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Modern Europe

The Belgian Dynasty

by William Willems, 2 October 2020

King Leopold I of the Belgians
A FOUR PART FEATURE:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: The Kings 1830-1951
Part 3: The Kings 1951-2020
Part 4: Belgium Today
Princess Charlotte of Wales

Princess Charlotte of Wales, daughter of the prince who would later become King George IV of Great Britain but who predeceased her father when she died in childbirth in 1816

 

King Leopold I (1831-1865)

The German Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (or Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld) was selected as king of the Belgians. This was the start of Belgium's own dynasty of kings and queens.

Leopold I had been married to Charlotte of Wales, daughter of the later King George IV of Great Britain and Ireland, but she had died in childbirth in 1816. Leopold's sister, Victoire (Victoria), married King George's younger brother, Prince Edward, duke of Kent and Strathearn, and gave birth to another Victoria, queen from 1837. Uncle Leopold became her mentor.

Thanks to his family ties with Victoria and others, and as the head of state of a neutral country, Leopold I exerted great influence in Europe during his reign, becoming a leading figure in European diplomacy. Leopold scrupulously maintained a neutral foreign policy, although he immediately began to strengthen the Belgian army. With assistance from France and England, he fought off attacks by William I of the Netherlands, who refused until 1839 to recognise Belgium as an independent kingdom.

Through marriages he strengthened his ties with France, England, and Austria. He remarried, to Louise of Orléans, a French princess who became the first queen of the Belgians. She was also known as Louise-Marie and was the eldest daughter of the future king of France, Louis-Philippe I. He helped to arrange the marriage of his niece Victoria in Britain to his nephew, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. He also helped negotiate the marriage of his daughter Charlotte to Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico.

He was one of the most respected statesmen of his age, known as the 'Nestor of Europe'.

King Leopold II (1865-1909)

Son of Leopold I. Married Marie-Henriette of Habsburg-Lorraine, archduchess of Austria.

Leopold II set up, with the cooperation of the British explorer, Stanley, the 'Study Committee on the Upper Congo', converted in 1879 into the 'International Association of the Congo'. The Berlin Conference recognised the independent state of the Congo and Leopold II became the owner and absolute ruler of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908, through his own efforts. In 1890, during the Brussels International Conference, a treaty was signed against the African slave trade and slave smuggling. This treaty formed the basis of a campaign against slavery in Africa.

In 1904, however, following excesses that had been committed by Europeans in Africa, Leopold's reputation and his overseas venture were questioned. The king set up an International Commission of Inquiry, which recognised the merits of the royal action in Congo, while also pointing out abuses and shortcomings.

In 1908 the independent State of Congo became a Belgian colony named 'Belgian Congo'.

King Leopold II of the Belgians
King Leopold II of the Belgians, whose reputation was forever tarnished by European activities in Africa, and by some Belgian activities in particular in Congo


King Albert I (1909-1934)

Leopold II had no male heir so Albert, son of Leopold's II brother Prince Philippe, succeeded him as King Albert I. Married Elisabeth of Bavaria. Three children: Leopold, Charles, and Marie-José of Belgium.

He ruled during an eventful period in the history of Belgium, which included the First World War, during which 90% of Belgium was overrun, occupied, and ruled by the German empire.

Britain had promised to defend Belgium under the terms of the Treaty of London of 1839. When Germany attacked France through Belgium in 1914, within hours Britain declared war on imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary, and France and Russia (Britain's allies from the Triple entente) followed within a few more days, getting involved in what became a worldwide conflict. The small Belgian army eventually retreated into France to join the allies there along what became the trenches of the Western Front.

Belgium controlled not only Congo during its history but also Ruanda-Urundi, which was a part of German East Africa. It came under Belgian military occupation from 1916 to 1924 in the aftermath of the First World War, when a Belgian military expedition as part of the allied East African Campaign had driven the Germans from the colony. The Treaty of Versailles divided the German East Africa colonial empire between the allied League of Nations. Ruanda-Urundi was officially awarded to Belgium as a mandate in 1922 until 1946 when the League of Nations was dissolved and succeeded by the United Nations (UN). The mandate over Ruanda-Urundi was replaced by a 'UN Trust Territory' still under Belgian administration.

This transition was accompanied by a promise that the Belgians would prepare the territory for independence, which came largely because of African anti-colonial nationalism that was emerging in the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s and which rolled quickly down to its neighbours in Ruanda-Urundi. The Belgians became convinced that they could no longer control the territory. Revolts and violence against the Tutsi, the ruling class which controlled a mostly-Hutu population, which became known as the Rwandan Revolution occurred in the events that led to independence in 1962. Ruanda-Urundi developed into the independent states of Rwanda and Burundi.

In the aftermath of the First World War another region, which had formerly been part of imperial Germany, was allocated to Belgium according to the Treaty of Versailles; the region of Eupen-Malmedy was formally annexed in 1920 as part of Belgium and later of the province of Liège in 1925. Eventually the region became known as the German-speaking 'East-Cantons', one of Belgium's three federal communities.

Two years after the end of the war, just like his cousin had already done in Great Britain, the king quietly dropped the name Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and changed the family name to 'of Belgium'.

Albert died in 1934 in a climbing accident in the Ardennes.

King Albert I of the Belgians
King Albert I of the Belgians had to witness the imperial German invasion of his country while the bulk of his armed forces retreated into France to join the Allied defensive lines there

Suffragette cartoon
Besides growing war fever, 1914 Britain was struggling against the suffragette movement

SUFFRAGIST "How dreadfully you've been treated by your husband!"
WOMAN "Well, it might have been worse."
SUFFRAGIST "How could it have been worse?"
WOMAN "Well, I might have been in the same position as yourself - having no husband!"


King Leopold III (1934-1944)

Succeeded his father, Albert I. Married Princess Astrid of Sweden, mother of Josephine-Charlotte, grand-duchess of Luxembourg and Baudouin, future king. Queen Astrid died in a car accident in Switzerland in 1935.

On the eve of the Second World War in 1939, Belgium announced a policy of neutrality. Until then the country had been an explicit ally of France and the United Kingdom. The king hoped that this would spare Belgium from the imminent German threat.

On 10 May 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Belgium nevertheless. King Leopold, as commander-in-chief of the Belgian army, was compelled to surrender unconditionally, against the wishes of the government which had withdrawn to France. This would be one of the reasons for the 'Royal Question' in 1950 which would lead to the abdication of the king.

In 1941 Leopold remarried, to Mrs Lilian Baels, who then took the title of princess de Rethy. Three children were born of this marriage: Alexandre, Marie-Christine, and Marie-Esmeralda.

During the subsequent German occupation, Leopold was held under house arrest in his palace where he was praised for stoically sharing the suffering of ordinary Belgians. The day after allied troops landed on the continent on 6 June 1944, the king and his family were deported to Germany and later to Austria by the Nazis.

Regent Prince Charles (1944-1950)

Upon the liberation of Belgium, King Leopold III was still a prisoner following his enforced deportation. As the constitution provided for the possibility of a regency his brother, Prince Charles, count of Flanders, was made regent by the combined chambers of the Belgian parliament.

The royal family was liberated by American troops in 1945. Due to opposition from part of the population and also to the political situation in Belgium, Prince Charles, the king, and his family did not return immediately to Belgium but moved instead to Switzerland. Prince Charles continued to rule as regent due to Leopold III's 'impossibility of reigning'. He exercised the royal prerogatives until 1950.

An important political milestone was the introduction in 1948 of votes for women in parliamentary elections.

On the international stage, a number of facts have a bearing on the story: the 'Foundation of the Benelux', an economic union between Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg in 1944, as well as Belgian membership of the United Nations Organisation (UNO) in 1945, of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1948, and the Council of Europe in 1949.

King Leopold III of the Belgians

Leopold III faced the unenviable choice of fleeing his country to retain an independent voice or remaining with his subjects in state captivity

During the regency, home policy was dominated however by the 'Royal Question', and the consequences of the Second World War. This was a major political crisis in Belgium that lasted from 1945 to 1951, which concerned whether King Leopold III could return to the country and resume his constitutional role amid allegations that his actions during the war had been contrary to the provisions of the Belgian constitution.

The crisis emerged from the division between Leopold and his government during the German invasion of 1940. Leopold, who was suspected of authoritarian sympathies, had taken command of the Belgian army at the outbreak of war. Considering his constitutional position as commander-in-chief which took precedence over his civil role as head of state, he refused to abandon his army and join the Belgian government in exile in France. Leopold's refusal to obey the government marked a constitutional crisis. After having negotiated the surrender to the Germans in 1940, Leopold was widely condemned.

The 'Royal Question' was eventually resolved by the abdication of Leopold in favour of his son, Baudouin, in 1951.

Another issue was that the war had pushed traditional disagreements between the Flemish and Walloon populations into the background, but they did not disappear.

Prince Charles, count of Flanders and regent for Leopold III of the Belgians
Prince Charles, count of Flanders and brother of the captive King Leopold III, took on the role of regent in order to help steer post-war Belgium through its recovery after five years of Nazi German occupation

 

Main Sources

The Belgian Dynasty website of the Royal Family of Belgium

The Belgium.be Official Information & Services website

 

 

     
Text copyright © William Willems. An original feature for the History Files.