On May 24, 1940, Leopold, having assumed command of the Belgian Army, met with his ministers for the final time. The ministers urged the King to leave the country with the government. Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot reminded him that capitulation was a decision for the Belgian government, not the King. The king indicated that he had decided to remain in Belgium with his troops, whatever the outcome.
The ministers took this to mean that he would establish a new government under the direction of Hitler, potentially a treasonous act. Leopold thought that he might be seen as a deserter if he were to leave the country: “Whatever happens, I have to share the same fate as my troops.” Leopold had long had a difficult and contentious relationship with his ministers, acting independently of government influence whenever possible, and seeking to circumvent and even limit the ministers’ powers, while expanding his own.
After Leopold’s surrender, the British press denounced him as “Traitor King” and “King Rat”; the Daily Mirror published a picture of Leopold with the headline “The Face That Every Woman Now Despises”. A group of Belgian refugees in Paris placed a message at King Albert’s statue denouncing his son as “your unworthy successor”.
Leopold rejected cooperation with the government of Nazi Germany and refused to administer Belgium in accordance with its dictates; thus, the Germans implemented a military government. Leopold attempted to assert his authority as monarch and head of the Belgian government, although he was a prisoner of the Germans.
Despite his defiance of the Germans, the Belgian government-in-exile in London maintained that the King did not represent the Belgian government and was unable to reign. The Germans held him at first under house arrest at the Royal Castle of Laeken.
Having since June 1940 desired a meeting with Adolf Hitler in respect of the situation of Belgian prisoners of war, Leopold III finally met with him on November 19, 1940. Leopold wanted to persuade Hitler to release Belgian POWs, and issue a public statement about Belgium’s future independence. Hitler refused to speak about the independence of Belgium or issue a statement about it. In refusing to publish a statement, Hitler preserved the King from being seen as cooperating with Germany, and thus engaged in treasonous acts, which would likely have obliged him to abdicate upon the liberation of Belgium. “The [German] Chancellor saved the king two times.
Leopold and his companions were liberated by members of the United States 106th Cavalry Group in early May 1945. Because of the controversy about his conduct during the war, Leopold III and his wife and children were unable to return to Belgium and spent the next six years in exile at Pregny-Chambésy near Geneva, Switzerland. A regency under his brother Prince Charles had been established by the Belgian legislature in 1944.
Resistance to Leopold’s return
In 1946, a commission of inquiry exonerated Leopold of treason. Nonetheless, controversy concerning his loyalty continued, and in 1950, a referendum was held about his future. 57.68 % of the voters favoured his return. The divide between Leopoldists and anti-Leopoldists ran along the lines of socialists and Walloons who were mostly opposed (42% favourable votes in Wallonia) and Christian Democrats and Flemish who were more in favour of the King (70% favourable votes in Flanders).
On his return to Belgium in 1950, Leopold was met with one of the most violent general strikes in the history of Belgium. Three protesters were killed when the gendarmerie opened automatic fire upon the protesters. The country stood on the brink of civil war, and Belgian banners were replaced by Walloon flags in Liège and other municipalities of Wallonia.
To avoid tearing the country apart, and to preserve the monarchy, Leopold III proposed to transfer his royal powers to his son, Prince Baudouin. On 11 August 11, Prince Baudouin became the “Prince Royal”.
In this postponed abdication the king was, in effect, forced by the government of Jean Duvieusart to offer to abdicate in favour of his son. King Leopold III’s abdication took effect on July 16, 1951.
Leopold and his wife continued to advise King Baudouin until the latter’s marriage in 1960. Some Belgian historians, such as Vincent Delcorps, speak of there having been a “diarchy” during this period.
In retirement, he followed his passion as an amateur social anthropologist and entomologist and travelled the world, collecting zoological specimens. Two species of reptiles are named after him, Gehyra leopoldi and Polemon leopoldi.
He went to Senegal and strongly criticized the French decolonization process,and he explored the Orinoco and the Amazon with Heinrich Harrer.
Leopold died on September 25, 1983 (aged 81) in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert (Sint-Lambrechts-Woluwe) following emergency heart surgery. He was interred next to Queen Astrid in the royal vault at the Church of Our Lady of Laeken. Leopold’s second wife, the Princess de Réthy, was later interred with them.