Western Europe waits uneasily for a move from the king who is not a king — but Leopold won’t abdicate and Belgium won’t ask him back
L. S. B. SHAPIRO
Maclean’i European Corre»pondent
BRUSSELS—In the Swiss town of Pregny there is a large villa nobly set upon spacious grounds overlooking the lake of Geneva. The gates to the estate are locked and guarded. Motorists can see nothing except the eaves of the villa etched against the summer sky. But sometimes, most frequently in the mornings, passengers on the deck of an excursion boat chugging out of Geneva across the lake see a lone figure sitting motionless on the grounds of the Pregny estate. He seems transfixed by the sparkling green of the water. He makes a handsome figure, tall and slim, with wavy brown hair receding somewhat from his upper temples. Those who examine him through field glasses always say that he looks not unlike the late Leslie Howard.
The estate is the temporary exile of King Leopold III of Belgium. The man who spends so many mornings communing with the waters of Lake Geneva is Leopold himself—the last of the romantic monarchs in the dwindling community oí European royalty. And it is likely that the lone figure pondering the waters is also pondering the question: Will he ever return to the great palace at Laeken as undisputed King of the Belgians?
Around this lone figure swirls a little world misty with intrigue. Although 60% of the Belgian people (by the admitted figures of his opponents) esire his return to the throne, he is not yet permitted to step on Belgian soil. Although absolved of charges that he collaborated with the Germans, his Parliament refuses to accept him as King. Some say he made his gravest error when he refused to y to England when his country was overrun in 1940. Others insist that his cardinal sin was to marry Mademoiselle Louise Baels, a beautiful commoner, while he was a self-proclaimed prisoner of the Germans.
^ro^her Charles, with whom he has never been friendly, is Prince Regent of Belgium. His eldest son, Baudoin, who will be 18 on Sept. 7 of this year, could have the throne on that date— except that Leopold refuses to abdicate.
Meanwhile he is still the constitutional King of Belgium, but this constitutional farce cannot go on. Not only in Brussels, but also in Paris and London and Washington and The Hague, there is a rising impatience that the question of Leopold be settled. Belgium is the keystone of Western European defense and it must be made strong. So long as the question of Leopold hangs fire the constitution is patently vulnerable and the Army, strongly proLeopold, lacks esprit de corps.
Leopold is a commanding figure because he is the last of the storied monarchs. He is the only remaining royal figure about whom a latter-day Shakespeare might weave a drama of love and intrigue and tragedy. He is handsome and moody, clever and stubborn, foolhardy and romantic, exceedingly brave, more than a trifle vain, fabulously rich. And the star under which he was born must have glowed with an evil light, for his life has been propelled and channeled by violent death.
Who could have dreamed the stormy passage of his life on the day, 47 years ago, when the cannon at Laeken, Liège and Namur boomed the royal salute to greet the first-born of King Albert and Queen Elizabeth? No princeling ever materialized into a more secure and happy world. His father, the tall handsome Albert, was beloved of his people. Belgium was small but prosperous and traditionally neural. The royal family was the richest in Europe.
They named the infant prince for his storied granduncle, Leopold II. Two years later his brother Charles was born, but he might have been a waif for all the attention he received. Leopold was the darling of his country. It was inevitable that a certain detachment should develop between the children which was destined to have political significance in later years.
Thus the boy Leopold grew up adored but singularly unspoiled, for the upbringing of a Belgian crown prince is an arduous one. He is required to know five languages. He must be a student of constitutional law because on his 18th birthday he automatically becomes an active member of the Senate. Moreover, he must become a trained staff officer in the Army, the Belgian king being the active as well as the nominal commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
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His first 13 years were busy and happy ones for Leopold.
But on Aug. I, 1914, the cannon of Kupon, Malmédy and Liège burst forth in fire once more, this time sounding the beginning of World War 1. Leopold’s distant relative, Emperor Wilhelm. had struck through the Ardennes at France. King Albert left the palace j at Laeken to take his post at the head I of his brave but pitifully inadequate ! army. A year later the 14-year-old I Leopold became a soldier in the line.
He lived amid death and suffering for j four years and when the war ended ! with the liberation of a prostrate j Belgium his fame as a hero of his I country was second only to that of the j intrepid Albert.
Those who know him best say that ! his moroseness stems from the impact on his boyish mind of the three years he spent at the front. When at 17 he resumed his studies his tutors noted that he neglected his constitutional and language studies in a frantic effort to understand European political history. He was apparently determined that Belgium’s experience should not be repeated. Thus the seeds of a stubborn I neutrality were planted in his mind, j seeds which were to cost the Allies i dearly in the unknown years ahead.
He was morose at times and at j other times almost schizophrenic in his gaiety. In the happy 20’s, he loved j racing cars and devil-may-care skiing in ! Switzerland. His escapades in the j cabarets of Brussels and Baris caused j his mother some inquietude.
This phase of his life ended abruptly in 1926 when he met the svelte and darkly beautiful Princess Astrid of Sweden. Here was a love affair which thrilled the Belgian people to the very depths of their usually practical hearts. The marriage brought forth the wildest celebration the nation would know until tanks of the Guards Armored division rumbled into Brussels on the evening of Sept. 3, 1944. Today, 13 years after her death, there are more pictures of Astrid in the parlors of Belgium than there are of Leopold.
Their first child was a boy, christened Baudoin, born on Sept. 7, 1930. Two years later a daughter was born, then another son. The succession to the throne was assured. The crown prince, Leopold, apparently recovered from his war neuroses, was happy and in love.
Then suddenly the evil star emerged in Leopold’s private heaven. Denoting tragedy and violent death, it has persisted until the present day, sparing the man himself but surrounding him with a melancholy light from which he does not seem able to escape.
In 1934, near the royal hunting lodge in the Ardennes, the aging Albert went out walking alone. As he neared the summit of a 30-foot precipice a rocky ledge crumbled under his foot. Hours later his entourage found him dead.
Leopold became king, but just the next year death struck again, even more viciously. One evening while in Switzerland on a holiday, Leopold took his beloved Astrid driving in a fast motorcar. As he sped wildly along the highway near Lausanne, a sharp curve loomed ahead. He lost control. The car smashed into a roadside tree. Leopold was unhurt, but his queen lay crumpled beneath the tree. Her lovely head was smashed.
The nation mourned with him, but when he had buried her in the royal vault at Laeken, his embittered mind turned wholly to a study of the menacing European situation. Across the fortified hills which guarded his eastern frontier, Hitler was arming with desperate speed.
When war broke out on Sept. 1, 1939, Leopold remembered only the neuroses of his 1914-18 experience and not the political lesson. Instead of integrating Belgium’s defenses with those of France and England he stubbornly went about making impregnable his line of fortresses between Eupen and Luxembourg.
On May 10, 1940. a German panzer force stormed and captured his impregnable fortresses in less than two hours.
Once more death was all around Leopold, but it did not strike at his person. Probably he has often wished since then that it had.
Leopold’s Army was surrounded, on one side by the North Sea, on three sides by the German Wehrmacht. He could fight until death, or he could surrender. He surrendered—a decision which had and still has the approval of his country, no matter what British and French leaders have to say about it.
This decision immediately involved him in a more trying one. His ministers urged him to board a plane with them for London. According to the constitution, it was mandatory that he accept the advice of his ministers. But hereagain his stubbornness, hisbravery and the desolate unhappiness deep within him overrode his better judgment. He preferred to be taken prisoner with his forces and used the legalistic excuse that in time of war his post as commander-in-chief outranks his position as king. (The opposition claims that his action was completely selfish; that he was convinced of a quick German victory over Britain and chose to preserve his throne in Hitler’s new European order. It may well be that he believed in a quick German victory, but his actions deny that he was motivated by selfishness.)
Leopold sought to be treated as a prisoner of war; but the German governor, General von Falkenhausen, refused. Leopold remained in his palace and this deepened his unhappiness because the reports reaching him of the shabby treatment of Belgian prisoners in Germany contrasted sharply with his own ample com fort. Hitler had denied him martyrdom.
Thus he lived for a year and a half, withdrawing more and more within himself until he was subject to spells of acute melancholia.
The King Takes a Wife
It was at this desperate point in his life that he met on a bridle path near Laeken a tawny, athletic woman, beautiful of face, sympathetic of character. She was Louise Baels, daughter of a well-to-do Belgian industrialist. Their romantic interlude was brief and fiery. They were married in September, 1941, but the marriage was kept secret until the Princess de Rethy (the title conferred upon Mile. Baels by Leopold) was about to give birth to a baby. The people of Belgium were astounded. The self-proclaimed prisoner had broken his trust; that invisible link between residence at Laeken under German supervision and the arbeitslager in which Belgian soldiers sweated under German guns had been swept away. The fabulous popularity of Leopold had evaporated. Moreover, the king was traditionally the symbol of unity between the two dominant racial strains of Belgium — the Walloons and the Flamands—and now Leopold had married a Flamand, instead of the customary princess of one of Europe’s almost international ruling families. Thus he sacrificed the delicate aloofness to racial rivalry which had been the greatest strength of Belgian monarchs.
In London men like Pierlot and Spaak knew that the monarchy had been shaken to its very foundation. They were encouraged in their antiLeopold manifestations by the British, still bitter about the Belgian Army’s capitulation which had almost undone the Dunkirk evacuation.
By Sept. 3, 1944, when the British liberated Brussels, Leopold, his wife and his four children (including the j three-year-old Prince Alexander born to the Princess de Rethy) had been whisked away into Germany. Vicomte Gatien du Parc, an aide of Leopold, once told me of the king's ordeal during | the winter 1944-45.
“We were taken from villa to villa in lonely parts of Germany and Austria. We were surrounded by barbed | wire. We heard only the tramp of ¡ Gestapo guards and the yowl of j watchdogs. Every so often an SS general visited Leopold to remind him that his life, and those of his family, might be forfeit. The King hardly ate. Poison was one of the modes of death frequently threatened . .
He Is Forgiven, But . . .
On May 5, 1945, an American armored column rolled into the town of St. Wolfgang in Austria and found Leopold, his family and his entourage. The King was thin and seriously ill.
Paul - Henri Spaak and other members of the reconstituted Belgian Government made immediate arrangements to fly to St. Wolfgang to bring back Leopold and his family. They were restive about the reception he would get. The Communist party, which had emerged from underground j vastly more powerful than before the j war, had promised violence. The j dominant Socialist party opposed Leopold’s return until and unless it could be ! proved that he was not a collaborationist. Yet Belgium’s constitutional j structure demanded his presence.
It was at this point that London j and Washington resolved the dilemma. General Eisenhower flatly declined the use of Allied transportation to | Leopold and he ordered Leopold’s | arrest if he attempted to return.
Thus the singularly ill - starred Leopold has spend the last three years in exile, mostly in Switzerland. In the interval he has been absolved of all charges except errors of judgment. The people of Belgium have largely forgiven their headstrong monarch, but the opposition to his return is a most articulate minority. The Government, of Spaak does not feel itself strong enough to permit the King’s return and yet it shrinks from the responsibility of : calling upon Parliament to vote a resolution of abdication.
Yet the question must be settled quickly — before the ideological j cleavage of Europe develops into an j acute crisis. Belgium has need of a ¡ monarchy because she, like Canada, possesses two dominant racial strains and two official languages.
The likely solution is a “national ! consultation,” as the Belgians like to call a referendum, before the end of this ¡ year. Leopold is understood to Ijave i given a pledge that he will abdicate in j favor of his eldest son if his people do j not give him a two-thirds vote of j confidence.
And so the unhappy man broods on the shores of Lake Geneva, pondering a life filled with tragedy, convinced that he must fulfill the pledge of j service to the Belgian people which he gave in the Senate in 1935 and yet fearful that the last turn of the screw would place the son whom he dearly loves in the position of thwarting his only chance to rehabilitate himself i in the eyes of the world.
The king has lived long, but. his life has been neither happy nor glorious. Kings used to be the pawns of history; today they are the pawns of the people. ★