By Mark Weber
Leon Degrelle, combat hero of the Second World War, political leader, author and friend of the Institute for Historical Review, died March 31  in the southern Spanish city of Malaga. He was 87.
Degrelle was born on June 15, 1906, into a prosperous Catholic family in Bouillon, Belgium. As a young man, he was strongly influenced by the ideas of French writer Charles Marraus.
After study of philosophy, literature and law at the University of Louvain, this gifted publicist and charismatic public speaker turned to journalism and politics. In eloquent addresses to large rallies, several books and numerous booklets, and through his newspaper, Le Pays réel, he quickly made a mark on his country’s political life. At the age of 29, his Catholic “Rex” movement — which demanded radical political reform and the establishment of an authoritative “corporative” state of social justice and national unity — captured 11.5 percent of the vote, and 21 parliamentary seats, in Belgium’s 1936 elections.
Although his party’s share of the vote fell to 4.4 percent in the 1939 election, Degrelle himself was reelected to the parliament with the largest majority of any deputy.
In the wake of Germany’s June 1941 attack against the Soviet Union, Degrelle enthusiastically joined what he regarded as a pan-European crusade to crush Communism. His proposal to raise a volunteer battalion of fellow French-speaking Walloons to ensure a place of honor for Belgium in Hitler’s new Europe was quickly accepted by the Germans.
Turning down an invitation to begin as a officer in the newly formed combat unit, he instead chose to start as a private, sharing all the burdens of his comrades. When he left his homeland in August 1941 to begin military service at the age of 35, he had never fired a gun. Nevertheless, he rose through the ranks to become commander of the unit that finally came to be known as the 28th SS Division “Wallonia.”
As a result of the extraordinary courage and leadership he showed on the Narva front in Estonia, he became the first non-German to be awarded the coveted Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Hitler personally bestowed the honor on August 27, 1944.
Of the first 800 Walloon volunteers who left for the Eastern Front, only three survived the war, one of them Degrelle, who was wounded seven times during the course of his three and a half years of combat. All told, some 2,500 Walloons fell against the Soviets.
Degrelle’s gripping account of duty, death and fierce combat on the eastern Front against numerically superior Soviet forces has won enthusiastic acclaim from readers around the world. The English-language edition, entitled Campaign in Russia, was first published by the IHR in 1985. It earned praise from US Army Brigadier General John C. Bahnsen in a review appearing in an official US Army Department magazine: “.. The pace of the writing is fast; the action is graphic, and a warrior can learn things from reading this book. I recommend its reading by students of the art of war. It is well worth the price.”
To escape death at the hands of the victorious Allies at the end of the war, he made a daring 1,500-mile flight in a small plane from Norway across Europe to Spain, crash landing on the beach at San Sebastian. Critically wounded, he somehow survived, and then built a new and successful life in exile in Spain, which granted him refuge.
Over the years, numerous lies have been told about Degrelle. For example, a Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) report on his death that appeared recently in American Jewish community papers, while mentioning nothing of his remarkable wartime combat record, told readers that Degrelle “was responsible for the deportations and deaths of about 35,000 Jews in Belgium between 1941 and 1944.” This claim has absolutely no basis in fact.
In spite of the catastrophic military defeat of the cause to which he had been so devoted, until his death Degrelle remained defiantly unrepentant. He made this clear in numerous interviews, essays and in a 300-page autobiography, which appeared (in German) in 1992.
During the final years of his life, Degrelle was working on a multi-volume series of books for the IHR detailing the personality, policies, impact and legacy of Adolf Hitler. Hitler: Born at Versailles, the first volume in this projected 13-volume series, was published by the IHR in 1987. In this 535-page book Degrelle traces the origins, course and impact of the First World War. A German edition was published in 1992. A portion of volume two appeared as an essay, “How Hitler Consolidated Power in Germany and Launched a Social Revolution,” in the Fall 1992 Journal of Historical Review.
Unfortunately, Degrelle had been able to complete only a small part of this massive project by the time of his death. The IHR is now considering how best to put the completed portion into publishable form.
From The Journal of Historical Review, May-June 1994 (Vol. 14, No. 3), pages 20-21.