Léon Degrelle, the Belgian Nazi whom Franco protected

His presence was common in the circles of the Spanish extreme right during the seventies and eighties.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
30 March 2024 Saturday 10:38
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Léon Degrelle, the Belgian Nazi whom Franco protected

His presence was common in the circles of the Spanish extreme right during the seventies and eighties. He could be seen at rallies of the ultra leader Blas Piñar, at rallies of the Barcelona neo-Nazi organization CEDADE (Spanish Circle of Friends of Europe) or signing books in bookstores dedicated to the dissemination of revisionist and Nazi-fascist exaltation literature.

During these events, surrounded by admirers, many of them young neo-Nazis from the emerging skinhead movement, Léon Degrelle proudly displayed his Knight's Cross, proclaiming his devotion to Hitler (“if I had a son, I would want him to be like you,” he liked to say that the dictator told him) and exposed his theories about the “lies” of the Holocaust (he wrote twenty books, including memoirs and revisionist pamphlets).

At the same time, in Belgium, his country of origin, where he is considered a traitor and was stripped of his nationality, they continued trying to extradite him. Degrelle had been tried in absentia in 1945 and sentenced to death for political and military collaboration with the German invaders.

How did this leader of Belgian fascism, a combatant of the Waffen-SS (the armed wing of the SS, condemned as a criminal organization in the Nuremberg trials), manage to evade justice and live comfortably and with impunity in Spain, also contributing to the development of the neo-Nazi movement during the first years of democracy?

Léon Degrelle was born in 1906 in Bouillon, a town in the Wallonia region. He was the son of a French Catholic brewer and politician. With a doctorate in Law, Léon soon followed in his father's footsteps and became involved in Catholic political organizations. In 1935 he created his own formation, the ultra-Catholic Rexista party (titled Christus Rex), of fascist inspiration, with which he managed to enter Parliament as the fourth most voted force in the 1936 elections.

It was the greatest political success of the Rexists. From then on, the party began a rapid decline (in the 1939 elections it lost 17 of its 21 deputies, obtaining only 4% of the votes) which coincided with the radicalization of its fascist and irredentist ideology (the rexistas longed for a Great Burgundy). Mired in political irrelevance, Degrelle saw the German invasion of Belgium as an opportunity to curry favor with the Nazis and become a Belgian Quisling.

He didn't get it. The Rexist leader was repeatedly ignored until, in 1941, Germany launched the invasion of the Soviet Union. Degrelle and his co-religionists created a volunteer unit, the Walloon Legion, which did not reach nine hundred members (the first contingent of the Blue Division was more than eighteen thousand), in order to combat the Bolsheviks on the front. Oriental.

Despite not having military training, Degrelle proved to be a brave and capable soldier, managing to be promoted to officer. He did it for war merits, but, fundamentally, thanks to the death of superior officers and the German propaganda strategy of promoting local leaders. This explains why, being a foreigner and a member of a unit with little military relevance, he was decorated on several occasions by Hitler himself.

In 1943, Himmler, in need of recruits and native support in the occupied territories, decided that the French-speaking Walloons were also a Germanic people, which allowed the incorporation of the Walloon Legion into the Waffen-SS as an assault brigade (the unit had reached its historical maximum, two thousand men).

At the end of April 1945, Degrelle abandoned the front and fled to Norway. From there he flew to Spain, making an emergency landing on May 8 on La Concha beach in San Sebastián. Seriously injured, he was transferred to the General Mola Military Hospital. After being hospitalized for several months, he “disappeared.” That was what Franco's government communicated to the allied authorities when they demanded his extradition: they had given him the expulsion order, he had escaped and they knew nothing about him.

In reality, Degrelle remained in Spain, where he would never leave. Thanks to his good relations with prominent Falangists, with whom he had maintained contact since he visited the “national zone” during the Civil War, the Rexist leader was hidden, first in Madrid, then in the Malaga Costa del Sol and, finally, in Constantine. , a town in the mountains of Seville, curiously marked by the repressive violence carried out ten years earlier by the forces of Queipo de Llano.

Degrelle remained hidden in a farmhouse until 1954, under the protection of the then Minister of Labor José Antonio Girón de Velasco. That year he came out of hiding thanks to Matilde Ramírez Reina, an elderly woman with whom he had become friends and who offered to adopt him. In this way, after the authorization of his friend Blas Piñar, who acted as notary, Degrelle became the Spanish citizen José León Ramírez Reina.

In the town, however, everyone knew him as Don Juan. “Don Juan de La Carlina”, which was the name of the large palace house, decorated with works of art (many acquired irregularly) and with several attached apartments, that Degrelle had built for himself on the outskirts of the town thanks to the operations banking institutions that provided him with his political and business contacts.

La Carlina would become a meeting place for far-right comrades and politicians, such as the also Rexistist and fugitive Robert du Welz, the SS colonel Otto Skorzeny, the politician Jean-Marie Le Pen or the aforementioned Blas Piñar; and also a rural tourism center for the US military from the air control observatory built in the vicinity of Constantina, dependent on the Morón de la Frontera air base. This would be the first real estate business of the many that Degrelle would undertake throughout his life.

His life as a “little Andalusian gentleman” ended in 1963. Degrelle declared bankruptcy, lost La Carlina and moved to Madrid with the help of the philo-Nazi Count of Mayalde, then mayor of the capital. However, the entry of the Opus Dei technocrats into Franco's government forced the Walloon to go underground again, on the Costa del Sol, to avoid the extradition order issued against him.

The order was issued after the Belgian government passed a law, the “Lex Degrelliana,” which extended the statute of limitations for death sentences handed down for crimes during the German occupation by ten years. But the order was not carried out. Not even after Franco's death. The disinterest of the Spanish government in the face of the difficulties posed by his expulsion as he possessed Spanish nationality prevented his extradition.

Feeling unpunished, Degrelle began to openly proselytize Nazi ideology. In conferences, pamphlets, interviews. In 1979 she wrote an open letter to Pope John Paul II criticizing her visit to the “falsehood” of Auschwitz. And in 1985 she made statements in Tiempo magazine denying the Holocaust – “The Jews? If there are so many now, it is hard to believe that they came out of the crematoriums so alive” – which earned her a lawsuit from Auschwitz survivor Violeta Friedman.

In 1991, after a long legal battle, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of Friedman, forcing the defendant to pay compensation that was allocated to associations of Spaniards deported to Nazi concentration camps.

Three years later, Degrelle died in Malaga at the age of eighty-seven. His relatives tried to take his ashes to Bouillon, his hometown, but the Belgian government prohibited it. In Spain, his memory lives on through the Cultural Association of Friends of Léon Degrelle (ACALD), charged with preserving and disseminating his questionable legacy.