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Belgium's Leopold II might well be called the lion of colonialism. As founder and owner of the Congo Free State, he measured prestige and power by how much money a monarch could amass- and by whatever means. His included swindles, slavery and passionate plunderings of one sort or another. His age- the last half of the 19th century- rampant with Imperialist skulduggery. Leopold's brand, however, shocked not only Europe and America (Edward VII, Roosevelt and Vandervelde were among the notables offended), but even alienated his people. Said he: ""one has to lash the Belgians constantly to obtain any progress at all; they dislike that and kick back"" - a sentiment not unlike Mussolini's judgment of the Italians. In the end, with the growth of reformists on the Left and moralists on the Right, the tycoon-king's empire-building tumbled. All the riches from Darkest Africa couldn't whitewash the rubber system's night- network of massacres, mutilations, and the real coup de grace, unexploitable inefficiency, which subsequent investigations (trumpeted by Leopold's own oddly liberal press) revealed. Under his biographer's cool and careful hands nothing much goes begging, including Leopold's hellish domesticity: he abhorred his sister, thought his wife absurd and towards the daughters showed glacial indifference. Upon the death of his one and only son, the great man broke; whether the tears were spilled over the boy himself or the loss of a dynasty one can't say. Leopold's rendezvous at watering-places with call-girls upped into Baronesses is amusingly handled. A Philistine. he thought poetry rather like a ""mechanical razor""; he preferred the novelty of the day: cars. An altogether admirable look at one of history's least admired figures.

Pub Date: March 27th, 1964
Publisher: Doubleday