leopold III witnessed the coming and going of no fewer than nine governments. Like his father before him, he expressed strong criticism about the workings of Parliament and of the government. Leopold III advocated strong central power, but this power ought to originate in constitutional principles and the central role they accorded the King. The King wanted strong royal power to mitigate the threat of dictatorship, which was making headway in Italy and Germany. King Albert’s and, to a lesser extent, King Leopold III’s strong position nipped the chances of aspiring Belgian dictators in the bud. This idea greatly influenced Leopold III’s behaviour towards the government.
Tensions between King and government culminated during the final months before the war. The King went against the political parties’ ever growing influence, while the politicians accused the King of sailing a personal political course. Increasing international tensions pushed the very contrasting standpoints somewhat to the background. After the military defeat, however, the problems reappeared.
The Battle of Belgium
On the tenth of May 1940, German forces invaded Belgium in full force. The defensive lines around Liège were overrun in the first hours of the attack. Leopold III and his government’s hope of keeping the country out of the war through a strict policy of independence and neutrality was brutally shattered. Like his father before him, Leopold III immediately took supreme command of the army. This, however, also sowed the seeds of the subsequent conflict which would lead to his abdication.
The Belgian army, which was supported by French and British forces, was no match for the German combination of tanks and dive bombers. Leopold III was forced to ever withdraw his forces. Talks with French and British commanders were fruitless. On the twenty-fourth of May, the Battle of the Lys fully erupted. Fresh German forces were brought in from the Netherlands, which had laid down its arms after five days, and thrown into battle. In spite of the Belgian army’s courageous defence and the successes of its artillery in particular, the situation appeared ever more dire. Tensions between King and government rose again.
The King did not consider Belgium one of the Allies, but saw it as a country which defended its independence. Prime Minister Pierlot suspected the King was using a secret policy to disengage Belgium from the Allies, to lead it out of the war and to sign a separate peace agreement with Germany. Additionally, most political leaders had fled to London while Napoleon III remained in the country. Some days later, on the twenty-seventh of May 1940, the centre of the front collapsed and events came to a close. The King sent a negotiator to the German lines. The Belgian army’s protracted defence allowed the British Expeditionary Force to withdraw via Dunkirk. For the King, this "victory" sufficed. He refused to carry on the fight at the cost of many soldiers’ lives. This decision, however, did not sit well with the Allies. Both the British and especially the French public opinion wholly unjustly portrayed the Belgian capitulation as a betrayal.
The conflict with the government
The King’s decision to remain in the country after the capitulation of twenty-eight May 1940 went against the unanimous advice of his ministers. They were of the opinion that he ought to travel to France or London to carry on the fight on the Allied side. By remaining in the country, King Leopold wished to play a role which Hitler could not ignore. He hoped to be able to permanently ensure the economic activity and food provision through his position and influence. In his opinion, that decision was the only way to ensure Belgium’s continued independence and the continuation of the dynasty. This made the King immensely popular with the population: he stayed with his people. "Whatever may come, my fate will be yours." These words were never forgotten...
The break with the government was definitive. The ministers held on to their positions and refused to vouch for the King. To the contrary: they attacked him from abroad. The ministers’ departure prevented any government action on Belgian soil. The King’s situation made it impossible for him to rule.
King Leopold during the occupation
All eyes were fixed on Leopold. He was immensely popular with the population. They greatly appreciated the fact that he had stayed with his people while the political leaders had fled the country. Leopold had planned not to rule while Germany was at war with Great Britain, but the example of Vichy-France was very tempting. Pressure from the public opinion grew as well. The King took steps as early as June 1940: he asked for the restoration of the sovereignity over a part of Belgium. Adolf Hitler, who did not want to make decisions regarding Belgium’s future, deflected the question. Additionally, he forbade the King any political activity.
On the nineteenth of November 1940, King Leopold met Hitler in Berchtesgaden. There, Leopold clearly showed that he did not reject the idea of diminished sovereignity in exchange for the dynasty’s preservation. This obviously needs to be placed against the backdrop of the situation of the time. At the end of 1940, Germany still held a strong position and few people doubted that Hitler would dominate Europe for a long time. Hence, Belgium, could only regain (part of) its sovereignity if it recognised the supremacy of the Third Reich. Leopold was not averse to this. He especially stressed the importance of the internal political independence. Belgium would have to make agreements in terms of the military and in terms of foreign policy, and this was a price Leopold was prepared to pay. In his memoirs, however, the King claimed that those words had been put into his mouth by Schmidt, the interpreter who drew up an account of the meeting. Leopold stated that Hitler, and not he himself, had spoken those words. Still, historical research has established virtually beyond any doubt the truthfulness and reliability of Schmidt’s account.
All throughout the war, the King remained convinced of having chosen the right course of action. In particular, he counted on a compromise peace agreement between Great Britain and Germany, as he feared above all else that bolshevism would be the war’s eventual victor. In that respect, the King’s preference went to Germany, as he hoped the Wehrmacht would be able to impose its will on the Nazi-politicians. Many military officers, Belgium’s Militärbefehlshaber Alexander von Falkenhausen one of them, were Nazi opponents after all.
The King’s popularity did not last. He lost the favour of the people when he unexpectedly married Liliane Baels. The Belgian people were only informed of the marriage two months after it had taken place. The image of the King who "would suffer the same fate as his soldiers" was brusquely shattered. In the following years, he was also unable to prevent the Belgians increasingly suffering from hunger, nor could he stop the introduction of forced labour. All this was exactly what Leopold had hoped to prevent by his presence.
The Royal Question
One day after the landing in Normandy, King Leopold III was deported to Germany (and subsequently to Austria). At the liberation of Belgium in September 1944, he was the most noteworthy absentee. His brother, Prince Charles, was installed as Prince Regent. Prime Minister Pierlot and his government reappeared in Belgium, but they were replaced by the (socialist) Van Acker government as early as February 1945. The main question was what was supposed to happen with the King. The Allies in particular considered him the gravest threat to Belgium’s political stability - graver than the communists. The United States were very positive towards the Van Acker government, which in their view represented a sound bulwark against communism, and towards Charles, the Prince Regent, whom they considered to be the sole democrat in the royal family.
The Catholic party opposed all this. They staunchly supported Leopold’s return and rejected the "Americanisation" of the Belgian society. The majority of the population was Catholic and wished for Leopold III’s return. In this way, the King became the election topic in the first post-war years. In 1950, the Christian People’s Party (CPP or Christelijke Volkspartij, CVP), obtained an absolute majority thanks to the Royal Question. They organised a referendum on the King’s return. Fifty-eight per cent voted in favour, forty-two per cent voted not in favour. At first glance, these results are quite clear, but they require a few notes. In the preceding elections, the CPP had obtained forty-eight per cent of the votes. If we assume that all CPP-voters voted in favour, this means that only one out of every five other voters was in favour. The King had become a CPP-king. Additionally, a distinction existed based on language communities: seventy-two per cent of the Flemish voted in favour. In Brussels, fifty-two per cent voted not in favour, and in Wallonia fifty-eight per cent voted not in favour. This made the King into a Flemish king. The referendum in other words made clear that Leopold III’s position as King of the Belgians was no longer tenable.
Still, both the CPP and the King firmly held on to the total percentages. On the twenty-second of July 1950, one day after the Belgian national holiday, Leopold arrived in Belgium. In spite of a five-year absence, he received an all but royal welcome. Riots erupted all over Belgium. Attacks were committed and several people even lost their lives. Belgium was a torn country. Leopold III realised that his kingship had come to an end. In the night from the thirty-first of July to the first of August 1950, he informed Parliament that he wished to transfer his royal prerogatives to his son, Prince Baudouin. Less than a year later, on the sixteenth of July 1951, Leopold III signed his abdication documents. The following day, Baudouin took the oath as fifth King of the Belgians.
Leopold was an authoritarian figure. He failed to realise that the execution of royal power had changed in nature since the institution of universal suffrage in 1919. He abhorred party politics, which he deemed one of the main reasons for the political instabilities of the twenties and thirties. He wished to oppose these party politics through strong royal power.
It no doubt was a wise decision to capitulate and thereby save many lives. Accusations of betrayal by the public, by British and predominantly French politicians were wholly false. The King, after all, had clearly informed the Allied commanders of the Belgian army’s hopeless situation. Apparently, the French and the British sought a scapegoat for their own failures.
Leopold’s decision to remain in the country after the capitulation is more difficult to judge. On the one hand, it was inspired by duty: by his presence, he wanted to help the Belgian people through the difficult period of the occupation. On the other hand, Leopold had certain expectations and illusions: to some extent, he felt prepared to take part in the New Order in exchange for Belgium’s internal sovereignity (and that of its monarchy). In this way, he hoped to sideline the pre-war parliamentary order which he held in such contempt.
The king was wrong about the course of the war, about his ability to help the country through the occupation, and about the coming of the New Order in which he thought he could play a part. In the end, Leopold was powerless: the Germans, for example, ignored his actions against forced labour. His popularity waned, and Hitler increasingly saw him as dead weight. The Führer, after all, refused to decide anything regarding Belgium’s future before the end of the war. Leopold III’s single-mindedness turned into inflexibility, more, into stubbornness. He desperately held on to the throne, which eventually cost him the throne.