Leopold III (1901–1983)

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LEOPOLD III (1901–1983)


King of Belgium from 1934 to 1983.

Leopold III succeeded his father, Albert I, a hero of World War I, in 1934. In part under the leadership of Leopold, in 1936 Belgium decided to end its military alliance with France and to pursue an independent course instead. It was a move that foreshadowed Belgium's subsequent neutrality at the start of World War II in September 1939.

When Belgium was invaded by Germany on 10 May 1940, the government called for assistance from the Allies. A fortnight later, on 25 May 1940, a dramatic rift occurred between the king and his ministers. They all realized that the army would soon have to give up its resistance on Belgian territory. The ministers felt that the king should flee with them to France in order to continue the fight, if only symbolically, alongside the Allies. They believed that the allied front in France could be stabilized and they felt very strongly that Belgium should fight on as long as France did so. Belgium, they argued, should throw in its lot with the Allies.

The king, on the other hand, felt that he should stay in Belgium, alongside his people and his army. After all, the war seemed to be over for Belgium. Being a neutral state, it was allowed only to protect its own territory. Moreover, Leopold expected that France, too, would soon capitulate. That would mean the end of the war on the Continent. The king rested all his hope in a compromise peace between Germany and Great Britain, whereby the future of Belgium could also be safeguarded. While he feared that Adolf Hitler would rule over continental Europe, he also believed that the German army would dispose of the Nazis sooner or later.

Accordingly, the ministers fled to France, while Leopold stayed behind in Belgium. On 28 May, he and the surrounded Belgian army surrendered to the German forces. The French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud accused Leopold of having capitulated without consulting the Allies, which was clearly untrue. The Belgian ministers, too, accused the king of treason. After 17 June 1940, the day that France capitulated to the Germans, the Belgian government tried to reestablish contact with Leopold. However, the king refused to communicate with them and would continue to do so throughout the war.

As far as Leopold was concerned, Belgium's struggle had ended on 28 May 1940. He felt it to be the country's obligation henceforth to adopt a de facto neutral position vis-à-vis the conflict. He intended to remain politically passive until the war was over and he certainly did not wish to rule over a country under German occupation that was being used in a war with Britain, as that would have conflicted with Belgium's neutral status. On 29 June 1940, Leopold did ask Hitler to liberate part of Belgium under an arrangement similar to that agreed with Vichy France, but this request was rejected.

In part in response to the pro-British policy pursued by the Belgian government in exile, Leopold paid a visit to Hitler at his country retreat in Berchtesgaden on 19 November 1940. On that occasion, Leopold pleaded for a more lenient regime of occupation and, more importantly, asked for guarantees regarding Belgium's independent status in postwar Europe. He understood that full independence would be impossible in relation to foreign policy and defense, and stressed that what mattered "above all else" was the country's internal independence. Hitler expressed a favorable opinion on Belgium's retention of internal independence, but refused to confirm this in writing.

The king decided to play a waiting game and had preparations made for a future state, should the Germans win the war. At least up until 1942, his aides continued to work on an authoritarian constitution for a Belgium under the new order.

In 1941, Leopold III married his second wife, Lilian Baels (his immensely popular first wife died in a car accident in 1935). When news of the wartime wedding reached the Belgian public, the popularity of the "captive" king slumped to an all-time low. His passivity also gave rise to questions. Was it not his duty to protest openly in 1942 when Belgian workers were forcefully employed in Germany? The king felt it was not; he saw himself as "l'ultime réserve," the trump card to be played during European-level peace negotiations.

In early 1944, realizing a peace of compromise was no longer in the cards, the king drew up a "political will," which was to be publicized upon the liberation of Belgium by the Allies. In it, he demanded that the government apologize to him for its position in 1940. Other than that, the document contained not a word about the Allies or the Resistance. The king did however also demand that Belgium should regain its fully independent status, which implied a rejection of the pro-Atlantic policy of the exiled Belgian government in London.

In June 1944, the Nazis deported Leopold to Germany, where he was liberated in May 1945. Meanwhile in Belgium, a debate had flared up over his position during the war. The king was unable to return home, so that his younger brother Charles served as Prince Regent. The country became polarized on what was known as the "Royal Issue" and which would eventually lead to King Leopold's abdication in 1950 in favor of his eldest son Baudouin. Leopold died in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert, Belgium, in 1983.

See alsoAlbert I; Belgium; Occupation, Military .


Höjer, C. H. Le régime parlementaire belge de 1918 à 1940. Brussels, 1969.

Stengers, J. L'action du Roi en Belgique depuis 1831: Pouvoir et influence. Paris, 1963.

Velaers, Jan, and Herman Van Goethem. Leopold III. De Koning, het Land, de Oorlog. Lannoo, Tielt, Belgium 1994.

——"Léopold III en Belgique, sous l'occupation" In Léopold III, edited by M. Dumoulin et al., 141–170. Brussels, 2001.

Witte, E., J. Craeybeckx, and A. Meynen. Politieke Geschiedenis van België van 1830 tot heden. Antwerp, Belgium, 2005.

Jan Velaers,

Herman Van Goethem

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