Leopold III abdicates


On July 16, 1951, King Leopold III of Belgium renounced the throne of Belgium, the throne he hadn’t occupied since the end of the WWII. Following the liberation of Belgium, the king was unable to return to Belgium due to a political controversy surrounding his actions during the conflict; many accused him of having betrayed the Allies by a premature surrender, and of collaborating with the Nazis. There were many personal attacks on the King and his second wife, a commoner Mary Lilian Baels.

The royal family lived in Switzerland, in exile, and Leopold’s younger brother, Charles of Flanders, was made Regent of the country. Leopold was eventually completely exonerated of all charges, but his return was faced with political agitation and civil disturbances. As a result, on July 16th, Leopold III (left) abdicated in favor of his 21-year-old son, Prince Baudouin (right).

When Prince Baudouin was born, he was invested with six names, honoring both his parents’ royal families. However, the Belgian editors were scandalized that the name of the founder of the Belgian royal house, Leopold I had been omitted. Next day little Prince Baudouin was officially amended to be entitled: “Baudouin Albert Charles Leopold Axel Marie Gustave.” On the 120th anniversary of Belgium’s birth as a nation, Baudouin ascended to the throne as the fifth king of the Belgians and read from a script held in a trembling hand, a message to his people first in Flemish, then all over again in French.

However, Belgium’s national nightmare was long from over. The Catholic Church, always staunchly behind the Divine Right of Kings, protested against the abdication. Catholic Premier Pholien’s fence-sitting cabinet resigned and soon be replaced by a Socialist-Catholic coalition. The abdicated king (who got an annual pension of $120,000) and wife lodged in the Royal Palace until Baudouin married. Baudouin himself was extremely distressed by the treatment that his father and idol received at the hands of his countrymen. On the day of his accession, some 12,000 soldiers and police lined the streets to protect the King they scarcely knew. Some 60,000 awaited the king under the palace balcony but the king appeared for less than a minute; neither the pocket mirrors used to flash the rays of the brilliant July sun at the palace windows, nor loud chants caused the king to reappear again.


The Congolese Lese Majeste


It was the year that the European powers bestowed independence on their last colonies, and Robert Lebeck was traveling in Africa for three months as a photographer for Hamburg magazine Kristall.

From the moment that the Belgium King Baudouin landed at Léopoldville Airport on 30th June 1960 to usher the transformation of Belgium Congo into an independent Republic, it was clear that the royal visit was a public relations disaster. As the king and the would-be president Joseph Kasa-Vubu drove along the boulevard in an open car, on the way into Leopoldville from the airport, an exuberant nationalist pressed close to his open limousine, grabbed the King’s sword from beside him, and flourished it above his head before the police could move in and pommel him away.

Lebeck was the only photographer who recorded the scene–the symbol of the decline of the power of the white man and the harbinger of the surreal chaos into which the country would soon descend. Lebeck was not with the other journalists in the front of the car because he had came late, having been enjoying dessert in a good Belgian restaurant earlier. His magazine, Kristall, defined the swordsnatcher as Joseph Kalonda, although this name was thought to be a common Congolese placeholder, an African ‘John Doe’.

For Baudouin, it was not the last embarrassment of the day; as he entered the new parliamentary chamber, the Belgians shouted, “Vive le Roi!” while the Congolese Assemblymen replied with, “Vive Kasavubu!” The king regained the control by regally announcing “May God protect the Congo!” and formally proclaiming its independence. However the new Premier Patrice Lumumba gave a speech that was a vicious attack on the departing Belgian rulers. “Slavery was imposed on us by force!” he cried, as the King sat shocked and pale. “We have known ironies and insults. We remember the blows that we had to submit to morning, noon and night because we were Negroes!” Deeply offended, the king was ready to board his plane and return to Brussels forthwith; only the urging from his ministers persuaded him to change his mind. He left Congo in the evening while it was still technically his domain, for independence came officially at midnight.