Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Our Great Kings, Part III, Albert I

Thankfully, King Albert I is one of the most widely respected Belgian kings of history. He was greatly admired in his own time and became especially famous all over the world because of his courage and leadership in the Great War, the first most terrible crisis faced by the Kingdom of Belgium. But, like any great man, there were still lesser men who tried to tarnish his reputation with absurd and slander him with ridiculous accusations. Anyone should have known this was ridiculous if they knew anything about the life and character of Albert I. He was known always for his hard-working attitude, his religious moral character, his love for his family and his self-effacing humility. He cared deeply about his people and that included all of his people. He went to the Congo to review the condition of his African subjects and enacted policies to further improve development there. In Belgium itself he also took great care for the condition of urban workers as the manufacturing industry was growing rapidly and this led to inevitable social problems in some cases. Albert I took action from the start of his reign to ensure that workers were protected and well treated with proper working conditions and benefits.

Albert I was also a wise and far-sighted man who recognized the threat of Germany and, like Leopold II before him, tried to strengthen and modernize the Belgian military to be ready for any disaster. Often, unfortunately, the politicians were often not willing to recognize this threat and they had always been reluctant to spend money on defense and for what level of unpreparedness existed, responsibility rested with the government that controlled government funds rather than with the King. When war did come he stood up for the rights and independence of Belgium and spared himself no danger or discomfort in leading the army in defending the country. His courage was undoubted by all as he refused to leave Belgian soil and the crucial victory by the Belgian army on the Yser was crucial in saving the entire Allied line from being turned and rolled up by the Germans in the first months of the war. Maybe the most despicable criticism of Albert I is that he tried to “sell out” the Allies by trying to make peace with Germany and Austria during the war. This is the most ridiculous and outrageous criticism a person could make.

Some of this maybe was motivated by Queen Elisabeth being a German, but her patriotism was never in question, she cared for the Belgian soldiers injured in battle with her own hands and visited the front lines just like her husband. The King was naturally greatly disturbed in his heart by the suffering of his people living under German occupation and wanted to see the war end. The only fact behind this accusation was that Albert I was supportive of the effort by the Austrian Emperor Charles I to negotiate a peaceful end to the war, even if it meant giving up some of his own country. The French and British rejected this proposal and later made it public which severely endangered the Austrian Emperor because it made him suspect by the Germans. King Albert I only facilitated these talks, he never took part in them, in fact there were never formal talks at all really, he only helped to bring the Austrian case to Britain and France who immediately rejected it. Nothing he did or even considered doing would have cost the Allies anything, all they might have lost were some of the gains they made later, after the war, in carving up the German colonies and Ottoman Empire and dividing the territories between Britain and France. When the effort failed, Albert I remained just as committed to the war effort as ever and later led the Flanders Army Group to the final victory. Unlike some others however he was not vindictive toward his defeated enemies. In war and peace he was a true leader, courageous, moral, humble and compassionate. A great king.

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