Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Belgian Maneuvers 1939

Someone asked me, reading from a book they just had been given, about the Belgian maneuvers of 1939 and asked how this was not a betrayal of France just at the critical point when World War II is about to begin. This is completely untrue though and I do not understand how anyone could think such a thing. This is the context: Belgium had always been neutral since independence until Germany invaded in 1914. After that, Belgium was allied to France because both countries were of course worried about the Germans, seeing that they would have no hesitation to invade and threaten both countries (or especially to invade France and Belgium would be a useful corridor). So there was an alliance until 1939 when on September 3, after the invasion of Poland, King Leopold III declared neutrality again. The Belgian army was at that time called out and put through some exercises as a show of force, not particularly for Germany, but for France so that they would know that if they tried to violate Belgian territory to attack Germany they would have a difficult fight and Belgium would resist them just as they had strongly resisted the Germans in 1914. This was not a betrayal, this was a realistic view of the on-the-ground situation.

Consider for a moment that prior to this time Germany had gone back on one provision after another of the Versailles Treaty and France and Britain had done nothing. Britain even signed a naval treaty with Germany. Italy had been opposed to Germany at first but left the Allies to join the Germans when Britain or France would not stand beside Italy in stopping the takeover of Austria and then later scolded Italy for occupying Abyssinia. After the Rhineland and Czech occupations and the union with Austria the French had done nothing. This was a concern to Belgium as was the French war plans which many thought left Belgium on its own. Then when Germany invaded Poland the British and then French declared war on Germany. What was Belgium supposed to do? They could do nothing about Poland, even Britain and France could do nothing to save Poland but they had declared war anyway. The Germans had made no aggressive moves against the Low Countries, Britain or France at that time. But the British and French had declared war on Germany so Belgium was suddenly faced with the possibility of France doing the same thing the Kaiser had done in 1914, attacking Germany and marching through Belgium maybe as an easier way to go.

The Allies had, honestly, done a poor job of diplomacy and foreign relations prior to World War II. They had given in to Hitler time after time and then, finally, declared war on Germany on behalf of a country neither of them could defend and which was being occupied by the Soviets also. It was perfectly understandable for King Leopold III to again declare Belgian neutrality and hope that, unlike before, the country could be kept out of the conflict. Later the King joined with Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands to call for all the countries to get together and make peace. Today this seems ridiculous because Hitler was a lunatic who wanted to take over the world, but try to remember what the people knew then, not what we know now. All Hitler had done then was to invade Poland and the Soviets had joined in. France and Britain had declared war on him, even though he had not threatened their countries, but they had not declared war on the Soviets for taking part of Poland or for taking over the Baltic republics. All that had really happened by then was that Poland had been partitioned, which was unfortunate for the Poles, but not something new, they had been partitioned between Germany and Russia for years. So, it seemed not unreasonable to many at the time that the two sides could talk through their differences and make peace without another world war.

That did not happen, but it is not the fault of the King that he could not look into the future. He was only trying to do what was best for his country in the situation he was in. When the war came Belgium was as strong an ally as she had been before and fought as hard as possible for 18 days against the crushing Nazi blitzkrieg, in doing so saving the lives of many French and British troops. That is what should be remembered, the free countries fighting as allies against invaders and do not waste time on accusations that are pointless and only efforts to stir up bad feelings between people and nations. There is already enough of that.

No comments:

Post a Comment