Belgium’s Disgraced King Leopold III Abdicates Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Belgium’s King Leopold III led a heroic, if brief, defense against the German army during World War II. He had surrendered after eighteen days, refused to leave his country at the urging of his government, and then went into exile. By remaining in German-occupied Belgium, Leopold was seen as a traitor by Great Britain and France for his surrender and as a hero by the Belgians for suffering imprisonment along with them. Finally, the public turned against him after he married a Flemish commoner.

Summary of Event

At the Congress of Vienna Congress of Vienna in 1815, Dutch-speaking Flanders—then part of the Austrian Netherlands—and French-speaking Wallonia were merged with the Netherlands as a compensatory reward for the House of Orange’s contributions to the defeat of Napoleon. The mixture proved immediately unsatisfactory. Flanders and Wallonia were both Roman Catholic and liberal. They detested the arrogance and economic exploitation by the Protestant Dutch to the north. An 1830’s revolt in Flanders and Wallonia scuttled the Vienna merger, and with the assent of Europe’s major powers, Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons were united into the artificially contrived Kingdom of Belgium led by a German prince, Leopold. [kw]Leopold III Abdicates, Belgium’s Disgraced King (July 16, 1951) [kw]Abdicates, Belgium’s Disgraced King Leopold III (July 16, 1951) Leopold III Spaak, Paul-Henri Baudouin I Wallonia Flanders Baels, Lilian Leopold III Spaak, Paul-Henri Baudouin I Wallonia Flanders Baels, Lilian [g]Europe;July 16, 1951: Belgium’s Disgraced King Leopold III Abdicates[00910] [g]Belgium;July 16, 1951: Belgium’s Disgraced King Leopold III Abdicates[00910] [c]Government;July 16, 1951: Belgium’s Disgraced King Leopold III Abdicates[00910] [c]Military;July 16, 1951: Belgium’s Disgraced King Leopold III Abdicates[00910] [c]Politics;July 16, 1951: Belgium’s Disgraced King Leopold III Abdicates[00910] [c]Royalty;July 16, 1951: Belgium’s Disgraced King Leopold III Abdicates[00910] World War II[World War 02];and Leopold III[Leopold III] Pierlot, Hubert Charles, Count of Flanders

Nineteenth century prosperity for the new Belgium centered in the industrialized Walloon portion of the kingdom. French was the nation’s official language. During the early twentieth century, power and wealth began to shift from Wallonia to Flanders and away from middle-class Catholics and liberals to the working-class Flemish socialist majority who demanded an end to a century of discrimination. Increasingly, Belgium’s king was forced to arbitrate between the two rival linguistic factions.

The future King Leopold III, born in 1901, was distinguished by his handsome appearance, his grave manner tempered in the trenches fighting the Germans in World World War I[World War 01];and Leopold III[Leopold III] War I, and a remarkable sense of duty. A sports enthusiast, a lover of fast cars, and widely traveled, Leopold met his first wife, Princess Astrid of Sweden, on one of his trips. If he was the epitome of the fairy-tale prince, then Astrid was the fairy-tale princess, beautiful, charming, and graceful. Married in 1926, the royal couple seemed destined for greatness and were admired and loved by both of Belgium’s linguistic communities.

Leopold’s life was marred by three great tragedies. In 1934, his father, Albert I, was killed while on a rock-climbing expedition, making Leopold king. The Belgians’ beloved Queen Astrid was killed the next year in an automobile accident, with Leopold at the wheel, while the two were vacationing in Switzerland. In grief, the Belgian people’s attachment to their widower king and his three orphaned children deepened. Leopold’s third tragedy was the increasingly militaristic stance coming from Adolf Hitler’s Germany, threatening the nation’s internationally guaranteed neutrality. Without adequate support from either Great Britain or France, who were distracted by their own domestic problems, Belgium was abandoned by the promises of protection from Europe’s great powers, a position reminiscent of events from Belgium’s 1914 past. From 1936 to 1939, King Leopold, as commander in chief, focused on building Belgian defenses against possible German aggression.

The Kingdom of Belgium is a constitutional monarchy with the monarch’s actions needing government sanction. The nation’s constitution was less clear on the relationship between the commander in chief (the king) and the head of the elected government (the prime minister). It has been argued that King Leopold overstepped his authority in 1940 by sending his special adviser, Sir Roger Keyes, to London and Paris without the permission of his government, intimating with proper guarantees that Belgium might side with Britain and France against the Germans. The king’s diplomatic actions violated the constitutional responsibilities of the Belgian foreign minister, Paul-Henri Spaak. The 1940 collapse of Denmark and Norway to German aggression and of the king’s own government over a minor linguistic issue forced Leopold to refuse the resignation of Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot at such a critical time. The king seemed the nation’s anchor more than its divided elected government.

The German invasion of Belgium on May 10, 1940, led Leopold to assume personal control of the army as his father had done in 1914. For eighteen days, Belgium’s army fought heroically against great odds and without British or French assistance. Threatened by the king’s independence, his ministers began to criticize Leopold because he did not heed their recommendations. However, it was Leopold’s decision at the time of surrender on May 28, to share his army’s fate and remain in Belgium as a prisoner of war, which created an almost insurmountable breach between the king and his government.

Prime Minister Pierlot had requested the king’s and the royal family’s evacuation to France, along with the government, to continue the fight from outside Belgium. Leopold refused. From London, the evacuated Belgian government-in-exile became a symbol of resistance while Leopold remained under house arrest in Brussels. Both British and French politicians and military leaders condemned the king’s surrender as traitorous behavior, even blaming Leopold for the collapse of France and for the Allies’ near catastrophe at Dunkirk. As a prisoner of war, Leopold could not defend himself.

During the war, Leopold attained the near-mythic status of his father, Albert I, as he braved the German occupation and suffered along with his people. This imagery could have resolved the differences between monarch and politicians had Leopold continued to be seen as a grieving widower raising three small children and suffering wartime deprivations. When it became known that the king had Marriage;Leopold III married Lilian Baels, the daughter of a Flemish politician, without the consent of the government, public sympathy for the king began to evaporate. The king’s image was further eroded when it was apparent the marriage was necessary because Baels was pregnant. The king was clearly not suffering along with his people, and the Belgian people rejected a replacement for their adored Queen Astrid.

The monarchy, the one institution carefully crafted to remain above ethnic rivalries, had now descended into the maelstrom of regional politics. For the rest of the war, Pierlot’s exile government ignored the king. When Belgium was liberated, Leopold’s brother Charles, the count of Flanders, was declared regent in the king’s absence because Leopold, his new wife, and children were evacuated by the Germans to Dresden and later Austria, where they were liberated by the Allies in 1945.

From 1944 to 1950, the royal question dominated Belgian public life, splitting the nation and threatening civil war. Sequestered in exile in Switzerland, Leopold was ready to return to Belgium but was denied the right by his government. The opportunity for Leopold, Spaak, and Pierlot to resolve differences generated by wartime policies enacted by both sides failed to occur because the king demanded his government apologize for its condemnations of his wartime actions. The controversy over the king’s constitutional responsibilities and his second marriage to a Flemish commoner divided the country along ethnic lines, with Flanders supporting the king and Wallonia adamantly against him.

A trial exonerated the king, and later, British and French politicians admitted they made Leopold a scapegoat to cover their own political and military failures. The government continued to advise him to stay away. Leopold demanded a plebiscite. On March 12, 1950, Belgians voted and the king received 2,933,392 votes (57.68 percent of the total). Flanders sided with the king and his new wife, now known as Princess de Rethy, while Brussels and Wallonia voted against the king. Violence and massive demonstrations put pressure on the government to force Leopold to reconsider his position for the good of the nation and the monarchy. Upon his return Leopold agreed to abdicate on July 16, 1951, in favor of his eldest son, Baudouin, when he came of legal age.


The crisis created by Leopold III’s wartime actions and remarriage was not resolved with the ascension of Baudouin. For the next four decades, parliamentary elections proved that it was impossible to muster a majority for one political party. The vote was consistently divided along ethnic lines, demanding skillful coalition building on the part of the king. No longer were the duties of the king as commander in chief left in doubt. Revisions to the Belgian constitution in 1970 and 1980 placed these duties within the government’s domain and divided the nation into a federated state of three regions: Wallonia, Flanders, and Brussels. King Baudouin I depoliticized the monarchy and gradually regained the nation’s respect for the institution. Leopold III Spaak, Paul-Henri Baudouin I Wallonia Flanders Baels, Lilian

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arango, E. Ramón. Leopold III and the Belgian Royal Question. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1961. A detailed study of the plebiscite that determined whether or not Leopold III should remain king.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aronson, Theo. Defiant Dynasty: The Coburgs of Belgium. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968. A history of Belgium’s royal dynasty and the complexities of ruling multilingual Belgium.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cammaerts, Emile. The Prisoner at Laeken: King Leopold, Legend, and Fact. London: Cresset Press, 1941. A Belgian response to France’s accusation of Leopold’s treachery in surrendering to Germany in 1940.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Bernard A. Belgium: A History. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. A brief, comprehensive history of the Kingdom of Belgium. Part of the Studies in Modern European History series.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keyes, Roger. Outrageous Fortune: The Tragedy of Leopold III of the Belgians, 1901-1941. London: Tom Donovan, 1990. British documentation challenging King Leopold’s alleged treachery in surrendering to Germany.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rémy [G. Renault-Roulier]. The Eighteenth Day: The Tragedy of King Leopold III of Belgium. Translated by Stanley R. Rader. New York: Everest House, 1978. A French Resistance leader supports the controversial actions of Leopold’s surrender in 1940.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spaak, Paul-Henri. The Continuing Battle: Memoirs of a European, 1936-1966. Translated by Henry Fox. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971. Leopold’s role in World War II from the perspective of a Belgian politician.

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