To this day, Catholic Belgians remember King Baudouin as a saint. Baudouin’s refusal to legalize abortion, which led him to temporarily abdicate the throne, continues to be topic of conversation today. As its last colonial king, Baudouin was also actively involved in Belgium’s foreign affairs. A portrait of a king that struck a remarkable balance between his principles and the often-dirty exercise of power.

King Baudouin (1930-1993) knew a troubled childhood. At the age of four, he lost his grandfather King Albert I. A year later, his mother died in a car crash. Baudouin was nine when the Second World War reached Belgium’s borders. His father, King Leopold III, hoped to play a heroic role in defending Belgium like that of King Albert I, who was lauded for his bravery during the First World War. Two weeks following the German invasion, however, Belgium had to capitulate to the Nazi-regime.

Leopold did not make himself popular during the war. He married in 1941, which was ill-received in the midst of the ongoing conflict. More severely, however, Leopold was perceived as having collaborated with the Nazi regime for asking Hitler to reestablish the political role of the Belgian monarchy. Because of the bad blood Leopold between and his subjects, the royal family forcibly remained exiled in Austria after the war.

It was not until a referendum in 1950 that the royal family returned. Fifty-seven percent of Belgians voted in favor of Leopold’s return, but a majority of the French-speaking Walloons voted against the referendum. Following the royal homecoming, massive strikes and riots quickly made Leopold’s position untenable. With a civil war looming, Leopold decided to hand the reigns to his oldest son.

That is how a nineteen-year-old Baudouin became regent of Belgium in 1950 and was crowned king a year later. King Baudouin married the Spanish Fabiola de Mora y Aragón in 1960. Fabiola was a devout Catholic who had considered monastic life before meeting Baudouin. The Christian faith deeply influenced the royal pair, particularly the charismatic movement within the Catholic Church.

Baudouin clearly integrated his faith into the exercise of his public duties. His tenure was marked by tensions between the Walloons and Flemings, putting the Belgian state under serious strain. Through a volatile process, Belgium was transformed from a unitary to a federal state through a series of state reforms between 1970 and 1993. The monarchy proved important as one of the few institutions holding the country together.

In exercising the mostly ceremonial role of the monarch, Baudouin would occasionally push the boundaries of his authority. As Baudouin’s reign progressed – he would be on the throne for 43 years – he gained a strong foothold within the political arena. A telling example was his alleged refusal to appoint a state secretary for living together with her boyfriend.

The most spectacular episode of Baudouin’s principled nature came towards the end of his tenure. In 1990, Parliament passed a bill that legalized abortion. The king, appealing to his conscience, refused to give Royal assent to the bill. Baudouin’s staunch objection to the partial depenalization of abortion was rooted in his Catholic faith but had a strong personal edge, too – Baudouin’s wife Fabiola had had five miscarriages. The combination of the Catholic Church’s moral teachings and the trauma of personal loss made it impossible for Baudouin to sign the abortion bill in good conscience.

As royal approval had become a formality, the refusal of a king to sign a bill was unprecedented. Despite his conscientious objection, Baudouin did not want to obstruct the democratic process. The Belgian government feverishly sought a solution to prevent the disastrous outcomes of the crisis. Eventually, an equally creative as controversial interpretation of the Belgian constitution offered a way out.

The king was ruled to be unfit, after which the Council of Ministers was interpreted to function as nation’s sovereign. The Council of Ministers ratified the abortion bill into law, after which a joint session of the Parliament and Senate established the fitness of Baudouin to govern again. In total, Baudouin was ‘dethroned’ for 36 hours.

Baudouin’s legacy exceeds the domestic. In an era of rapid decolonization, Belgium still had a sizeable colonial empire when Baudouin came to power. Possessing the Belgian Congo, Baudouin presided over one of most sizeable empires on the globe. Having seen the violent decolonization that occurred in the Dutch Indies and French Algeria and Indochina, Baudouin insisted that Belgian decolonization would not undergo the same fate.

To that end, Baudouin initiated the self-determination process of the Belgian Congo in 1959. In his speech to the Belgian Parliament, Baudouin does, however, warn against ‘irresponsible rashness’ and posits some necessary preconditions. These included strong and fair government institutions, capable government officials, economic and social organizations led by experts, and civic education undergirding a healthy democratic state.

Already at the time, the Belgian decision to expedite the Congolese independence process was called ‘The Congolese bet’. Yet, the odds of the Democratic Republic of Congo becoming a success story were nigh from its independence. From a Belgian perspective, however, the premature birthing of a Congolese state was successful in averting a bloody war of independence and meeting mounting international pressure.

The independence of the DRC became a fact during a ceremony on June 30, 1960 at which Baudouin delivered a speech, shedding a positive light on the Belgian role in civilizing Congo, bringing material wealth, a system of medical support, education, and stressed the importance of Christian values as a means of fostering unity amidst political and racial divisions.

Following Baudouin’s speech, incoming Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba unexpectedly delivered one of his own. Lumumba, who had been at the forefront of the fight for Congolese independence, gave a harsh account of Belgian colonialism. This intervention was, to put it mildly, ill-received by Baudouin, who had just given the novel prime minister one of the highest Belgian distinctions. Internationally, too, Lumumba’s speech was seen as a sign of ingratitude at the Belgian release of its hold on Congo. While Lumumba would moderate his tone in future speeches, he definitively fell from Belgian grace.

Almost immediately after the DRC’s independence, the Congo Crisis broke out, a five year period of violent political turmoil which included the Belgian-supported secession of two Congolese regions. Lumumba, too, would fall victim to the internal unrest and be executed in 1961 by Belgian-supported separatists. Persistent rumors have it that Belgium agreed to the killing of Lumumba. If true, it is unlikely that Baudouin had entirely clean hands.

One of the final marks Baudouin left on the foreign policy arena was during a UN-summit on the protection of children. Baudouin centered the vulnerability of children and the value of the family in Belgian foreign policy. King Philippe, Belgium’s current head of state, made sure to honor his uncle’s legacy at the UN Security Council in 2020 when he urged for better protection of children in conflict areas.

On July 31, 1993, King Baudouin suddenly died of a heart attack. Belgium was plunged into deep mourning. Hundreds of thousands flocked to Brussels to remember their beloved king. Just a few months prior, Belgium officially became a federal state to facilitate the deep internal divisions. In their collective sorrow over the passing of their beloved king, Belgians experienced true unity, often for the first time.