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Queen Wilhelmina’s war time plan for Belgium’s royals

By the end of the Second World War, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands tried to make a deal with the Nazis to save the Belgian royal family, according to newly published diaries of her foreign minister. By March 1945, both Belgium and the south of the Netherlands had been liberated by King Leopold III of the Belgians and his family were being held captive in Austria and it was feared that the Nazis would murder the family.

Queen Wilhelmina then asked her foreign minister in exile in London to “sound out” via the Vatican on whether high-ranking Nazis could be offered an escape in return for the release of the Belgian royals. Many high-ranking Nazis successfully fled Europe to Latin America but “until now we have never heard of the Dutch playing a role,” Michael Riemens who has just published the minister’s diaries told the BBC.

King Leopold III and his family had stayed in Belgium during the Nazi occupation and were under house arrest. They were moved to Austria when the allies advanced. The king was under house arrest with his second wife Lilian, Princess of Réthy, and his children Joséphine Charlotte, Baudouin and Albert. His mother, Queen Elisabeth, was very worried about their safety and confided in Queen Wilhelmina.

Riemens quotes a letter written by Queen Wilhelmina to Britain’s King George VI, which also refers to the Belgian Queen mother.

“She volunteered in confidence that the Germans had been approached through the Red Cross about allowing at least the children to go to Switzerland. The Germans answered that it would be possible for the children and Leopold to go to Switzerland if the Swiss extended similar facilities to the Nazi chiefs”.

King George VI responded, “Dear cousin Wilhelmina… I am very interested to hear that cousin Elisabeth spoke to you about Leopold and the children. As you say, we can never strike that bargain with the Germans, but I feel there must be some other way of getting him free.”

Queen Wilhelmina’s foreign minister then spoke to Pope Pius XII’s internuncio to The Hague and wrote in his diary, “In the afternoon the internuncio came at my request. I had been instructed by Her Majesty to ask him to share with the Pope that the king of Belgium and his children were in danger of being killed unless the highest Nazi chiefs could get asylum in a safe country. This information in the hope that the Pope would do something.”

According to Michael Riemens, a report was sent about papal support for the Dutch proposal, but this report is missing from the archives, though Queen Wilhelmina is known to have destroyed items in the archives after the war. There is a note dated two months in Queen Wilhelmina’s handwriting stating her special thanks for the Pope’s action. “It means the Pope did act, but there’s no proof,” Michael Riemens says. “I think the royals played a role through this contact with the Pope and all of a sudden we see a very different queen.”

Ultimately, Queen Wilhelmina’s intervention did not bring about any release for the Belgian royals. The King and his family were freed by American troops a few weeks later.

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