||This article may be expanded with text translated from the corresponding article in the French Wikipedia. (November 2013)|
15 June 1906|
Bouillon, Wallonia, Belgium
|Died||31 March 1994
|Years of service||1941–45|
|Unit||28th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Wallonien|
|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 Walloon Belgian politician, who founded Rexism and later joined the Waffen SS (becoming a leader of its Walloon contingent) which were front-line troops in the fight against the Soviet Union. After World War II, he was a prominent figure in fascist movements.
Before the war
After studying at a Jesuit college and successfully 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 militant tendency inside the Catholic Party, which he formed around the Éditions de Rex he founded. 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 strongly anti-communist (anti-bolshevik). The party also came to denounce political corruption in Belgian politics. Drawing its support (in 1936, the peak of the votes for Rex), from Brussels (result of the votes expressed in percentage 18,50%), Wallonia (15,16%), Flanders (7,01%), and German-speaking Community of Belgium (or the territory corresponding to this present-day Community) (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 in decline by 1939, when it managed to win only 4 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 Belgium was invaded by the Germans 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 Theo 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). He joined the Walloon legion of the Wehrmacht, which was raised in August 1941, to combat against the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front, and Degrelle himself joined it in combat (with leadership of the Rexists passing to Victor Matthys). Lacking any previous military service Degrelle volunteered to join as a low ranking private, rejecting a direct promotion to an officers rank from Hitler himself. He later quickly rose upwards in the hierarchy. Initially, the group was meant to represent a continuation of the Belgian Army, and fought as such during Operation Barbarossa - while integrating many Walloons that had volunteered for service. The Walloons were transferred from the Wehrmacht to the control of the Waffen SS in June 1943, becoming the 5th SS Volunteer Sturmbrigade Wallonien.
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.
Severely wounded at Cherkasy in 1943, Degrelle steadily climbed in the Schutzstaffel hierarchy after the inclusion of Walloons in the Waffen-SS, being made an SS-Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) in the early months of 1945. He received the Ritterkreuz (Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross) from Hitler's hands. Degrelle later claimed Hitler told him, "If I had a son, I would want him to be like you." Degrelle was later awarded the oakleaves (mit Eichenlaub) as were two other non-Germans, the Estonian Alfons Rebane and Gen. Agustín Muñoz Grandes, the Spanish commander of the Blue Division.
- 12 February 1942; Gefreiter (Heer)
- 28 February 1942; Oberfeldwebel (Heer)
- 1 May 1942; Leutnant d. R. (Heer)
- 1 June 1943; SS-Obersturmführer d. R. der Waffen-SS
- 1 January 1944; SS-Hauptsturmführer d. R. der Waffen-SS
- 20 April 1944; SS-Sturmbannführer d. R. der Waffen-SS
- 1 January 1945; SS-Obersturmbannführer d. R. der Waffen-SS
- 20 April 1945; SS-Standartenführer d. R. der Waffen-SS
- Degrelle was promoted directly to SS-Brigadeführer and Generalmajor der Waffen-SS d. R. by Heinrich Himmler on 02 May 1945; an entry to this effect appears in his Soldbuch, however this promotion cannot be considered official as Himmler had been stripped of all SS and Party posts by Führer order on 28 April 1945.
Decorations & awards:
- 22 August 1944 Mentioned in the Wehrmachtbericht
- 27 August 1944 Eichenlaub zum Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes as SS-Sturmbannführer d. R. and Kdr. 5.SS-Freiwilligen-Panzer-Brigade "Wallonien" / Kampfgruppe Wagner / Armee-Abteilung Narwa / Heeresgruppe Nord, Northeastern Front
- 20 February 1944 Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes as SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer d. R., and Führer SS-Sturmbrigade "Wallonien" / 8.Armee / Heeresgruppe Süd, Eastern Front
- 9 October 1944 Deutsches Kreuz in Gold as SS-Sturmbannführer d. R. and Kdr. 5.SS-Freiwilligen-Sturmbrigade "Wallonien" / 5.SS-Panzer-Division "Wiking" / III.(germanische) SS-Panzer-Korps / Armee-Abteilung Grasser / Heeresgruppe Nord, Northeastern Front
- 25 May 1942; 1939 Eisernes Kreuz I. Klasse
- 3 March 1942; 1939 Eisernes Kreuz II. Klasse
- 14 September 1944; Nahkampfspange III.Stufe (Gold)
- 19 March 1944; Nahkampfspange II.Stufe (Silber)
- 30 November 1943; Nahkampfspange I.Stufe (Bronze) (other documents indicate 23 December 1943 and 20 February 1944)
- 25 August 1942; Infanterie-Sturmabzeichen in Silber
- 19 March 1944; Verwundetenabzeichen, 1939 in Gold
- 20 February 1944; Verwundetenabzeichen, 1939 in Silber (another document indicates 23 December 1943)
- 15 August 1942; Medaille "Winterschlacht im Osten 1941/42" (Ostmedaille)
Refuge and scandals
After Germany's defeat, Degrelle fled first to Denmark and eventually fled to Norway, where he commandeered a Heinkel He 111 aircraft, allegedly provided by Albert Speer. He was severely wounded in a crash-landing on a beach in San Sebastian in Northern Spain. The government of Franco in Spain initially refused to hand him over to the Allies (or extradite him to Belgium) by citing his health condition. After further international pressures, Francisco Franco permitted his escape from hospital, while handing over a look-alike; in the meanwhile, José Finat y Escrivá de Romaní helped Degrelle obtain false papers. 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 benefitted from state contracts. Belgium convicted him of treason in absentia and condemned him to death by firing squad.
Degrelle's family was heavily persecuted in post-war Belgium. His unpolitical parents died in captivity in 1947, his wife was imprisoned for six years, their six children were taken away and with changed names put into custody all over Europe. Degrelle was later able to find out the whereabouts of his children and could reunite with them.
While in Spain, during the Franco dictatorship, Degrelle maintained a high standard of living and would frequently appear in public and in 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 became democratic after the death of Franco with the help of the Gil family, 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 own writings, including an Open Letter to Pope John Paul II on the topic of the Auschwitz concentration camp, the extermination purpose of which Degrelle called "one big fraud, Holy Father."
His repeated statements on the topic of Nazi genocide brought Degrelle to trial with Violeta Friedman, a Romanian-born Venezuelan 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!"
Works in English
- Campaign in Russia: The Waffen SS on the Eastern Front ISBN 0-317-38510-0
- Hitler: Born at Versailles ISBN 0-939484-25-0 (review)
- For Rex and for Belgium: Léon Degrelle and Walloon Political and Military Collaboration 1940-45
- Yesterday (TV Channel): Nazi Collaborators
- Jean Ladrière, François Perin & Jean Meynaud. La décision politique en Belgique, CRISP, Bruxelles, 1965, pp. Annexe III, pp. 85-86.
- Farr, Michael (2007). The Adventures of Hergé (Re-release ed.). Last Gasp. pp. 27, 53. ISBN 978-0-86719-679-5.; (first published 2007 by John Murray Publishers Ltd.)
- "Degrelle's ex-communication reversed". CatholicHerald.co.uk.
- "Profile at germandaggers.info".
- Thomas 1997, p. 111.
- Mike Miller. Axis Biographical Research at the Wayback Machine (archived October 27, 2009), 10 June 2005)
- Degrelle, p. 345
- Léon Degrelle.
- "Open Letter to Pope John Paul II". Internet Archive.
- "Amazon.com: For Rex and for Belgium: Léon Degrelle and Walloon Political and Military Collaboration 1940-45 eBook: Eddy de Bruyne, Marc Rikmenspoel: Books".
- Berger, Florian (2004). Ritterkreuzträger mit Nahkampfspange in Gold [Knight's Cross Bearers with the Close Combat Clasp in Gold] (in German). Vienna, Austria: Selbstverlag Florian Berger. ISBN 978-3-9501307-3-7.
- Fellgiebel, Walther-Peer (2000). Die Träger des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939–1945 – Die Inhaber der höchsten Auszeichnung des Zweiten Weltkrieges aller Wehrmachtteile [The Bearers of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross 1939–1945 — The Owners of the Highest Award of the Second World War of all Wehrmacht Branches] (in German). Friedberg, Germany: Podzun-Pallas. ISBN 978-3-7909-0284-6.
- Schaulen, Fritjof (2003). Eichenlaubträger 1940 – 1945 Zeitgeschichte in Farbe I Abraham – Huppertz [Oak Leaves Bearers 1940 – 1945 Contemporary History in Color I Abraham – Huppertz] (in German). Selent, Germany: Pour le Mérite. ISBN 978-3-932381-20-1.
- Scherzer, Veit (2007). Die Ritterkreuzträger 1939–1945 Die Inhaber des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939 von Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm sowie mit Deutschland verbündeter Streitkräfte nach den Unterlagen des Bundesarchives [The Knight's Cross Bearers 1939–1945 The Holders of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross 1939 by Army, Air Force, Navy, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm and Allied Forces with Germany According to the Documents of the Federal Archives] (in German). Jena, Germany: Scherzers Miltaer-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-938845-17-2.
- Thomas, Franz (1997). Die Eichenlaubträger 1939–1945 Band 1: A–K [The Oak Leaves Bearers 1939–1945 Volume 1: A–K] (in German). Osnabrück, Germany: Biblio-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7648-2299-6.
- Collaboration in Belgium: Leon Degrelle and the Rexist Movement, 1940-1944 by Martin Conway (1993); ISBN 0-300-05500-5.
- Biographical Dictionary of the Extreme Right Since 1890 edited by Philip Rees (1991); ISBN 0-13-089301-3.
- Fascism, edited by Roger Griffin (ISBN 0-19-289249-5)
- For Rex and Belgium: Leon Degrelle and Walloon Political & Military Collaboration 1940-1945 by Eddy De Bruyne & Marc Rikmenspoel (2004); ISBN 1-874622-32-9.
- Campaign in Russia - The Waffen SS On the Eastern Front, Crecy Books, 1985; ISBN 0-947554-04-1.
- Conway, Martin. Collaboration in Belgium: Leon Degrelle and the Rexist Movement, 1940-1944, Yale University Press (24 November 1993); ISBN 1-030005500-5.
- Baland, Lionel. Léon Degrelle et la presse rexiste, Déterna, Paris, 2009; ISBN 9782913044869
- Streel José, La révolution du XXème siècle (new edition of the book which was published in 1942 by the la NSE in Bruxelles), preface by L. Baland, Déterna, Paris, 2010
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Léon Degrelle.|
- Leon Degrelle, The Campaign in Russia
SS-Oberführer Karl Burk
|Commander of 28th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Wallonien
30 January 1945 – 8 May 1945