Hitler’s Belgian Partner

Robert Paxton

  • Collaboration in Belgium: Léon Degrelle and the Rexist Movement by Martin Conway
    Yale, 364 pp, £30.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 300 05500 5

Rexism was, if only for a while, the most successful pro-Fascist party in Western Europe between the wars. Léon Degrelle’s party won 11.5 per cent of the vote in the May 1936 parliamentary elections, and 29 per cent in the rural Francophone province of Luxembourg. His youth and pungent oratory assisted Degrelle in exploiting the growing disillusionment with a stagnant multi-party Parliament: the brooms his followers brandished at their rallies seemed to express it all. This flash of anti-incumbent anger dwindled rapidly, however, when the Catholic hierarchy made its disapproval public. Now, thanks to Martin Conway’s sensible judgments, and thorough researches in both Belgian and German sources, we know a great deal about what became of Rex and Degrelle under German occupation.

The subject of collaboration often generates more heat than light. It is wrongly assumed that Hitler ruled his occupied territories by means of a conspiratorial fifth column of Nazi sympathisers. As for the collaborators, they are liable to evoke images of luxury, decadence and cruelty, as in Visconti’s The Damned. In the case of Rex, historical accuracy is further complicated by the inventions of Degrelle himself, who is still alive in Spain.

The story Conway tells is lurid enough: Rexist leaders ensconced in expropriated Jewish apartments; Degrelle’s enhancement of an already considerable personal fortune; teenage volunteers of the Walloon Legion dying in the Ukrainian snow in 1943; an accelerating exchange of assassinations and reprisals with the Resistance in 1944. But in Belgium, as elsewhere, collaboration with the Nazi occupiers was often, at least in the beginning, a more businesslike arrangement than popular legend allows.

Conway gets German occupation policy straight – the essential first step in any study of collaboration. The Germans governed their conquests in a variety of ways: direct Nazi Party rule after the annihilation of local authority, as in Poland; Nazi Party rule through the local administration, as in Holland; military government, as in occupied Northern France: an indigenous government functioning with nominal autonomy under an armistice agreement, as in Vichy France.

In the Belgian case, Hitler ignored the request for an armistice on the part of Paul-Henri Spaak and other ministers who had taken refuge in France on 18 June 1940. (Curiously, Conway doesn’t mention this proposal, which no one in Belgium likes to remember.) Even so, Belgium was ruled by what was usually the least abusive type of occupation regime, a military government. As Richard Cobb has told us, the governor, General von Falkenhausen, was happy enough in Brussels to return there in 1952 to marry his Belgian mistress. Falkenhausen’s assistant, General Reeder, who conducted day-to-day affairs, was a reasonably correct professional officer.

One of the few constants in Hitler’s occupation policy was his reluctance to rely on local Nazi sympathisers. He preferred Pétain to Doriot, Déat and the like in France; he ignored Mussert in Holland; in satellite countries, he preferred Admiral Horthy to Szalasi in Hungary and Marshal Antonescu to the Legion of the Archangel Michael in Romania. Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian pro-Nazi whose name became a synonym for collaborationism, was excluded from power for most of the first 22 months of German occupation. Hitler sensibly preferred to rule through influential local notables rather than through marginal local Fascists (whose following was limited and whose nationalism was likely to prove awkward), unless he meant to wipe a country off the map altogether, as with Poland, or unless the local Fascists constituted the establishment, as in Croatia.

Hitler’s reasonable preference for local élites was doubly wise in Belgium, where everything came in two national variants: Flemish and Walloon. Flemish nationalists expected to be favoured, as they had been during the 1914-18 Occupation; and at the start they were. But Hitler never announced any postwar plans for Belgium, and this uncertainty allowed French-speaking collaborators to compete for his favour, in the hope that some kind of bi-national Belgium, despite its history of Francophone dominance, might survive in a Nazi Europe. We recognise the master of ‘polycracy’ in this fruitful failure to choose. Degrelle, even more than the other Francophone collaborators, locked himself into a quest for Nazi favour and patronage and allowed no realistic assessment of the war’s probable outcome to call it into question.

Degrelle’s campaign for recognition as the Nazis’ most useful partner in Francophone Belgium went through several stages. At the beginning, he was very much an outsider. Reeder, who never had much use for the impulsive and ambitious Degrelle, preferred to work with the political and economic establishment. Conway makes it clear that in the summer of 1940 the overwhelming majority of those with responsibilities in business or administration wanted to pursue ‘some form of accommodation’ with the military government.

Both sides had excellent reasons for collaborating with each other, in the original meaning of that term: simply working together for reasons of mutual advantage. The Germans wanted Belgium to run itself, in order to save manpower. The Belgian élite wanted to avoid repeating the refusals of 1914-18, when King Albert I had held out heroically in an unoccupied corner of his country, while the vast majority of his citizens froze and starved under direct military occupation. The economy was closed down for what had been expected to be a brief hiatus, and the only work available was forced labour for the German Army. More attention to this negative example would have considerably enriched Conway’s account of the Belgian ‘accommodations’ in 1940. It would also have helped explain ideological collaborationism among Francophones in World War Two when there had been none in 1914-18.

This time, the new king, Leopold III, tried to govern in association with the occupation authorities. In the absence of German approval for an active royal government, high civil servants, the secretaries-general, ran the ministries and kept public agencies functioning. The fact that the situation was politically less ambiguous than it was in Vichy France made it possible for their accommodations to remain on a technical level. Although Leopold may well have wished to emulate Pétain’s rash undertaking to revise his country’s constitution and transform civic culture in the presence of the occupation forces, he had no opportunity to do so. The Catholic hierarchy under Cardinal Van Rooey tried to maintain the Church’s autonomy by refraining from direct confrontation with the Germans. The businessmen chose not to repeat the disastrous shutdown of 1914-18, even at the price of working for the German war economy. The Galopin Committee, an informal council of top industrialists and bankers, attempted to supervise and manage economic collaboration with German war procurement.

In fact, Conway tells us rather little about these accommodations, even though his book is entitled Collaboration in Belgium and his stated purpose is ‘an examination of the phenomenon of collaboration’. Things would have been made much clearer if he had used some concept like Stanley Hoffmann’s collaboration d’ état, devised for the Vichy French case, to distinguish the accommodations of the élite from the ideologically motivated ‘collaborationism’ of Degrelle, which is his real subject. This would have helped to explain why the ‘collaborationists’ were so marginal at the beginning. Conway’s book tends inadvertently to reinforce the popular identification of collaboration with ideological sympathy, for he rarely attaches the term ‘collaboration’ to the pragmatic accommodations of the élite. There is nothing to trouble bien-pensant Belgian opinion in his finding that collaboration in Belgium, defined in these Quisling-style terms, was the position of a tiny minority. His bibliography notably fails to include John Gillingham’s harsh, though solidly documented, indictment of the Galopin Committee – another unwelcome memory in Belgium.

The collaborationists – as distinct from the collaborateurs d’ état – began to seem more useful to the occupation authorities as the war grew harder. Circumstances changed in several ways: ultimate German victory seemed less certain, the Belgian élites began to show more reserve, and the Germans needed more Belgian help for their war effort. These developments gave Degrelle room to manoeuvre.

Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 provided his first major opportunity. The war now became more ideological, and, simultaneously, more extensive in its demands. Degrelle offered to supply volunteer soldiers. The Légion Wallonie was his most effective bargaining counter; indeed, it was to supplant the Rexist Party as the focus of his activity. The Légion spent three periods on the Eastern Front, in the summer and autumn of 1942 and in the winter of 1943-4, suffering frightful casualties. These young men’s deaths bought Degrelle increased support in Berlin, and eventually a virtual alliance with the SS. They also enabled this one-time journalist to discover a taste for military action: Degrelle actually fought (unlike the paper collaborators of France and elsewhere). The survivors of his Walloon Legion earned a privilege granted to no other satellite military unit in Nazi-occupied Europe: they paraded in battledress down the streets of Charleroi and Brussels on 1 April 1944. Conway estimates that at their peak Degrelle’s various organisations enlisted about 12,000 people (2500 of them for frontline military service in the Légion Wallonie and about as many for paramilitary service at home). Surrounded by a modest penumbra of sympathisers, the activists barely exceeded 1 per cent of the Belgian population.

Conway makes clear distinctions between different generations of Rexists. The ephemeral voters of 1936 were drawn from disgruntled lower-middle-class Francophone Catholics, in the grip of economic depression. After 1940, new leaders and militants willing to throw in their lot with the Nazi occupiers came to the fore. As the Légion became the most dynamic part of Rex, the final generation was composed mostly of rootless youths who needed to hide their past or wanted to escape obligatory labour service in Germany (like the followers of Jacques Doriot whom Paul Jankowski has studied in Marseilles).

In the short term, Degrelle succeeded. He gradually won the ear of the SS, and as the military government lost ground to the harsher ideologues, Degrelle gained more German favours, money and patronage. His success was ironic, for the recognition he earned from the Nazis grew in step with the degree to which they were beleaguered. The main Nazi agent in the Francophone part of Belgium left him at the end the master of a sinking ship. By 1943, even the Flemish VNB had taken its distance, and everyone else in Belgium believed only in imminent liberation by the Allies.

Conway dislikes using Fascism as a generic term, and it is true that Rex was peculiar among European radical Right parties on more than one count. It began as a revolt of young Catholics against the complacency of their elders (the name ‘Rex’ came from a Catholic publishing house, Christus Rex, of which Degrelle became director in 1930, at the age of 24). Degrelle’s anti-Communism and anti-parliamentarism soon carried him well beyond a populist Catholic nationalism of the Maurrassian kind. He received major financial support from Italy and some from Germany, and was received by Hitler in 1936. As war approached, the search for a ‘third way’ between Fascism and socialism lost out to the idea that a National Socialist Europe was the only solution to national decline. The Occupation – by putting power once more within Degrelle’s grasp – set off a further evolution, away from Belgian royalism and towards notions of a New Europe based on races, the Walloons being redefined as a lost Germanic race which happened to speak French. But such ideological peregrinations were common to all Fascists tempted by power, and one should never expect to find programmatic consistency among them. By every standard Degrelle became a Fascist, though as he gravitated into Hiller’s and then Himmler’s orbit he may have preferred to think of himself as the leading Francophone National Socialist.

The collaborationist Rexists were so isolated at the Liberation that the purge was proportionately more severe in Belgium than in France. Thus they left almost no post-war legacy. Conway suggests that since 1945 Far Right movements there have drawn very little on Rex, which has provided neither followers nor inspiration. The current political situation in Belgium is indeed so different, with its commitment to Europe and its major devolution of power to the linguistic regions, that Rex’s recipe for an authoritarian and royalist Francophone nationalism would be quite out of place. As in France, the radical Right has dwindled into one-issue, anti-immigrant movements. But Conway looks forward as cautiously as he looks back, and his book remains what its title should have stated more clearly: a study – the best, certainly, in English – of Léon Degrelle’s short-term success and long-term failure in becoming the Nazis’ chief ideological lieutenant in Francophone Belgium between 1940 and 1944.