|Leader of the Rexist Party|
2 November 1935 – 30 March 1945
Léon Joseph Marie Ignace Degrelle
15 June 1906
Bouillon, Luxembourg Province, Wallonia, Belgium
|Died||31 March 1994 (aged 87)|
Málaga, Andalusia, Spain
|Political party||Rexist Party|
|Alma mater||Université catholique de Louvain|
|Known for||Member of Cedade|
|Branch/service|| German Army|
|Years of service||1941–45|
|Commands||SS Division Wallonien|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
|Awards||Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves|
Léon Joseph Marie Ignace Degrelle (French: [dəgʁɛl]; 15 June 1906 – 31 March 1994) was a Belgian politician and Nazi collaborator. Degrelle rose to prominence in the 1930s as the leader of the Catholic authoritarian Rexist Party in Belgium. During the German occupation in World War II, he enlisted in the German army and fought in the Walloon Legion on the Eastern Front. After the collapse of the Nazi regime, Degrelle went into exile in Francoist Spain where he remained a prominent figure in neo-Nazi politics.
After studying at a Jesuit college and studying for a law doctorate at the Université catholique de Louvain, Degrelle worked as a journalist for the conservative Roman Catholic periodical Christus Rex. During his time at this publication, he became attracted to the ideas of Charles Maurras and French Integralism. Until 1934, Degrelle worked as a correspondent for the paper in Mexico, during the Cristero War. He led a radical group inside the Catholic Party, based on the Éditions de Rex publishing house. The Éditions drew its name from the battle cry of the Cristeros: Viva Cristo Rey y Santa María de Guadalupe, alluding to Christ the King.
Degrelle's actions inside the Catholic Party saw him come into opposition with the mainstream of the same party, many of whom were monarchist conservatives or centrists. The Rexist group, including the likes of Jean Denis, separated itself from the Catholic Party in 1935, after a meeting in Kortrijk. The newly formed party was heavily influenced by Fascism and Corporatism (but also included several elements interested solely in Nationalism or Ultramontanism); it had a vision of social equality that drew comparisons with Marxism but was staunchly anti-communist (anti-bolshevik). The party also came to denounce political corruption in Belgian politics. In 1936, in which Rex reached peak votes, it drew its support from Brussels (18.50%), Wallonia (15.16%), Flanders (7.01%), and Eupen-Malmedy (26.44%). Rexism had a Flemish ideological competitor in the Vlaamsch Nationaal Verbond which advocated an independent Flanders and exclusive use of the Dutch language.
In 1936, Degrelle met Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, both of them providing Rexism with funds (2 million lire and 100,000 marks) and ideological support. Elections in that year had given the Parti Rexiste 21 deputies and 12 senators, although its influence declined by 1939 when it managed to win only four seats in each Chamber. The party progressively added Nazi-inspired Antisemitism to its agenda, and soon established contacts with fascist movements around Europe. Degrelle notably met with Falange leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera and the Iron Guard's Corneliu Zelea Codreanu.
During this time (mid-1930s), Degrelle became acquainted with the cartoonist Hergé. In a volume published after his death (Tintin mon copain), the Rexist leader claimed that his years of journalism had inspired the creation of The Adventures of Tintin—ignoring Hergé's statements that the character was in fact based on his brother, Paul Remi. Degrelle had been shipping Mexican newspapers containing American cartoons to Belgium, and Hergé did admit years later in 1975 that Degrelle deserved credit for introducing him to the comic "strip".
When the war began, Degrelle approved of King Leopold III's policy of neutrality. After the Germans invaded Belgium on 10 May 1940, the Rexist Party split over the matter of resistance. He was arrested as a suspected collaborator and evacuated to France. Unlike other Belgian deportees, Degrelle was spared in the Massacre of Abbeville and instead sent into a French concentration camp. He was later released when the occupation began.
Degrelle returned to Belgium and proclaimed reconstructed Rexism to be in close union with Nazism—in marked contrast with the small group of former Rexists (such as Théo Simon and Lucien Mayer) who had begun fighting against the Nazi occupiers from the underground. In August, Degrelle started contributing to a Nazi news source, Le Pays Réel (a reference to Charles Maurras). Degrelle joined the Walloon legion of the Wehrmacht, which was raised in August 1941, to fight against the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. The leadership of the Rexists then passed to Victor Matthys. Lacking any previous military service, Degrelle joined as a private and was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class in March 1942. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a lieutenant in May 1942, and received the Iron Cross First Class the same month. Initially, the group was meant to represent a continuation of the Belgian Army, and fought as such during Operation Barbarossa, while integrating many Walloons who had volunteered for service. The Walloons were transferred from the Wehrmacht to the Waffen-SS in June 1943, becoming the Sturmbrigade Wallonien and served on the Eastern Front.
From 1940, the Belgian Roman Catholic hierarchy had banned all uniforms during Mass. On 25 July 1943, in his native Bouillon, Degrelle was told by Dean Rev Poncelet to leave a Requiem Mass, because he was wearing his SS uniform, which church authorities had prohibited. Degrelle was excommunicated by the Bishop of Namur, but the excommunication was later lifted by the Germans since as a German officer he was under the jurisdiction of the German chaplaincy.
During the battle of the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket, fought from 24 January to 16 February 1944, the Wallonien was given the task of defending against Soviet attacks on the eastern side of the pocket. While General Wilhelm Stemmermann, the overall commander for the trapped forces, moved them to the west of the pocket in readiness for a breakout attempt, Wallonien and Wiking were ordered to act as a rearguard. After Lippert was killed, Degrelle took command of the Brigade, and the Wallonien began its withdrawal under heavy fire. Of the brigade's 2,000 men, only 632 survived.
For his actions at Korsun, Degrelle was promoted to SS-Sturmbannführer (major). He was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross (Ritterkreuz) by Hitler in February 1944. Degrelle later claimed Hitler told him, "You are truly unique in history. You are a political leader who fights like a soldier. If I had a son, I would want him to be like you." Six months later Degrelle was awarded the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves, as were seven other non-Germans.
The unit was sent back to Wildflecken to be reformed. In June 1944, a 440-man battalion of the Wallonien was sent to Estonia to assist in the defence of the Tannenberg Line. After Operation Bagration began, Army Group North began to fall back into the Kurland Pocket. The battalion left through the port of Tallinn (Reval) on the Baltic Sea. The remnants of the Battalion were sent back to join the rest of the brigade, which was located at Breslau.
On 8 July 1944 Degrelle's brother Édouard, a pharmacist, was killed in Degrelle's hometown of Bouillon by Belgian resistance fighters. Shortly afterwards, a Rexist hit squad executed pharmacist Henri Charles. A few days later, three civilian hostages were executed, apparently on Degrelle's orders, as all three were known to be his political enemies.
He commanded Sturmbrigade Wallonien from 18 September 1944 to 8 May 1945. He led the unit in the defense of Estonia against the Soviets. He was promoted to SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) in the early months of 1945.
Degrelle was promoted to SS-Standartenführer (colonel) on 20 April 1945. On 1 May 1945, Degrelle was promoted by SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler to Brigadeführer (brigadier general). This promotion, however, was extralegal due to Himmler having been removed from office on Hitler's orders on 28 April.
With the final surrender of Berlin on 2 May 1945, Degrelle was desperate to avoid Russian captivity and ordered as many of his worn-out veterans as possible to make for the Baltic port of Lubeck to surrender to the British. Degrelle himself fled first to Denmark and then Norway, where he commandeered a Heinkel He 111 aircraft, allegedly provided by Albert Speer. After a 1,500-mile (2,400 km) flight over portions of Allied-occupied Europe, he crash-landed on the beach at San Sebastian in northern Spain, but was gravely injured and hospitalized for over a year.
In 1954, in order to ensure his stay, Spain granted him Spanish citizenship under the name José León Ramírez Reina, and the Falange assigned him the leadership of a construction firm that benefited from state contracts, including with the U.S. government to build military airfields in Spain. Meanwhile, friends scoured Europe for his children. In time, all were found and spirited to Spain.
While in Francoist Spain, Degrelle maintained a high standard of living and frequently appeared in public and private meetings in a white uniform featuring his German decorations, while expressing his pride over his close contacts and "thinking bond" with Adolf Hitler. He continued to live undisturbed when Spain transitioned to democracy after the death of Franco, and continued publishing polemics, voicing his support for the political far right. He became active in the Neo-Nazi Círculo Español de Amigos de Europa (Cedade) and ran its printing press in Barcelona, where he published a large portion of his writings, including an Open Letter to Pope John Paul II on the topic of the Auschwitz concentration camp, asking the Pope not to go.
His repeated statements on the topic of Nazi genocide brought Degrelle to trial with Violeta Friedman, a Romanian-born survivor of the camps. Although lower courts were initially favourable to Degrelle, the Supreme Court of Spain decided he had offended the memory of the victims, both Jews and non-Jews, and sentenced him to pay a substantial fine. Asked if he had any regrets about the war, his reply was "Only that we lost!"
SS-Oberführer Karl Burk
| Commander of 28th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Wallonien
30 January 1945 – 8 May 1945