Speech by the King to the Council of Ministers on October 14th, 1936
In taking the constitutional oath, Belgian sovereigns undertake to maintain the integrity and independence of their country.
I, like my predecessors, intend to keep this solemn promise. That is why I was anxious to preside over this Council which is to draw up measures for submission to Parliament for the purpose of providing Belgium with a military status adapted to the present circumstances.
For over a year already, the Government has been considering how we can strengthen our present military position.
There were several reasons for this:
(a) German rearmament, following upon the complete remilitarization of Italy and Russia, caused most other States, even those that were deliberately pacific, like Switzerland and the Netherlands, to take exceptional precautions.
(b) There has been such a vast change in methods of warfare as a result of technical progress, particularly in aviation and mechanization, that the initial operations of an armed conflict can now be of such force, speed, and magnitude as to be particularly alarming to small countries like Belgium.
(c) Our anxieties have been increased by the lightning reoccupation fo the Rhineland and the fact that bases for the start of a possible German invasion have been moved near to our frontier.
(d) At the same time, the foundations of international security have been shaken because conventions, even conventions freely subscribed to, have been violated, and in the present circumstances it is almost impossible to adapt the Covenant of the League of Nations so as to prevent such violations.
(e) Lastly, there is a danger that the internal dissensions in certain Stats may lead other States to be embroiled in rivalry between different political and social systems and may let loose a fiercer and more devastating conflagration than that from the after-effects of which we are still suffering.
It might perhaps be as well to recall here the successive stages through which the examination of the military problem has passed during the last few months.
This summary will also show that the series of studies has now been completed.
The need for adjusting our military forces to meet external risks and dangers became apparent in the spring of 1935. The Army General Staff placed various schemes before me, and finally, in November 1935, I approved of a programme the main principles of which seemed to me to constitute a minimum.
This programme was submitted to the Government, which formed a small committee to make a thorough investigation of the problem of security.
On February 7th, 1936, the Cabinet Council agreed upon the text of a draft military law; this did not meet with the approval of all sections of the Chamber, and the Government agreed to the tabling of an amendment providing for the immediate application of Article 53 of the Militia Law. The Bill as amended was passed by the Chamber on April 6th.
Meanwhile, it was suggested on January 10th that the whole problem should be discussed by a mixed commission.
This idea was welcomed in political and parliamentary circles.
The mixed commission was set up by Royal Decree on March 25th, 1936.
After thirty-seven meetings, during which every aspect of the problem was discussed, the commission completed its work and reached a number of conclusions. While there is some difference of opinion as to their application, there is unanimity on general principles, particularly on the need for a permanent covering force. The main suggestions--purchases of material, anti-aircraft defence, fortification, the calling-up system--call for an immediate decision.
In any event, the new Militia Law must be passed before December 1st, as the call-up of the 1937 class begins on that date.
Futhermore, in view of the dangerous international situation, the country will expect the Government to submit the necessary proposals to Parliament without delay. Again, the precise nature of the problem should be explained to the public.
Our military policy, like our foreign policy, on which it depends, must aim, not at preparing for a more or less successful war, following upon a coalition, but at keeping war from our territory.
The reoccupation of the Rhineland strained the Locarno agreements in both the letter and the spirit, and we are now in almost the same international situation as before the war.
Because of our geographical situation we need a military machine large enough to dissuade any of our neighbours from making use of our territory to attack another State. By the discharge of this mission, we make a valuable contribution towards peace in Western Europe; and ipso facto it give us a
right to the respect, and if necessary to the help, of all the States that are interested in peace.
I believe Belgian opinion is unanimous as to these principles. But our undertakings should not go beyond that. A unilateral policy would weaken our position abroad and rightly or wrongly would cause dissension at home. An alliance, even if it were purely defensive, would not lead to the desired object; for however promptly an ally might come to our aid, the impact of the invasion--and it would be overwhelming--would come first, and we should have to meet it by ourselves.
In the absence of a defence system of her own, capable of withstanding the invader, the invasion would penetrate deeply into Belgium at the very beginning and she would be devastated at once. Afterwards, friendly intervention might, of course, ensure final victory, but in the process the country would suffer ravages such as would be infinitely worse than those of the war of 1914-1918.
That is why our policy must be "solely and exclusively Belgian," as the Minister for Foreign Affairs said recently. Its resolute aim must be to keep us out of the conflicts of our neighbours; it is in keeping with our national ideals. It can be maintained by a reasonable military and financial effort, and it will be welcomed by Belgians, all inspired by an intense and primordial desire for peace.
Let any who doubt whether such a foreign policy is possible consider the proud and confident example set by Holland and Switzerland.
Let them remember how much Belgiums' scrupulous observation of her neutrality weighed in our favour and in favour of the Allies during the whole of the war and the subsequent settlement.
Morally our position would have been incomparably weaker at home, and the world would not have shown us uso much sympathy if the invader had been able to point to an alliance between ourselves and one of his opponents.
It is therefore, I repeat, solely at preserving ourselves from war, wherever it may threaten, that our military system must aim; and it is important that public opinion should be absolutely certain of this.
Our military status, which derives from the 1929 Militia Law, though excellent in various respects, is no longer suitable, having regard to the new possibility of a sudden invasion. It secures neither the permanent defence of our frontiers, nor safety to mobilize, nor the concentration of the Army. A more or less unexpected irruption might, in a few hours, seize valuable sureties and paralyse irrevocably the greater part of our forces.
This defective machinery is in urgent need of repair. I have
called you together so that we may decide how this shall be done.
As representatives of the three great traditional Parties, who speak for the vast majority of Belgians, I hope you will approve the Bill of the Minister of National Defence.
If you can unite in a spirit of high patriotic understanding to solve the military problem, you will at the same time restore to the country the necessary serenity of mind in the face of outward events and the atmosphere of security essential to general prosperity.
Thus you will once again prove to the country that the chief preoccupation of the National Coalition Government is to put the higher interests of Belgium above everything else.
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