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Léon Joseph Marie Ignace Degrelle (Bouillon, Belgium, June 15, 1906 – Malaga, Spain, March 31, 1994) was a Belgian politician and official of the Waffen SS, who ended his life in Spain. After founding in the 30s the political movement Christus Rex (Rexismo), of Catholic and conservative inspiration, radicalized its position in the following years, approaching fascism.
He fought with the Axis forces in World War II in the Wallonia Legion, a foreign unit attached to the Waffen SS. Meeting in Norway when Germany surrendered, he managed to escape to Spain, where Francisco Franco’s regime would protect him for decades from the death sentence for war crimes pronounced against him. The opportune concession of the Spanish nationality freed him from being extradited after the end of Francoism, and he devoted his last years to writing different works. He was leader of the National Socialists of Spain. In addition, he actively participated in the reorganization of nationalisms in Europe, contributing to the strengthening of the new political parties of the extreme right. During his stay in Spain, he lived under the false name of José León Ramírez Reina.
Degrelle was born into a bourgeois Catholic family of French origin; his father was a brewer and had emigrated to Belgium a few years before to Bouillon six years before Léon’s birth, due to the expulsion suffered by the Jesuits and the anti-clerical government of France. He was educated in Catholicism and studied his first studies in a college of the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits would have a notable influence on Degrelle, who defined them as “the best educators in the world.” [Appointment required] He received his doctorate in Law from the Catholic University of Louvain, where he was influenced by the French thinker Charles Maurras, and briefly practiced as a lawyer in that city.
At the beginning of the 1930s he joined Catholic Action and began working for a small Catholic publishing house called Christus Rex (in Latin, “Cristo Rey”), which published a newspaper of the same name. He traveled to Mexico as a correspondent to cover the Cristero War waged between the National League for the Defense of Religious Freedom and the Mexican government, which according to the Constitution of 1917 had imposed restrictions on Catholic worship and prohibitions to the clergy regarding the exercise of his ministry. The cry of war of the Cristeros, “¡Viva Cristo Rey and Santa María de Guadalupe!” Deeply impressed Degrelle, who upon his return in 1934 would found Les Editions de Rex and would begin to mobilize in the Belgian Catholic Party (PCB) to promote a more militant course of action. On March 29, 1932, he married Marie-Paule Lemay, with whom he had five children – four women and one male (who died in a motorcycle accident when he was young) -.
The failure of his actions within the PCB and the frank rejection with which his position was received in a meeting of the political leadership of the party in Kortrijk in 1935 led him to separate from it. [citation required]
The following year, and denouncing what he considers “corruption” of the existing parties – including the Catholic Party of Belgium, backed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy – he founded the Rexist Party. His program was strongly populist and included denouncing the interference of large companies and banking in the Belgian economy and politics. From the structure of the communist and socialist parties Degrelle would take the example of the “houses of the people” as a means of mobilizing the masses; of the Marxists would also take an ideology of social equality, although with the same verticalist emphasis that the fascist Italy – which he admired deeply – of Mussolini had applied to the corporate organization of society.
The party had unexpected support in the Walloon region, and soon a Flemish branch, the Vlaamsch Nationaal Verbond under the direction of Staf de Clerck, joined him. Although its platform included the abolition of the democratic system and the establishment of a corporate organization of the government, on May 24, 1936, it participated for the first time in the elections, in which it obtained 21 deputies and 12 senators (11.49% of the votes ). The Flemish section would also have representation, after getting 72,000 votes. In 1937 he improved his performance, obtaining 19% of the votes, but the support would decline in the following years and in April 1939 the legislative elections yielded only 4.43% of the votes, obtaining four deputies and four senators.
Degrelle, trained in journalism and pen trained in the student magazine XX Siècle, wrote his own political speeches. From this time dates his close friendship with the famous cartoonist George Remi, known as Hergé, whose comic Tintin illustrated his publications. Degrelle would later say that Hergé had been inspired by him to create Tintin, although the artist always claimed that his model had been his own brother, Paul Remi, then an officer in the Belgian army.
The concerns of Rexism were far from homogeneous at this time; more committed to the fascist position than to nationalism or ultramontanism, two other vigorous currents in the party, Degrelle met in August 1936 with Mussolini, and the following month with Adolf Hitler, from whom he obtained funding for the party. Correlatively, it incorporated antisemitic principles into its platform, similar to those promoted by the National Socialists. He would meet in the following with other leaders of the extreme right, including Corneliu Codreanu, leader of the Romanian Iron Guard, and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Spanish Falange.
World War II
At the outbreak of the war in 1939, Degrelle’s party supported King Leopold III in his position of neutrality; On May 10, 1940, however, Germany invaded Belgium. Degrelle blamed the war on France and Britain, on Freemasonry and on Jewish capitalism, and although he generally disapproved of Germany’s warlike behavior, he acknowledged that it had been provoked by the self-styled “Allies,” who remained aloof from the Invasion. to Finland by the Soviet Union, but they unloaded all kinds of maneuvers to attack Germany in different parts of Europe; it is thus resolves to applaud the invasion of Norway, in view of considering it a successful German reaction to the attempt of English invasion. The resistance divided the Rexist Party, but on May 28, 1940 Belgium surrendered and a new government was established. Before that, Degrelle was imprisoned on the 10th along with another 5000 people (Communists faithful to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, Jews, anarchists, Flemish nationalists, rexists, etc.) and deported to France by an order of May 10, 1940 issued by Justice Minister Pierre Janson of the liberal Belgian government. Most of his fellow prisoners would be shot without cause on May 20 of that year by French soldiers, in an episode still unexplained; it is possible that the military chief of the town at that time was the then Colonel Charles de Gaulle. He would remain there only briefly, because at the capitulation of France he was freed from the Vernet concentration camp on July 22 and returned to Belgium to promote the reconstruction of the movement. His position of collaboration with the invading regime did not have the universal approval of all the rexists; some, like Theo Simon and Lucien Mayer, organized a clandestine resistance movement. On August 25 of the same year Degrelle would begin publishing in the collaborative newspaper Le Pays Réel.
On January 1, 1941 Degrelle publicly declared the unity of the Rexist movement with National Socialism and Fascism. Four days later, he confessed his admiration for Adolf Hitler, whom he called “the greatest man of our time.” [Quote required] On June 21, 1941, he would establish an alliance with the Flemish nationalists, one day before the invasion. German to the Soviet Union. The unification of the European right in a common front against the Soviet Union would give the opportunity to strengthen the bonds of collaboration. After requesting special permission from Hitler to do so, Degrelle founded the Wallonia Legion (Legion Wallonie) that same month, a contingent of Belgian volunteers who would fight along with the Reich Army.
The Legion, of a thousand people, initially fought with a Belgian uniform and weapons on the eastern front as part of Operation Barbarossa. After suffering serious losses, and in the process of reorganization of the forces destined to the attack of the USSR, it received reinforcements in 1943 when all the volunteers of non-German nationality joined it, with what became an assault brigade attached to the Waffen-SS. Degrelle had been appointed a few days after his conscription, and lieutenant for his merit in combat after receiving in May 1942 an Iron Cross. When becoming a brigade, he was highlighted as commander (Obersturmführer) commanding it. The Legion participated intensely in the combats; Degrelle was decorated for it with a Nahkampfspange, a distinction given to the active participants in the front. Eventually, through an agreement with the Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, the Legion would be transformed into the 28th Infantry Division of the Waffen-SS, although its dimensions and equipment continued to respond to the characteristics of a brigade. In February 1944 he received the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, and in August of the same year the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, a distinction granted only to 883 soldiers throughout the war. In October, finally, he would be decorated with the German Golden Cross. Degrelle states that, on the occasion of decorating him, the Führer told him that “if he had a son, I would like him to be like you” [quote required]
On May 2, 1945, when the German defeat was already evident, Himmler appointed Degrelle Brigadeführer of the SS, although the appointment never took effect, since Himmler had been stripped of his party and military responsibilities in April. Degrelle had already left the battlefield to travel to Copenhagen, moving away from the advance line of the allies; three days later he was in Oslo, but a little later the German forces in Norway capitulated. Degrelle escaped to Spain on the Heinkel plane of Minister Albert Speer; after crossing the enemy lines he ran out of fuel and his plane fell into the sea in the bay of San Sebastian in northern Spain. After rescuing him from the waters, the Franco regime guaranteed him political asylum.
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