Not quite like a statue of Hitler or Stalin, but not unlike that, either

Out over the Toison d’Or the old bastard glooms. Shovel-bearded, he sits astride his mount, his 1000-yard gaze intent on the main chance. The socle bears his name, his regnal dates, and the legend ‘PATRIA MEMOR’: a stern summons to remembrance. As usual, though, with such biddings, the true call is for selective forgetting.

It calls Belgians to remember the patrimony bequeathed by King Leopold II with riches milked from the empire in the Congo. In fact, to label Leopold’s venture ‘imperialist’ is, if anything, flattering. At least classical European imperialism on the British, German and French model purported to exploit the natives in the name of the metropolis as a whole: by contrast, the Congo territory was Leopold’s personal property from 1885 to 1908, owned via a holding company set up in the guise of a philanthropic association. The land, densely forested, was rich in vines bearing rubber sap. Leopold benefited from a windfall boom in demand in the 1890s from car and bicycle manufacturers, as did the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company.

Leopold's telescopic-philanthropy propaganda spoke of conferring the gift of civilisation on the savages. On best estimates, the Congo’s population fell from twenty million in 1880 to ten million in 1920. Obviously that doesn’t mean that ten million people were killed: a major cause of the drop was non-replacement, largely caused by Leopold’s proxies’ conscripting fertile adults into slave labour. That said, Belgian agents routinely flogged Congolese with rhino-hide whips, often to death, and hanged, disembowelled, decapitated and shot them. Gendarmes had to account for ordnance used by matching spent cartridges with the hands of those they'd killed. Hands were sometimes hacked off the living; when high-ups complained that the hands might have come from women, the Belgians cut off their victims’ penises. Rape was commonplace.

The man who instigated these things remains venerated in Belgian polite society, the colonial atrocities scanted. A 2004 BBC documentary, closely based on King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, raised howls of protest from the Belgian government and royal family. Among the odder pleas for silence is that the monarchy demands sacred-cow treatment because it’s needed to keep the country together. Certainly the royals did well out of the Congo: it paid for a refit to the palace at Laeken, and for Tervuren’s African museum, where Leopold staged the colonial section of the 1897 World’s Fair, featuring 260 Congolese as a human-zoo exhibit.

To rub it all in, Leopold’s statue stands just down the road from Matonge, the Congolese quarter off Porte de Namur named after a district of Kinshasa. Now and again, activists try to badge the currently nameless area behind the Eglise Saint-Boniface in honour of Patrice Lumumba, the post-independence Congolese leader murdered with active Belgian complicity, including King Baudouin’s, in 1961. The homemade signs are promptly trashed by the police, and last October the local Ixelles commune rejected a proposal to name the site in Lumumba’s memory. Meanwhile, Brussels’s toponyms abound in Leopold avenues, boulevards, parks.

Various follies funded by his rubber loot, both in the capital and elsewhere – notably at Ostend, with a Venetian colonnade and the inevitable equestrian effigy rearing high above beach level – make Leopold unignorably present. Few in Belgium apart from Africans seem to find it odd that a man whose death-tab rivals that of Hitler and Stalin, let alone Mussolini (Leopold’s Congolese death toll far exceeds the duce’s in Abyssinia) should still be fêted in the capital not just of Belgium, but the European Union. Its HQ lies at Schuman, less than a mile away from the bronze Leopold. It’s not quite as if there were a statue of Hitler or Stalin within shouting distance of the EU; but it’s not quite not like that, either. The European Union’s charter of fundamental rights proclaims ‘the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity’.