Belgium followed a neutralist foreign policy. The nation had secured its independence from the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830, and its neutrality and territorial integrity had been guaranteed by an international treaty signed by the major powers in 1839. The German government's decision to violate that neutrality in August 1914 at the beginning of World War I brought Britain into the war. Occupied by the German army between 1914 and 1918, Belgium had then allied itself with France. With the increase in tensions in Europe, Belgium again sought refuge in neutrality in 1936. King Leopold III and the tripartite government of the Socialist, Catholic, and Liberal Parties renounced the French alliance. The government, however, proclaimed Belgium's right to maintain a military establishment to protect the nation from attack. This policy of armed neutrality found broad support among the Belgian people.
In September 1939, when World War II began, Belgian Premier Hubert Pierlot, leader of the Catholic Party, reiterated the government's resolve to remain neutral, and the government deployed the army along both the German and French borders. Belgians knew the true threat was from Germany, and the government reinforced the frontier with Germany following invasion alerts in November 1939 and January 1940. In the latter case, a German military aircraft had landed in Belgium by mistake, and its passenger was found to be carrying the entire German plan to invade the west, including Belgium.
The German invasion of 10 May 1940 thus did not catch the Belgian government by surprise, and some limited military plans had been made with Britain and France to prepare for that eventuality. Nonetheless, the Belgian military was quickly overwhelmed by the German troops. Although there had been some coordination with the French and British, there were no prepared positions for the latter, and the military situation rapidly deteriorated. On 25 May, King Leopold and his chief ministers met in Wynendaele and agreed on the need to end the military campaign in their country as quickly as possible. Leopold decided to remain in Belgium and share the fate of his countrypeople, whereas the ministers insisted that the government go to France, with whatever military forces could be withdrawn, to continue the fight against Germany. Both parties did what they believed to be appropriate.
King Leopold surrendered the Belgian army unconditionally on 28 May, without coordinating this decision with the very allies who had come to the rescue of his country. This decision produced an immediate 30-mile gap between the British Expeditionary Force and the North Sea that rendered the British military position untenable and forced its evacuation from the port of Dunkerque. Having taken this decision, Leopold then repaired to his palace at Laeken outside Brussels, where he remained under self-imposed isolation for the next four years before being removed to Germany in June 1944.
Leopold's ministers, meanwhile, fled to France, where they held a session of the Belgian Parliament in Limoges on 31 May and criticized the king's actions. When France itself fell to the German army in late June, the Belgian parliamentary representatives abandoned their effort to support the Allies and sought a rapprochement with the king, which he then rejected. He—and most Belgians, for that matter—believed that the war was, in effect, over and that Germany had won. These parliamentarians then set up a Belgian government-in-exile in London. Belgian soldiers who escaped their country to Britain later formed the Independent Belgian Brigade, which operated under British command. Most of the 100 ships of the Belgian merchant marine evaded capture and, in accordance with a July 1940 agreement, operated under British control.
Following the surrender, German authorities promptly established an occupation government in Belgium. The German enclaves of Eupen, Malmédy, and Saint Vith, assigned to Belgium in the settlement following World War I, were promptly reintegrated into the Reich. A German army administration (Milit?rverwaltungschef), nominally headed by General Ludwig von Falkenhausen, ruled Belgium. Eggert Reeder, president of the military administration, was the real decision-maker and also oversaw German authorities in Belgium, such as the Schutzstaffel (SS) and the Foreign Ministry. Reeder's priorities included advancing the position of the "Germanic" Flemish population at the expense of the francophone Walloons (in accordance with a July 1940 order from Hitler), ensuring that Belgian industry was harnessed for the war machine of the Reich, and administering Belgium with as little German manpower as possible. On 10 May 1940, the Belgian Parliament had passed a law allowing civil servants to administer the country in the absence of the political leaders, and the senior members of each department, the secrétaries-généraux (principal administrative officers), thus became the administrators of Belgium. Reeder worked through these officials in a system of indirect German rule, and although there were conflicts, the secrétaries-généraux agreed to maintain law and order and the nation's industrial and agricultural production.
Some Belgian elites were able to use this time of turmoil to enhance their own positions. The Comité Galopin, a small group of influential bankers and industrialists, controlled the economy and ensured that Belgium provided Germany with the essential materials it required while maintaining their own interests. Many Belgians suffered terribly during the German occupation, however. The dislocation of the fighting and German requisitions led to a severe food shortage, and perhaps a fifth of the population was starving by the fall of 1940. King Leopold was able to convince the Germans to scale back their requisitions of food. He was also able to win some exemptions for women, war orphans, and children of war prisoners among those Belgians deported from the country to work in the Reich. Resistance to the Germans, only sporadic at first, grew with the addition of the Communists after the German invasion of the Soviet Union and as the overall German military situation deteriorated. Relations between these resistance groups and the government-in-exile in London were sometimes strained.
As in other countries occupied by the Germans, some people collaborated actively and were appointed to positions of influence as a result. The Germans also recruited an SS formation under Léon Degrelle for service on the Eastern Front. For most Belgians, however, the occupation produced a sense of solidarity against the occupier as they struggled to secure food, clothing, and shelter and as they lived with the ever present risk of deportation to work in the Reich.
Belgium remained under German occupation until September 1944, when Allied troops arrived and rapidly liberated the country, with the Belgian Parliament returning to Brussels. The sole feat of resistance by arms was the liberation of the port of Antwerp and the prevention of its destruction by the German military, itself an important step. Some German forces remained on islands at the mouth of the Scheldt River until 28 November 1944, from which they were able to prevent the Allies from using the port. On 16 December, on Hitler's orders, German forces launched what became the Battle of the Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge), the goal of which was to take back Antwerp. During the course of the fighting, the Germans reoccupied part of Belgium, but in January 1945, Allied troops were again able to clear all Belgium of German control.
Belgium was fortunate in that the rapid German advance in 1940 and retreat in 1944 had left its cities and countryside relatively unscathed. Antwerp, the least bomb-damaged port in the Channel area, became a major Allied base in the closing campaigns of the war and was the target of a substantial number of German V-2 rockets in early 1945. The Belgian government took reprisals against collaborators, convicting some 53,000 men and women of assisting the enemy.
Shortly after V-E Day, King Leopold and members of the royal family were freed outside Strobl, Austria, by U.S. troops. The king became the center of political turmoil for having surrendered the army and for his refusal to go abroad with his ministers in order to support a government-in-exile. He was also suspected of having both German sympathies and authoritarian preferences. Then, too, he had compounded his unpopularity by his wartime remarriage to a commoner. Leopold's brother, Prince Charles, the count of Flanders, assumed the title of regent. A referendum in March 1950 gave Leopold a 58 percent favorable vote, but his return led to a major crisis, and he relinquished control of affairs to his son, Baudouin, who became king in 1951.
Bond, Brian. France and Belgium, 1939–1940. London: Davis-Poynter, 1975.; Conway, Martin. Collaboration in Belgium: Léon Degrelle and the Rexist Movement. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.; Gunsburg, Jeffery. Divided and Conquered: The French High Command and the Defeat of the West, 1940. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.; Keyes, Roger S. Outrageous Fortune: The Tragedy of King Leopold III of the Belgians, 1901–1941. London: Secker and Warburg, 1985.; Willequet, J. La Belgique sous la botte: Résistances et collaborations, 1940–1945. Paris: Éditions Universitaires, 1986.