By W.A. Carto
Here is the inspiring yet tragic story of an idealistic, indomitable and fear less leader who survived the worst that World War II had to offer, only to be struck down by treason in the twilight of his life.
Leon Degrelle died in Malaga, Spain on April 1, 1994 at 87.
Before World War II, Degrelle had been Europe’s youngest political leader and the founder of the Rexist Party of Belgium. During the war he was a hero on the Eastern Front, fighting to save Europe from communism.
As statesman and soldier he was acquainted with Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, Franco, Laval, Pétain and many other European leaders during the titanic ideological and military clash that was World War II. Alone among them, he survived across nearly five decades to remain a personal witness of that historical period.
Degrelle was born to a family of French origin in the small Ardennes town of Bouillon in Luxembourg on June 15, 1906. He was the son of a prosperous brewer who had immigrated to Luxembourg from France five years earlier, provoked by a French “anti-clerical” government’s expulsion of the Jesuit order. It was said so many of the Degrelles had become Jesuit priests that the Degrelles were “Jesuits from father to son.”
Young Leon studied at the University of Louvain, where he acquired a doctorate in law, but he also immersed himself in other academic disciplines such as political science, art, archeology and philosophy. As a student, his natural gift of leadership became apparent. By the time he reached 20 the young prodigy had already published five books and operated his own weekly newspaper.
Out of his deep Christian conviction, Degrelle joined Belgium’s Catholic Action Movement and naturally soon became one of its leaders. Leon’s passion was people. He wanted to win the crowds, particularly the Marxist ones. He wanted them to share his ideals of social and spiritual change for society. He wanted to lift people up; to forge for them a stable, efficient and responsible state, a state backed by the good sense of people and for the sole benefit of the people. No wonder Degrelle often said: “Either you have the people with you, or you have nothing with you.” Degrelle, in short, was a populist.
During his involvement with the Rexist party, he addressed more than 2,000 meetings. His books and newspaper were read everywhere because they always dealt with the real issues. Although he was not yet 25, people listened to him avidly.
In a few short years he had won over a large part of the population. Belgium’s corrupt political establishment took serious note of this upstart. Al though Degrelle had initially been working with Belgium’s Catholic Party (one of the nation’s three ruling parties, the others being the Liberals and the Socialists) he ultimately began to be come disillusioned with the party’s ruling clique and began focusing his efforts on building his Rexist movement.
Demanding radical political reform and the establishment of an authoritative “corporative” state of social justice and national unity, Degrelle launched a hard-driving and brilliant propaganda campaign against the ruling parties, which he came to describe as the pourris—that is, “the corrupt,” and the Rexist movement made great political capital out of the cynical financial manipulations of the parties and their henchmen. Degrelle called them “the banksters.”
Degrelle’s movement recognized that the ruling parties, so cooperative when it came to dividing the spoils that accrue to politicians, fostered division and strife throughout Belgium. Historian Allan Cassels points out that “gradually, Degrelle became more and more anti-capitalist—a shift that was not so much a response to the Great Depression as it was a growing awareness of the ties between business and government revealed in several Belgian scandals.”1
The platform of the Rexist party reflected the populist tilt. “First and foremost, it opposed the dictatorship of super capitalism in Belgium and the Congo and then went on to dismiss Belgian parties and the parliamentary system itself as mere extensions of the rotten business world . . . Banks were to be controlled in an unspecified way and unemployment solved by some sort of national planning. Workers were to be protected by a corporative system ‘based on the solidarity of the classes,’ and the organizational structure for Rexist confederations was formulated on paper for trade, industry, agriculture, the artisans, the professions and even the party’s administration of the Belgian Congo. Yet, much of the old order would remain; there was room for the monarchy, and even Parliament in truncated form would share legislative authority with the corporations.”2
On May 24, 1936 Degrelle’s Rexist candidates won a smashing electoral victory against the established parties by capturing a total of 34 House and Senate seats.
However, the ruling parties of Belgium soon rose to meet the Rexists’ threat to their power by uniting in a solid phalanx against the young populist leader. Even the Catholic hierarchy condemned the church’s most ardent son in the interests of “moderation.” As a consequence, the Rex movement’s fortunes began to decline. Although his party began to disintegrate under the establishment’s applied pressure, Degrelle himself was re-elected to the Parliament with the largest majority of any deputy.
The Europe of Degrelle was still split into little countries, each jealous of its past glories and closed to any contact with neighboring peoples. In the late 1930s, as war loomed, Degrelle devoted his attention to assuring Belgium’s neutrality in order to prevent his nation from again being used as a buffer be tween Germany and France in the event of hostilities.
But, even as he labored for the short-term integrity of Belgium’s borders, the far-sighted Degrelle was also looking toward the future of the continent. In his student days he had traveled across Latin America, the United States and Canada. He had visited North Africa, the Middle East and, of course, all of the European countries. He felt that Europe had a unique destiny to fulfill and must unite behind its common cultural heritage.
Mussolini invited Degrelle to Rome. Churchill saw him in London, and Hitler received him in Berlin. Putting his political life on the line, he made desperate efforts to stop the railroading of Europe into another war. But old rivalries, petty hatreds and suspicion be tween the French and the Germans were cleverly exploited. The established parties and the Communist Party worked on the same side: for war. For the Kremlin it was a unique opportunity to communize Europe—after it had first been weakened and bled white.
Thus, war started. First in Poland, then in Western Europe in 1940. This was to become World War II in 1941. Soon the flag of the swastika flew from the Arctic Ocean to the shores of Greece to the border of Spain.
When Belgium was dragged into the war in 1940, Degrelle’s political enemies saw an opportunity to strike down the Rexist leader. He was arrested by government loyalists on May 10, 1940, accused of being a “fifth columnist,” and was imprisoned, beaten and tortured. Given up for dead by his family, Degrelle ended up at a concentration camp in southern France commanded by a French man named Bernheim.
When German officials favorably inclined toward Degrelle learned of his whereabouts, he was released and returned to Belgium, where, in fact, he initially avoided collaborating with the German occupation forces, unlike, ironically, many of his opportunistic foes in the prewar “democratic” Belgian political establishment.
But the European civil war continued. And the rulers of communism got ready to move in and pick up the fractured pieces. Learning of Josef Sta lin’s plan to invade the heart of Western Europe through Soviet occupied Poland and then Germany, Hitler beat him to the punch by launching a preemptive invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. For Europe it was now to be heads or tails; Hitler wins or Stalin wins.
The most important political and military phenomenon of World War II is also the least known: the Waffen SS (literally “weapons Schutztaffel,” or “armed defense unit”). And Leon Degrelle was one of the most famous Waffen SS soldiers. The Waffen SS were the ideological and military shock troops of a planned New Order for Europe. After the Germans began their assault against the bastion of international com munism, from every country in Europe thousands of young men came forth, their minds resolved that the destiny of their native countries was now at stake.
These men volunteered their lives in the fight against the Soviets believing that, after first destroying the Bolshevik threat, they would work together to create a united Europe. Volunteers swelled the ranks of the Waffen SS, which grew to include almost 400,000 non-German Europeans fighting on the Eastern Front. Scores of new divisions were added to the Waffen SS order of battle. The German troops numbered 600,000.
Despite the past efforts of Napol eon, the one-million-strong Waffen SS represented the first truly pan-European army to ever exist. As envisioned, after the war each unit of this army was to provide their people with a political structure free of the petty nationalism of the past. All the SS fought the same struggle. All shared the same world view. All were comrades in arms and suffered the same wounds.
When Hitler struck against the Soviet Union, Degrelle offered to raise a volunteer battalion of his Walloons to ensure a place of honor for French-speaking Belgians in Hitler’s new Eur ope. After joining as a private he earned all stripes from corporal to general for exceptional bravery in combat. He engaged in 75 hand-to-hand combat actions. He was wounded seven times. He was the recipient of the highest honors and was, quite notably, one of the first non-Germans to be awarded the coveted Oak Leaves to the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, personally bestowed upon Degrelle by Hitler during a ceremony held in Berlin on August 27, 1944.
Yet, it should be noted that when, in 1941, Degrelle first departed for the Eastern Front he was 35 years old and had never even fired a gun. And al though he had been offered high rank—in tribute to his stellar prewar accomplishments with the Rexist party—Degrelle, in the same manner as Peter the Great, chose to start out as a private, sharing the burdens of his comrades, rising by his abilities alone through the ranks to the position of commander of the unit he raised: the SS Brigade “Wallonia.”
It is thus no wonder that his fellow volunteers jokingly called their comrade-turned-leader, “Modest the First, duke of Burgundy.” But, of the first 800 Walloon volunteers who left for the Eastern Front, only three survived the war—one of them Degrelle. Some 2,500 of his fellow Walloons died, wearing the uniform of the Waffen SS, while fighting the Soviets during that period.
Of the SS Degrelle has said, “If the Waffen SS had not existed, Europe would have been overrun entirely by the Soviets by 1944. They would have reached Paris long before the Ameri cans. Waffen SS heroism stopped the Soviet juggernaut at Moscow, Cherkov, Cherkassy and Tarnopol. The Soviets lost more than 12 months. Without SS resistance the Soviets would have been in Normandy before Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower. The people showed deep gratitude to the young men who sacrificed their lives. Not since the great religious orders of the Middle Ages had there been such selfless idealism and heroism. In this century of materialism, the SS stand out as a shining light of spirituality. I have no doubt whatever that the sacrifices and incredible feats of the Waffen SS will have their own epic poets like Schiller. Greatness in adversity is the distinction of the SS.”
After four nearly continuous years in the inferno of battle, his legion was one of the last to retreat from Russia. This titanic struggle against the combined forces of communism and the “Allied democracies” is described in his famous epic, Campaign in Russia, which earned him renown in Europe as “the Homer of the 20th century.”
And when Degrelle returned to Brussels after fighting communism for four years on the Eastern Front, he was given the largest mass welcome in Belgian history. Tens of thousands of Belgians lined the streets of Brussels to cheer the returning general only two months before the Allies invaded their country. However, De grelle knew that he, as one of the fiercest foes of communism who had survived the war, was targeted for extermination. He would not bow to the conquerors.
As Germany collapsed, Degrelle made his way to Norway (still under German control at that time), where he boarded a transport airplane and flew over Allied-occupied portions of Europe. He and the crew endured constant anti-aircraft fire all along the way, and crash landed on the Spanish border when the plane ran out of fuel. Degrelle suffered multiple injuries in the forced landing including several broken bones. He spent a year in the hospital recuperating, most of it in a plaster cast, unable to move. Typically, as soon as his right arm became free, the SS general began writing his masterwork,Campaign in Russia, which appeared in two French editions.
Soon after the cessation of hostilities, the Allies threatened to invade Spain unless Degrelle and wartime French Prime Minister Pierre Laval were im mediately turned over for execution. Franco compromised. He turned over Laval but kept Degrelle on the grounds that he could not be physically removed from the hospital.
A year later Degrelle was given refuge in a monastery. However, back home members of his family and many friends and supporters were arrested and tortured to death by the “democratic liberators” of Belgium. His children (seven girls and a little boy) were forcibly shipped to detention centers in different parts of Europe, after their names were changed in order to frustrate any effort to reunite the family or ascertain their fate. The Belgian authorities ordered that they were never to be permitted contact with one another or with their father.
The new Belgian government condemned Degrelle to death in absentia on three separate occasions. A special law was passed, theLex Degrellana, which made it illegal to transfer, possess, or receive any book by or about Degrelle. Campaign in Russia was thus banned in Belgium.
Completely alone, Degrelle went on to rebuild his shattered life. With the energy and burning spirit that had never left him, he worked as a manual laborer in construction. And just as he had risen from private to general on the battlefield, Degrelle rose to build a ma jor construction company with important contracts. The quality and efficiency of his company became so well known that the U.S. government commissioned him to build major defense projects, including military airfields, in Spain. Mean while, Degrelle’s loyal emissaries searched Europe for his kidnapped children. All were found and returned to their father’s loving care.
On 12 separate occasions over some 40 years Degrelle challenged the Belgian government to put him on public trial with a jury. His repeated demands to be tried in a legitimate court of law (as opposed to an inquisitional Nuremberg-style show trial) were met with embarrassed and guilty si lence. However, there were high-level attempts to “liquidate” Degrelle during his exile in Spain. On July 5, 1961 the Spanish police arrested two individuals attempting to cross into Spain from a small village in the Pyrenees Mountains on the French border. Traveling in a Lincoln Contin ental were an Israeli citizen using the name Zuis Alduide Idelon and another person with a French passport under the name Suison Jake De Mon.
In their possession were weapons, ammunition, foreign currency valued at approximately $500,000 (U.S.), an anesthetic kit, the detailed plans of a Spanish villa and, lastly, a box shaped like a coffin. The two eventually confessed that they were in a commando team working for Israeli intelligence, charged with the mission of kidnapping Gen. Degrelle. Their plan was as follows:
Part of the team (composed in total of 10 men) was to arrive in a helicopter at Degrelle’s estate, grab and sedate him and bring him to Tarragona. There, the unconscious Degrelle would have been put in the box and taken aboard a small boat at night and taken to a French Mediterranean port where he would have been transshipped on a large vessel bound for Israel. Upon arrival Degrelle would have been put on display and then delivered to the Belgian government or simply murdered.
Subsequently the Spanish police succeeded in arresting the leader of the commando team, a Spanish communist, Rubio de la Goaquina, as well as six of his men. The police learned that the kidnapping plot had been arranged, in part, through the assistance of Soviet agents.
In 1983 the Spanish socialists, in league with international Jewish pressure groups, began a loud clamor to have Degrelle deported from Spain, but the effort failed. This, however, did not stop those same Jewish pressure groups from launching yet a second offensive against Degrelle. Leading the pack was Rabbi Marvin Hier (called, by his critics, Rabbi “Liar”) and his colleague, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, both leaders of a very profitable fund-raising venture known as the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, a Los Angeles-based operation named after the controversial self-described “Nazi hunter.”
Since it had been finally admitted that the most infamous “Nazi fugitive,” Dr. Josef Mengele, was actually dead and gone and not “hiding in Argentina” (or Bolivia or Paraguay or Panama or some such place), Hier and Cooper evidently decided that Gen. Degrelle was an ideal new “Nazi beast” to have as their fund-raising “poster boy.”
The two put up a $100,000 bounty for the “capture” of Degrelle, but that in itself was a farce, since Degrelle lived freely and openly in Spain, where he was a popular figure in cafe society, often dining with a host of friends, including many international admirers who came to call on the retired military leader and former statesman.
The Hier-Cooper gang hysterically and vocally demanded that Degrelle be tried for “war crimes” and, of course, urged donors to help finance their public relations campaign against the general. Interestingly, several years previously, Jean Charlier, a prominent French television producer who was preparing a documentary on Degrelle, approached both the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and Simon Wiesenthal asking for information he could include in his planned project as to the nature and brutality of the “war crimes” Degrelle might have committed. They informed Charlier that there was no evidence against Degrelle and that the Belgian general was not wanted for war crimes by any international tribunal as such. However, now that it was in the (financial) interest of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to have a new “war criminal at large,” the story changed.
At the time, Degrelle commented on the affair in an exclusive interview published in The Spotlight on October 28, 1985. Degrelle told The Spotlight: “Dr. Abraham Cooper knows very well that he does not possess the least argument against me. He confesses himself that he can only base himself on suppositions.” Degrelle pointed out that Cooper had said, for example: “It would not surprise me but that he [Degrelle] has committed blood crimes.”
“Can you imagine that?” asked Degrelle. “As if during 40 years they have made countless investigations against me, all of which have proven fruitless for the simple reason that there was nothing against me. Cooper does not stand on ceremony when he admits that what he wants to make me pay for are not any reprehensible acts, but ideas, my ideas. To avenge himself on the ideas of a person who thinks differently than himself, the Jewish dignitary mounts a manhunt abroad with a $100,000 prize for whoever brings in the beast alive.
“‘Leon Degrelle,” Dr. Abraham Coo per has declared, ‘is guilty of promoting Nazi ideas among the young people of the whole world. We shall follow him closely, and we will see to it that he pays for his misdeed.’
“You have read right: ‘ideas,’” added Degrelle. “One cannot any longer have ideas other than those approved by Rabbi Abraham. Such intolerance is unheard of, especially coming from a country such as the United States, where the freedom of thought is proclaimed to be sacred. This manhunt, organized by private people, has something monstrous about it.
“These hunters have at their disposal very considerable funds. Those funds, this modern river of gold, until this summer were earmarked to kidnap Josef Mengele. But now it has been established that Mengele has been dead for more than five years, while Wiesenthal was announcing to the world that he was following Mengele’s track—that he was about to capture him at any moment. He was describing every phase of his pursuit, every hideaway Mengele had just vacated, moments before Wiesenthal’s arrival—places where Men gele had never been.”
Degrelle said, though, that he was not afraid of the “contract” that the Jewish leaders had put out on him: “I’ve seen other stuff, on the eastern front. I continue to live my life exactly as before, going to buy my newspapers myself in the street, drinking a glass quietly by the seashore. I am not going to poison what is left of my life with problems of security. I believe in my luck, and I believe in God. He will sort out the hunters of millions of dollars and the persecuted. I rely on His protection and on His justice.”
Although Degrelle was able to foil the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s campaign against him, his sworn enemies made one last attempt to dispose of the general. Hebdo magazine, published by the French National Front, revealed on December 27, 1985 that some 10 persons carrying Venezuelan passports and most likely connected with the Mossad arrived in Madrid for the purpose of once again attempting to kidnap Degrelle. Their plot, however, was again foiled by ever-vigilant Spanish authorities.
There may well have been other schemes launched against Degrelle, but the old general continued to live freely and to carry out his own personal crusade for truth in history.
Despite his advancing years, Gen. Degrelle embarked during this period on an ambitious project that would be his crowning triumph as a prolific wordsmith, befitting one once described as “one of the outstanding writers in the French language.” In his lifetime De grelle had published more than 40 books and essays ranging from poetry to economics, from architecture to history, but the new project was one of massive scope.
The Belgian statesman began working relentlessly on a projected 14-volume series to be collectively titled The Hitler Century, focusing (obviously) on the role of Adolf Hitler in the 20th century and his influence beyond.
Degrelle relished the opportunity to be able to speak freely and valued the chance to be able to have his thoughts expressed in the English language to audiences that certainly never had the unique opportunity to hear “the other side of the story” expressed in such vibrant, heartfelt language from one who was there.
The general wryly noted at the time that “Whenever I hear the Allied side of history, I am often reminded of the re porter sent to report on a brawl. He scrupulously recorded all the blows delivered by one side and none from the other. His story would truthfully bear witness to the aggression of one side and the victimization of the other. But he would be lying by omission. I do not deny anything that Hitler did, but I also point out what the communists and their Western allies did, and I let the public be the judge.”
Degrelle was guaranteed that he would receive all the necessary funding for the project, and in short order, Degrelle turned out the first volume, a handsome book published by the Insti tute for Historical Review (IHR), then based in Torrance, California, which this writer had founded in 1978 and which had become the driving force behind what has come to be known as the historical revisionist movement.
Degrelle’s first volume—an indisputable masterpiece—was Hitler: Born at Versailles. Based upon the premise that “there would never have been a Hitler without the Versailles Treaty” and that the history of Hitler and Germany can be understood only within the context of the Versailles Trea ty and the harsh subjugation of Germany by its implacable enemies, Degrelle’s 535-page volume surveyed the Franco-British intrigues in the af fairs of Central Europe, the systematic betrayal of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the secret treaties that doomed Wilson’s mission from the start, and the cynical dividing up of vast territories by the major powers concluded without regard to the will of the millions of hapless inhabitants—the mutilation of Ger many and Austria-Hungary that par celed out many millions of Germans (and German Austrians), Hungarians and others like cattle to the hostile rule of alien neighboring countries.
Widely hailed upon its release, Degrelle’s first volume laid the foundation for the forthcoming series of books to follow. The proposed additional volumes were: Hitler, Democrat; Hitler and the Germans; Hitler and the Church; Hitler and the United States; Hitler and Stalin; Hitler and England; Hitler and France; Hitler and the Banks; Hitler and the Communists; Hitler and the Jews; Hitler the Politician; Hitler the Military Strategist and Hitler and the Third World.
The general was enthusiastic about the new project and threw himself into his work with a devotion that was remarkable. At 79 years of age, Degrelle had tackled a project that few men of any age would ever even dream of attempting to undertake. By 1993 Degrelle had completed six additional volumes.
How then does one conclude what is admittedly an insufficient assessment of this remarkable man? Perhaps the defiant words of Gen. Degrelle himself sum it up best. Once, when asked by a journalist if he had any regrets about World War II, Degrelle responded: “Only that we lost.”
There is very little published in the English language today about Leon Degrelle except essentially what has appeared in this issue ofThe Barnes Review and other issues of this magazine and, of course, Degrelle’s own writings that have been translated and published. However, in 1993 there was a lengthy English-language study of Degrelle published by the Yale University Press. Collaboration in Belgium: Leon Degrelle and the Rexist Movement (1940-1944) by Martin Conway, a lecturer in history at the University of Oxford, is a highly detailed survey of Degrelle’s activities during the war years, but its value is limited by its heavy-handed bias.
1 Alan Cassels. Fascism, New York, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1975, p. 247.
2Ibid., p. 247.