1909-2009 The Accession of King Albert I
King Leopold II of the Belgians died on 17 December 1909 in Laeken, on the 44th anniversary of his own accession to the Belgian throne in 1865. The untimely deaths of Prince Leopold in 1869 and of Prince Baudouin in 1891, respectively Leopold II’s only son and eldest nephew, made Baudouin’s younger brother, Albert, the successor of the late King.
The new King Albert I was only 34 at the time, and although a strong admirer of his late uncle was very different from him; and this difference appeared in the ways they reigned.
Leopold II reigned for 44 years; he was the second King of the Belgians, and inherited from his father King Leopold I the throne of a little nation born just 34 years before; during his reign, Belgium was ruled alternately by the Liberal party and the Catholic party, carrying on the politic of Leopold I.
Regarding domestic policy, the governments mildly acted; the school system was gradually laicized and the economical development remarkably increased; in 1893 the universal suffrage for men was introduced. Regarding foreign policy, the neutrality was emphasized and the military defense was reduced, but most of all Belgium became an important colonial nation, with the conquest of Belgian Congo.
The conquest and the government of Congo was one of the worst and more infamous acts made by Leopold II: the King ran Congo as a personal fief, and until 1908 the big nation was a private property of the King, who extracted from it an enormous wealth thanks to the forced labor and the enslavement of the native population; 10 or 15 millions people were brutally murdered, and a lot of children had their hands amputated if they were useless for the Belgians. The outrageous exploitation and human right abuses caused a big international scandal, ended in 1908 when the Belgian government forced the King to cede the Congo possession to the Belgian State.
Leopold II had bad relations with the Belgian people, mostly due to the Congo scandal, his social isolation and his dreadful relationships with his wife and daughters, that leaded him to disinherit two of them, Louise and Stephanie.
On the other side, Leopold is now remembered and appreciated as the “Builder King”(“Koning-Bouwer” in Dutch, “le Roi-Bâtisseur” in French), since he commissioned several buildings, included the Royal Glasshouses, the Japanese Tower and the Chinese Pavilion in Laeken, the “Parc du Cinquantenaire” in Bruxelles, several country estates on the French Riviera.
At the death of Leopold II, his nephew became the new King Albert I, who reigned until his own death in 1934. His accession took place on 23 December 1909, and during the accession ceremony the program of the new King was clearly shown, and according to Albert’s daughter, Maria José, “by the enthronement speech [he] qualified himself as a modern King”.
Unlike his late uncle, Albert I was very popular in Belgium; he and his wife Queen Elisabeth often were among the people, and held an active cultural salon with the most prominent artists, scientists and politicians of the time, like Ysaye, Maeterlinck, Verhaeren, Einstein; moreover, their lifestyle and their union have always been very simple and harmonious, in marked contrast to the irregular matrimonial life of King Leopold II and his wife, Queen Marie Henriette.
Albert I was the first king to take the accession oath both in French and Dutch; the political scenario changed, with the entrance in the government of the Socialist party; the first reforms regarded the Belgian Congo, improving the life conditions thanks to the abolition of forced labor and the introduction of the compulsory schooling. The new King also increased the military defense, introducing the compulsory military service.
Probably the main moment of the reign of Albert I was World Was I, when Belgium was illegally invaded by the German Army: the King asked the Parliament the permission to command over the army, and during all the war he and the Queen stayed with the troops, fighting with them, and encouraging them to continue to fight, despite the war often seemed to be lost and situation hopeless; as commander of the army, Albert led the final offensive against the Germans, that returned Belgium his freedom. At the end of the war, the Royal Family was able to return in Bruxelles, travelling through the Country, everywhere welcomed as national heroes.
After the war, the King worked to the reconstruction of Belgium, always taking care only to the demands of the people; in his speeches, he explained the several reforms he desired for Belgium, included the universal suffrage and the establishment of a Flemish University in Ghent, that happened in 1930.
The sudden and tragic death of King Albert I on 17 February 1934 shocked the Belgian people, who lost a father and one of his best Kings.Belgian Royals, Historical Royals
Tagged Accession, Albert I, Anniversary, Biography, Leopold II.