Albert was born in 1934, with an older sister, Josephine, and a big brother, Baudoin. A driving accident robbed the young children of their mother, Queen Astrid, only a year later. During World War Two, Belgium surrendered to Germany. The royal family, scattered in exile, would only return to Belgium – after a regrouping in Switzerland – in 1950. This followed a controversial referendum and Albert’s father Leopold’s handing the throne over to the older son, Baudoin.
Nine years later, Albert married Princess Paola of Italy, and they made three children. He held several official posts, and travelled widely.
Baudoin reigned for 42 years, dying in 1993. He and Queen Fabiola, originally from Spain, had no offspring. Although Albert’s eldest son, Philippe, had been prepared for the role, Albert, now aged 59, was first in line. Only a year later, the country became a federal state and a new constitution was signed.
This was a big influence on his reign, and he made it his cause to promote inter-regional and inter-communal relations. A strong supporter of multi-cultural society, Albert spoke out openly and forcefully for pluralism and against xenophobia and discrimination. He earned his reputation as an unpretentiously warm and accessible king.
He rallied the people in 1996, when Belgium was dragged to the worst depravity by the pedophile serial murderer rapist Marc Dutroux. The anguished Belgians were deserted by their dysfunctional police and legal institutions, and failing politicians. Albert held meetings of condolence with the families of the children, and laid down a line the mourning nation craved.
He said. “The Queen and I are convinced that this tragedy must now be the occasion for a moral leap and a profound change in our country. Let each authority behave with humility, and self-examination.”
Belgians appreciated their sovereign for this. The next day’s White March filled central Brussels. Gatherings had been held outside courtrooms the week before. People had declared a national shame. Now they carried white.
Albert was never far from the front lines in politics, either, when opposing language communities threatened to dismantle the country – increasingly after 2007 – notably a few years later when divisions left it without a government for 541 days, and he did his part in the striving for answers.
“I wouldn’t be faithful to my role if I failed to reiterate solemnly the risks a long crisis runs for all Belgians, and if I didn’t exhort anew every man and woman politician to show themselves as constructive, and to swiftly find a balanced solution to our problems.”
Before he was monarch, Albert also worked actively to boost foreign trade, abroad as at home a shield bearer for prosperity and unity.