Léopold was heavily influenced by the German invasion of his country in 1914 and sought to avoid its repetition by taking refuge in neutrality. After the German remilitarization of the Rhineland in March 1936, he withdrew Belgium from its military alliance with France and followed a neutral stance. When war began in September 1939, Léopold rejected appeals from Britain and France for discussions of war plans, for fear of giving Adolf Hitler a pretext to invade his country.
In the end, Léopold's policy did not spare Belgium from German invasion, which occurred in May 1940. British and French forces then moved into Belgium to support that country. However justified in terminating hopeless resistance, Léopold's surrender of the Belgian army on 28 May 1940 after only a brief stand was a violation of pledges given to Britain and France, and it made inevitable the Dunkerque evacuation. Even more dubious was the king's failure to go abroad with his ministers to support a government-in-exile in London. Many Belgians suspected him of both German sympathies and authoritarian preferences. Then, he compounded his unpopularity by marrying a commoner—his children's governess, Liliane Baels—in 1941.
Removed from Belgium by the Germans in 1944, Léopold was freed by U.S. troops in Austria at the end of the war. Since he was being held in Germany when Belgium was liberated in the fall of 1944, his brother, Prince Charles, the count of Flanders, assumed the title of regent. Léopold, meanwhile, resided in Switzerland.
After the war, the question of the future of the monarchy remained in abeyance for several years. There was strong socialist opposition in Belgium to the monarchy, and so, it was not until a referendum in March 1950 gave him a 58 percent favorable vote that Léopold attempted to regain his throne. His return precipitated such a major crisis that he then relinquished control of affairs to his son Baudouin. When Baudouin reached majority age, Léopold abdicated in his favor, in 1951. Léopold died in Brussels on 25 September 1983.
Annette Richardson and Spencer C. Tucker
Arango, E. Ramón. Leopold III and the Belgian Royal Question. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963.; Devere-Summers, Anthony. War and the Royal Houses of Europe in the Twentieth Century. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1996.; Keyes, Roger S. Outrageous Fortune: The Tragedy of Leopold III of the Belgians, 1901–1941. London: Secker and Warburg, 1985.; Rémy [Renault-Roulier, G.]. The Eighteenth Day: The Tragedy of King Leopold III of Belgium. Trans. Stanley R. Rader. New York: Everett House, 1978.