Yapou: Governments in Exile, 1939-1945
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Chapter 4 – BELGIUM
Disintegration and Resurrection
The Downfall – The Royal Issue: The Parting of Ways – Berchtesgaden–Trial and Error – King Leopold is Warned and Deported – Opportunism versus Legitimacy – "Two-Man" and "Four-Man" Governments – The Royal Issue Deferred – The "Palace Policy" – Food, Gold, Uranium – Benelux – Light at Last
The eighteen-day battle of Belgium ended in the surrender of the Belgian army, occupation of the country by the Wehrmacht and a break between King Leopold III and the government. Disregarding the unanimous wish of his ministers, the King stayed “with his people,”a prisoner of the Germans in Laeken Palace. The government left for Paris “to continue the fight from abroad” and presided over an emotional meeting at Limoges of Belgian senators and deputies who accused the King of betrayal and desertion and passed a resolution stigmatizing the King for capitulation to the Germans. Faced with the French collapse and moving successively to Bordeaux and Vichy, the government failed in its attempts to achieve reconciliation with the King by offering to resign, on the one hand, and to align itself with Vichy’s policies, on the other. It finally dissolved itself after appointing four of its members to proceed overseas in order to deal with the situation in the Congo, with Belgian assets abroad, and with food supplies for the civilian population at home. The four were reunited in London after Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot’s and Paul-Henri Spaak’s adventurous escape from Spanish detention, and together they created the nucleus of Belgium’s government in exile.
The Downfall [top] During the night of 27-28 May, 1940, the commander of the German sixth army, General von Reichenau, dictated to a member of the Belgian parliament, General Derousseaux, the conditions for Belgium’s capitulation: unconditional surrender and immediate occupation by the German forces of the entire territory of the Kingdom. When Derousseaux mentioned that King Leopold was in Bruges, the German commanders were astonished. They seemed to have taken it for granted that the sovereign had left for England. As one of them later said: “We felt that the attitude of the Belgian monarch deserved our admiration.” An officer who appeared to be well versed in history even compared the event to the capture of Napoleon III after the French surrender at Sedan in 1870. The German generals seemed to have foreseen every eventuality in Belgium, except that King Leopold would fall into their hands. Von Reichenau telephoned to Hitler, but the Führer left it to the general to handle the question of the King's presence as best he could. A few hours later Senior Counsellor von Etzdorf, who was with the German Command, telegraphed to the Foreign Ministry a proposal from Army Commander Group B on how to act, but the ministry replied that it had no say in the matter, which was entirely “for the Führer to decide.
The next scene of the drama took place in the palace of the provincial government in Bruges, when the King asked the German officers who had come to see him: “What fate is reserved for my army?” He repeated the same question the next day when Von Reichenau called on him. “Your soldiers have been taken prisoner,” the German commander answered, but he added that he had reason to believe that the Führer would grant the King “a particularly favourable treatment.” The general thought that the Belgian soldiers would be able to return home once they were disarmed; as to the officers, he envisaged a slower procedure. “General,” said the King, “consider me your first prisoner.” When he was told that he would be assigned to residence at Laeken Palace, he requested a more modest residence, but the palace was the place immediately available. Significantly, Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop instructed his representative in Brussels two days later “to remain non-committal and not to undertake any initiative” without referring to him. Obviously higher policy issues were to be decided henceforth in Berlin.
What were the views of King Leopold in regard to the problems that lay ahead? The substance of the King’s views is given in a telegram sent by the German Foreign Ministry representative with Army Group B, who was present at a meeting between Leopold and the Italian Ambassador in Brussels three days after the surrender. The Ambassador, the report stated, answered in the affirmative when asked whether he considered the King’s course of action “correct.” He said he believed the majority of the Belgian people and the army were solidly behind the King. He added that the German government respected the King as a brave soldier and “would certainly not do anything to render his present position more difficult.”
The King said that he desired above all to retain his people's confidence and “therefore to avoid giving the impression that he wished to reign at all costs under German pressure. He hoped that Germany would do nothing to separate him from his people.” When the Ambassador told the King about the accusations of treachery raised against him by leading Belgian personalities in Paris, Leopold said that he had endeavoured more than once to rally the Pierlot government around him, but that “they had not met his wishes and left the country.” The German diplomat concluded that “the impression gained from the Ambassador’s account suggests that he (the Ambassador) is taking it for granted that Germany will leave inviolate Belgium’s national independence and the sovereign rights of the King, but that we would presumably, for reasons of military security, have to be in control of the Channel coast and Antwerp.”
One important consequence of this meeting between the Italian Ambassador and King Leopold was that relations were re-established between the King and Cardinal Van Roey, Primate of Belgium. The Italian Ambassador told Leopold “that the Cardinal Primate endorsed the King's attitude and that he was prepared, after an interview with the King, to exhort the Belgian people to range themselves without exception behind him.” Throughout the war the Cardinal served as a channel of communication between the prisoner King and the outside world.
The Italian version of the Ambassador’s report of his call on King Leopold on May 30 contains a statement by Leopold that is omitted in the German report. The King said that he considered it “preferable for the time being to remain somewhat aloof in order to avoid the reproach of being in agreement with the Germans. ”No doubt this fear was at the back of his mind when, on June 4, Hitler invited him to meet him. His adviser Henri de Man tried to induce the King to accept for the sake of the country, but Leopold felt unprepared for such a meeting, which he considered untimely. He was willing in principle to meet the leader of Germany but suggested secrecy. This was not favoured by Hitler and the meeting was postponed.
A report addressed to the Führer’s chief adjutant, written by a German officer, Colonel Werner Kiewitz, is of special interest. Kiewitz, who had attended the Belgian surrender discussions with General Derousseaux, was appointed to supervise and advise King Leopold in captivity. He was the same German officer who had been parachuted into Holland in the first hours of the German invasion of the Netherlands carrying a letter from Hitler to Queen Wilhelmina urging surrender. The letter was never delivered. Now he was installed at Laeken and was in daily contact with King Leopold whom he considered “a decent fellow” (ein anständiger Kerl) who had “discovered too late in what a fix his party governments, especially that of Pierlot, had put him” and now “sincerely regrets it.”
Referring to politics, Kiewitz says that the King “is making a serious effort to do justice to the new developments in Europe” and “is a sincere admirer of the achievements and the person of the Führer.” And he concludes: “We are well on the way to gaining the sympathies of those sections of the population that matter. The King is sincerely pleased with this trend and, if he could, would himself work in that direction.”
No hint seems to have reached Kiewitz during this period of the various contacts maintained by King Leopold’s secretary and chef de cabinet.
In the summer that followed, Hitler pursued an evasive policy with regard to the future of Belgium. His instructions concerning this are to be found in a communication, dated July 14, 1940, from the head of the Wehrmacht high command to the Commander-in-Chief of the army which reads as follows: “The Führer has not yet come to any decision regarding the future of the Belgian State. In the meantime he wishes that all possible assistance be given to the Flemings ™ no special favours are to be granted to the Walloons.” The document continues: “Several attempts have been made by the King of the Belgians to alleviate conditions for his country and his people. He has repeatedly asked for an audience with the Führer; finally he sent Minister Kiewitz to the Führer twice with various requests (the release and return to their homeland of all prisoners of war, which would include the Walloons; the granting of a certain amount of influence in the administration of the country; contacts with Belgian officials, etc.). The Führer has made no decisions and has given instructions to treat all these questions in a dilatory fashion for the time being.”
The Royal Issue: The Parting of the Ways [top] “La Belgique est prisonnière. Vive la Belgique! Le Roi est prisonnier. Vive le Roi!” This passionate call, repeated incessantly from London during the Belgian government’s four-year exile in Britain, was more than a slogan; it was a statement of policy. It was also a formula that helped the ill-informed Belgian people to overcome the bewilderment caused by King Leopold’s behaviour. This attitude, however, mystified the world at large, for it was only a few months since Leopold had been called a traitor in Paris and London, and the Belgian Prime Minister himself, in a historic broadcast, had accused the King of “negotiating with the enemy” and denounced “the fault committed by one man which cannot be imputed on the nation as a whole.” It was not forgotten that the subsequent call to depose the King and even an appeal to proclaim a Republic at a meeting of Belgian parliamentarians in Limoges had merely been shelved on the grounds that such far-reaching decisions could only be taken inside a free Belgium.
In fact, a major crisis between the King and the government had emerged in the very first days of the Nazi invasion, with Leopold claiming to be constitutionally the sole Commander-in-Chief of the Belgian armed forces and, as such, not answerable to the government for his conduct of military operations. The same issue had already arisen between King Albert and his Prime Minister de Brocqueville during the 1914-1918 war.
In the very first hours of the invasion, Leopold declined the Prime Minister’s invitation to follow the precedent of his father and address both Houses of Parliament. This was later interpreted by some personalities as a refusal by the King to associate himself publicly with the Allied cause, in order to leave himself a free hand as the war drama unfolded. It later transpired at one of the irregular meetings held between the King, Pierlot and several of his colleagues that Leopold planned to withdraw his army to the North-West of the country and to establish there a kind of defensive redoubt. The ministers urged withdrawal to the South-West, should the course of the battle make such a measure necessary, in order to maintain links with the Allied armies in the north of France and to pursue a combined strategy with them. The King did not inform Pierlot and his colleagues of Churchill’s offer to help in evacuating Belgian divisions by sea, should the necessity arise.
There was also the “Ypres Incident” of 21 May, 1940, when the ministers were kept waiting in a most humiliating fashion in the corridors of Ypres Town Hall, while Leopold held fateful talks with General Weygand, then Commander-in-Chief of all Allied armies. Even the Minister of Defence was excluded from these military discussions.
In reply to Pierlot’s reproaches that he had not taken the government into his confidence, King Leopold wrote to his Prime Minister that during their meetings immediately after the invasion he had warned his ministers that the situation might develop differently from what they considered “as the only probable one.” He criticised the government for not keeping him informed of political developments, particularly abroad, and denounced the “ridiculous haste” with which government departments were removed to France, thus depriving the government of the means with which to govern. He maintained that the competence of the ministers did not extend to the conduct of military operations.
Pierlot, in a very polite reply, of 23 May 1940, stressed that while the Constitution entrusted the Sovereign with the command of the army, the government alone was responsible for the acts of the Chief of State. The conduct of the war, Pierlot continued, had a direct bearing on the future of the country and the government would have to answer for it. Since the invasion had begun, the Prime Minister and the ministers who accompanied him had the impression that the King had envisaged retreat of the Belgian army “without any other future than capitulation,” a course which, apparently, he considered preferable to the “disadvantages of leaving Belgian territory.” Pierlot further reminded the King that the ministers had stressed “the vital importance to the country of not seeing the King link his fate with that of the Army, to the point of surrendering his liberty.”
In the days that followed there developed something like a game of hide-and-seek between the four ministers who remained in Belgium and the King, who was not eager to see them. In these tragic hours before the surrender they were kept ignorant as to the whereabouts of their monarch and wandered about aimlessly in the triangle between Ostend, Bruges and La Panne. The only information they could glean from a junior member of the King’s secretariat, Major van den Heuvel, was: “It is obvious the King leaves the ministers free to act as they see fit.”
In the annals of Belgian history the final dawn encounter between Leopold III and his ministers at Wynendaele Castle will remain a tale of supreme tragedy. It was the collision of two opposing policies in an atmosphere of considerable physical and mental strain. Spaak was to write about it later: “The discussion was intensely dramatic. We observed none of the rules of protocol and deference that so often forced one to temper one’s views. The King and ourselves spoke as man to man. For our part, we made our points with all the passion, and at times the fury, we could muster. The King, completely isolated, argued with dignity, feeling, and not a little stubbornness.” In fact, for an hour and twenty minutes a love-hate drama unfolded in which the ministers, monarchists at heart, were torn between their sentimental readiness to stay with their King and what they saw as their duty: to leave him to his fate.
For the ministers on that morning of May 25, 1940, the issue was clear: if the Belgian army, or parts of it, had to lay down its arms, the King should consider that his duties as Commander-in-Chief had come to an end. However, as Chief of State he should follow his ministers abroad to continue the fight on the side of the Allies, as the King of Norway and the Queen of the Netherlands had done, and avoid falling into the hands of the enemy. They argued furthermore that the King should be aware that if he remained in Belgium he would do it against the unanimous opinion of his government. They pointed out that the King entertained an illusion if he thought he would still be able to work for his people under German occupation. Either he would be reduced to the role of President H cha in Czechoslovakia or he would be transferred to Germany.
The King, according to his version of the conversation, replied that he was convinced he could serve his people better by remaining in Belgium. In so doing, he believed he would fulfil both his duties as Chief of State and as Commander in Chief of the armed forces. The ministers believed in an Allied victory, but he “was unable to share their optimism.” France was doomed, the King continued, and if Britain continued to fight it would probably be from across the sea and without the possibility of Belgian intervention. Belgium might have to live for a time in a state of “reduced independence” that would still enable some kind of national life to continue until circumstances changed. Declaring that Belgium’s role in the war had come to an end, he repeated the promise included in his letter to King George VI that nothing would be done against Belgium's guarantors (garants), as he called France and Britain, whose armies had entered Belgium to help her repel the Nazi onslaught.
The break between the government and the King was further accentuated by three questions asked by the ministers. “Do you intend to have a Government at your side in Brussels?,” the Foreign Minister asked. “Of course I do,” the King replied, “for I do not intend to be a dictator.” To Pierlot’s question: “Does that mean that we and our colleagues should resign?” the King replied: “That indeed would seem to be the logical outcome of the situation.” And when Pierlot asked if the King would still recognize them as his government if they decided to continue the war effort from abroad, on the side of the Allies, Leopold answered: “No. Such a government would obviously be against me.”
The parting of the ways that followed occurred on two issues: first, whether the continuation of the struggle abroad was to be headed by the King; and, second, if the King chose to remain in Belgium, whether he should rule under German occupation. The seemingly unavoidable military surrender was left to the decision of the King alone as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.
Berchtesgaden – Trial and Error [top] As the summer advanced, King Leopold, in his imposed residence at Laeken, became increasingly aware that any attempt at clarification of Germany’s attitude vis-à-vis Belgium must include a personal encounter with Hitler. He felt that the non-committal attitude of Hitler’s representatives around him, however senior, rendered contact with them futile. He was convinced that Germany had already won the war and, therefore, that this was the right moment, perhaps even the last moment, to prevent Germany from embarking on a unilateral solution for post-war Belgium.
King Leopold enlisted the help of his sister, Princess Marie-José, then Crown Princess of Italy, who was received by Hitler on 17 October, 1940. Her aim was to pave the way for a “private visit” by her brother to the Führer. In a press interview published many years later the Princess describes her meeting with the “madman.” She first had to listen to the usual anti-British tirade by the ruler of Germany, to a profession of peaceful intentions and to praise for his friend Mussolini. Then she read a statement which declared that “her brother had begged her to assure the Führer that he had engaged in no political negotiations since May 28, despite certain rumours spread by people who wanted to hide behind his name; he had taken no political action even indirectly. Nor had he had anything to do with occurrences in the Congo.”
This statement on behalf of King Leopold, read by the Princess after Hitler had already told her that he would consider a meeting with her brother “useful,” is of special interest to historians. Was it a spontaneous, voluntary declaration on the part of the King or was he requested to give these assurances before Hitler would consent to receive him? This question has never been clearly answered. The reference to people “who hide behind his name” obviously meant the ministers of the London government, and his reference to the Congo was a denunciation of the action taken by the Governor-General of the Congo, Pierre Ryckmans, in announcing on July 27 his determination to continue the war on the side of Great Britain and to fight for the liberation of Belgium.
Hitler had already received a report of a conversation between King Leopold and the German military governor of occupied Belgium, General von Falkenhausen, in which the latter informed him that the King had expressed regret (Bedauern) at the action taken by the Governor-General of the Congo. Having thus left it to his sister to explain the position, Leopold refrained during his own meeting with Hitler from any further reference to his disapproval of the London government and the action taken by the authorities in the Congo.
When Hitler and King Leopold found themselves face to face at the Berghof in Berchtesgaden on November 19, 1940, they both seemed unaware of the significance of the Luftwaffe’s defeat in the Battle of Britain which had taken place two months earlier. They took it for granted that Germany would win the war. Leopold's main concern was to obtain Hitler's promise that Belgium would be independent after the war, and he raised the issue repeatedly during the conversation. The news of the meeting gradually spread in Brussels, but it was explained that its sole object had been the repatriation of war prisoners and the delivery of food supplies for the civilian population. It was believed, however, that on both these urgent matters Leopold had returned empty-handed.
The King was not any more successful on the issue of Belgium’s independence, although the exchange of views clarified the stand of both victor and vanquished. The Führer asked the King whether he had thought about the future relationship between Belgium and the Reich and “whether he wanted to express certain wishes with regard to his country.” Leopold replied that “he was above all anxious to learn what Germany intended to do with Belgium and whether he would guarantee Belgian independence in the coming period of peace.” Hitler answered explaining the need to “eliminate English influence on the continent of Europe” and to undertake “a general reorganisation” of Europe which would include the countries belonging politically and economically to “the German sphere of influence.” In this area it was his intention to set up an economic and political system which would “permit a larger integration of European power” than had previously been the case. “Within the framework of this broad principle Germany would also seek to organise political and economic life and the future of Belgium.”
King Leopold asked whether “the possibility of Belgian independence” might be defined more precisely and, in this connection, he said he attached “special importance to independence in domestic affairs.” The Führer answered “that the more clearly and unequivocally Belgium aligned herself with Germany in foreign policy and military matters the greater would be her internal political independence.” Leopold in turn said that he realized that Belgium would have to conclude certain agreements in the military field but that the Belgians “wanted above all to choose their own rulers themselves.”
We have two versions of this interview. One is that of King Leopold; the other was recorded at a later stage by Hitler’s interpreter Schmidt. The controversy which they aroused was due to the wording of certain phrases, rather than to the content of the exchanges between the two men. Schmidt reported that Leopold had told Hitler “he was able to appreciate the great work which the Führer was engaged in carrying out and was aware of the latter’s efforts to grant Europe a durable peace on the basis of justice, cooperation and solidarity.” Leopold thought that Schmidt had embellished certain expressions and even mixed up certain statements made by Hitler with those he himself had made. It is clear, however, that Hitler avoided any specific promise with regard to Belgian independence. Leopold’s argument that the people of Belgium were naturally impressed by “British propaganda” pledges concerning the restoration of independent Belgium, pledges which they did not hear from the German side, does not seem to have made the ruler of Germany any more generous.
One should remember that the meeting at Berchtesgaden was held immediately after Hitler had met Pétain at Montoire, where the principle of collaboration between Vichy and Germany was proclaimed. Leopold was certainly aware of what was happening in Vichy France. The letter he drafted to Pétain soon after Belgium’s capitulation is most indicative in this respect. He may even have envied the French Marshal for having succeeded in obtaining an armistice agreement from Hitler. Did Leopold at that time dream of a “Belgian Vichy” and the “reduced independence” he had mentioned at Wynendaele Castle at least as a temporary step pending Belgium’s rebirth?
King Leopold’s suggestions to the Führer may be taken as supporting just such a view. The first was to deprive of Germany’s “favour” those elements in occupied Belgium (in fact, pro-German elements) who were “serving only their own personal interests and in no way represented the country” since they “did not even possess the confidence of the Flemings.” This corresponded to the distrust shown by Pétain at that very time towards outright pro-Germans and pro-Nazis in occupied and unoccupied France, a feeling which resulted three weeks later in the removal of Laval from the Vichy government. The second suggestion was to set up an Economic Council to deal with economic, financial and supply problems. The third was to create a small Belgian force, 10,000-15,000 men strong, armed only with rifles, to maintain “internal peace and order.”
The one and only meeting between the King of the Belgians and the Führer ended with what Hitler certainly considered a compliment to the monarch: he assured Leopold “that Germany would not undertake anything against the existence of the Belgian royal family” and that “in Germany a distinction is made between the will of the King and the actions of the Belgian government.”
King Leopold is Warned and Deported [top] What Hitler really thought of Leopold emerged eighteen months later in his table conversations. On February 27, 1942, he said at lunch: “In Belgium there is this damned King! If only he'd cleared out like the others, I'd have allowed his pretty girl friend to join him.” At dinner a few months later, on July 24, 1942, he continued in the same vein: “If we can succeed in getting rid of the King of the Belgians by giving him a pension of half a million or so and thus ensuring him a gilded exile, I for one shall be heartily grateful.”
By then misgivings about the King’s real attitude, voiced at first by a few German officials in Brussels, had probably reached leading circles in Berlin. In May 1941, a year after Belgium’s surrender, these officials had envisaged the possibility of “voluntary entry on the part of Belgium into a Europe led by National Socialist Germany,” since they considered that the state of war between Belgium and Germany “had de facto come to an end.” However, Counsellor of the Embassy W. von Bergen wrote in a “Memorandum regarding the possibilities of cooperation with Germany” that “the great reserve which the King exhibits in accordance with our wishes is used against us, particularly by our opponents.” He mentioned that Pierlot “who is now living in London” had spoken of the “proud attitude of the King who refused to assume any sort of governmental function and maintained his position as a prisoner of war, thus expressing his protest against the violence done to his country.”
In October 1942, deportations from Belgium to Germany were intensified, and in November the King protested against them in a letter to Hitler, to which he received no reply. From London the government urged the King to issue a public denunciation of the occupation authorities, whose actions had aroused considerable anger among the Belgian population. The King, however, after consulting with his advisers, considered that public protest should be avoided if any alleviation were to be obtained of the conditions in which the deportees were held.Instead he wrote to the president of the Belgian Red Cross, Nolf, on January 12, 1943, asking for protection for deportees, hostages and political prisoners. Hitler’s reaction, which came a month later, was an ultimatum to the King.
On February 18, 1943, in the late afternoon, a special emissary of the Führer, General Müller, presented himself at Laeken Palace. He read out a communication to the King from the German Chancellor and left immediately to return to the Führer’s Headquarters without leaving its text to the King. The communication said that the Führer disapproved of the King’s letter to the President of the Red Cross and considered that it was a departure from the reserve imposed on him by his status of war prisoner; he objected to the use by the King of the term “deportation” and considered his reference to the “moral danger” faced by Belgian women leaving for Germany as “an insult to the German people.” The Belgian workers sent to Germany went there in their own interest and in conditions similar to those enjoyed by German workers to help in the struggle against the Bolshevik threat, the whole burden of which was carried by Germany. Finally, the Führer expressed the wish that in future the King would not abandon the reserve imposed on him. Otherwise, Hitler concluded, he would “feel obliged to take steps vis-à-vis the King such as a change of residence outside Belgium.”
The real reason behind this ultimatum was revealed three days later, when the Secretary-General of the Occupation Administration, Romsee, called on the King’s secretary. It appeared that the main grudge the Germans had against the King was that “he treated the government in London with regard™ The ministers were appointed by him and they still perform their functions on the basis of the royal signature™ They still consider themselves ministers of the King who has not disowned them.”
For once London and Berlin were in agreement, although for opposite reasons, both urging the King to respect his status as war prisoner. When it became known in London in January 1941, two months after the event, that Leopold had visited Hitler, Eden told the Cabinet of Spaak’s comment on hearing the news: “I still hope,” he said, “that the King will not commit a crowning act of folly.” And Churchill in a message to Leopold praised his refusal to depart from the status of war prisoner and expressed the earnest hope that Leopold would “inflexibly maintain, no matter what indubitably may be offered, your refusal to cooperate with a tyrant whose defeat is certain.”
This sounded very much like the messages sent a few weeks earlier to Marshal Pétain warning him against the policy of “collaboration” he had agreed upon with Hitler at Montoire. If no “collaboration” had been agreed upon at Berchtesgaden between Hitler and the King, it was because the Führer had declined to ensure the continuity of the Kingdom of Belgium and wished to keep a free hand in this respect. It is clear, however, that by initiating the Berchtesgaden meeting Leopold resorted to a political act which, had it been successful, would at best have made him Germany’s vassal.
All that now remained for the King was to shut himself up at Laeken and await his deportation to Germany, which took place within hours of the Allied invasion of the continent. When this event occurred, Pierlot broadcast from London on June 13, 1944, stating: “The King has consistently refused to exercise his high function under enemy domination.” The government remained faithful to the line it had consistently maintained throughout its stay in Britain.
Opportunism versus Legitimacy [top] On May 24, 1940, four days before King Leopold’s surrender, Lord Halifax informed the British Ambassador in Belgium that the British Government had plans for the evacuation of the government and the King since they were “deeply impressed with the necessity, from an international point of view, of maintaining the King and the Belgian government in a place of safety.” The King, however, remained in Belgium under the German occupation, and the few ministers who reached London after a nightmare flight were faced at the outset with a battle for their legitimacy.
The first to arrive, on June 21, was the Minister of Health, Marcel-Henri Jaspar. He had left for Britain, having failed to persuade the Belgian government in Bordeaux, the temporary seat of the French government, to move to London instead of aligning itself with the French policy of surrender. Jaspar, who was convinced that the Pierlot Cabinet had resigned in Bordeaux, was determined to fill the gap created by Belgium’s absence from the anti-Hitler alliance.
The Belgian Ambassador in London, Baron Cartier de Marchienne, gave Jaspar an icy welcome and declined to arrange an appointment for him with Churchill. Cartier de Marchienne apparently feared that Jaspar and his friends would rob the Belgian government in France of its legitimacy.
Jaspar then turned to the only other public figure in a similar situation, General Charles de Gaulle, who had publicly denounced his government's submission to the German invader. Jaspar and De Gaulle met a few days after reaching Britain, both in search of friends and supporters. The future President of France’s Fifth Republic told Jaspar immediately: “We shall win this cosmic war. Russia and the United States will be dragged into it. It will be long and tough but victory is at the end.” Jaspar agreed with this analysis. The two men spent their first Sunday in exile together. It was the day Pétain signed the armistice with Hitler.
After being received during the weekend by Lord Halifax and Alfred Duff Cooper, then Minister of Information, Jaspar was more than ever convinced of Britain’s determination to fight until victory. In his message to his countrymen in occupied Belgium, couched in Gaullian style and broadcast by the French service of the BBC, on 23 June 1940, Jaspar appealed to them to gather around him and resist the invader. “I am continuing the war,” he stated, stressing that he was doing so as a legally invested minister of the Crown of Belgium whose position no one could contest. He called on Belgians in France to side with their French friends. France will not perish and “tomorrow she will be on our side.” He concluded with the words: “Death rather than slavery. God will protect Belgium and her Allies.”
Forty-eight hours later Bordeaux radio broadcast a statement by the then disintegrating Belgian government stating that Jaspar had abandoned his post and had gone to London for reasons of “personal convenience.” The government then disowned its Minister of Health and declared that he had not been entrusted with any mission in Britain.
Within hours another call to resistance was broadcast from London by the highly-respected burgomaster of Antwerp, Camille Huysmans, former president of the Belgian Chamber of Deputies and chairman of the second Socialist International. “We trust fully in the power of Britain to deliver us from German bondage,” he declared. “We claim the right to share in the burden and honour of this fight in the measure of our modest but not altogether negligible resources™ We are not defeatists.” And Huysmans added: “We will have nothing to do with those faint-hearted countrymen of ours, who, despairing of the victory of the allied cause, would be willing to come to terms with the invader. We know that neither Belgium nor the Congo will be saved until Hitlerism is crushed.”
During the fortnight that followed, in the vacuum created by the paralysis of the Belgian government in France, intense discussions took place between Huysmans and Jaspar and the few political friends available in London such as Buset, a former Minister of Defence, De Lavelaye, a former Justice Minister, Hoste, a former Education Minister, Wauters, former Minister of Information, and Dens, a leading parliamentarian. A draft of programme, amounting practically to the creation of a Belgian governmental body, was completed on July 5 in Jaspar's apartment, with the aim of bringing Belgium back into the Allied camp. Some called it the “July 5th Government,” others the “Huysmans-Jaspar Cabinet.”
The activities of Huysmans and Jaspar gave rise to active opposition in London as well as among Belgian ministers and functionaries who had followed the French government to Vichy.
In London, Frank Aveling, the former British chargé d’affaires in Brussels, reported to the Foreign Office that while Jaspar was politically irreproachable and had held important posts in various Belgian governments, he was “quite unsuitable” as a leader in time of stress. He reported that some Belgians considered him “a mountebank and adventurer” who enjoyed little favour in Flemish, Catholic and some socialist circles.Another Foreign Office official recorded the remark of a Belgian diplomat – obviously voicing the opinion of his master Ambassador Cartier de Marchienne – who stated that no Belgian would consider Jaspar “a peg to hang one’s hat on.”
The Huysmans-Jaspar initiative succumbed to the god of legitimacy when the Pierlot government declared that it was the constitutional government of Belgium, basing itself on the report of the “Three Jurists” in Brussels appointed to study the constitutional position of the King in the crisis acknowledging the King’s inability to reign. It was the realisation that the “London rebels” were trying to bring Belgium back into the war that brought the Pierlot government back to life.
When Albert de Vleeschauwer, the Minister of Colonies, reached Lisbon with the intention of proceeding to the Congo, where he had been entrusted with full powers, his whole outlook changed. He realized that it would be impossible to preserve the Congo for Belgium if Belgium no longer existed as an independent State. Cartier de Marchienne, who feared that if time were lost the Huysmans-Jaspar team would be recognized by the British government, rushed two emissaries to Lisbon to impress on De Vleeschauwer the need to forestall any such recognition by coming to London immediately. They also persuaded De Vleeschauwer to present himself as the only member of the Belgian government qualified to act on behalf of his government.
On July 5, the very day the Huysmans-Jaspar group formulated its government programme, De Vleeschauwer called upon the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, presenting himself as the only Belgian minister with regular legal authority to act abroad on behalf of his country. He glossed over the fact that his official appointment signed by Pierlot limited his sphere of action to Belgium’s African possessions “to the exclusion of any intervention in the policy of the mother country.” Halifax received him in the same courteous and non-committal manner as he had received Jaspar a few days earlier; however, De Vleeschauwer, having been vested with authority over the Congo, as its negociatorum gestor, had the advantage of representing a certain legitimacy. This seemed insufficient to Churchill when he invited him to lunch a few hours later. The Prime Minister explained to De Vleeschauwer that it would be rather difficult for Britain to accept a Belgian representation consisting of a single minister. “You are a bit thin by yourself,” Churchill is reported to have remarked. The Belgian minister promised to bring over Spaak, Camille Gutt and perhaps Pierlot. There followed a secret meeting between De Vleeschauwer, Pierlot, Spaak and Gutt at Le Perthus on the Franco-Spanish border.
In the confusion of the months of July, August and September 1940, three centres vied for control of Belgium’s future destiny. The silent King in Laeken, the elusive government constantly on the move in unoccupied France which included two members, De Vleeschauwer and Gutt, who represented it in London, and the determined group under the leadership of Huysmans and Jaspar who were on the verge of establishing either a National Committee or a Provisional Government in London. It was only in late October, when Pierlot and Spaak arrived in Britain, that the tide of history turned in favour of legitimacy.
Meanwhile, De Vleeschauwer had no sooner reached London than he had to face his first serious problem. Small Belgian units stranded in England, as well as airmen and soldiers recovering in British hospitals, had been told by the Belgian government in Vichy that they must be demobilized in order to enable them to return to their homes in Belgium as part of a general repatriation scheme. De Vleeschauwer in his new role fully intended to comply with this order. However, he beat a hasty retreat a week later when the Huysmans-Jaspar group raising cries of “treachery,” protested against any disbanding of Belgian troops which might be needed in Britain for common defensive action. De Vleeschauwer was momentarily weakened by this setback. He regained his strength, however, with the arrival of his colleague Camille Gutt, Minister of Finance, and the promise that Pierlot and Spaak would follow suit. In a series of urgent secret messages to Pierlot and Spaak, who were still delaying their departure from France, the group that assembled around Gutt and De Vleeschauwer stressed the imperative need for the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister to come to England as soon as possible. They argued that failing the establishment of a regular, legal government in the capital of resistance to Nazi aggression, the British government would be obliged to recognize a Huysmans-Jaspar government and transfer to it Belgium's considerable financial resources deposited in the Bank of England. The re-establishment of a regular, fully recognised authority would save Belgium and ultimately also the King.
"Two-Men" and "Four-Men" Governments [top] In the three months that preceded the arrival of Pierlot and Spaak the fiction was maintained that Gutt and De Vleeschauwer were authorized holders of Belgium’s constitutional authority. Some referred to them as the “Government of Two.” One British official even spoke of the presence in London of “one and a half” Belgian ministers, since De Vleeschauwer was no more than a high official. The two ministers were subjected to considerable pressure when they persisted in their refusal to widen the government without Pierlot, who was being detained in Spain, although there was some doubt as to whether his arrival would ever materialize. Refusing the collaboration of the other Belgian personalities present in London they temporarily distributed all cabinet posts among themselves, thus arousing irritation in some British circles. A senior Foreign Office official, Sir Roger Makins, in a note dated October 16, 1940, went so far as to speak of Gutt’s “dictatorial” attitude.
However, on October 1, 1940, the Belgian Ambassador officially notified the Foreign Office that Gutt and De Vleeschauwer, thanks to British hospitality, had established the government’s seat in London, and that they would exercise fully all powers vested in the Belgian government. Those members of the government prevented from coming to England had transferred their duties to them. “According to Belgian constitutional principles,” the normal functioning of the government does not depend on the number of its members.
When Pierlot and Spaak finally arrived in London on October 22, the latter immediately informed all Belgian diplomatic posts by telegram that the four members of the government now in England would exercise fully all governmental prerogatives and continue the struggle at the side of Britain for the liberation of Belgium. However, as Spaak wrote later, “everyone had to be convinced that the four of us – Pierlot, Gutt, De Vleeschauwer and I – were the embodiment of Belgium’s constitutional legality, and that we therefore had the incontestable right to be heard and even obeyed.”
The Belgian ministers met Churchill for the first time a few days later at a luncheon in his honour given at their Embassy. It was a courteous occasion marked by an exchange between Pierlot and Churchill which was typical of the two men. As recorded by Spaak, Pierlot said somewhat thoughtlessly: “I am glad to hear, Mr. Prime Minister, that the British pilots are trying to bomb military targets only.” According to Spaak, Churchill retorted with a smile which somewhat softened the brutality of his reply: “For the moment we are still short of ammunition. Work before pleasure.” These words scarcely masked the grudge Churchill nursed throughout the war against the Belgian leadership for having adopted a neutrality policy in 1936 and having stuck to it jealously until it was too late to help Belgium effectively.
A campaign against the Pierlot government started even before the Prime Minister’s arrival. Criticism was also voiced by Hugh Dalton, Labour Minister of Economic Warfare then in charge of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). In a letter to Halifax he called attention to the “unrepresentative character” of the Gutt-De Vleeschauwer government. Dalton also wrote in his diary: “We must set a time limit to this equivocation ™ and either have a proper Belgian government in this country, fighting the war as our allies and saying so, or we must set up a Belgian National Committee.”
Halifax also considered the Gutt-De Vleeschauwer tandem rather thin and seemed to welcome a suggestion by the newly-formed Belgian Parliamentary Committee – consisting of the Huysmans-Jaspar group and other parliamentarians who had meanwhile reached London – that a Government Council made up of all available Belgian ex-ministers be established. Dalton further records that Halifax thought that “it was difficult to insist on individuals being taken into the government, but we had the right to insist that the government should include representatives of all the principal elements of Belgian life.”
It was at this stage that Pierlot and Spaak appeared on the London scene and the Belgian Government Quartet came into being. Their arrival was welcome as it was considered that it solved the legitimacy problem. Pierlot, it was argued, had been entrusted by King Leopold with forming a government, and he had constitutionally obtained the confidence of the Belgian Parliament. But the question of the representativity of the government in its present composition remained open. Pierlot’s and Spaak's attitude during the “time of errors” in defeated France could not easily be glossed over. Roger Makins, writing about the possible evacuation of Pierlot and Spaak from Barcelona in September, considered that they were “not deserving of much consideration.” He nevertheless recommended extricating “these miserable ministers” for the sake of having a legal Belgian government in London.
By the time they reached London the other former ministers and parliamentarians in the British capital had formed the Parliamentary Committee under Camille Huysmans, with the aim of ensuring that the reconstituted Belgian government be as representative as possible. Its Socialist members had access to the Labour members of the British War Cabinet, and, after their meeting with their Belgian colleagues, the British Labour ministers decided “to bring further pressure to bear” on the Foreign Office with the aim of reconstituting the Belgian government. Hugh Dalton contacted Spaak, himself a Socialist, and examined with him the prospects of enlarging the Pierlot government. Dalton reported that Spaak did not favour the inclusion of former prime ministers. He envisaged therefore two alternatives: either to enlarge the government or create a “National Council” to act in the absence of the Belgian parliamentary institutions. He suggested that Churchill take up the matter personally with Pierlot.
Both Dalton and Halifax, therefore, intervened with the Prime Minister, urging him to meet Pierlot and to talk to him frankly, “as one Prime Minister to another,” on the need to restore the national character and the prestige to the government over which he presided. When Pierlot was Churchill’s guest at Chequers on December 13, he promised to think the matter over.
The matter was very promptly decided by Halifax’s successor at the Foreign Office, Anthony Eden. He put an end to Labour leader Clement Attlee’s and Dalton’s intervention by noting on their letter: “Foreign policy is my responsibility and no other Ministry’s.” This followed on a minute addressed by Sir Alexander Cadogan of the Foreign Office to Eden, which recommended the maintenance of the status quo. “The present Belgian government is a rump,” Cadogan wrote, “but it is, as I understand it, a rump of unquestioned lineage, so to speak. If they add to their numbers, cannot this be challenged constitutionally, and is it not better, therefore, to refrain from such an increase unless it is really worthwhile?” To which the new Foreign Secretary replied: “Pierlot is not impressive, but he is legitimate.”
Eden’s personal opinion of the representativity of the Belgian government in London was revealed years later, when he prepared a memorandum for the Cabinet at the height of the controversy as to whether De Gaulle represented the French people in 1944. Eden wrote that the leader of the Free French certainly “has more authority in France than, for example, the Belgian government enjoys in Belgium.”
The British official view of the legal position of the Belgian government in London was clearly defined in a letter from Patrick Dean, of the Foreign Office, to the Procurator General, dated December 3, 1940. “His Majesty’s Government,” wrote Dean, “do regard the Belgian ministers composing the Belgian government in London as the legitimate and constitutional Government of Belgium and competent to exercise full authority in the name of the Sovereign State of Belgium.” He added: “™ but we cannot give a definite assurance that future Belgian governments will recognise all the actions and undertakings of the present Government of M. Pierlot.”
Since the continuity, legality and constitutionality of the Pierlot government had thus been confirmed by the British authorities, its representativity became once again a purely internal Belgian issue. In February 1942 the government on its own initiative announced its decision to include Antoine Delfosse as Minister of Justice and Henri Rolin as Secretary of State for Defence, while several other personalities were entrusted with missions abroad. At the same time the government institutionalised the “Consultative Government Council” of parliamentarians, ministers of State and former Belgian ministers present in Britain. This put into effect the suggestion advanced nearly two years earlier by the Socialist leaders under Huysmans and submitted to Dalton.
The Royal Issue Deferred [top] The 180-degree turn in the Belgian government’s attitude to the King when it reached London is explained very frankly in Spaak's memoirs. It was a retreat from the position that the government was “at odds” with the King and had “definitely broken with the King” to a formula, taken from a pastoral letter of Cardinal Van Roey, Primate of Belgium, that there simply had been a “regrettable misunderstanding.” “Throughout the war,” Spaak wrote years later, “we repeatedly proclaimed our loyalty to the King, underlining the firmness of the Royal prisoner in abstaining from all political action, thus symbolising passive resistance to the enemy.” However, Spaak continued, “cut off from the King, who ignored us and rejected our overtures, we were far from sure that our official propaganda represented the true state of affairs. But we preferred not to look at reality too closely. We let ourselves be guided entirely by what we believed was la raison d'Etat.”
It was a fiction that suited everybody. On the Belgian side it was explained that there was no inconsistency between the King’s attitude at Laeken and the position adopted by the Belgian government in London. On the British side a libel action against the Daily Mirror, brought by Sir Roger Keyes, Churchill’s personal representative, who was with Leopold until the last hours before his surrender, seemed to dispose of the accusations against the King on account of his military decisions.
In an introduction to Emile Cammaerts’s book, The Prisoner at Laeken, published in 1941, Keyes also revealed that the King had promised to make every endeavour to prevent his countrymen from being compelled to associate themselves “with any action against countries which have attempted to help Belgium.” Keyes thus refuted the accusations levelled against Leopold in May 1940, particularly in Paris and with somewhat more reserve in London, that he had left his allies in the lurch and had laid down his arms suddenly and without warning. After the public stand taken by Keyes, the case of King Leopold was generally considered in London to be suspended until after the war.
The views of Keyes no doubt influenced King George VI, who told President Roosevelt’s personal representative, Harry Hopkins, during the latter’s visit to Britain at the end of 1940, that he had “a great deal of sympathy with the King of the Belgians.” In the course of their meeting, King George added: “It was perfectly clear that the King had two responsibilities – one as Commander-in-Chief and the other his job as King, and that he got his two jobs mixed up.” Hopkins reported to Roosevelt that King George “apparently had little or no criticism of him [King Leopold] as Commander-in-Chief of the army, but as King he thought he should have left the country and established his government elsewhere.”
This qualified approach also enabled Eden, in his Mansion House Speech on May 29, 1941, the anniversary of Leopold’s surrender, to pay tribute to the Belgians “grouped around King Leopold who maintains with unbroken dignity his position as prisoner-of-war.” It also made it possible for George VI to postpone until after the war any decision on the suggestion that King Leopold’s name be deleted from the roll of honour of the Knights of the Garter in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor, as had been done in the case of King Victor Emmanuele III of Italy.
But though it was tacitly accepted that questions concerning Leopold should henceforth be considered an internal Belgian problem to be settled by the Belgian people after the war, these questions continued to be raised. Thus, when in January 1942 the Lord Chancellor, Viscount Simon, asked the views of the Foreign Office on the statement he was to make on the occasion of the inauguration of the Belgian Maritime Courts in Britain, he thought it would be a good idea to take the opportunity of apologising (“de faire amende honorable”) to the King of the Belgians on behalf of His Majesty’s Government.
And so the problem of King Leopold which had been dormant for some time suddenly came to life again during a discussion at the Foreign Office. One official, G. W. Harrison, recorded: “I am not sure that an amende honorable is due to King Leopold from H.M.’s Government.”
After an exchange of views, Sir William Makins wrote to Viscount Simon as follows on February 2, 1942:
"The Department are definitely opposed to the idea of saying anything in your speech about the King of the Belgians. They feel that it would certainly reawaken undesirable controversy and would be unwelcome to the Belgian Government: it appears that the King’s marriage has led to much criticism and uneasiness, and his popularity is waning in Belgium. Accordingly they think this is not a suitable moment to stir the question up and that it would be better to leave the whole thing alone until after the war."
The opening of the Belgian Maritime Courts in London on February 10, 1942, was a solemn occasion on which to proclaim the continuity of Belgian independence through the government in exile. In his speech Viscount Simon stated that “once more Belgium shall arise free and independent,” while the Belgian Minister of Justice and Colonies, Albert de Vleeschauwer, expressed his countrymen's confidence in the “sacredness of the British given word” that “Belgium's independence will be restored and that all her European and African territories will remain intact.” This was the formula of the undertaking which Leopold had sought to obtain through Admiral Keyes during the “phoney war” before giving permission for British and French troops to enter Belgium in her defence.
The "Palace Policy" [top] Throughout the war the Belgian government, and the British government as well, continued to pretend that the King was a symbol of Belgian resistance to the enemy. But behind the symbol stood a great question mark: why did the King not seize any of the opportunities offered to him to indicate or to hint that he approved the presence of Pierlot's government in London and its resumed belligerency against Germany?
Today, half a century later, the deliberate fiction which was maintained by all sides can be checked against facts. That the King remained in occupied Belgium under the authority of the occupant is an historic fact. His desire to nominate a government inside Belgium was first frustrated by the refusal of the Pierlot government in Paris to grant him a ministerial countersign in blank authorizing him to appoint a new government. Later the conclusions reached by the Three Sages in Brussels appointed by him to advise on his position, namely that as a prisoner of war he was unable to exercise his duties as Chief of State, prevented him from acting. It was thus admitted in Brussels that according to the Constitution the government temporarily exercised all the royal prerogatives.
It is clear now that at the beginning King Leopold was very much under the influence of Henri de Man, who had turned from orthodox Marxism to Hitler’s New Order, and who, by a strange coincidence, emerged as the King’s closest adviser during Belgium's fateful days. In a book De Man reveals that thirty-six hours before the capitulation Leopold asked him once again to accept a ministerial portfolio, along with one or two other personalities, in order to solve problems linked with the cessation of hostilities. Thus it emerges that a “three-man government” was envisaged. The King and De Man agreed on the two other members of the proposed government: a highly respected magistrate, Raoul Hayoit de Termicourt, and General Tilkens, formerly Governor-General of the Congo and later head of the King’s military household.
Though the King and De Man intended this three-man government to serve merely as a transition government for the purpose of capitulation and demobilisation, there is no doubt that under the impact of the confrontation with his ministers at Wynendaele Leopold wished to rid himself of the Pierlot government which, in Paris, was about to denounce him as having betrayed his country.
While King Leopold remained silent, some of his thoughts and intentions can be traced thanks to various documents written by his immediate associates during his solitary days at Laeken and to the reports of some of the visitors he received at that time. Among the latter was the American naval attaché in Brussels, Commander J. Gade, who quotes Leopold’s words during a visit he paid to him early in July: “France,” the King said, “would have fared better had she requested an armistice a week before.” He added: “And why doesn't England now attempt to find a solution to the struggle before an end is put to the little that is left of this poor world?”
Henri de Man was in fact the only political personality who had free access to the King. At Leopold's request the former socialist leader prepared for him a plan for the political “restructuring” of Belgium. This was to be based on the wide use by the King of his royal prerogatives and authority, starting with the revocation of the Pierlot government. Pierlot’s offer of resignation made later from Vichy almost coincided with De Man’s plans in Brussels. However, when Pierlot resumed contact with the British government in London through De Vleeschauwer and Gutt, his offer of resignation became obsolete and was forgotten.
In the weeks following the capitulation Henri de Man’s behaviour was virtually that of a Prime Minister about to form the King’s new government. Speaking to the Liège Town Council three days after the surrender, De Man is quoted as saying: “Both of us, the King and I, consider the war to be at an end. Belgium has fulfilled all her engagements toward her Allies and left the conflict, which does not interest her any longer. The course of events is no longer in doubt. France will shortly be crushed and Britain will soon be invaded. One has to choose in this situation and draw the inevitable conclusions.”
The identity of his views with those of Leopold was again demonstrated when the King approved, “with two slight modifications” that were immediately accepted, a manifesto which De Man addressed to the members of the Belgian Socialist Party. In it De Man wrote: “The war has brought about the collapse of the parliamentary regime and of capitalist plutocracy in the so-called democracies. For the working classes and socialism the collapse of a worn-out world, far from being a disaster, is a deliverance.” He invited his former comrades to join in a movement of national resurrection, for European peace and social justice in loyal allegiance to the King whose wish it was “to establish the sovereignty of Labour.”
The King’s views on the international policy that Belgium should pursue in the exceptional circumstances that followed the surrender of the Belgian army became equally clear. Communications sent by the director of the King’s Cabinet, Frédéricq, to the Belgian Ambassador to France who was then in Vichy, and by Count Capelle, the King’s secretary, to the Belgian Ambassador in Berne, Count Louis d’Ursel, outlined “the position of Brussels.” That they represented Leopold's personal views can be inferred from the fact that these communications came from the immediate circle around the King. This was also largely a reply to a letter De Vleeschauwer had written to the King during his journey from Vichy via Spain to London and entrusted to the then fourteen-year-old Princess Joséphine-Charlotte, daughter of the King, when he visited Leopold’s children before their repatriation to Belgium.
The King’s secretary, Capelle, referred to Leopold two communications from leading diplomats close to him who both laid down the following principles. First, they rejected the Pierlot government's thesis that Belgium was allied to France and Britain. Belgium had only one obligation, namely to defend its territory; this it had done to the limit of its forces. It had thus fulfilled its duty to its “guarantors” (Britain and France) who had come to its aid. Second, the struggle between Belgium and Germany had come to an end on May 28, when the Belgian army had laid down its arms. Those ministers in Lisbon and London who wished to continue the war were acting “in opposition to our interests and our loyalty.” Third, it was wrong to drag the Congo into the war. It should remain completely neutral and, in particular, its Force Publique, which had been sent to Kenya, should avoid participating in the battle in Abyssinia against Italy, with which Belgium had never been at war. Finally, it was recommended that Belgian diplomats in the various capitals should re-establish “courteous,” although not necessarily “cordial” relations with their German colleagues.
An abyss had opened between “Brussels” and “London,” between those who claimed that for Belgium the war was over and those who called for its continuation until victory on the side of the Allies. Nothing now could bridge the gap between the two sides. The slogan launched from London, “Rally around our imprisoned King; keep faith in him as we are doing here,” was meant to hide the break between the King and the government and to postpone the ultimate settlement of accounts until after liberation. In order to maintain a fa_ade of national unity, raison d'Etat prevailed. Leopold’s silence further contributed to the credibility of a fiction which fulfilled its purpose during the war.
The personal affection of some of the Belgian ministers in London for King Leopold found expression in the occasional letters they wrote him during the war. Typically, Spaak, in one of his sentimental moods, wrote in November 1941 to Leopold that “every day, while regretting the absence of the King which renders our task so much heavier and difficult, we admire your Majesty’s attitude in our occupied country and we know what a comfort it represents for our compatriots.” He added: “Our feelings for the person of your Majesty are today those of before May 10 [the beginning of the invasion]: respectful and loyal devotion.”
This was written at a time, he later recorded in his memoirs, when the government was “far from sure” that its propaganda represented the true state of affairs. No answer came from the King. When Pierlot later stated that throughout their stay in London “the government did not receive directly or indirectly a single word of approval, of encouragement or of adherence,” he was simply stating a fact.
However, in November 1943, when liberation was in sight, the government in London thought it right to raise with the King the question of the position he should take once he was free to resume his constitutional rights and duties. In his first communication to the King on behalf of the government since the dark days in Vichy in the summer of 1940, Pierlot “respectfully suggested” that, once free, Leopold should issue a Proclamation to the nation covering four essential points: that Belgium had not ceased to be at war with Germany after its military capitulation in Flanders and would continue the war against Germany and Japan until total victory; that Belgium would undertake to participate, together with the Allies, in the political and economic reconstruction of the world; that just sanctions would be taken against Belgians of bad repute who had collaborated with the enemy; that order would be re-established based on respect of the Constitution and public liberties.
The letter further advised the King to condemn in the proposed Proclamation as “abhorrent to our people” all collaborationist enterprises and ideas of dictatorship mooted by “unscrupulous elements” while the King kept his self-imposed silence.
This important communication was entrusted to Pierlot’s brother-in-law, Fran_ois de Kinder, who was parachuted into France. He reached Brussels, completed his mission and sent the King’s reply by radio before falling into the hands of the Gestapo. He was executed soon afterwards.
In a note written by King Leopold on January 16, 1944, nine months before Brussels was liberated, which mentioned neither Premier Pierlot’s communication, nor the name of any addressee, the King declared that he had never ceased to consider it his duty to maintain national independence and, like his predecessors, had complied with the Constitution. He conceived of its eventual revision only through the freely expressed wish of the Belgian people. In an obvious reference to the accusations levelled against him in 1940, he declared that rumours indicating the contrary were a “crime against the dynasty.” He concluded that ever since the capitulation of the army he had maintained his position as a prisoner of war in the hands of the enemy, in keeping with “the dignity of the Crown and the interests of the nation.” He did not intend to relinquish this stand either directly or indirectly.
The exiled government’s last attempt at establishing a dialogue with the King had thus failed. Months later, the contents of another document dated January 25, 1944, became known. It consisted of instructions left behind in Brussels in case the King should be deported to Germany. The text became widely known in Belgium as King Leopold’s “testament.” In this second message Leopold attacked Pierlot and Spaak, without naming them, on account of their “speeches from the rostrum of the world,” in which he said they had uttered hasty charges of the utmost gravity against the army and its commander-in-chief. “The prestige of the Crown and the honour of the country,” the message stated, “demand that the authors of these speeches should be debarred from holding any position of authority in liberated Belgium as long as they have not repudiated their mistakes and made amends solemnly and fully.” For “the nation will not understand nor accept to associate with men who have insulted it before a stupefied world.”
This was King Leopold’s true answer to the government’s approach. It was later claimed in Belgium that when Churchill read this document he remarked: “Leopold is like the Bourbons. He has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”
This was the start of a chain of events which was to culminate two years later in the demonstrations of an angry crowd, headed by Spaak, which stoned Laeken Palace and demanded the King's abdication.
Food, Gold, Uranium [top] Finally established on British soil after six months in the wilderness, the Belgian government under Hubert Pierlot became a full member of the Allied community assembled in London. The directives sent out by Spaak on November 22, 1940 to Belgian diplomatic missions the world over represented a broad outline of the policies the government was to follow during the following four years of exile in Britain. In twelve concise points they laid down that the Belgian army’s capitulation had been inevitable; the King had chosen to share the fate of his soldiers and his people and, being a war prisoner, he could not govern, nor could he perform any political act; the ministers in council exercised legislative and executive power according to the constitution of the Kingdom; after withdrawing to a free country, first France and then Britain, the government had continued “the mission entrusted to it, namely the prosecution of the war.”
The document went on to say that there was no contradiction or opposition between the attitude of the government and that of the King, and that the oath of allegiance to him now meant allegiance to the government. Finally, it stated that, while not formally an ally of Great Britain – and in this respect the government tended to accept to some extent the point of view of the King that France and Britain were merely guarantors of Belgian independence – Belgium showed its solidarity and considered itself “intimately associated” with Britain's struggle. “Only a British victory” could assure “true and complete independence” for Belgium.
The Belgian ministers arriving in London had to adapt to a new way of thinking and to the British character and temperament. When, soon after his arrival, Pierlot was invited to join a discussion group at Chatham House where views on post-war policies towards Germany were exchanged, he talked of the need to demilitarize the Rhineland and to prevent the future German State from employing German pilots in their civil aviation. To those present his ideas seemed archaic and naive. It should be recalled, however, that Roosevelt himself had stated during a meeting with Sumner Wells and Harry Hopkins, held in preparation for Eden’s visit to Washington in March 1943, that “under no circumstances should Germany, Italy and Japan be permitted to own or operate any commercial airlines.”
In his memoirs Spaak describes his own evolution in a rather picturesque way: “When they told me in England that only bullfighters wore a broad-brimmed hat like mine, I abandoned it. This simplification of dress corresponded to a more simple style of conduct, of thinking, even of talking.”
The Belgian government soon forgot the tragic days when, in the words of Camille Gutt, “the Belgian government was prisoner of the Vichy government which, in turn, was the prisoner of the Germans,” and the ministers resumed their normal functions in their new surroundings. The question of the repatriation of the Belgians stranded in France during the French collapse, which had preoccupied them in recent months, was suddenly left to others in France to solve. On the other hand, the worrying food situation of the civilian population in occupied Belgium remained a top priority problem throughout the war. They remembered the precedent established during the First World War, when the activities of the “Relief Commission,” while saving the Belgian population from starvation, had in fact benefited the German army.
The British and American governments later closed their eyes when the Belgian government purchased supplies of fish and fruit in Portugal and sent them to Belgium through neutral channels. London and Washington tacitly bowed to the Belgian government’s argument that if they did not buy these commodities in Portugal the Germans would seize them.
The Belgian government had shown considerable foresight with regard to the safety of the nation's gold reserves. These had been divided into three parts and sent out of the country well in advance of the German invasion. One part was deposited with the Bank of France, another with the Federal Reserve Bank in the United States, and a third with the Bank of England. It was this division of risks that ensured the return of the gold to Belgium after the liberation.
The fate of the Belgian gold in French hands caused considerable concern when France laid down its arms. The Pierlot government, which was in unoccupied France, then in a state of virtual disintegration, could not tackle the problem, and its solution was left to others. On June 24, 1940, the British Cabinet approved instructions to the commanding officer of HMS Dunedin to seize gold reportedly carried in the French cruiser Emile Bertin. Earlier a United States cruiser had transported a load of gold from Bordeaux to Dakar at the request of the French. But it was not known whether this gold belonged to Belgium or to another government. It was only at the end of August that the Belgian government learnt, through the Polish diplomatic representatives still in Vichy, that under German pressure the Pétain government had blocked the gold and securities of all the occupied countries.
Not long afterwards the British and Belgian governments received reliable information that the 200 tons of Belgian gold entrusted to France had indeed been transferred to Germany's control. The Belgian government lost no time in taking action, and on February 5, 1941, its special Ambassador in the United States, Georges Theunis, with the legal assistance of attorney John Foster Dulles, obtained from a Federal Court in New York a Writ of Attachment of 260 million dollars on French gold and assets held for the Bank of France in the Federal Reserve Bank. This sum represented the estimated pre-invasion value of the Belgian gold deposited in France.
While the fate of the Belgian gold in French custody was being decided in three continents, the Belgian gold deposited in the Bank of England became the subject of intense negotiations between the Belgian and British governments. Gutt, the Belgian Minister of Finance, had been contacted on the subject by the British Treasury as early as August 13, 1940, before Pierlot and Spaak reached Britain. The issue became more precise when, on October 11, Sir Kingsley Wood outlined to Gutt the general war finance problem. Gutt was told that, although the United States was not yet at war, “Roosevelt is with us.” The President had drafted the Lend-Lease Bill which, when passed, would provide Britain and the Allies with all the supplies needed to intensify their war effort. The Act, however, was meeting with difficulties and would not be passed before another two months. “On the other hand we are at the end of our resources,” Sir Kingsley continued, “and if we do not find other coverage we will be compelled to cease all further orders in the United States – a situation which would be catastrophic. You have got gold, could you lend it to us?” The Belgian gold in the United Kingdom was estimated at 87 million pounds sterling and that in the United States at 42 million pounds.
From the beginning there was no doubt that the Belgian government would give an affirmative reply, but the ensuing negotiations soon extended from technicalities to questions of post-war guarantees in the economic, trade and political fields. Sir Kingsley Wood’s proposal that they sell Britain the gold against sterling was not accepted by the Belgians. They preferred to lend the gold to the Bank of England, not to the British Treasury, in order to avoid future controversies on war debts and rates of exchange. In a letter sent to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on October 16, Gutt raised another issue when he expressed Belgium’s wish “to obtain in Great Britain, for Belgian and Belgian Congo products, the same treatment as that afforded to those of her Dominions and Colonies.” In other words, “we want the economic community created during the war to be maintained after the war.”
To raise post-war issues in the autumn of 1940, when victory was not yet in sight, amounted to putting the cart before the horse. But the Belgian minister claimed that on returning to his homeland he “might be stoned” if it appeared that he had not adequately protected the vital interests of his country. The demand put forward for the extension to Belgium of the Imperial Preference system was not ripe for a decision in the middle of the war. Opposition on the part of both the Dominions and the United States was considered certain. Britain's noncommittal attitude was made clear in a letter written by Lord Halifax to the Belgian Ambassador on November 22, 1940. Diplomacy had to intervene to defuse the issues involved. Spaak, who had meanwhile reached Britain, laid emphasis on the fact that Belgium would no longer adhere to neutrality after the war and that it aimed at the “closest possible political association” with Britain. In a note to Eden on January 17, 1941, Spaak repeated Belgium’s readiness to lend its gold to Britain, provided the British government was prepared to pursue its collaboration with Belgium after the war and work for the creation of a common economic framework for cooperation. Belgium therefore demanded equal treatment for Belgian and Congolese goods in the United Kingdom and expected help from Great Britain in obtaining similar equality from the Dominions. The Belgian Government also expected to participate in future peace negotiations, to be assisted in its post-war reconstruction and to obtain a guarantee of the territorial integrity of the mother country and its overseas possessions.
After high-level consultations, Foreign Office and Treasury officials agreed that a modification of the Ottawa Imperial Preference agreements was out of the question for the time being. A senior adviser to the Treasury, Sir Richard Hopkins, believed, however, that the Belgian offer to join the Empire’s trade framework would mean good business both for Belgium and the Empire. This was before the paramount importance of Congo uranium for atomic energy production was fully realized. At one stage the consultations were joined by Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India and a strong supporter of the Empire protection system, who felt “that the best hope for European recovery after the war lay in some form of continental preferential system which would include Belgium.”
The Belgian government’s request to join the British Imperial Preference system was turned down in a communication from Eden, dated February 17, 1941, which had been approved by the Cabinet. It stated that His Majesty’s Government “find it difficult to add substantially to the assurances which have already been given to the Belgian Government.” However, on the other points mentioned by the Belgian Government, Eden’s reply was as positive as possible, given the circumstances. It stated that the British Government “will naturally desire the participation of Belgium in the Peace negotiations; they intend to do their utmost to maintain the integrity of Belgium and of her colonial possessions; and, as far as may be possible in the circumstances which prevail at the conclusion of hostilities, they wish to give the Belgian people, in common with the other Allies, financial and economic assistance in the reconstruction of their country.” These promises, it should be noted, were made to Belgium eight months before the signing of the Atlantic Charter.
The way was thus open for the conclusion, on March 4, 1941, of an agreement whereby Belgium lent part of its gold – 60,000,000 pounds sterling – to Britain to be repaid in monthly instalments six months after the end of hostilities with Germany. This debt was in fact repaid before the end of the war.
An agreement reached in 1943 between the Belgian Government and the British and United States governments, which put the entire uranium production of the Congo at the disposal of the Anglo-American war effort, was to be an essential prelude to the production of the first atomic bomb which, two years later, shattered Hiroshima. In his memoirs Camille Gutt describes the first contacts on the subject. He was invited to call on the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir John Anderson (later Lord Waverley) and was surprised to find that John Winant, the United States Ambassador, was also present. He was further mystified when Anderson told him: “I have a personal message for you from the Prime Minister, and the Ambassador has one from President Roosevelt.”
After a short silence Sir John asked Gutt: “Do you know what uranium is and the use that can be made of it?” The mystified Belgian minister, who had some idea of the growing importance of uranium in the context of the war effort, answered somewhat naively: “Well, I know of Joliot-Curie’s experiments before the war on the disintegration of the atom, and it was said that if they had succeeded the Queen Mary could sail a whole year consuming all in all one pound of uranium.” Anderson, apparently without the hint of a smile, told Gutt “somewhat pompously”: “The question is not the crossings of the Queen Mary. If our experiments succeed, and they have not yet succeeded, they will result in the release of incalculable power that man will be able to harness for good or for evil. We need it for winning the war, and with this aim in mind we need your uranium. The Prime Minister and the President ask that you ensure our possession of all the uranium produced in the Congo.”
Realizing the importance of the matter, Gutt at once telephoned Pierlot, asking him to convene an immediate meeting of the government. Reporting to his colleagues two hours later, he began in the humorous style of a Belgian folk tale: “Mes enfants, asseyez vous, _a commence comme un roman de Jean de la Hire.” (“Children, be seated, it begins like a story by Jean de la Hire.”) The ministers soon overcame their excitement and approved an affirmative, though conditional, reply to the Anglo-American request.
The Belgian conditions for the delivery of the Congo’s uranium were as follows: Belgium must be kept informed of developments resulting from Anglo-American research, except where strictly military secrets were concerned; London and Washington must negotiate an agreement with the Union Minière which owned the uranium mines of the Congo. Two days later the Director General of the company, Edgar Sengier, arrived in London from New York, and after a further eight days of intensive negotiations a complete agreement was concluded and soon put into effect.
Benelux [top] Out of the ruins of so many well-intentioned plans of union and cooperation conceived by governments exiled in London there grew at least one successful organisation – the economic and customs union of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, known as Benelux. It has indeed survived and flourished for many years. But three years were to pass before the initial agreement reached by the three governments in 1941 could be implemented. There was an important argument in favour of such an enterprise. In normal times logical and rational projects and policies of this kind are usually hampered by petty, local considerations and by competition. In wartime conditions, however, such obstacles do not exist.
Before victory was in sight, the British authorities generally treated plans for the post-war era as premature, and the Benelux plan met with the same reservations as other similar initiatives. The governments of the smaller Allied countries exiled in London opposed this attitude and clamoured for British leadership. Writing in 1941 to the Conservative MP Irene Ward, Spaak came out strongly against the formula of “united in war but isolated in peace.” He consistently maintained that “after the war Europe will be glad to unite behind Britain’s victorious leadership, provided that 1) Britain remains strong; and 2) that Britain concerns itself with Europe. It will not be sufficient for Britain to establish, and try to maintain, a balance of power to offset a hegemony in Europe. She must herself assume the responsibilities born of her supremacy.”
Sir Alexander Cadogan, who served as adviser to both Lord Halifax and his successor Anthony Eden, adopted an opposite view. “To ask us to define, here and now, the conditions in which we shall give them [the non-German populations] back their freedom is unreasonable,” he wrote in his diaries in the early stages of the war. “Much will depend on the state of Europe after the war and they themselves could not now say what guarantees they would require for their defence and their development.”
Early in 1942 Spaak tried to elicit the views of the British Government on a possible coordination of policies with the Dutch. In conversations with Aveling, the British chargé d'affaires, he again expressed the view that Belgium’s policy of independence (politique d'indépendance) in the pre-war period had been “tried and found wanting” and that “it would certainly not be revived after the war.” Without apparently abandoning the idea of a close association between Belgium and the British Empire, Spaak wondered whether, “as a first step in the right direction,” it would not be desirable for Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg to attempt to reach an agreement, “subject to ratification after the war, which would lead to similar, if not indeed common, foreign, military and economic policies being adopted.”
Spaak did not share the view expressed by his colleague Henri Rolin, a former chairman of the Belgian Senate Foreign Affairs Commission, who told Aveling that “extreme Walloon elements in Belgium would be strongly opposed to any form of union with the Netherlands which they would regard as favouring the Flemish at the expense of the French-speaking population.” Spaak thought that “even if the Walloons would resent any growth of Flemish influence, such feeling would be more than counterbalanced by the admiration felt in Belgium for the strong resistance to the Germans which the Dutch are displaying, ™ and also by the fact that the Walloons themselves share the contempt of the Flemings for the attitude of the French.”
No doubt British rejection of the Belgian government’s request to join the British Imperial Preference system provided the Belgians with an impetus to establish closer economic cooperation with the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Spaak, like some of his fellow countrymen, felt that the main obstacle to closer understanding with the Dutch would be their “traditional isolationism” rather than opposition from the Walloons. The attitude of the Dutch was also the subject of a conversation between the Secretary-General of the Belgian Foreign Ministry, Fernand Vanlangenhove, and the British Ambassador to Belgium, Sir Lancelot Oliphant. Vanlangenhove said that the Dutch were “very meticulous and unimaginative and insisted on dealing only with concrete facts.” He added that the Dutch ministers were proving very “difficult.”
On the British side, Sir Neville Bland, the Ambassador to the Netherlands, followed the Cadogan line, expressing “the feeling that we should wait to lay eggs for post-war hatching until the incubator is less distant than it appears to be at the moment.” He considered talk of a “Union” between the Kingdoms of Belgium and Holland “inconceivable” in view of the loyalty of the Dutch to their reigning house, and that applied also to the Belgians. He added, however, that if the “insular Dutch” would treat the Belgians in such a way as to reduce their “inferiority complex,” an agreement of a kind would “not be beyond the bounds of possibility,” although this could not be guaranteed in advance. In this connection he mentioned the competition between the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, the Belgian “distrust” of the Dutch and the Dutch inclination to consider Belgium “an artificially-created, discordant collection of peoples.” Sir Neville concluded expressing the view that “there is far more to be gained by an agreement between Holland and ourselves in which, perhaps, Belgium could participate – she would regard it as an affront if she were excluded – than by a separate agreement between Holland and Belgium.” He also came out against applying undue pressure to the Dutch.
Faced by these views of his main advisers, Eden, in a message to Oliphant, stated that “having regard to the general blessing which His Majesty’s government is giving to plans for closer unions between groups of the smaller countries in Europe, I do not wish to discourage the Belgian inclination to seek closer association with the Dutch. To talk in terms of a confederation or of a federal union is, however, not very profitable in dealing with the problem of the Low Countries. Nor is a Netherlands-Belgian association easily conceivable without the participation of His Majesty’s Government.” Eden went on to state that Britain’s “ultimate object” should be “general agreement for mutual defence with Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. This will also involve close coordination of foreign and economic policy. But the time has not yet come to take up these ideas with the governments concerned, and any discussions or negotiations will have at least to await the closer definition of Anglo-United States economic policy and more favourable developments in the war.” Eden considered it “improbable” that a far-reaching agreement would be concluded, but stressed nonetheless that “any firm agreement between Belgium and the Netherlands at this stage would be likely to prejudice” later negotiations. He therefore did not wish to intervene in the negotiations between the two countries but suggested informing Spaak that the British government would be disposed “to look with favour” upon an agreement between the three countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) with the aim of coordinating their foreign, military and economic policies. Britain, he stressed, must avoid giving the impression that “we are anxious to promote the proposal as it stands,” bearing in mind the “considerable difficulties in the way of realising the project.”
The striking absence in these British exchanges of any reference to the role liberated France would play in post-war Europe is of special significance. Curiously, on March 6, 1942, the very day Eden issued his instructions regarding the closer cooperation of the Low Countries, Maurice Dejean, De Gaulle’s Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, approached Spaak on the same subject with an offer of close cooperation between France and the three future Benelux countries. Significantly, the Free French diplomat in turn did not mention Britain, although in the ensuing discussion he stressed that it was not his intention “to exclude the collaboration of other countries such as the USSR or the Anglo-Saxons.” Dejean suggested that France, Belgium and the Netherlands, which possessed overseas empires and raw materials, together with Luxembourg, should in common “orient” their security and foreign policies on the “basis of a solid economic entente.” He stated that such a policy had failed in the past because plans had been too modest and confined to metropolitan territories. But today such cooperation might lead, “in permanent and close contact with the great Powers,” to a kind of political confederation.
Referring to the German problem, Dejean said that while there was the need to enable the German people to subsist and to contribute efficient labour to Europe’s prosperity, it was indispensable to prevent the re-emergence of German military power. This could be achieved, he concluded, by a policy of “de-cartelising” German industry, namely by removing it from the closed system of the present cartels and rendering it attractive to industrial groupings in neighbouring countries. This would also help resolve the future problem of German reparations and avoid the repetition of “past errors.” Spaak, Dejean noted, listened with great interest and suggested further contacts in order to study the problems which the project raised.
Meanwhile, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg went ahead with the Benelux plan without either Britain’s or France’s blessing. It was more than two years later, in July 1944, when Anglo-American troops were already well established in the heart of Normandy, that Eden departed from his reserve and explained to Spaak that he had thought at the time it would be “better to allow talks on the general organisation of the world to get under way before beginning a discussion about the organisation of Western Europe.” Eden added that in the meantime he had discussed the subject with Roosevelt and with Stalin who had assured him that the Soviet government “would back any British attempt along these lines.”
Light at Last [top] During its last months in exile the Belgian government still had to solve the delicate problems of what was then called the “civil affairs” situation in the liberated areas. This became a rather hot issue when General Eisenhower declined to hand over civil authority in Normandy to General de Gaulle’s emissaries. In contacts with the Supreme Commander’s Headquarters, it was agreed that the Allied commander would be responsible in operational areas, while the Belgian authorities would take over as liberation proceeded and progressed.
The Belgian government was soon in a position to put into effect various measures prepared in London in order to cope with urgent post-liberation problems. War crimes and offences such as collaboration with the enemy were rapidly dealt with, and some 25,000 persons appeared in court on that count. Bank notes in Belgian currency in circulation under occupation were blocked and gradually replaced by a new currency.
During its years in exile the Belgian Government had fulfilled its duty to the nation. Yet its return to Brussels was not triumphant but, rather, an anti-climax. In his memoirs Spaak describes it as follows: “We returned to Brussels a few days after its liberation. The reception was hardly equal to our dreams during our years abroad. We disembarked on a deserted aerodrome from planes, which had been put at our disposal by the British Government. Nobody had been warned of our arrival. The cars, which took us into town, were preceded by a jeep. One of our colleagues stood in it, shouting to the few citizens we passed: ‘Here is your Government’. I must confess that this produced no reaction at all, neither hostility nor enthusiasm, just total indifference.”
Yapou: Governments in Exile, 1939-1945
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