Léon Joseph Marie Ignace Degrelle, born 15 June 1906 was a Wallon Belgian politician and Nazi collaborator, who founded Rexism and later joined the Waffen SS (becoming a leader of its Wallon contigent which were front-line troops in German combat operations against the Soviet Union. After World War II, he was a prominent figure in fascist movements.
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 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.
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 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 . Primo de Rivera was found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad. The sentence was carried out early in the morning of November 20, 1936, age 33. On November 30, it was announced that Corneliu Codreanu, age 39, had been shot after trying to flee custody.
When the war began, Degrelle approved of King Leopold III‘s policy of neutrality. After Belgium and Holland 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 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. He quickly rose upwards in the ranks. Initially, the group was meant to represent a continuation of the Belgian Army, and fought as such during Operation Barbarossa , while integrating many Wallons that had volunteered for service. The Walloons were transferred from the Wehrmacht to the Waffen SS in June 1943, becoming the 5th Volonteer 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 Bischop 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 a review of SS troops in a city square on April 2, 1944, SS officer Leon Degrelle walks past the ranks of Wallonien volunteers with SS Oberstgruppenführer Josef “Sepp” Dietrich and Richard Jungclaus.
SS Gruppenführer Jungclaus was killed in action as member of the 7th Freiwilligen Gebirgs Division “Prinz Eugen”, near Savidovice in Jogoslavia age 40 on 15-04-1945.
Severely wounded at Cherkasy in 1943, Degrelle continued to climb the Schutzstaffel (SS) hierarchy after the inclusion of Walloons in the Waffen-SS, being made an SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) in the early months of 1945. He was awarded the Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross) by Hitler. 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 seven other non-Germans.
During the final Soviet offensive of 20 April 1945, the Belgians were soon swept aside by the advancing Soviet forces. Degrelle abandoned his men and drove into Denmark. The unit retreated to Lübeck, where it surrendered to the British. Degrelle 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. He remained in exile in Malaga, Spain. Belgium convicted him of treason in absentia and sentenced him to death; Degrelle never came back to his country and 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 Htler. Asked if he had any regrets about the war, his reply was “Only that we lost!”
Leon Degrelle died old age 86, of cardial arrest in a hospital in Málaga on 31-03-1994. He was cremated and his ashes scattered.
Specifically: A former Walloon SS officer, Jean Vermiere scattered the ashes at the grave of the Giant or Tombeau du Géant in french is a touristic place near Bouillon. Jean Vermeire, born 28-09-1918, the last Rex Party leader died old age 91 on 25-09-2009.