THE DEATH of the Belgian wartime collaborationist leader Leon Degrelle breaks one of the few remaining links with the politics of Nazi-occupied Europe. Despite having spent almost 50 years in exile in Spain, Degrelle remained until his death a household name in Belgium and an ever-present reminder of the conflicts aroused in his country during the Second World War.
By turns an advocate of a Catholic spiritual revival in Belgium, the leader of the country's principal extreme-right movement and, after the German invasion of May 1940, the somewhat unlikely putative leader of a pro-Nazi Belgian state, Degrelle remained what he had alway been: a man of easy sincerities, irrepressible self-confidence and ruthless opportunism.
Born in 1906 in the rural Ardennes of southern Belgium, Degrelle attended the University of Louvain, where he shared fully in the air of Catholic revivalism which overcame many young bourgeois figures in the aftermath of the First World War. He distinguished himself as a student journalist and was appointed by the Catholic Church to direct a Church-owned publishing company. It was called Christus Rex (Christ the King), and its militant message of Catholic renewal and disgust for the compromises and corruption of parliamentary politics won Degrelle an increasing audience amidst the economic crisis of the early 1930s.
His political ambitions began to grow and in November 1935 he publicly denounced the leadership of the governing Catholic Party. Disowned with some reluctance by the Catholic Church, Degrelle hastily improvised his own political movement with which he contested the parliamentary elections of May 1936. To the astonishment of everybody including Degrelle, the Rexist Party won 11.5 per cent of the national vote and Degrelle - still aged only 30 - was transformed into a figure of national importance. It was a position which he lacked both the political resources and steady nerve to exploit.
His youthful good looks and powerful oratory, with its amalgam of Catholic piety and denunciations of the political and economic elite, had brought him electoral rewards but it proved to be an insufficient basis upon which to build durable political success. Unwise flirtations with Hitler and a farcical attempt to stage a 'March on Brussels' in imitation of Mussolini's seizure of power alienated much of his support and Degrelle was defeated in April 1937 when he stood against the Catholic prime minister, Paul Van Zeeland, in a Brussels by-
election. As his support disintegrated, Degrelle responded by abandoning his Catholic ideology and transformed Rex into a movement of unambivalently Fascist inspiration. This change merely served to accelerate its decline and by September 1939 Degrelle had become a figure of marginal importance.
The German invasion of 10 May 1940 offered Degrelle the opportunity to extricate himself from the collapse of his political ambitions. Having narrowly escaped death when he was arrested on the morning of the German attack as a suspected Nazi agent, he exploited the political vacuum created by the Nazi victory in western Europe to present himself as the saviour of the defeated Belgian nation. He recaptured some of his former popular support but the German authorities were unimpressed and the Belgian King, Leopold III, harboured dreams of reaching his own accommodation with Hitler. Ever more desperate for German favour, Degrelle declared his support for the Nazi cause in January 1941 but this espousal of collaboration brought him only popular opprobrium.
Finally, in the summer of 1941 he used the opportunity presented by the German invasion of the Soviet Union to form a volunteer military unit, the Legion Wallonie, which fought within the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. With typical exuberance, Degrelle joined up and found himself plunged into the bloody battles in the Ukraine. He had no military training but by dint of good fortune and some personal bravery, Degrelle built himself a military reputation which began to erode Nazi distrust of his character and background.
While in Belgium his followers acted (alongside the Flemish Nationalists of the Vlaams Nationaal Verbond) as the agents of collaboration, Degrelle used his visits to Berlin to woo the Nazi elite. His complete lack of political scruples were well suited to the palace politics of the Third Reich in its final years and, after he declared - with every appearance of sincerity - that the francophone Belgian Walloons were really a lost Germanic race whose destiny was to rejoin the German Reich, he won the backing of Himmler and the SS. The Legion Wallonie was transferred into the Waffen SS and Degrelle - decorated by Hitler in February 1944 with the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves - became a hero of the Nazi propaganda machine.
Not even the Allied liberation of Belgium in September 1944 led him to abandon his increasingly absurd quest. Confined within the decreasing frontiers of the Reich, he participated enthusiastically in the desperate German counter-offensive in the Ardennes in December 1944 and spent Christmas in a requisitioned chateau in a small corner of Nazi 'liberated' Belgium. The final defeat of the Reich could not, however, be averted and with it came the trial, imprisonment and, in some cases, execution of his few remaining followers in Belgium.
Degrelle was, however, more fortunate. Commandeering an aeroplane, he flew over Allied-liberated Europe before crash-landing on the beach at San Sebastian in Franco's Spain. It was at first a tenuous sanctuary. Franco was deeply embarrassed by the presence of the erstwhile Nazi hero and proceeded to negotiate with the Allied authorities the conditions for his return to Belgium. The negotiations, however, failed and - aided by friends in the Francoist hierarchy - Degrelle disappeared from public view before gradually reappearing in the 1950s. Despite having been condemned to death in absentia by the Belgian authorities, he pursued a prosperous business career, including building military bases for the American armed forces.
Successive attempts by Belgian governments to obtain his extradition came to nothing and, once he had acquired Spanish nationality by having himself adopted by an elderly Spanish woman, Degrelle was relatively secure from retribution. He remarried the niece of Joseph Darnand, the former leader of the French collaborationist Milice, and revelled in the embarrassment which his occasional television appearances caused the Belgian
He regretted nothing of his wartime career and, sitting in his apartment overlooking the sea at Malaga, surrounded by the regalia of his Nazi past, Degrelle spent his last years reminiscing (with ever greater exaggeration), and observing with some relish the gradual re-emergence of the extreme right as a political force in Europe.
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