THE discussion of the Belgian constitutional crisis has somewhat subsided for the moment, at least outside Belgium; but the problem remains serious. In a letter to the Regent on July 18 last, King Leopold III made known that, for the time being, he wished neither to abdicate nor to reign; he had decided to wait, he said, until such time as public opinion had clearly manifested itself on the question of his return or abdication. For its part, the Belgian Government, with the approval of the Regent and no doubt of the King himself, obtained from Parliament a law providing that the Regency would be terminated only if and when Parliament had duly certified that Leopold's inability to exercise his functions had ceased. Official quarters were of the opinion that this vote, in effect, brought the debate to a close; but that was perhaps wishful thinking. For Leopold's supporters, and apparently he himself, nourish the fond hope that after the elections next spring Parliament will have a majority favorable to his restoration. With this end in view, certain circles, especially in the rural districts, continue to agitate and stage demonstrations. The indications are that a revival of the controversy is unavoidable as the election draws near.

This state of affairs in Belgium would suffice in itself to justify an attempt to give American observers an objective statement of the whole question. But it is of interest on wider and more lasting grounds also. The crisis of the Belgian monarchy has brought to light certain new facts about the monarchial institution as it functions at present in various European states.


In contrast with many others, the Belgian monarchy is not the successor or heir to an ancient monarchy of absolute character, but was created by an act of the Congress summoned by the revolutionary government in November 1830 to draw up a Constitution. In Belgium, the Constitution does not represent a concession made by the King: it antedates him and is superior to him. It was presented in completed form to the first king, who had to accept it and swear to uphold it before he could ascend the throne.

The King's official title reflects the fact that the popular will is the source of the royal power as well as of the entire juridical order. For his title is not King of Belgium, that is, king of the land, and, by the same token, of its inhabitants, but King of the Belgians, that is, a king freely chosen by the people of Belgium, just as, a few months before Leopold I's accession, Louis-Philippe had been called King of the French and not King of France. This condition is formally recognized by Article 25 of the Constitution, which states that "all powers emanate from the nation." In fact, the Congress decided to adopt a constitutional monarchy only after a discussion lasting several days and for reasons of international expediency. Besides, the principles on which it was based were so liberal that, in the opinion of one member, they made the monarchy about the equivalent of a republic.

The powers granted to the King in Belgium are in many respects much less extensive than those of the President of the United States. To be sure, no law is binding without his sanction; he is the chief executive, he appoints and dismisses his ministers, appoints the judges, is inviolable. But his right of veto, the result of his privilege not to sanction a law, was not exercised for many years and is now considered null and void. The King's inviolability is qualified by the rule that no act of his can take effect unless it is countersigned by a minister, who thereby assumes responsibility for it; in practice, then, it is not the King who acts with the counsel of his ministers, but rather the ministers who act with the counsel of the King.

The Belgians owe this increasingly stringent limitation on the King's powers not merely to the general evolution of liberalism in nineteenth-century Europe, but also to the firm manner in which the Belgian Parliament and most Belgian governments defended democratic principles in their relations with Leopold I and Leopold II. Thoughtful observers must concede, however, that during the last thirty years democratic vigilance weakened and the public spirit deteriorated, and that this was largely responsible for the difficulties encountered in 1940 and the following years.

The development was quite unsuspected, and occurred for a rather paradoxical reason. The services rendered the country by the first two kings are unanimously recognized today; yet during their entire reigns they had to contend with the distrust or hostility of at least a part of the population. King Albert, on the contrary, never laid himself open to criticism, so scrupulous was his respect for constitutional principles. His conduct during the First World War won him not only world esteem but the profound affection and unreserved confidence of the entire Belgian population. After his premature death, this feeling naturally turned toward the heir to the throne. The latter's Swedish wife, Princess Astrid, quickly won real personal popularity by her simplicity and her grace. The national mourning caused by her tragic death drew still closer the bonds that united the people to their unhappy sovereign. Public opinion gradually put aside the remnants of former mistrust and became more and more inclined to receive with favor, and even with fervor, any counsels or admonitions that came from the crown. This attitude had an unfortunate effect upon King Leopold III.

Whereas King Albert always had succeeded in holding himself within the limits of his prerogatives, his successor did not. It would be unjust, however, to hold him solely responsible for this. While it is true that he became associated with a certain dangerous isolationist tendency, history will say that it was not on his own initiative, but on that of his ministers, that the speech which he delivered to them on October 14, 1936, outlining the new trends in Belgium's foreign policy, was made public. One wonders what reasons caused the government to place the person of the King at the very center of the controversy which was immediately stirred up both at home and abroad. Was it the desire to see him reap the glory for making a suggestion deemed apt and commendable? Or was it, perhaps, the hope of paralyzing opposition by giving the new foreign policy the benefit of his prestige? Or was it merely an unconsidered impulse to flatter the monarch?

Be that as it may, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs missed no opportunity during ensuing years to extol the statesmanlike qualities which had inspired Leopold III to change the orientation of Belgium's foreign policy. This developed in the young sovereign the tendency to obstinacy and the liking for personal power which he manifested in May 1940 and the years that followed.

Thus we are led to a first observation: the institution of hereditary monarchy is sometimes threatened by the very virtues of kings. When one of them discharges his duties so well as to win the gratitude and affection of the people, there develops gradually among various strata of the population an attitude of blind attachment, of personal allegiance, which rejects reminders that his acts are subject to review and tends to substitute for the democratic basis of royal power the notion of a divine right of kings.

During the years 1918-1940, neither the administration nor the members of the teaching profession in Belgium were alive to the necessity of checking this deterioration of the public spirit. Hence the confused and contradictory reactions of the Belgian people later on when they were told what had actually happened in the spring of 1940 and when they heard for the first time the general trend of the King's thinking during the war.


The principal developments of the royal crisis fall naturally into three periods: First, the 18-day campaign, from May 10 to May 28, 1940; the King became separated from his ministers in this period, and remained a prisoner in Brussels. Second, the ensuing period, lasting until May 1945; during this time the King was unable to exercise his royal functions owing to the fact that he was de facto or de jure a prisoner of Germany. Third, the period following the King's liberation by the American Army.

From the day the war began, the King assumed actual command of the Army and maintained unbroken contact with the General Staff. In this he was conforming to Belgian tradition. Various Belgian sovereigns not only showed a particular interest in military problems and wore a lieutenant-general's uniform, but also exercised direct military command in wartime.

At most, one may deplore the fact that Leopold III did not think it proper to appear before Parliament on the day of the German aggression, as his father had done on August 4, 1914, in order to encourage the people's will to resist and to stimulate the morale of their elected representatives. The explanation is given that the rapidity of the German advance did not allow him to spare even an hour from his military responsibilities in a moment of vital decisions. If one accepts the premise that the King actually exercises supreme military command this explanation must be considered plausible.

We shall not discuss here the direction of the military operations. It seems clear, however, that the successive withdrawals ordered by the King were either requested by the Allied command or caused by the necessity of keeping the Belgian armies in alignment with Allied forces, themselves in full retreat. Nor is there any doubt that the piling up of 500,000 Belgian troops of all sorts, without any real offensive strength, in a territory crowded with refugees, rapidly produced an impossible situation.

Under these conditions, the King's capitulation was generally accepted by the Army as inevitable, and those living in the country resigned themselves to it. In many regions, people even manifested gratitude to the King for having taken responsibility for stopping useless bloodshed; and they reacted sharply to the criticisms voiced abroad. Even the King's refusal to leave Belgian soil and join his ministers in France, in order, so he said, that he might share the fate of his soldiers, was approved by the masses, in the superstitious hope that his presence would lighten the privations and sufferings of enemy occupation.

On the other hand, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs on June 3 at Limoges gave the 140-odd members of Parliament who had followed them into exile a disturbing account of the conversations which they had had with the sovereign during the course of the 18-day campaign and, in particular, of the dramatic interview of May 25 at Wynendaele. They mentioned the difficulty they had had in obtaining information about the military situation, and described the King's pessimism from the very first days of the campaign and his resignation at the prospect of a German victory. The four ministers who at first had remained on Belgian soil, but had been compelled to leave by the rapidity of the enemy advance, had pressed the King on May 25 to accompany them to France, or to join them there, so that he might continue exercising his constitutional duties; they had pointed out that this would become legally impossible if he were under the enemy yoke. The King had refused. He had said he intended to return to Brussels and call upon other personalities to form a new government.

The members of Parliament present at Limoges were unanimous in approving the actions of the government, in deploring the King's attitude, and in confirming the fact of his "inability to reign," as already stated in a decree-law dated May 28, 1940, and signed by all the ministers present (only one, M. Delfosse, had been held in Belgium). This feeling was widely shared by the two million Belgian refugees in France. In Belgium, on the other hand, public opinion, stunned by the defeat, was drawing closer to the throne. So it was that both Belgian public opinion and the Belgian authorities came to be gravely divided.

The Ministers made prompt efforts to reconcile their views with their sovereign's. They were encouraged in this by the news that the King, to the disappointment of the Germans and of his counsellor, Henry de Man, had yielded to the advice of various judges and statesmen and had given up the idea of forming a government in occupied Belgium and of attempting to reign. In addition, the French capitulation and the resulting northward flow of great masses of returning refugees had left the government isolated and, for a brief time, uncertain of what course to adopt. On July 21, 1940, then, Prime Minister Pierlot issued a proclamation paying tribute to the King and calling upon the Belgians to gather around him.

The Pierlot Government maintained this official attitude during the four years of its stay in Great Britain. The fact that the Ministers never ceased to pay tribute to the "captive King" and to represent his liberation as one of the benefits to be derived from victory caused a certain amount of astonishment. Though the official propaganda made every effort to justify the capitulation of May 28, it was completely silent about the disagreement of May 25, 1940. Those who escaped from Belgium and expressed surprise at this change of tone were told briefly that to defend the King was to defend the country.

To what extent did Leopold III share this desire for a reconciliation? The country never found out. It was only in July last that the Minister of Foreign Affairs, M. Spaak, revealed to the Chamber that the overtures made in 1942 had remained unanswered and that similar overtures made in 1943 had brought M. Pierlot an answer full of bitter reproaches.

Surprisingly enough, while the government, for reasons of state, was making efforts to reëstablish the King's prestige, public opinion in the country was moving in the opposite direction. This popular discontent was in large part caused by the announcement, toward the end of December 1942, of the royal marriage which had been celebrated three months earlier. Few abroad have realized what keen displeasure this event aroused among the vast majority of the Belgian population. No doubt the personality of the King's young wife and the circumstances under which the marriage took place had something to do with it. In certain circles it was considered regrettable that the young woman did not come from a reigning family, in fact, was not even of aristocratic birth. A greater number were indignant that the King should have married a daughter of a provincial governor whom he had removed from office in May 1940 for deserting his post. Others laid stress on Cardinal Van Rosy's irregular action, in violation of Belgian law, in consenting to celebrate the religious wedding before a civil wedding had been performed. But what really shocked people the most was the mere fact of the wedding: they had believed the legend of a captive king, shut up in his castle, voluntarily enduring the same fate as his soldiers.

Then popular discontent began to abate. One cannot say that it was replaced by a mood of approbation; but since the King took no part in public life, people ceased to speak of him and he was, as it were, forgotten. Conservative circles had in any case recovered quickly from the shock of his marriage. They considered the idea of order and national unity inseparable from the idea of the monarchy, and so minimized their disappointment.

This trend of public opinion was assisted by the Germans' action in removing the King and his family to Germany at the time of the Allied landing in Normandy. Such treatment of their sovereign indeed stirred a great number of Belgians deeply. There seems little doubt, therefore, that if the King had appeared in Brussels in May 1945, after his liberation by the United States Army, he would have aroused such enthusiastic demonstrations that the opposition would have been momentarily silenced.

The government was in favor of the King's return. Although they belong to the Socialist Party, which is working for the establishment of a republic, both the Prime Minister, M. Van Acker, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs declared in Parliament that they personally considered a monarchy preferable for a country like Belgium. It was in this frame of mind that M. Van Acker went to Salzburg to see the King on May 10, 1945.

M. Van Acker believed, however, that if the King's return were to take place in an atmosphere of national unity and reconciliation, he ought to make certain token gestures. These would permit the rumors regarding the King's feelings during the occupation to be forgotten. Specifically, he felt that: 1, the members of the royal circle whose weakness during the occupation had compromised the crown should be dismissed; 2, a gesture of reconciliation should be made toward Parliament, whose members had not hesitated to meet before the total liberation of Belgium and several of whom had paid for their patriotism with their lives; 3, the Pierlot policy of keeping the country in the war at the side of the Allies should be approved. Although he did not commit himself definitely, the King seemed to agree. Acts to implement his half-promise came slowly, however.

The King decided upon the dismissal of the royal household only after new disclosures had appeared in the press regarding marks of approval bestowed upon a collaborationist journalist by the King's secretary. Moreover, this order affected all the former secretaries alike, none being singled out for special disavowal. The message to Parliament, which was not sent until June 22, came at a time when the King's break with the Van Acker Government was practically complete. It contained a laudatory reference to the Allies, but nothing about the acts of the Pierlot Government.

In this period the King had called various Belgian personalities into consultation. The country, however, was growing restless. Messrs. Van Acker and Spaak renewed their request. Nothing happened. Eventually, first the Socialist and the Communist Parties, later the Liberal Party, which between them command a majority in Parliament, officially signified their opposition to the King's return. The Catholic Party,[i] on the other hand, affirmed its loyalty to the King and cited the Constitution as authority for rejecting any discussion of his conduct. The government meanwhile learned certain facts that seemed to it to make abdication inevitable. The aim of the Ministers on their last two visits to the King was to obtain this abdication by impressing upon him that it would be in the dynasty's interest to avoid certain revelations and to forestall a debate upon them.

Being unable to bring Leopold around to their views, the Ministers made known, at the end of June, that in case His Majesty returned to the country they would resign. In such conditions, they said, they could not be responsible for the maintenance of order. The King reacted by indicating his intention of changing the government. From that moment, indeed, the main purpose of his consultations was to find someone who would accept the task of forming a new ministry. In this he failed, since the majority of Parliament was sure to be hostile to anyone he designated and since no one dared face the discontent which would have been caused among the working class by the dissolution of Parliament.

Even this setback was not enough to convince the King of the necessity of abdicating. In a letter to his brother Charles, the Regent, dated July 18, he said that "according to his information, Parliament no longer reflected the opinion of the country and that, under these conditions, he would postpone any decision until it had been possible to hold a national consultation."

In order to consolidate the somewhat precarious situation created by this communication, the government secured the passage of the law "aiming at the execution of Article 82 of the Constitution," referred to earlier. The inevitable debate ensued. The King's opponents and his supporters were equally impatient, the first to learn the reasons for the government's conduct, the latter to refute them. The debate, which consumed five sessions, ended with the adoption, 94 to 62, of a resolution expressing approval of and confidence in the government.


Probably it is too soon to try to form an objective, definitive and complete judgment on the King's conduct after May 10, 1940. This is the decisive reason the dossier has not so far been published. But certain essential points are established. The attitude of moderate members of the Catholic Party is indicated by a statement by Deputy de Kerchove d'Exaerde, who recognized that "certain high dignitaries of the court should be called upon to resign, that mistakes had been made." He added: "But who does not make mistakes?" The real question was what were the mistakes and how serious were they? Public discussion of them would have been such a grievous blow to the King's prestige that it would make his abdication almost inevitable. To ward off this, the royalist leaders made great efforts to prevent the question from coming up in Parliament. Their objections were based either on the assertion that it would be unconstitutional, or on the plea that to pass judgment on the conduct of the King when he was not in a position to defend himself would be improper.

We shall examine in a moment the legal validity of these two objections. But, first, what were the charges? The Prime Minister, who was the principal accuser, emphasized two particularly:

(1) The King's visit to Berchtesgaden in November 1940 was made neither at Hitler's orders nor under German pressure, but of his own volition and on his own initiative. While there, he not only discussed the fate of the Belgian prisoners and the question of supplies for Belgium, but touched upon political matters as well in an attempt to obtain certain guarantees for himself and for the country in the event of a German victory.

(2) The deportation of the King to Germany in June 1944, after the Allied landing in Normandy, was prearranged. It had been requested by the King, who was anxious not to come in contact with the Allied armies of liberation and face the internal disorders which he anticipated would occur in Belgium at that time.

The first point seems well established and has been only feebly denied.[ii] The Prime Minister specified, without mentioning his source, that it was through the intervention of the King's sister, the Princess of Piedmont, that the meeting with Hitler was requested and prepared. He also read a statement by Viscount Davignon, former Belgian Ambassador to Berlin, who accompanied the King to Berchtesgaden. Viscount Davignon was not present at the conversation and was not informed by the King of what had been said, but he was permitted to glance at the brief notes taken by the German commander of the Palace guard, Colonel Kiewitz, who had witnessed the conversation. It appears from Viscount Davignon's memorandum that he did not question the accuracy of Colonel Kiewitz's information; and there seems no good reason today for rejecting it on the sole ground that the informant is a German.

On the second point, the demonstration was less convincing. It is true that M. Van Acker read a formal statement by M. Van Straelen, director of the Royal Museum of Natural History, an intimate of the royal household, regarding the King's alleged desire to avoid meeting the leaders of the Allied armies. The Right protested against this testimony, to which it opposed other testimony and documents showing the King's desire to remain in Belgium, his chagrin at being deported, and his indignation that his wife and children were to be deported also.

What conclusion does the evidence warrant? Certainly not that M. Van Straelen lied. No one dared suggest that he did, and the royalists themselves did no more than express indignation at what they called a betrayal of the royal confidence. It seems, rather, that the government was too hasty in its conclusions. In my opinion, M. Van Straelen's testimony established definitely that at certain moments the King entertained the idea of going to Germany and even allowed certain negotiations to be conducted toward that end. But it seems equally certain that, at other times, he rejected such a move as undesirable, judging his presence indispensable at the hour of his country's liberation, and even going so far, in April 1944, as to allow certain members of the underground to study ways and means of enabling him to escape to England under the noses of the Germans.[iii]

In my opinion, neither the King's restoration nor his abdication can be made to depend upon proof of his isolated acts or words during the occupation. The Minister of Foreign Affairs seems to me to have proven his case far more convincingly in the July 24 and 25 sessions of the Chamber when, reviewing the disagreement which arose on May 25, 1940, between the King and the government, he showed that the entire sequence of errors ascribed to the monarch were the natural consequence of his earlier mistaken conception of Belgium's international position.

According to the royal thesis expounded at the time, Belgium had obligated herself internationally only to defend her territory. She was justified, therefore, in taking back her freedom of action and in resuming her neutrality at the moment when, having exhausted all means of defense, she was forced to capitulate. The same idea is expressed in the memorandum which Count Capelle, secretary to the King, sent in August 1940 to Count d'Ursel, Belgian Minister at Berne, and in the memorandum forwarded in September 1940 to M. le Tellier, Belgian Ambassador to France. It is this conception of Belgium's international status which explains the Berchtesgaden negotiation in October 1940, the telegram of congratulations from the King to Hitler in 1941 on the occasion of the latter's birthday, and his telegram of condolence to the King of Italy on the death of the Duke of Aosta, Viceroy of Ethiopia. It explains also the King's marriage, his wedding trip in Germany and his sending the royal children to Italy; his surly refusal to give the slightest encouragement to Belgians fighting at the side of the Allies or to censure those collaborating with Germany; and his failure to protest to Hitler against innumerable violations of international law committed against the Belgian people. Finally, it is the same conception which accounts for the King's rebuff of the advances made by M. Pierlot and his colleagues in 1942 and 1943, and for his hesitation to be in Brussels when the Allies and the Resistance movement triumphed.

What does it matter now that in July 1940 most of the Belgian Ministers were hesitating themselves what course to follow, and even considered the necessity for a second capitulation? It is doubly to their credit that in due time they recovered their balance and brought the country back into the struggle. To find the true significance of the Belgian crisis, then, one must examine the divergent conceptions of Belgium's international position and international obligations which were held between 1940 and 1945. That is why the crisis is of truly historic importance and has a significance far transcending the national borders.


As pointed out before, the King's decision, instead of bringing the crisis nearer solution, has only delayed its final settlement. How long? According to the July message, until there has been an expression of public opinion. This makes one think that the present situation will not last indefinitely, but that it will be settled in one way or another immediately after the coming elections, that is, by Easter at the latest.

It assuredly is most desirable that this be the case, even from a purely dynastic point of view. For if Leopold III were to persist in his delaying tactics, the Regent would remain in power even after Prince Baudouin, heir to the throne, now in his fifteenth year, had come of age or had been freed from his father's control; whereas in the event of the King's abdication the Regency must necessarily come to an end.

Is it sure that the popular consultation demanded by the King will take the form of national elections? No doubt this is what Leopold had in mind, since he was appealing from the decision of a parliament whose mandate had lapsed to a parliament that would represent public opinion more faithfully. However, the leaders of the Catholic Party were quick to realize what a terrible danger this solution presented. For if the different political parties maintained their present attitude, the question of the King's return would be the main issue, and the Catholics alone would campaign for it. Should they win the elections, the King could not help appearing as the protégé or at least the candidate of a single party and, incidentally, of a single region, Flanders, from which the Catholic Party draws most of its adherents. Were this to happen, a great number of Belgians would henceforth consider that the King had forfeited his title of hereditary constitutional monarch.

If these objections were disregarded, then the entire institution of the monarchy would be placed in jeopardy. The Right understood this so well that it almost at once hit upon a different method for giving the King the information he wished. A bill introduced by the Catholic group proposed that the votes be counted without disclosing the political affiliations of the King's supporters and opponents.

The government indicated its opposition to this bill on two grounds. It pointed out, first, that the plan is only a device by which the Right hopes to find a way out of its present impasse -- a manœuvre which threatens to destroy the very régime it seeks to save. Secondly, it made the grave constitutional objection that a popular consultation for or against the person of the King is the same thing as a plebiscite, a procedure irreconcilable with the principle of an hereditary constitutional monarchy.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the trend is toward an abdication. But meanwhile the country will inevitably remain stirred up and divided, with certain lasting effects on Belgian internal politics.

The first result has been the breakdown of the governmental coalition and the withdrawal of the Catholic Party from the government for the first time in sixty years. How long will this last? That will depend, no doubt, on the elections. But the outcome of these may be influenced in part by the fact that the Catholic Party no longer appears as the surest dispenser of governmental favors.

For one thing, the purge will be carried out more sternly by a government which has rid itself of its members who were most inclined to be lenient with collaborators. It so happens that the unpatriotic Belgians who will be deprived of the right to vote are mostly affiliated with the Catholic Party. Finally, many fervent Catholics who are against Leopold seem likely to forsake their old allegiance and join a new party called the Belgian Democratic Union; this party, although started by a single Catholic deputy, now occupies three seats in the new government. Conversely, the votes of pro-Leopold liberals will go to the candidates of the Catholic Party.

Even more important than the effects of the crisis on the party alignment is the ideological conflict which it has revealed and stimulated. Some will charge that since both the Communists and the Socialists advocate a republican form of government, they accept the monarchy only provisionally, for reasons of expediency. The charge scarcely holds as regards the Socialists, many of whom believe that the hereditary constitutional monarchy is the best régime for Belgium. It certainly offers no explanation of the attitude of the Liberals, whose monarchist convictions are no less fervent than those of the Catholics. What determines the position of the Catholics, and differentiates them from the Liberals in this question, is their belief that the authority of the head of the state should not be weakened by a discussion of his conduct.

In this respect, the Belgian royal crisis recalls the famous Dreyfus case, which exerted such a profound influence on the course of the Third Republic. As in France of l'Affaire, so in Belgium today, the Catholic clergy, preordained defender of venerable institutions, is using its influence to stimulate the loyalist zeal of the Catholic youth organizations. The Army acts with it, though not from the motives that influenced the French Army at the time of the Dreyfus case; it defends the King because he is its military chief. As the Catholic influence is strongest in Flanders, the demonstrations of attachment to Leopold occur most frequently in this region. The creation of a profound disagreement between the country's two ethnic regions over a political matter of such capital importance is not the least disturbing aspect of the present crisis.


The Belgian crisis may suggest certain lessons relevant to the functioning not merely of the Belgian constitutional system and of hereditary constitutional monarchies in general.

(1) Belgium now bears witness, as have Great Britain and France on other occasions, that a democratic régime, even when it does not specifically provide for the right of Parliament to dismiss the Chief of State, nevertheless affords peaceful means of obliging him to abdicate when he is persistently in conflict with the majority of the country's representatives. The weapon at the disposal of the Belgian Parliament is Article 64 of the Constitution, already mentioned, which renders the acts of the King inoperative until they are countersigned by a minister, who thereby assumes responsibility for them. The King is powerless without his ministers and, since the ministers are powerless without the support of Parliament, the latter can practically paralyze the royal power.

One may reply that the converse is true, namely, that Parliament is powerless to act without the royal sanction; and it is a fact, of course, that each of the various organs of government can paralyze the machinery of the state. But the spirit of the Constitution requires that, in such an event, the representatives of the nation, "whence all power emanates," shall have the last word. In principle, the King can avoid abdication only by taking an appeal to the people, that is, dissolving the Chambers (Article 74 of the Constitution). This step involves holding an election within 40 days and convening the new Chambers within two months. But the present crisis makes clear that even this solution cannot be applied effectively when the conflict between the King and the government originates, not in a political problem, but in the necessity of evaluating acts committed by the King himself. For in that case the election is tantamount to an indictment of the King, a fact which, whether one likes it or not, strips the King of his essential constitutional privilege of inviolability and renders him unfit to keep his crown.

(2) We may also note that, during the crisis, it became necessary to apply the constitutional provisions relative to the Regency to cases other than those provided for by the authors of the Constitution. The fundamental Charter mentions only two contingencies which call for a Regency: the death of the King while the heir to the throne is still a minor, and his "inability to reign." A record of the constitutional debates proves that when the authors of the Constitution referred to the inability to reign, they had in mind the prolonged illness or madness of the King.

Events between 1940 and 1945 have revealed that inability to reign can arise from another material cause, to wit, the King's captivity in a foreign country; or, again, that the "inability" may be of a moral or a political nature. Indeed, the term "moral impossibility" was used officially in June 1940, though afterward omitted. But it is obviously this disqualification which, in the eyes of the present Belgian Government, stands today in the way of Leopold III's resumption of power.

(3) While the crisis has revealed certain hidden resources of the Belgian Constitution, it has also brought to light certain ambiguities and omissions. Notable among them is the absence of any provisions relating to the marriage of the King. Article 60 of the Constitution stipulates expressly that the King's consent is necessary for the marriage of a royal prince, that is, of a descendant by the male line of one of the Kings of Belgium.[iv] The King's consent, which is required for the marriage of a royal prince, is a public not a private act, since he exercises this same power with reference to cousins, brothers and nephews of all ages, over whom private law gives him no authority. In the King's absence this consent is asked, not of his wife, nor of a guardian, nor of a family council, but of those who exercise power according to the terms of the Constitution. This consent must, therefore, be countersigned by a minister, for the obvious reason that great political importance is attached to the choice of a wife by a possible future sovereign. It would seem that the same rules should apply to the marriage of the King.[v]

In Belgium, a country of written law, scholars have hesitated to advance this interpretation of the Constitution, which is based on analogy. But the King seems to have recognized its validity by first marrying Marie Baels morganatically -- that is, before the church only, an act which Belgian law considers null and void. Even after the civil ceremony, which followed three months later, the King deemed it proper to stipulate solemnly that the children born of this union (a son was, indeed, born shortly after) would not have the status of royal princes. In so doing, he only added a manifestly unconstitutional act to the dubiously constitutional act of his marriage. For the Constitution grants the status of royal children to all legitimate male heirs of the King and there is no provision to the effect that this status may be withheld from them.

(4) Still more serious, no doubt, is the discrepancy, which events have emphasized, between the constitutional provisions which make the ministers, not the King, legally responsible for military affairs, and the provision (Article 68) which confers the command of the army upon the King. Since Albert was a victorious general, the problems inherent in the situation were never apparent. But the 18-day campaign of 1940 ended in a military catastrophe, and the need of fixing responsibility for it has frequently been voiced in Parliament and elsewhere. But how can such an inquiry avoid passing judgment on the acts of the commander-in-chief? And if the King's acts are discussed, what is left of the royal inviolability? The upshot of the ambiguity is a widely-held view that Article 68 of the Constitution should be amended at the earliest opportunity, so that the King can no longer exercise actual military command in the field.

(5) There has been a further unhappy discovery. Article 84 of the Belgian Constitution reads: "No change can be made in the Constitution during a Regency." There had not been a Belgian Regency since the few months preceding the accession of the first king; in consequence, this apparently harmless provision was never applied during the 115 years of Belgium's existence as an independent state. But now, seemingly, it will delay for at least three years the introduction not only of the two or three proposed amendments examined above, but also of much more important reforms. No doubt the article will be interpreted in a very restricted sense, and will be held to apply only to the enforcement of possible reforms, not to the entire procedure of constitutional revision. Such an interpretation would reserve for the King (in this case, the future Baudouin I), the privilege of later approving the constitutional amendments which had been voted under the Regency, and would, in the meantime, allow the procedure of constitutional revision to be set in motion. Some will deplore the slowness of such a method. But perhaps it is as well that a task of this importance, undertaken when the world is experiencing such profound transformations, should be carefully and expertly prepared and carried to leisurely completion.

The writer has tried to point out the origins and course of the present Belgian crisis and to indicate some of the lessons that can be learned from it. He has not attempted to minimize its gravity. But the Belgians are a people of good judgment and moderation, and there is every reason to believe that they will overcome their present political problems just as they are overcoming their material difficulties. They will add the lessons of the crisis to the store of their national experience.

[i] The term Catholic Party is used to describe the group which has occupied the foremost position in Parliament for the last 60 years. Very recently, the old designation was changed to "Christian Social," in an attempt to dissociate the Party from any particular creed. The Party still includes the great majority of Catholic voters in Belgium and allows the clergy much political influence.

[ii] It is significant that in the proclamation of September 30, 1945, the King lays stress on the motives which supposedly induced him to "agree" to go to Berchtesgaden. He does not deny that the interview bore upon other subjects.

[iii] On this additional point, the royal proclamation of September 30 seems to corroborate my point of view. The King protests vehemently against the Prime Minister's accusation, but he does not deny the remarks attributed to him by M. Van Straelen.

[iv] Actually, the son of Queen Astrid is the only "royal prince" in Belgium today. The status of the son of Marie Baels, the King's second wife, is still to be cleared up.

[v] English political writers are unanimous in thinking that the marriage of the King must also be approved by a minister, as Edward VIII found out to his distress.

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  • HENRI ROLIN, Senator of Belgium; Professor of International Law in the University of Brussels; Minister of National Defense in the Belgian Government in London in 1942
  • More By Henri Rolin