Leon Degrelle in the uniform of an SS Officer
The rise in contemporary times of White Nationalism has meant that many of its adherents have sought inspiration from the Nazi and Fascist era of the 20thCentury. This is not limited to the political parties that came to power in Germany and Italy, but encompasses the likes of the Spanish Falange, the Romanian Iron Guard, the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, the British Union of Fascists and the Belgian Rexist Party. The founder of Rexism, Leon Degrelle serves as an icon to those who range from adventurers seeking military action with the Neo-Nazi Azov Battalion of Ukraine to the White Nationalist groups who have marched in cities like Charlottesville. White identitarians claim they are reacting to mass immigration of non-whites, the threat of Islam and the domination of Jews in their societies. And in Degrelle they conceptualise the creation, in his words, of “a European world which would be the master of the universe of all time.”
“You must train harder than the enemy who is trying to kill you. You will get all the rest you need in the grave.”
- Leon Degrelle
The dark era of the ascendant European right-wing prior to and during World War II produced a range of figures who continue to be revered not only by present day neo-Nazis, but by adherents to the belief system of what is contemporarily termed “White Nationalism”. Reinhard Heydrich, the S.S. chief who was assassinated in Prague in 1942, unlike many figures of the German Third Reich, escaped the humiliation of a criminal’s fate of death on the gallows, while Robert Brasilliach, the French writer-advocate for fascist movements, is martyred by those who consider his culpability for intellectual rather than for political or military crimes to be a vindication of sorts. And there is Otto Skorzeny, the swashbuckling Austrian special forces officer, who came to be known as Hitler’s favourite commando.
But Leon Degrelle, the Belgian Nazi-collaborator and long-term exile in Francoist Spain, perhaps embodied a sufficient quotient of the properties each of the aforementioned possessed. A man composed of great resourcefulness, intellect and physical courage, he does not carry the sort of ‘baggage’ of Heydrich whose homicidal activities with einsatzgruppen forces speak of more of sadism than heroism. At war’s end, Brascillach hid in his mother’s attic to evade capture before meekly giving himself up. And Skorzeny’s reputation as ‘Commando Extraordinary”, built up by Nazi propaganda and self-publicity, has been severely revised in recent times. He was also revealed to have compromised his national socialist credentials by working for the Israeli Mossad.
Born on June 15th 1906 in the municipality of Bouillon, Degrelle was a Walloon who formed and developed the political ideology of Rexism, a far-right Catholic, nationalist, authoritarian and corporatist creed. After studies, he became a journalist for Christus Rex, a conservative Roman Catholic periodical, and then led a radical group within the Catholic Party. The friction with the mainstream factions within the party led to Degrelle and others to form the Rexist Party in 1935.
The ideology of Parti Rexiste, which agitated for religious and social reform, was heavily influenced by Benito Mussolini’s fascism and was avowedly anti-Communist. Degrelle’s charisma and oratorical skills played a huge part in the party’s initially promising electoral success. His rising profile led to meetings with both Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. He also forged links with the major far-right parties in Spain and Romania, respectively the Falange and Iron Guard.
But his rise would be halted and the commencement of a downward spiral in his fortunes begun when he lost a by-election in 1937 that had been triggered by the resignation of a Rexist whose departure had been supposed to have paved the way for Degrelle’s entry into the Belgian legislature. He had been labelled as an extremist by his political opponents and the Catholic Church, and the next stage of his descent was his internment in France when war was drawing closer.
German conquest and occupation of his country paid little dividend for Degrelle after his release. With the occupying power favouring the Flemish population, he tried to make himself relevant by reaching out to German administrators, Belgian and French collaborators as well as the Church. It was to no avail. Degrelle then decided to rebirth his party as a clone of the Nazi Party. It marked the beginning of his collaboration.
The reformation of his party notwithstanding, Degrelle continued to be ignored by the Nazi leadership including Joseph Goebbels who considered him to be a “fraud”. His next move was an audacious one. In response to Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Degrelle, despite having no previous military experience, decided to join the Legion Walloonie (Walloon Legion) as part of Hitler’s ideological crusade against Bolshevism. The legion was initially attached to the Wehrmacht, but from June 1943 became a part of the Waffen-SS. Beginning as a private, Degrelle survived the harsh conditions of the German Ostfront, including material privations and a high casualty rate, to win the German Iron Cross (2nd Class and then 1st Class) and eventual promotion to SS-Standartenfuhrer (colonel) and leader of the legion.
Degrelle’s triumphs led to a meeting with Himmler, and after his part in his legion’s holding back of superior Soviet forces during the battle of Cherkasy to enable the withdrawal of 60,000 German troops during the by now permanent retreat of the Nazis, he was rewarded with a meeting with Hitler, who awarded him the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. According to Degrelle, Hitler is supposed to have 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.
But despite this and his triumphant speaking tours in his native land, the tide had begun to turn against the Nazis, and collaborators such as Degrelle. The retreat already a consistent factor on the Eastern Front had begun in the western theatre after the D-Day landings at Normandy in June 1944. The violent retribution against collaborators which followed had a personal impact on Degrelle, whose brother, a pharmacist was assassinated by guerrillas of the Belgian resistance. Degrelle’s part in conducting reprisals including the murder of three hostages –all political enemies of his- further consolidated his post-war designation as a war criminal.
As the Third Reich collapsed around him, Degrelle, one of the few survivors of the Walloon Legion, commandeered a Heinkel 111 bomber in Oslo and along with three others embarked for Francoist Spain where, short of fuel, the plane crash landed on a beach in San Sebastian.
He lived in Spain under the protection of the Franco regime, which rebuffed all entreaties from the allies to hand him over for trial with the post-war authorities in Belgium who would condemn him to death in absentia. There he remained staunchly committed to the cause of Nazism and resolutely proud about the anti-Bolshevik campaign in which he had participated. In his interviews he continually extolled the racial theories of the Third Reich and wrote an open letter to the Pope denying the extent of the official number of Jews murdered during the war, claiming that it was scientifically and logistically impossible to have killed the amount of people claimed to have been exterminated at Auschwitz.
He died in Malaga on March 31st 1994 at the age of 87, defiant to the last.
Once asked if he had any regrets about the war, Degrelle replied:
“Only that we lost!”
© Adeyinka Makinde (2019)
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.