Albert I (1875-1934) was king of the Belgians from 1909 to 1934. He was especially concerned with the social welfare of his subjects and the development of commerce and industry in Belgium.
Albert was born in Brussels on April 8, 1875, the son of Philip, Count of Flanders, and Princess Marie of Hohenzollern. His uncle Leopold II was the reigning king of Belgium. The death of the only son of Leopold II in 1869 and the death of Albert's older brother in 1891 made Albert the heir to the Belgian crown. In 1900 he married Elisabeth, a daughter of the Duke of Bavaria. They had three children: Leopold, Duke of Brabant (1901), Charles, Count of Flanders (1903), and Marie José (1906). Albert began his reign on the death of Leopold II in 1909.
Both Albert's granduncle Leopold I and uncle Leopold II accepted the principle that Belgium was a parliamentary monarchy, but they had often taken a very strong executive stance toward Parliament. During Albert's reign the principle would be firmly established that the prime minister and his cabinet must enjoy the confidence of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament, and must be responsible to that body. During the years before World War I, the Catholic party emerged as the majority party within the Chamber of Deputies. The major issue in Belgian public life was universal manhood suffrage. In 1893 the Chamber had enacted it, but the measure was modified to award plural votes on the basis of marital status, education, and occupation. The Belgian Labor party launched a series of demonstrations and strikes to force the repeal of this law and the adoption of the "one man, one vote" principle, but to no avail.
With the onset of World War I on Aug. 1, 1914, Albert refused a German ultimatum demanding free passage of German troops over Belgian soil. He assumed command of the Belgian army and staged a successful retreat onto French soil where he established headquarters at La Panne. During the war the government-in-exile constituted a national union of Liberals, Catholics, and, for the first time, the Belgian Labor party. In 1918 Albert led the Allied offensive which recovered the Belgian coast.
With the end of the war Belgium returned to cabinet regimes and normal parliamentary politics, and the years from 1918 to 1929 were spent in restoration and reconstruction. In 1919 the controversial vote structure was repealed and replaced by a "one man, one vote" statute. Belgium was struck very hard by the global economic crisis after 1929, and the last 5 years of Albert's reign were marked by strong efforts to control rising unemployment and sociopolitical strife.
On Feb. 17, 1934, Albert I was killed while mountain climbing at Marche-les-Dames in southern Belgium. He was succeeded by his older son, Leopold, who reigned as Leopold III.
The War Diaries of Albert of Belgium, edited by R. van Overstraeten, was published in 1954. There is no definitive biography of Albert. Useful biographies include Emile Galet, Albert, King of the Belgians in the Great War: His Military Activities and Experiences (trans. 1931); Emile Cammaerts, Albert of Belgium: Defender of Right (1935); and Charles d'Ydewalle, Albert and the Belgians: Portrait of a King (1935). The Flemish question became increasingly important during Albert's reign, and Shepard B. Clough, A History of the Flemish Movement in Belgium (1930), is the best introduction to this subject in English. For general background see Adrien de Meeüs, History of the Belgians (trans. 1962). □