Hubert Pierlot

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Hubert Pierlot
Photo of Count Hubert Pierlot.jpg
Photo of Pierlot
Prime Minister of Belgium
In office
22 February 1939 – 12 February 1945
Monarch Leopold III
Charles (Regent)
Preceded by Paul-Henri Spaak
Succeeded by Achille Van Acker
Personal details
Born (1883-12-23)23 December 1883
Cugnon, Luxembourg, Belgium
Died 13 December 1963(1963-12-13) (aged 79)
Uccle, Brussels, Belgium
Political party Catholic Party
Christian Social Party (PSC-CVP)

Hubert Marie Eugène Pierlot (23 December 1883 – 13 December 1963) was a Belgian politician and 32nd Prime Minister of Belgium, serving between 1939 and 1945. Pierlot, a lawyer and jurist, served in World War I and entered politics in the 1920s. A member of the Catholic Party, Pierlot became Prime Minister in 1939, shortly before Belgium entered World War II, and later headed the Belgian government in exile from France and later from London while Belgium was under German occupation. After the liberation of Belgium, Pierlot headed a fresh government of national unity until February 1945. Pierlot's stance against Leopold III during World War II made him a controversial figure. He retired from politics in 1946 amid the Royal Question crisis and was widely attacked by pro-Leopoldists.

Birth and early career[edit]

Pierlot was born in Cugnon, near Bertrix, in the Belgian Province of Luxembourg on 23 December 1883.[1] His parents belonged to an eminent and wealthy Catholic family.[2] His brother, Jean Pierlot, would later become a member of the Belgian Resistance during the war and died in a German concentration camp in 1944.[3] Pierlot married Marie-Louise Dekinder and had seven children.[4]

Hubert Pierlot was educated in religious schools in Maredsous and later in Brussels. He later studied at the Catholic University of Louvain where he received a licence in Political Science and a Doctorate in Law. With the German invasion of Belgium in August 1914, he volunteered for the Belgian infantry as a private.[5] He served at the Battle of the Yser and on the Yser Front where he was decorated for valour. By the end of the war, he had reached the rank of Lieutenant and was serving in the 20th Regiment of the Line.[6]

After the war, Pierlot joined the Catholic Party, the main centre-right party in Belgium with a Christian democratic stance. In 1925, he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1925, representing Neufchâteau, and later to the Senate representing the Province of Luxembourg (between 1926 and 1936) and Arlon (from 1936 to 1946). He received a reputation for oratorical ability and for personal sincerity during the late 1920s.[7]

In the successive Catholic government of the Interwar, he served as Minister of Internal Affairs (1934–1935), Minister of Agriculture (1934–1935; 1936–1939), and Minister of Foreign Affairs (1939). He first led a coalition of Catholics and Socialists, and then one of Catholics and Liberals.

As Prime Minister[edit]

During the Interwar, Belgium pursued a policy of political neutrality and attempted to avoid confrontation with Nazi Germany. When the Phony War broke out, Pierlot became the leader of a tripartite national government of Catholics, Liberals and Socialists which stayed in power until the German invasion in May 1940.

Break with Leopold III[edit]

During the fighting in Belgium, the government broke with Leopold III (pictured). Pierlot denounced Leopold in a radio broadcast, creating a lasting animosity between the two.

During the fighting in May 1940, the Pierlot government came into conflict with King Leopold III who had taken personal command of the Belgian Army. The first confrontation between the government and the King occurred on 10 May, when the King, against the wishes of the government, left for his military headquarters without addressing the Chamber of Representatives like his father, Albert I, had done in 1914.[8] Contact between the King and the government became sporadic while the government feared that the King was acting beyond his constitutional powers.[9] As the Belgian forces, together with their French and British allies, were forced to retreat, Leopold decided that surrendering the army was the only viable course of action. On 24 May, as the government was leaving the country for exile in France, a group of ministers including Pierlot held a final meeting with Leopold at the Kasteel van Wijnendale. They called for him to follow the example of the Norwegian king, Haakon VII, and join them in exile as a symbol of continued resistance. Leopold refused, believing that as commander, he should surrender alongside his army, provoking real animosity.[10] On 28 May, after a brief attempt to form a new government of sympathetic politicians and with the military situation hopeless, Leopold surrendered to the Germans and was made a prisoner of war.[11]

The Belgian government met in Paris on 26 May and invoked Article 82 of the Constitution, declaring the monarch unfit to reign, and resolved to continue the fight against Germany.[12] The following day, Pierlot held an important meeting with the French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, in which the French premier called for the Belgian government to publically denounce the King and the surrender.[13] Following the speech, Pierlot gave a radio speech denouncing the King whom he accused of acting unconstitutionally and in sympathy with the Germans.[14] The denunciation of the King, who was popular across most strata of Belgian society and supported by the church, led to a big loss of public support and alienated Pierlot from his supporters and party.[15]

Exile government in France[edit]

The Hotel Majestic in Barcelona. Pierlot and Spaak escaped from the Spanish police in the hotel to come to Britain in the autumn of 1940. This is commemorated by a plaque on the building.

The government met in Limoges and then withdrew to Poitiers and Bordeaux, but as the French military situation deteriorated, became split over what should happen. The government was split between those who supported staying in France or staying with the French government and those who supported withdrawing to the United Kingdom.[16] Pierlot supported retreating to London, but was keen to preserve the unity of his government, most of which supported remaining in France.[17] Hoping to keep the Belgian Congo under Belgian sovereignty, Pierlot allowed the Minister of the Colonies, Albert de Vleeschauwer, to leave France while the government met to consider whether it should resign to make way for a new constitutional authority in occupied Brussels.[18]

Fearing a German surrender, Marcel-Henri Jaspar, a junior minister, left France for London where, together with Camille Huysmans, he appeared to form a rebel government or "Belgian National Committee" (Comité national belge) condemned by the official government. De Vleeschauwer arrived in London, where he was joined by Camille Gutt, the Minister of Finances, to deal with the threat. Pierlot remained in France. De Vleeschauwer travelled to neutral Spain where, at Le Perthus on the French-Spanish border, he met with Pierlot and Paul-Henri Spaak, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, to attempt to persuade them to join him in London. Pierlot refused.[19] Continued negotiations with the new Vichy government proved fruitless. In August 1940, under pressure from the Germans, the French broke off diplomatic relations with the Belgian government and ordered it to disband.[20] On 22 August, Pierlot and Spaak received the permission of the government to leave for London while the rest of the government remained in France.[21]

Pierlot and Spaak, together with Pierlot's family, crossed into Francoist Spain with an official visa, but were arrested in Barcelona and held under house arrest in a hotel. On 18 October, they escaped from confinement and headed for Portugal. They finally arrived in London on 22 October.[22]

Exile government in London[edit]

Pierlot (left) photographed in April 1944 with the British general Robert Sturges

Pierlot arrived in London during the Blitz and narrowly avoided being killed in November 1940 when the Carlton Hotel, where he was staying, was destroyed in bombing.[3]

The arrival of Pierlot and Spaak officially began the period of the "Government of Four" (Pierlot, Spaak, Gutt and De Vleeschauwer) which formed the core of the Belgian government in exile. The new government was mistrusted by the British, but Pierlot's status as Prime Minister provided sufficient legitimacy for the official government to undermine the Jaspar-Huysmans government in the eyes of the British government.[23] The government in exile received full diplomatic recognition from the Allied countries.[23] The bulk of the Belgian government was installed in Eaton Square in the Belgravia area of London, which before the war had been the location of the Belgian Embassy. Other government departments were installed in nearby Hobart Place, Belgrave Square and Knightsbridge.[24] By May 1941, there were nearly 750 people working in the government in London in all capacities.[25] The government in exile directed the formation of the Free Belgian Forces and was negotiated with the Resistance and other Allied governments.

On 28 April 1941, Pierlot's two eldest children were travelling to their boarding school when the train they were on caught fire near Westborough, Lincolnshire. Both were killed.[4]

From its inception, the position of Under-Secretary of Defence in the government in exile was heavily contested.[26] The appointment of Henri Rolin, an academic, to the position was particularly resented. In October 1942, Pierlot dismissed Rolin who he accused of involving himself in factional internal politics of the army, parts of which had begun to behave mutinously.[26] To resolve the deadlock, Pierlot decided to take the position himself.[26] Pierlot began a major restructuring of the command structure of the infantry in an ultimately successful attempt to resolve the situation.[26] A minor mutiny among soldiers from an artillery battery was quickly suppressed in November 1942, but Pierlot was widely criticized by the British press during the soldiers' court martial in January 1943.[27]

In 1944, Pierlot began drawing up plans for the reorganization of the Belgian Army after the liberation, known as the Pierlot Plan.[28] The plan called for the formation of two brigades of infantry, six battalions of fusiliers and logistics and support units immediately after liberation to fight alongside Allied troops during an invasion of Germany.[29] In the longer term, these troops would form the core of a new division around which more troops could be raised.[29]

Pierlot was one of the chief supporters of the Benelux Customs Union negotiated with both the Dutch and Luxembourgish governments in exile and signed in September 1944.[30] Unlike Spaak, who was a staunch supporter of greater cooperation between states in Western Europe, Pierlot supported a transatlantic alliance with the United States to guarantee Belgian independence after the end of the war.[31]

Liberation governments[edit]

The liberation of Belgium begun in September 1944 as Allied forces moved eastwards. Brussels was liberated on 3 September.[32] On 8 September, Pierlot and the government in exile arrived in the city by aeroplane.[32] The return of the government was met with general indifference by the population, which felt the government had been indifferent to the plight of the population during the occupation.[32]

Parliament met for the first time since 1940 on 19 September 1944 in which Pierlot presented a summary of the government's actions in Britain during the occupation.[33] One of the first acts of the government was to make Prince Charles, Leopold's brother, the prince regent on 20 September.[34] On 26 September, a new liberation government of national unity was created. Because of a shortage of candidates, Pierlot continued to head it.[33] The new government included members of the Communist Party of Belgium (PCB-KPB). The new government presided over the eventual liberation of all of Belgium, delayed by a German offensive in the Ardennes in the winter of 1944. The government also encountered problems with the national food supply and the launching of Gutt's monetary reform plan, as well as the disarming of the Resistance. The refusal of the Front de l'Indépendance (FI), a left-wing resistance group, to disband and disarm provoked a crisis within the government between Pierlot and the Communists.[35] The three Communist ministers resigned from the government, and the party began agitating.[33] Amid fears of a Communist coup d'état, parliament voted through emergency powers allowing the Gendarmerie to forcibly disarm the resistance though sporadic strikes continued.[36] The government also voted through important social security reforms.[37]

Continued problems with the food supply, coupled the unpopularity of some of the government's measures, led to widespread press criticism of the Pierlot government. Strikes across the country in February 1945 further destabilized the government.[38] On 7 February 1945, Pierlot publically defended the actions of the government in parliament, but failed to make a significant impression. The government fell in February, and was replaced by a new, short-lived national union government under Achille Van Acker while polemic surrounding the possible dismissal or restatement of Leopold III were considered.[39]

Later life and death[edit]

After the fall of his government, Pierlot returned to his position as senator of the Arondissement of Arlon-Marche-Bastogne-Neufchâteau-Virton until the elections of February 1946.[40] In September 1945, Pierlot was appointed to the honorary role of Minister of State by Charles and, shortly after the 1946 election, was awarded the titel of Count.[40] Because he was considered an anti-Leopoldist during the crisis surrounding the Royal Question, he was ostracized by his broadly pro-Leopoldist party.[41]

Retiring from politics, Pierlot returned to practicing Law in Brussels.[41] In 1946, a book entitled the White Book (Livre Blanc) was published at the request of Leopold, defending the King and attacking the exile government's record. Responding to the criticism, Pierlot published a widely distributed series of articles in the newspaper Le Soir.[42] He remained a controversial figure. King Baudouin, replacing his father as King in 1950, also refused to receive Pierlot at the palace.[43] After 1947, he refused to return to politics or to respond publically to criticism from his political enemies.[44]

Pierlot died in Uccle, a suburb of Brussels, on 13 December 1963, ten days before his 80th birthday.[44] He is buried in Cugenon. A charitable organisation, the Fondation Hubert Pierlot, was founded by friends of Pierlot in 1966.[45]


  • "Serious to the point of severity, honest to the point of scrupulosity, a never-tired worker, a devout Christian, a patriot, a model of civic, professional, and family virtues, he was an exceptional man." (Spaak on Pierlot; P.-H. Spaak, Combats inachevés, Fayard 1969, vol. I, p. 59)


  1. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 37.
  2. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 35.
  3. ^ a b Grosbois 2007, p. 15.
  4. ^ a b Grosbois 2007, p. 16.
  5. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 38.
  6. ^ Grosbois 2007, pp. 38-9.
  7. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 21.
  8. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 117.
  9. ^ Grosbois 2007, pp. 120-7.
  10. ^ Grosbois 2007, pp. 127-9.
  11. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 129.
  12. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 131.
  13. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 133.
  14. ^ Grosbois 2007, pp. 133-5.
  15. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 137; 141.
  16. ^ Grosbois 2007, pp. 142-3.
  17. ^ Grosbois 2007, pp. 133-6.
  18. ^ Grosbois 2007, pp. 144-5.
  19. ^ Grosbois 2007, pp. 150-1.
  20. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 152.
  21. ^ Grosbois 2007, pp. 153.
  22. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 157.
  23. ^ a b Yapou 2006.
  24. ^ Le Soir 1994.
  25. ^ Conway & Gotovitch 2001, p. 55-6.
  26. ^ a b c d Grosbois 2007, p. 288.
  27. ^ Grosbois 2007, pp. 289-90.
  28. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 298.
  29. ^ a b Grosbois 2007, p. 299.
  30. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 215.
  31. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 226.
  32. ^ a b c Grosbois 2007, p. 319.
  33. ^ a b c Grosbois 2007, p. 325.
  34. ^ Grosbois 2007, pp. 323-4.
  35. ^ Grosbois 2007, pp. 335-6.
  36. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 340.
  37. ^ Grosbois 2007, pp. 341-2.
  38. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 346.
  39. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 347.
  40. ^ a b Grosbois 2007, p. 349.
  41. ^ a b Grosbois 2007, p. 350.
  42. ^ Grosbois 2007, pp. 352-3.
  43. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 356.
  44. ^ a b Grosbois 2007, p. 359.
  45. ^ Grosbois 2007, p. 360.


External links[edit]

  • Hubert Pierlot at the official website of the Belgian Prime Minister

Political offices
Preceded by
Paul-Henri Spaak
Prime Minister of Belgium
Succeeded by
Achille Van Acker