Upon the death of his uncle, Leopold II, Albert succeeded to the Belgian throne in December, 1909. Previous Belgian kings had taken the royal accession oath only in French; Albert innovated by taking it in Dutch as well (Bronne). He and his wife, Queen Elisabeth, were popular in Belgium due to their simple, unassuming lifestyle and harmonious family life, which stood in marked contrast to the aloof, autocratic manner and irregular private life of Leopold II. An important aspect of the early years of Albert's reign was his institution of many reforms in the administration of the Belgian Congo, Belgium's only colonial possession (Keyes).
At the beginning of World War I, Albert resisted the illegal German demand to move troops through neutral Belgium in order to attack France. The refusal to permit the passage of troops was based on a respect for international law, and a concern for the balance of power in Europe, which, at the time, required that Belgium be a neutral buffer zone between Germany, France, and Great Britain (Bronne, Graham, Keyes, Thielemans). By defending the balance of power, King Albert also protected the interests of Belgium, since a small nation could easily fall prey to whichever great power became too strong (Thielemans). Albert famously responded to the German desire to move soldiers through his country: "I rule a nation, not a road!" When Germany subsequently invaded Belgium, King Albert, as prescribed by the Belgian constitution, took personal command of the Belgian army, and held the Germans off long enough for Britain and France to prepare for the Battle of the Marne (6-9 September 1914). He led his army through the Siege of Antwerp and the Battle of the Yser, when the Belgian army was driven back to a last, tiny strip of Belgian territory, near the North Sea. Here the Belgians, in collaboration with the armies of the Triple Entente, took up a war of position, in the trenches behind the River Yser, remaining there for the next four years. During this period, King Albert fought with his troops and shared their dangers, while his wife, Queen Elisabeth, worked as a nurse at the front. The King also allowed his 14-year-old son, Prince Leopold, to enlist in the Belgian army as a private and fight in the ranks (Graham, Keyes).
The war inflicted great suffering on Belgium, which was subjected to a harsh German occupation. The King, fearing the destructive results of the war for Belgium and Europe and appalled by the huge casualty rates, worked through secret diplomatic channels for a negotiated peace between Germany and the Entente based on the "no victors, no vanquished" concept. He considered that such a resolution to the conflict would best protect the interests of Belgium and the future peace and stability of Europe. Since, however, neither Germany nor the Entente were favorable to the idea, tending, instead, to seek total victory and the unconditional surrender of the enemy, Albert's attempts to further a negotiated peace were unsuccessful. In view of his disapproval of the breadth of Allied war aims, King Albert may have considered concluding a separate peace with Germany, if Belgium's independence could be assured and the country safely extricated from the war. Germany's attitude, however, made this impossible, since Germany was using Belgium as a lever to exert pressure on the Entente, and hence was unwilling to restore its independence (Thielemans). At the end of the war, as commander of the Army Group Flanders, consisting of Belgian, British and French divisions, Albert led the final offensive of the war that liberated occupied Belgium. King Albert, Queen Elisabeth, and their children then re-entered Brussels to a hero's welcome.
Upon his return to Brussels, King Albert made a speech in which he outlined the reforms he desired to see implemented in Belgium, including universal suffrage and the establishment of a Flemish University in Ghent.
In 1918, he forged a post-war "Government of National Union" made up of members of the three main parties in Belgium, the Catholics, Liberals, and Socialists (Bronne, Keyes). Albert I remembered the Belgian general strike of 1913 and the promise, after it, of a Constitutionnal reform in favour of an actual one man, one vote universal suffrage (on 18 April 1893 at the end of the Belgian general strike of 1893, an universal suffrage, voted by the Parliament, gave plural votes based on wealth, education and age, but not an actual universal suffrage ). The king attempted to mediate between parties in favour of the universal suffrage or opposed to it in order to institute a one man one vote universal suffrage and he succeeded. Some people named that the conspiracy of Loppem because the one man, one vote suffrage was instituted without changing the Belgian constitution.
A passionate alpinist, King Albert I died in a mountaineering accident while climbing alone on the Roche du Vieux Bon Dieu at Marche-les-Dames, in the Ardennes region of Belgium near Namur. His death shocked the world and he was deeply mourned, both in Belgium and abroad. Because King Albert was an expert climber, some questioned the official version of his death. Nonetheless, rumors of murder have been dismissed by most historians. King Albert is interred in the Royal Crypt at the Church of Our Lady of Laeken in Brussels.
In 1935, prominent Belgian author Emile Cammaerts published a widely acclaimed biography of King Albert I, titled "Albert of Belgium: Defender of Right." In 1993, a close climbing companion of the King, Walter Amstutz, founded the King Albert I Memorial Foundation, an association based in Switzerland and dedicated to honoring distinguished individuals in the mountaineering world.
Celebrating 175 years of Belgian Dynasty and the 100th anniversary of his coronation, Albert I was recently selected as the main motif of a high-value collectors' coin: the Belgian 12.5 euro Albert I commemorative coin, minted in 2008. The obverse shows a portrait of the King.
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