In 1936, Degrelle broke with the Catholic Party. Rex contested the Belgian elections that year as an independent party and haven for those unhappy with the status quo. Degrelle attempted to appeal to the Belgian middle class and spoke of emphasizing Catholic values of solidarity and community.
Degrelle's praise of Hitler brought his arrest and that of other potential fifth columnists by Belgian authorities in May 1940, when the Germans invaded. On his release in France in July, Degrelle promptly proclaimed to German authorities his wish for a greater Belgium to include parts of the Netherlands and northern France. In July 1941, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Degrelle founded the Walloon Legion, although few Belgians were attracted to join. Listed on the Waffen-SS order of battle as the 28th SS Division, the legion actually numbered no more than 2,000 men. Degrelle led the Walloon Legion in fighting in the Soviet Union. Awarded the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves, he was the highest-decorated foreigner in German service.
Degrelle was in Belgium from December 1942 to January 1943. Although he claimed he and his legionnaires were Belgian patriots fighting to secure a place for their country in Hitler's New Order, in discussions with SS leaders he expressed a commitment to restoring the Walloons (as opposed to the Flemish) to their "rightful" place as a Germanic people within the Reich.
More than half of the legionnaires were killed in the war. Degrelle abandoned the survivors in the defense of Berlin. In late April 1945, he fled north to Oslo, Norway, which was still under German control and where he commandeered an aircraft. He and five others then flew to San Sebastian in northern Spain, where they crash-landed. Negotiations for Degrelle's extradition to Belgium foundered on Spanish demands for a quid pro quo.
In 1946, Degrelle vanished from the hospital where he had been recuperating. The Spanish government denied knowledge of his whereabouts, but he was protected by influential Spaniards. A decade later, Degrelle resurfaced in public but did not leave Spain. He remained an unabashed admirer of Adolf Hitler until his death in Malaga on 1 April 1993.
Spencer C. Tucker
Conway, Martin. Collaboration in Belgium: Léon Degrelle and the Rexist Movement. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.; Keegan, John. Waffen SS: The Asphalt Soldiers. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970.; Stein, George. Waffen SS: Hitler's Elite Guard at War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.