Leopold Philippe Charles Albert Meinrad Hubert Marie Miguel was born on 3 November 1901 in Brussels as first son of then Prince Albert and Princess Elisabeth, later King and Queen of Belgium. Leopold became Duke of Brabant in 1909, upon the death of Leopold II and Albert’s accession to the throne. He joined the army at the age of 14, during the Great War. In 1920 he entered the Royal Military Academy, and two years later he was made Second Lieutenant of the First Grenadiers. In 1925 he visited Congo for the first time.
In 1926, Prince Leopold met Princess Astrid of Sweden, niece to the Swedish King Gustav V. They fell in love and were married in November that same year. The couple had three children, Princess Josephine-Charlotte (1927 – 2005), later Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, Prince Baudouin (1930 – 1993), later King Baudouin, and Prince Albert (1934), later King Albert II. Although Leopold and Astrid were very much in love, it is suspected that the Prince had several affairs during their marriage. On 23 February 1934, Prince Leopold succeeded his father as fourth King of the Belgians. Only one year later, the country already had to mourn the loss of their beloved Queen, who died in a car accident at Küssnacht. The King survived the accident, but was gravely injured. He was heartbroken, as is very clear from the pictures of the funeral.
In 1936 King Leopold announced a neutrality policy for Belgium, which had until then been an explicit ally of France and the United Kingdom. He hoped that this would spare Belgium from the imminent German threat, however, on 10 May 1940, Belgium was invaded by the German army. King Leopold immediately took over command of the Belgian army and tried to stop the Nazi forces at the Yser, as his father had before him. On 28 May the King decided to surrender, against the wishes of the Belgian government. The King was put under house arrest in Laeken, and at first he received a lot of sympathy from his people. They were touched he underwent the war with them, instead of fleeing to Canada or Britain like many other heads of state and governments. This sympathy was quickly lost, however, when the marriage of Leopold with Lilian Baels was announced. Even though Lilian explicitly renounced the title of Queen of Belgium, and took instead the title of Princess de Rethy, she was never accepted by the population. The couple had three children, Prince Alexandre (1942 – 2009), Princess Marie Christine (1951) and Princess Marie Esmeralda (1956).
On 7 June 1944, the day after Allied troops landed in Normandy, King Leopold III and his family were deported to Germany and later Austria. American troops succeeded in liberating them on 7 May 1945. The King, however, could not return to Belgium immediately. His actions in the beginning of the war, as well as his marriage to Lilian Baels and suspected collaboration with the German troops, caused the Belgians to oppose his return. The country ended up in a constitutional crisis over the debate about the King’s position. Leopold, Lilian and the six children settled in Switzerland, where they awaited the outcome of the political quarrels. Prince Charles, Count of Flanders and brother of Leopold III ruled as regent until the King returned.
In 1950, the government decided to organize a referendum on whether or not the King should return. Some 60% voted in favour of his return. There was a significant difference between the regions: whereas most of the Flemish voted in favour, most of the Walloons voted against a return of the King. The King returned to Brussels on 22 July 1950, but was soon confronted with violent protests. Leopold conveyed his royal powers to his eldest son, Prince Baudouin, who was merely 20 at the time, and not yet considered a legal adult. In 1951, he formally renounced the throne in favour of his eldest son, in the hope that this would reconcile the country again. Baudouin took the constitutional oath on 17 July 1951. King Leopold remained in Laeken to advise his son during the early years of his reign.
When Baudouin married doña Fabiola de Mora y Aragon in 1960, Leopold, Lilian and their three children moved to Argenteuil. As from the marriage of his eldest son, Leopold really accepted a secondary role. It is not known why exactly, but the marriage caused a family rift. After they moved to Argenteuil, Leopold and Lilian didn’t have much contact with Baudouin and Albert any more. This family rift has only been solved in recent years, after the death of Princess Lilian.
After his abdication, King Leopold spent his time with scientific research and exploration journeys. He was an avid photographer, a passion he transferred to his children. He died on 25 September 1983 at the royal domain of Argenteuil, only months after his brother Charles.