Léon Degrelle was willing to put his convictions on the line on the Russian Front.
Of the many European Fascist leaders who collaborated with the German forces that occupied their countries during World War II, Léon Joseph Marie Ignace Degrelle was unique in that he put his convictions on the line—the front line, in combat. Earning a doctorate in law at the University of Louvain, he also studied political science, art, archaeology and philosophy, and had written five books by the time he was 20. Disillusioned with what he perceived as corruption in Belgium’s government, he joined the Catholic Action Movement and subsequently founded the Socialist Rex Party, whose early populist appeal gained him a seat in the House of Deputies at age 25 (the youngest statesman in Europe at the time). By May 24, 1936, 34 Rexists had been elected to the Belgian House or Senate, but the party declined soon afterward. Degrelle openly consorted with and took inspiration from Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, so when Germany invaded Belgium, its government arrested him as an enemy agent. He spent several weeks in a prison camp in southern France.
After Germany overran France and the Low Countries, Degrelle sided with his Nazi occupiers and endorsed Hitler’s “anti-Bolshevik crusade” against the Soviet Union. When Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, he joined the French-speaking Belgian Walloons who volunteered to fight there. Until age 35 he had never held a firearm in his life, but Degrelle proved a quick study. Wounded seven times, he rose from private to brigadier general in command of the 28th SS Panzergrenadier Division Wallonien. He was awarded the Knight’s Cross and Oak Leaves, among other decorations, becoming the most decorated non-German soldier in Nazi service.
With the fall of Nazi Germany, Degrelle spent the rest of his life in Spain. Belgium sentenced him to death in absentia three times. He wrote three more books and numerous essays, including Campaign in Russia, which, though banned in Belgium, is widely regarded as a classic firsthand depiction of the savagery of combat on the Eastern Front. Asked for an opinion of Degrelle, one Belgian military attaché said, “As a soldier, I salute him for his courage on the battlefield; as a Belgian, if we could get our hands on him, I would gladly see him hang for the traitor he is.”
Léon Degrelle, the last surviving European Fascist leader, died at age 87 in Málaga, Spain, on April 1, 1994, unrepentant to the last. In two telephone interviews conducted in March 1984 and April 1993, Colin Heaton asked Degrelle for his retrospective on his role during World War II.
Military History: When and where were you born?
Degrelle: I was born in Bouillon, Belgium, on June 15, 1906. My father was a brewer, a good Catholic man, and my mother was the most wonderful woman in the world.
MH: What was your education like?
Degrelle: My family had been Jesuit educated for many generations, and I went to the College of Notre Dame de la Paix. I studied the classics and theology, but was seriously drawn to politics. I studied law, passed the exams. The Jesuits taught us to expand our mind and pursue knowledge, which I did. Unfortunately some of my fellow countrymen took a dim view of my independent writing and publishing on certain political thoughts. I had a tough time.
MH: You were arrested, were you not?
Degrelle: Yes, I was arrested in 1940 by French troops, beaten and moved around damp jail cells, where I was tortured, until I was finally freed by German troops. They knew who I was, since I was a leader of the Rexist Party, which was a Socialist anti-Communist political party. Seeing that I would not receive any help, let alone justice from the authorities in Belgium, I knew that that government was illegitimate, and I decided that the corruption must be challenged.
MH: How did you come to join the German army?
Degrelle: My brother had been murdered, my parents and wife were killed after being tortured, and my children were taken away and scattered to the winds, a situation that would not be resolved for many years. I basically had some additional political problems, and until the Germans invaded and captured the country I was not safe. I felt that Belgium would only be a great and sovereign nation again once Germany won the war and eliminated the dangers of communism. I formed the first group of volunteers from the Flemish and Walloons, and we were formed in our own battalion. Later we were assigned to the training centers, and then deployed to Army Group Center.
MH: When did you first arrive in Russia?
Degrelle: We entered the Ukraine in October 1941, after finishing basic training and mountain warfare school, although some of our troops had been diverted to the Demyansk region under Olivier Thoring, a [Nazi] Knight’s Cross winner who was later killed. They were assigned to the Ninth Army, then later joined us in the south the next year. It was his detachment that captured [Soviet general] Andrei Vlasov in July 1942. [Vlasov later commanded an army of anti-Communist Russians as a German ally.] Many of our men were sent to the Demyansk region as support in late 1941 to early 1942, but were then recalled and joined 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking in the Ukraine later. We later became our own independent unit, the 28th Waffen SS Panzergrenadier Division Wallonien in April 1944, at a ceremony in Brussels. General Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, Max Wünsche and other notables were there for the induction ceremony. We started with 400 men in 1940, later growing to about 15,000, but only about 400 would be around after the war, including myself and two other original members. Of the original 6,000 men in the regiment before it became a division, 2,500 were killed. We had a great combat record, and Hitler personally congratulated me and gave me the Oak Leaves. I believe that we had the greatest number of Knight’s Crosses of any foreign unit, but I am not sure.
MH: What was it like for you, fighting on the Russian Front?
Degrelle: Well, that was where the real war was. The greatest threat was from Communist Russia, and the Western Allies discovered this only too late—we live in the world created by this today. As far as my memories of Russia go, it must be the weather, especially the bitter winters, and the endless steppe that goes forever. We were not prepared for this environment. The Russians were used to it and were well clothed to resist the cold. The greatest assets we had were the opportunity to strip Russian dead and take their padded clothing and felt boots, as well as those marvelous fur hats. They were very adapted to ski warfare, which we also used, and were perhaps even better at it, since we were “Edelweiss” [Alpenjäger] trained as well.
MH: What was the worst aspect of fighting on the Russian Front?
Degrelle: The partisan war was the worst. We had to adapt immediately to every situation, and the situation always changed. This was especially bad, since they did not wear uniforms and could blend into any village. A typical day was when we moved all night on foot, sometimes with trucks and always looking for the next ambush. The Soviets sent artillery in to try and channel us into their killing zones, but we hit the earth and pushed through, taking casualties every time. The largest partisan fighting I was involved in was near the road at Cherkassy, where the partisan cavalry attacked and withdrew quickly. I ordered my men not to pursue, as it was not our mission. When we linked up with members of the Fourth Panzer Army, we felt safer. But that was just the beginning.
MH: You wrote about Soviet atrocities in your book Campaign in Russia. Would you describe some of the things you witnessed during the war on both sides?
Degrelle: The partisans were usually the worst group to be captured by; they gouged out eyes, cut off fingers, genitalia, toes, and would butcher a man in front of his comrades before beginning their field interrogation. This was confirmed both by soldiers who escaped captivity and defecting partisans who were sickened by the sight and later joined the anti-Stalinist cause. One even had photographs that were turned over to the intelligence section of the Second SS Panzer Army. I saw them. I saw a young German soldier, part of a reconnaissance patrol that had disappeared, who had his legs crudely amputated at the knees with a saw or knife. We could see that even dying after this procedure he had managed to crawl several meters with his fingers. Another SS man had been crucified alive and his genitals removed and stuffed in his mouth. Several times we witnessed the Soviets and partisans retreating after a battle, stopping long enough to kill our wounded, usually by smashing their heads with their weapons or using a bayonet, shovel, ax handle or knife. This did nothing to engender a more humane attitude toward the partisans when they were captured.
MH: What was the atmosphere like fighting next to the other European volunteers?
Degrelle: Well, the Russians certainly hated the Italians, I think even more than they hated the Germans, which I wrote about. I remember Italians being killed and tortured in horrible ways. Once a group of prisoners was stripped of their clothes and dowsed in ice water and allowed to freeze to death. This was during the winter, and they died by being frozen alive. They even killed doctors and the chaplain. We discovered these events after recapturing a couple of villages. It was absolutely horrible.
MH: How were the peasants’ attitudes toward your unit and the Germans?
Degrelle: The peasants were just simple people who had suffered under Josef Stalin and the great promises of communism, and they were for the most part very supportive of us. This was most evident when we attended their religious services. I attended regularly whenever possible, although I am a Catholic. The Russian Orthodox services were handled by priests who had either been in prison, sent to Siberia or living in hiding for many years. We supported their religious freedom, and they responded very well. It was very moving to see parents bring their young children for baptisms and christenings, and the old people holding their icons and crucifixes. They prayed for an end to Stalin and his measures; they also prayed for us to win. Another thing that must be remembered is that we also assisted the peasants in bringing in their crops, protected them from partisan reprisals and gave them jobs. They lived a better life under us for three years than under the Communists during their entire lives. They also gave us great intelligence on partisan and Red Army activity, and worked as translators and scouts. This was especially true in the Ukraine, although sometimes the Germans in charge would do stupid things and destroy the support we had gained. One village I remember was called Baibusy; we had a great relationship with these Ukrainians and others who fled there. They were marvelous. In the Caucasus the anti-Soviet feeling was incredible, especially among the Kalmuks and Armenians, and they fought with us and for us in a fanatical way. Another great memory was an entire village turning out to welcome us as we entered. The people brought out their religious icons and gave us information and valuable intelligence, food, places to stay, everything. The orders from the upper command were to treat the locals humanely; they were our allies. These people became a second family for many of us, and when we left there was a great deal of sadness. Once when Paul Hausser and I attended a religious mass, the people knelt before him as if he were a patriarch, blessing him for his presence and for restoring their religious freedom. With the candles and gilt images it was quite an impressive scene.
MH: You fought the partisans. What was this type of warfare like?
Degrelle: Well, it was the worst. First, there were many different types of partisans. There were the Communist fanatics who were the most dangerous and could not be bargained with. Then there were the peasants, conscripts who had little choice in the matter, and then there were the former Red Army men who joined the partisans due to their units’ having been cut off and destroyed, although many of the last two groups defected to us at some point. They moved quickly in their pigskin sandals as light infantry and in small groups, usually at night, using hit-and-run tactics and creating turmoil in general. They placed mines in roads, killed sentries, kidnapped officials and forcibly conscripted recruits, and they were very difficult to catch. In the Caucasus the terrain was a jungle, very thick with valleys and great forests where we had a very difficult time against the partisans; snipers climbed trees in the very dense forests, they had bunker complexes, underground hospitals, weapons manufacturing centers, everything. They had dug live graves—holes in the ground where they shared body heat and were well camouflaged. They lived like animals and fought the same way. Many were freed criminals, even murderers who were brought from jails and placed into units. Their snipers were very deadly and were difficult to locate, let alone capture or kill. This type of fighting was the worst. It wore on the nerves of the men and reduced humanity to the lowest level. I would rather face the Red Army than these people. The one thing my men and I knew was that however large and present the threat presented by the Red Army, the partisans were the worst enemy to fight.
MH: How did you and your troops fight the partisans?
Degrelle: They did not wear uniforms unless they were in German clothing sometimes, and they blended well with the local population, which created a problem in choosing who was and was not a partisan. Unless you caught one with a weapon or were actively engaged against them, it was impossible. Later during the war they were absorbed into Red Army infantry and tank units, and sometimes they were given uniforms. I would say the most disturbing aspect of fighting the partisans was that, unlike the Soviet military, the partisans adhered to no set doctrine, used no set order of battle that we could study, and basically struck where it was the most opportune. If we caught and cornered them they were dead, and they knew it. That was why they fought like fanatics.
MH: What was your impression of the Red Army soldiers?
Degrelle: Very undisciplined and suicidal in their tactics, but very determined in the fight. They had men and women of all ages and racial backgrounds, teenagers to pensioners. It was incredible. I once saw a boy no older than 9 years old who had been killed in action, and it made me hate the Communists even more for their disregard for human life. It was also difficult for our men, Walloons, to shoot women and children. We were not accustomed to this, but it became necessary, since they fought just as hard as the men.
MH: What were your general impressions of the prisoners you captured?
Degrelle: Most Russians only wanted to surrender. These were usually peasants who had been caught up in the war and were hoping for something better. Many carried the safe conduct passes [the Germans] distributed along the front, guaranteeing safe passage to anyone surrendering. Thousands deserted carrying these passes.
MH: What was the typical condition of your own troops, and how did they cope with fighting on the Eastern Front?
Degrelle: We had a few suicides, and some went mad. It was a type of war that cannot be described—it must be experienced, but once experienced, it still cannot be described. Does this make sense? I know it seems vague, but that is the best I can do. The exhaustion, hunger, fear and pain, not to mention the cold of the winter all played their part. Seeing the brutality only made the situation worse. The men were walking ghosts, skeletons that had not eaten a hot meal in weeks, or even a solid meal unless we came across a dead horse or a village that offered us assistance. The orders were that no one would steal or commit any crime against the people. We needed their support, and anything that reduced that support would return to haunt us tenfold. Unfortunately, many German units did not observe this reality. We served with the 5th SS Wiking Division during this period , and they generally observed the rules. However, there were exceptions.
MH: How did the authorities handle desertions?
Degrelle: Those who were caught—and bear in mind that nearly everyone deserting was caught—were hanged, shot or executed in some fashion and displayed for public viewing. Many were just children who had been sent into a war that was too much for them. They broke down, and they were killed by their own men for it. It was better to stay and face the enemy with the chance of surviving than to desert and definitely be caught by the German Field Police, who were a judge and jury of their own. It was very sad.
MH: Did you ever work with the Russian Freiwilligen, ex-Soviet troops who volunteered to fight on the German side?
Degrelle: Yes, many times, and it was both a success and a failure. There were some former Communists who redefected to the Soviets, but I think most stayed and fought until the end. They knew what their fate would be if captured by the Communists, and many were anti-communists who were loyal to us. The best volunteers were generally the Western European units, such as our own Walloons, the French Charlemagne Division and the Dutch and Norwegian units. The Wiking was perhaps the most notable, and we served with them. They were perhaps the best of all, and were actually the only foreign unit to be designated as an actual SS division, not an auxiliary unit, and they were also made a full panzer division as well.
MH: Were you ever exposed to Soviet propaganda?
Degrelle: Yes, quite often. The Reds knew who we were, and they would broadcast in French to us, asking us to come over and fight for Charles de Gaulle. This did not work, of course. We actually found it quite amusing.
MH: Tell us about your meetings with the Nazi elite, such as Hitler and SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, and what you thought of them.
Degrelle: I met Himmler only four times during the war, if my memory is correct, and Hitler I met several times, besides the Knight’s Cross and Oak Leaves awards. I once had a meeting with both of them at one time when I made a request in 1943 that my men be allowed to have Catholic chaplains, and they agreed. I also refused to have my men partake in anything that we deemed unsoldierly, and Paul Hausser, Sepp Dietrich and others supported me. Hitler once told me that if he had ever had a son, he wished that he would have been like me. I am not exactly sure why he said this, but I know he respected me, and I think Himmler did as well, although I never trusted him and I was not quite comfortable with him as the supreme commander of the SS, including the Waffen SS, which we had joined in 1944. I believed that Germany could have won the war even after the Americans came into it if the mass of the Eastern peoples had been rallied to our cause.
MH: Hitler personally decorated you with the Knight’s Cross, didn’t he?
Degrelle: Yes, in February 1944, following the Cherkassy battle, which was quite rare. I think only perhaps 20 or 30 men received the Knight’s Cross from Hitler personally, and 12 of those were for the Eban Emael airborne operation in May 1940. I received my Knight’s Cross at the same ceremony where General Herbert Gille received the Oak Leaves, as both of us were at Cherkassy [at the same time], and General Hermann Fegelein and Himmler were in attendance as well. Josef Goebbels made a great propaganda exploit out of the situation, which was meant to assist the foreign recruiting effort. Gille would later be awarded the Diamonds, while Fegelein would be shot on Hitler’s orders.
MH: What was your final rank when Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945?
Degrelle: My rank was SS Oberführer, which is one rank above full colonel and just below a brigadier general, so there is no Allied equivalent. I was promoted to general in the last week of the war, but I never received the promotion to SS Brigadeführer.
MH: How did you escape arrest by the Allies and extradition to Belgium or the Soviet Union?
Degrelle: This was an interesting situation. After a crazy course through Germany, Belgium and Denmark, where I met with Himmler in Kiel, Germany, for the last time, we ended up in Oslo, Norway, by ship, and we knew that this situation would not last after my meeting with [Norwegian Fascist leader Vidkun] Quisling. We fueled an aircraft and took off. We ran out of fuel and crashed on a beach in Spain, and I have been here ever since. My own government condemned me to death, but they have not pursued those who murdered my family and killed in the name of their own causes. Justice is determined by those in power, nothing else.
MH: How has your life been since the war?
Degrelle: I spend my time writing about the war and meeting old friends, and now making new ones. I think that people need to understand that there is always another side to a story. If people in your country had suffered the loss of their families due to a political party that was in conflict with your beliefs, then many of your countrymen may find themselves on the other side. Your American Civil War is a prime example.
MH: What do you see yourself doing for the rest of your life?
Degrelle: Hopefully still writing, as long as my mind is sharp and I can see; always reading books, and wondering at the great changes that have taken place in my lifetime. The collapse of communism in Europe has proved that we were right. We just needed validation, and now we have it. I think that what we may write is important, but history as it unfolds will prove who was right, and who was wrong. I never believed in the purging of Jews and civilians in general, and that was not my war. My war was to fight for my country, which would have been an independent partner of Germany in a Communist-free Europe. This is only now a reality, but we fought for it 50 years ago all the same.
MH: Do you feel that communism will eventually die in the rest of the world as well?
Degrelle: Yes, it will fall. Governments are the most intangible structures made by man; they change shapes, and are altered by the forces of time and nature. However, I am an optimist. I am hopeful that we as a species will learn from our mistakes, and perhaps there will be hope for us all. But then again, I could be wrong.
For further reading, Colin D. Heaton recommends Léon Degrelle’s book Campaign in Russia.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.