The Royal Articles -
"Belgian Royal Question" - the Abdication Crisis of King Leopold III of the Belgians
Marengo is a history student from Amsterdam with a special interest in Portuguese, Napoleonic and Dutch royals. 
By Marengo
Published on 12/20/2007
The crisis known as the "Belgian Royal Question" shook the foundations of the Belgian monarchy after World War II and would split the country in two. Some even feared that a civil war would result. The core of the crisis was the conduct of Leopold III during World War II: was he a collaborator or not? And then there was his secret marriage to Lilian Baels, which did not sit well with the image of a grieving widower locked up in his castle and sharing the same fate as his troops. Walloons, Flemish, Catholics, Liberals, Socialists, and even Belgium's French and British allies all had different opinions about Leopold's conduct.


Leopold III of the Belgians (pictured at left) was never an easy person; his sister Queen Marie-José of Italy once described him as being an arrogant and impatient man. His ministers found this out very quickly when King Albert I died in a tragic accident and his son Leopold III ascended the throne in 1934 at the age of only 32. The Belgian constitution gave the King many more powers than those of other monarchies in the 1930s. King Albert I was always wise enough not to use these constitutional powers to the fullest extent, but his son was cut from different cloth. He intended to let his voice be heard. Neither did Leopold III inherit his father's tact in dealing with his government ministers, although he could be very charming to them when it suited him. During the six years of his reign before the German invasion, Leopold would try to get around his ministers and attempted to extend his constitutional powers to the utmost. He sometimes openly disparaged some of his ministers, which was not appropriate for a constitutional monarch. By doing this he shattered the constitutional unity of government and King - the result was a crisis of confidence. That the Belgian fascist movement saw Leopold as the strong leader they were looking for did not help his image either, although Leopold never showed any interest in the fascist movement.

On 10 May 1940 Hitler declared war on the neutral Benelux countries and invaded Belgium. Like his father in 1914, Leopold III immediately took supreme command of the Belgian army. At 7 a.m. he said goodbye to his ministers in a gloomy meeting. He refused to appear in Parliament, unlike his father, who had done so in 1914. The blitzkrieg did not give him the luxury of spare time to attend to such ceremonies, but his enemies would claim later that this refusal was the first in a long chain of traitorous actions. The war went disastrously for the Belgian troops and their allies. On 25 May the King issued a proclamation to his troops: "Officers, troops, whatever happens, I will share your destiny." He probably modelled his behavior after that of his father, who stayed with his troops during World War I while his ministers left for France. His people probably expected Leopold to share their fate too. With King Albert I's heroic behavior still fresh in everybody's memories, they would probably have called Leopold a coward if he had done anything other than to share the fate of the troops.

Foreign Affairs Minister Paul-Henri Spaak and Prime Minister Hubert
Pierlot The relations between Leopold and his government went sour in the first week of the invasion; the government headed by Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot and Foreign Affairs Minister Paul-Henri Spaak were at odds with the King and his reactionary advisers. The  ministers were worried about the defeatism at Leopold's quarters, and they saw his retreat as a sign that he wanted to break with the allies. When Leopold declared that he should share the same fate as his troops and stay with them after the capitulation, his ministers were even more shocked. They wanted him to go to England like Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands and become the symbol and focus of Belgian resistance. Pierlot issued a memorandum to the King where he pointed out that it was the task of the government to decide  how to handle this matter, not the King, and they wanted the King to go to London.  

German Invasion

On 24 May, the last meeting between Leopold III and his ministers took place. Pierlot pointed out to the King that capitulation was a matter for the Belgian government, not for the King, to decide; he also requested again that the King go to London. Leopold III, however, said that he had decided to stay, more for sentimental reasons than political ones. Wouldn't he be known as a deserter when he left the country?  "Whatever happens, I have to share the same fate as my troops." He later declared in a letter to George VI of Great Britain that it was his duty to stay with his troops and to try to do as much for his countrymen as he could. At the end of the meeting the King said something that probably sealed his future fate: he told his ministers that he intended to stay in Belgium, as King. The baffled ministers understood this to mean that the King intended to form a new government and that he would reign as a sort of vassal of Hitler. They reacted with words like treason, disgrace, and desertion. The Prime Minister made it clear that the government would openly distance itself from the King: "we know that this is without a precedent and against the traditions of the public laws, but we don't see another option," Pierlot said. The breach between the King and his government was complete; the ministers went to France while the King stayed in Belgium.  Three days later, Leopold agreed upon a complete surrender of the Belgian forces to avoid further needless bloodshed. The Belgian government (now in France) issued another statement: "In the name of the Belgian people, under art. 82 of the constitution, taking in account that the King is under control of the invader, the ministers decided in a council that the King is not fit to rule." 

The allied governments showed their disapproval of Leopold´s actions too. Only a few hours after Leopold surrendered, French president Paul Reynaud spoke on the radio: "in the middle of the battle, without any consideration and without any notice to his British and French allies, King Leopold III of the Belgians laid down his arms." Belgium's allies were treacherously left in the lurch, "an event without precedent in history." A few hours later, Pierlot went on French radio too, to accuse the King of separate negotiations  with the enemy and to state that Belgium could not be held responsible for the actions of one man. On 4 June Sir Winston Churchill spoke in the House of Commons about Leopold, where several times he was interrupted by MPs screaming "disgrace" and "treason." In Belgium a famous poet declared that even the name Judas was too good for this King. Political cartoons showed Leopold III stabbing John Bull in the back, and in London several spiritualists declared that the spirit of Leopold's deceased wife Astrid appeared as she was upset about the "dishonesty" of her husband. Speculation about the King reached feverish heights: Was Leopold under the influence of his German mother or his fascist Italian sister? Did he dream about establishing a fascist state in the Benelux, of which he would become King-Dictator? Did the real Leopold die at Kussnacht with his wife Astrid and was this a German look-a-like impersonating the King?  

The allied propaganda machine worked overtime to slander Leopold III as much as they could. The allies now had a scapegoat, and public outrage against the Belgian King might increase morale in France and England. Reynaud knew perfectly well that the Leopold had no other option than to surrender to the Germans; further bloodshed would have been useless. The King had informed the French and British troops about the surrender, and even Pierlot became upset at the French and British bending of the truth: "we were angry and outraged," he later said. Historians later agreed that it would have been useless to fight on: what use would it be to sacrifice two million people in West Flanders? Maybe more time for the French and British troops to get away from Dunkirk? The allegation that the King was negotiating with the Germans was less unfounded; he certainly left that impression during his last meeting with his ministers. Still, this anger against the allies did not keep Pierlot from calling the King a traitor during his radio speech on 28 June. Leopold III never forgot the humiliations he suffered during those days. He would never forgive his ministers who spoke this way, and from now on he would act independently, not taking any advice from his government in Paris and later in London.
The King returned to Laeken Castle as a prisoner of war. Here he and three councillors wrote a proclamation to clear his name:   "contrary to what is said, the King did not negotiate with the enemy, he did not sign a treaty or an agreement with them. The only order he gave was to lay down their arms, but that was a military command." Others spoke out too; Cardinal de Roey wrote that the King did not sign a treaty with the Germans and that his wish to stay with his troops as a prisoner of war was very honourable. Many Belgians agreed, officers renewed their oath to the King, and 90% of the Belgian mayors signed a petition of loyalty to the King. The people posted letters of sympathy to Laeken Castle and delivered flowers at the gates to show their respect for the King's courage.

In France Pierlot and his government saw that Western Europe had been conquered by the Germans completely and tried to make amends to their King. Would it be possible for them to return to Belgium and form a new government? Leopold showed his stubborn nature; he was insulted by his ministers, and they were mistaken if they thought they would be forgiven this easily. His reply was short: "The situation of the King is unaltered; he does not engage in politics and does not receive politicians." This refusal left the ministers with no other option than to move to London, where they could continue their work representing the independent Belgium. From the time of their arrival in London, they were confident about an Allied victory and soon were treated with respect by the allies. The main problem, however, had not been solved: to clear the name of Belgium, the ministers also had to clear the name of their King. They knew that most of the population remained loyal to the King, so the government wanted to make amends. Pierlot and Spaak helped to build Leopold's reputation as a heroic prisoner of war and even said that the Belgians should support their King. But they had no idea what Leopold was doing in Laeken. He refused to reply to their messages and stayed cool toward them. What was he doing in the castle? Was he collaborating, did he oppose the Germans, or had he decided to just shut his mouth and wait to see how things would go?

Princess Josephine-Charlotte, Prince Boudewijn, with Queen Mother Elisabeth Meanwhile, Leopold continued to live as a prisoner of war at Laeken. The castle was guarded by German officers, and the King was allowed to see only a few people each day. He could leave the palace only with an escort of Nazis. His mother, Queen Elisabeth, lived at Laeken too, and Leopold was visited by his sons every fortnight, as they lived in Ciergnon Castle. His daughter, Josephine-Charlotte, was attending a boarding school in Brussels. Still, the King was not as much of a prisoner as people believed; he was able to make trips to the beach, Paris, and elsewhere.  He nevertheless had a hard time dealing with his position and fell into a deep depression.


 Leopold was only 37 years old and had already been a widower for three years  when in 1938 he became attracted to the elegant Lilian Baels, who made a lasting impression on him. In the war days of 1940 Lilian moved with her family to France, but in January 1941 Leopold's mother, Queen Elisabeth, sent her chauffeur to Biarritz to fetch Lilian. Queen Elisabeth thought that the 24-year-old Lilian would be the perfect medicine to alleviate her son's despondency. It was her task to "distract" the King. Soon Queen Elisabeth discovered "that the remedy was very mild and that the patient was not disposed to finish the treatment."  Leopold was dazzled by Lilian's beauty and was very much in love with her. The affair caused some problems. First of all, Lilian wasn't happy with the status of mistress; only marriage could bring her security. Cardinal van Roey also tried to persuade the King to make Lilian his lawful wife, as he had religious and moral problems with the affair. So in 1941 Leopold asked Lilian to marry him. Although Lilian had been pushing to get Leopold to propose to her, she did not accept the proposal immediately. "But Kings marry Princesses," she replied. Queen Elisabeth had to persuade her to accept the offer: "You can't do that to my son. He needs a wife, you have to accept," which she did. Henri Baels, Lilian's father, realized that this marriage would cause an uproar and only gave his blessing if Queen Elisabeth would attend the ceremony and if Cardinal van Roey would officiate.
  The couple married on 11 September, and Leopold's children quickly became fond of their stepmother and called her "maman." Within three months Lilian became pregnant, and as this would not stay a secret for long, Leopold III asked Cardinal van Roey to write a letter that was to be read from the  pulpit at Sunday mass in Catholic churches throughout the country. The Belgians were shocked. The image of their lonely heroic King, who was struck with sorrow and humiliation and who thought only about the welfare of his people, was shattered. Suddenly the King was a selfish man who thought only of his own happiness. The second image of Leopold as the grieving widower of the immensely popular Queen Astrid fell apart too. The King's choice became the subject of heavy criticism: how could the King marry now? Hadn't he said that he would share the fate of the Belgian prisoners of war? Many Walloon soldiers were still in captivity in Germany and unable to see their wives, so how could the King remarry if he really meant what he said about wanting to share their fate? And how could he marry a commoner, a Flemish commoner? Some members of the upper class joked that the King would have to include herring in his coat of arms now that he had married the granddaughter of a fish merchant. Lilian was immediately branded a schemer and an adventuress. Leopold was mocked by the people as "the son-in-law of Mr. Baels" (Lilian's father was an unpopular Flemish politician who fled the country during the war to ensure his personal safety and was fired as a result). But their anger was directed chiefly at Lilian, who was referred to as "Lady Codfish" and "the fishmonger's daughter." Because of public indignation against the marriage, Leopold did not dare bestow the title of Queen upon his new wife. She was granted only the title of Princesse de Réthy, after a domain owned by the royal family. Her children, though entitled to call themselves princes and princesses of Belgium, were also deprived of any rights to the throne. Another problem was that the marriage was against the constitution since a royal marriage had to be approved by the government first. The reputation of the King now started to fade in Belgium, where the people came to view him with more suspicion and to wonder if his conduct was really as flawless as they thought. And what about the so-called politics of Laeken?
  Leopold's political behavior was open to interpretation to say the least. Now he had broken completely with his government, he felt less and less obliged to follow the same path as his ministers in London; instead, he tried to do things the way he thought would be best for his country. One of his actions that would be considered very dubious was his meeting with  Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgaden in November 1940, arranged by Leopold's sister, Crown Princess Marie-José of Italy. What the two spoke about was kept secret for a long time and would be a source of all sorts of rumours which would be difficult to dispel. Today, thanks to notes made by the interpreter, Paul Schmidt, we know that during the meeting Leopold first tried to obtain a guarantee of Belgium´s independence but failed. And he failed not least because he was unwilling to make concessions to Hitler. Still he tried to salvage something from the meeting: he tried to soften the German attitude to Belgium as much as he could, arrange food for the people,  secure the release of the Belgian soldiers who had been taken prisoner, and ensure that the Belgians would be ruled by a Belgian, not by a German. Eventually he came to realise that none of his requests to alleviate the effects of the war on Belgium would be accepted by Hitler. As a result, he broke down and lost all interest in further negotiation. Even so, this meeting would create much doubt about the King, with many people assuming that he had used it as an opporunity to try to become King-Dictator of the Benelux countries. While Leopold tried to stay on cordial terms with the Germans, he certainly did not befriend them. He was however convinced that the Germans would win the war, or at least that there would be some treaty between Germany and the allies that would keep Belgium under German influence. This explains why he tried not to offend the Germans too much and why he tried to get a good deal from them for his people. 

After the failed meeting with Hitler, Leopold refrained from other political initiatives. He never changed this attitude; when the country hoped that the King would speak out against the forced labour of Belgians in Germany, the King remained silent and waited. It is curious that Leopold is the only one of the Western monarchs ruling in 1940 who became unpopular during the war. The only other monarch who was in a comparable situation was King Christian IX of Denmark, who became a national hero by his silent resistance to the Germans. Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands and King Haakon of Norway both went to London, where they represented their country with the allies. Leopold's actions differed from those of his counterparts mostly because he never showed any sign of resistance. In the minds of much of the Belgian population, Leopold III was actually amusing himself at Laeken with his new wife and ignoring the welfare of his country. After the marriage of Leopold and Lilian it was popular to make all kinds of jokes about them. The following anecdote pretty much sums up the popular opinion: When a passenger on a tram in Brussels asked the driver to stop at the Leopold II Avenue, another passenger remarked: "note that you are saying Leopold II, because Leopold III is too busy elsewhere," which led to much laughter and acclaim in the tram.

After the War
  In January 1944, when it was fairly obvious that the Allies would win the war, Leopold wrote his political testament, which made clear what he wished for. He requested that the demands from the Flemish Movement had to be accepted as long as they did not harm the Belgian state. In Leopold's words: "The Flemish have been the victim of a selfish ruling class for too long." He also wrote that the punishment for collaboration had to be limited to those who were truly guilty of major offences, something which did not help his image among those who suspected that he had been a collaborator himself. He also demanded open apologies from his ministers who had turned against him after the 18 days of war, and he insisted that they had to make a "solemn and complete" retraction of their accusations against the King. If they refused to accept, they would not be allowed to attend any public fuctions. This last point was not accepted by Pierlot and Spaak in London.
  Shortly before the liberation of Belgium by the Allies in September 1944, the Germans deported Leopold, Lilian, and the King's four children (his three children by Queen Astrid and his son by Lilian) to Germany and eventually to Austria. In the absence of the King, the government installed Leopold's younger brother, Prince Charles, as regent. The politics of the country were immediately dominated by "The Royal Question": should Leopold return as King of the Belgians or not? The Communists, Liberals, and Socialists were against him, while the Catholics were defending their King. In the country the division was roughly that Wallonia and the Brussels district wanted the King to abdicate while the Flemish areas supported him. The Walloons probably had more hard feelings as they were more severely afflicted by the war than the Flemish, who were treated better by the Germans. The Walloons thus were less forgiving towards people who had collaborated with the Germans (of which Leopold was accused by some). However, there were divisions within these areas, and even families were split: fathers disagreed with their children, and brothers disagreed with brothers. In April 1945 the King was finally liberated near Salzburg by the Americans, and the matter could not be postponed any longer. Ministers still hoped that Leopold would withdraw his demands for a public apology from them and return to Belgium, while the majority in Parliament wanted him to abdicate. The new Prime Minister, Achille van Acker, decided that it would be best if Leopold and his family stayed in Austria until the situation became clearer. In the meantime, Prince Charles continued to act as regent; with his pragmatic behavior he successfully pushed the reorganisation of Belgium after World War II (women got the right to vote, a social welfare system was introduced, and the building sector was given government help). Spaak, who was the only member of the War Cabinet returning to the new government, went to meet his old adversary in Austria. The talks sadly failed when Leopold did not agree to any forum of reconciliation with the political leaders unless they openly apologised for their comments in 1940. Some suggest that the real reason for Leopold's refusal was that his wife did not accept the arrangement. There are indications that Spaak wanted to reduce the princely title of Lilian to that of "a countess at best" while her son Prince Alexander would be demoted to the status of a baron. The family awaited better times in Switzerland, where they settled in Pregny.
  According to some historians, Leopold's delay in returning to Belgium cost him his throne. Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, the British ambassador in Brussels, wrote at the time that if Leopold "had returned to Belgium on the morrow of his liberation when the whole country was in a festive mood, he might well have been acclaimed by the crowds." Instead, the delay allowed opponents of the King to open a public debate about his wartime behaviour. When, in late June, Leopold announced that he was going to return to Brussels without Lilian, he was no longer allowed to do so. Over a period of less than two months, Leopold rather than Lilian had become the problem for the Belgian politicians. The new government was composed of a coalition between the Socialist and Liberal parties; when the Christian parties tried to settle the matter and proposed a referendum about Leopold's return, their Socialist colleagues refused and the Christian Democrats withdrew their support from the government. Another government fell when the topic of Leopold's return kept dominating the political debate in Belgium. The elections of June 1949 saw a victory for the Christian parties in Parliament, with an absolute majority in the Senate and only one vote short of an absolute majority in Parliament. The new Prime Minister, Gaston Eyskens, was strong enough to organise the referendum his party had supported for some years.


 On 12 March 1950 the Belgians went to vote. The atmosphere was uneasy and even threatening. Even Queen Elisabeth was not spared from the heated debate; Time Magazine reports: "Near the royal palace, septuagenarian Queen Mother Elisabeth approached a voting booth. For a moment she fumbled for her glasses in her handbag. Housemaid Juliette Deemes shouted: 'Let Leopold come back and get a good kick in the backside!' From indignant bystanders rose counter cries of 'Vive la Reine!'." The result showed the division between Flanders and Wallonia: 2,933,382 voted in favour of the return of their King (57.68%) while 2,151,881 voted against (42.32%); in Flanders over 70% voted in favour of the King's return while in Wallonia nearly 60% voted against. Parliament held another vote on the return of the King, and the results mirrored the votes of the majority of the Belgians. Immediately after the results of the referendum had been published, some Belgian politicians went to Switzerland and tried to persuade the King to abdicate. During these meetings Lilian would freely speak about Spaak and other politicians. While she was around, Leopold did not want to hear of abdication; once she left to go to bed, the politicians were able to reason with the King, but the next morning he would change his mind again. Even according to the most loyal Leopoldists, Lilian overstepped her boundaries and almost acted as if she was a Queen. She even went so far as to offer some people positions at court as soon as Leopold returned to Belgium as King. She urged her husband to return to Belgium as soon as possible, which he only reluctantly did. 


On 22 July 1950 the King finally set foot on Belgian soil again. However, it would not be the warm welcome that he had hoped for; his plane arrived early in the morning so that few spectators would be around, and he was hastily driven to Laeken Castle. The roads were guarded by 5,500 policemen to protect him and his family if needed. In the afternoon the King made a radio speech, in which he attacked his old enemy Spaak. Spaak did not take long to reply. "I am with Danton, against Louis XV," he replied a few hours later. During the following days, Belgium seemed to be heading towards a civil war. In Wallonia and in the harbours of Antwerp, workers went on strike to protest against the King's return. The protests quickly became massive, and they completely stopped public life in Belgium and turned into riots. On 30 July, three protesters were shot dead by the police in Grâce-Berleur, near Liège, while a fourth died later in hospital. The situation threatened to get even worse when a march to Brussels was announced for 2 August,  The four victims of the demonstrations and in Liège left-wing politicians threatened to form a provisional government in Wallonia that would declare Walloon independence. The government held an emergency meeting and agreed that they needed to prevent the situation from deteriorating and turning into a civil war. They saw only one way out: Leopold had to abdicate in favour of his son Baudouin. On 31 August Leopold received the Prime Minister at Laeken and was persuaded to agree, although the following night he told his ministers that he had changed his mind and would not abdicate. Only when the Prime Minister threatened to resign and the other ministers declared their solidarity with the Prime Minister did Leopold accept the inevitable. In the morning of 1 August 1950, he signed over his royal prerogatives to his eldest son Baudouin, who received the title of Royal Prince. On 11 August Baudouin would swear his oath in a joint session of Parliament. As Baudouin was too young to rule, it was agreed that his uncle Charles would continue his duties as a regent until Baudouin came of age. On 16 July 1951 Leopold would finally sign his abdication papers, and a day later Baudouin was installed as the fifth King of the Belgians. Leopold lived in retirement with Lilian, first at Laeken and then (after Baudouin's marriage) at Argenteuil, until his death in 1983.
    With special thanks to The Royal Forums member Johann for her help with this article.
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    Photo Credits
    Page 1: Leopold III: (c) RDA (public domain under Dutch copyright laws)
    Page 1: Spaak and Pierlot: source: Government Archives; public domain
    Page 1: Josephine-Charlotte, Baudouin, Queen Elizabeth: public domain under Dutch copyright laws
    Page 2: Lilian: (c) RDA (in public domain under Dutch copyright laws)
    Page 2: Leopold and Lilian: public domain
    Page 2: Posters and headlines: public domain
    Page 2: The demonstrations: free domain
    Page 2: The four victims of the demonstrations: public domain (under Dutch Copyright Laws about newspapers and magazines)