Leon Degrelle first published The Burning Souls, dedicated to his children Chantal, Anne, Godelieve, and Leon-Marie, in Spain in 1952. A memoir, a work of poetry, and a philosophy of life with a Christian theological view, this masterpiece has finally been made available to the English reader 70 years after its original publication. The aim of this article is to outline some of the core themes of the book and its overall message, with plenty of quotes, in order to draw broader attention to the exceptional life of this man and his many publications. Though his actions and his chosen path during the European conflict are controversial in a mainstream political setting, his voice and his books are a priceless historical perspective from a man who took part in the greatest drama of human history at every level imaginable. In order to provide context to the nature of this book, a brief and general overview of the background of the man himself is necessary before delving into the content of his work.
Who Was Leon Degrelle?
Leon Degrelle was born in the Ardennes town of Bouillon in the Belgian province of Luxembourg in 1906 to a devout Catholic family of French descent. A rising star of the political landscape in his young adult years, Degrelle was the youngest political leader in all of Europe during the tumultuous years preceding the second world war. He was the founder of the Catholic-nationalist Rexist Party which sought to unite both the Walloon (French speaking) and the Flemish (Dutch speaking) Belgians under the banner of Christian revival, national identity and social cohesion amongst the classes during a time of great social strife and class conflict, with communist revolution brewing in every nation on the continent.
Following the German invasion of Western Europe, Leon Degrelle was at a crossroads. In the early years of the war, all signs pointed to an overwhelming German victory with the German National Socialist state being free to impose its will upon the many nations and ethnics groups across Europe. Following Operation Barbarossa, the German blitzkrieg-invasion of the Soviet Union, Degrelle saw an opportunity not only to offer his service in the fight against the savagery and godlessness of the communist regime, but to earn on the battlefield, through brave and courageous acts, a seat at the table with the dominant German power to negotiate the rights of his people in their uncertain future as part of a vast European empire.
Degrelle successfully orchestrated the formation of a Wallonian division of the German Wehrmacht (later to become the 28th Division of the Waffen SS) to aid in the fight against the Bolsheviks. Like the majority of foreign Waffen SS divisions, it was filled with primarily Christian volunteers who offered their service in the fight against the Soviet Union and its red terror that had left the bodies of Christians in its path throughout Russia and Eastern Europe. Although he was immediately offered an officers position by Adolf Hitler himself, he refused and headed to the front as a Private. Through acts of valor and a natural ability to lead, Degrelle was promoted through the ranks over the course of the war ending with the rank of General. One of the most highly decorated soldiers of the war, he was the only non-German to be awarded the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross With Oakleaves, one the highest honours of the Reich.
Following the collapse of both fronts and the death of Adolf Hitler, Leon Degrelle was put on a plane by Heinrich Himmler bound for Spain where it was hoped he would be given protection by the Franco regime. Taking fire along the way, the plane eventually ran out of fuel and crash landed on a beach in Spain. He would live out the rest of his life as an exile in Spain, constantly hunted, avoiding assassination and abduction attempts even into his old age. He died in 1994 at the age of 87, leaving behind a vast contribution of historical books and viewpoints, the last living witness of his stature to the spectacular, horrifying and arguably most historically significant time period in world history.
One would be hard-pressed to find a more compelling insight into the human condition than that which is presented in Leon Degrelle’s The Burning Souls. A poetic masterpiece of wisdom and depth born through the suffering and sacrifice experienced in his years of combat against communism on Europe’s eastern front. Its wisdom is of a sort that could only be attained by the physical and spiritual struggles of personal experience, of which he lays bare to the reader. A humble message of love and virtue that transcends the political realm and crosses over into the eternal realm of the soul.
“The impulses of the soul are not graduated like the flow of a gas appliance. Hope, passion, love, faith, pain and shame dictated to me the writings that I tossed about, at such and such a time, because I felt them then with great force. Sometimes it was at the summit of my public action. Sometimes it was in the abandonment, the mud, and the cold of my distant life as a suffering soldier in the vastness of the Eastern Front. But the soul that lived these impulses followed a common thread, invisible to many: it was nevertheless the artery that spiritually nourished my existence. Therefore, the notes are not so much nonsense, they record the ups and downs of a soul among souls, all of which have their ups and downs.”
Part One: Empty Hearts
“Here I am, nearly at the end of my life. I felt almost everything. Knew everything. More than anything I suffered.
I saw, dazzled, the great golden fires of my youth arise. Their flames illuminated my land. The crowds made the starry waves of their thousands of faces dance around me. Their fervor, their eddies existed.
But did they really, in fact, exist? Wasn’t all this a dream? Did I not dream that 30 years ago, a nation called my name, and that on certain days the most distant newspapers of the planet repeated it?
Tucked away in my exiled sadness, I can no longer believe in my past itself. Did I live those times or not? Know those passions? Raise those oceans? I walk my terraces. I lean over my roses. I discern the scents. Have I ever been another being, other than this lonely dreamer who vainly clutches at memories like frayed mountain fogs?”
Part One opens with the pain of defeat, the loneliness of the exile. Quite likely written from a dark room with shuttered windows in an obscure Spanish apartment in Madrid, it reads like the lamentations of a man who gave all and lost everything. When Degrelle crash landed into the bay of La Concha de San Sebastian in Spain at 6:40am on May 8, 1945, he survived only as the living dead in every sense of the phrase. With nearly every bone broken in his body with a cast from head to toe, Degrelle’s extradition to Belgium and his certain execution upon delivery were all but assured. It was only through the intervention of Francisco Franco that Degrelle was smuggled “underground” where he lived in utmost secrecy and solitude for the years of 1946-1948 during the peak of the unquenchable blood-thirst of the Allied victors.
During these years of darkness and solitude Degrelle lived with the knowledge that his children had been taken from their mother by the Belgian authorities, their whereabouts unknown for over 5 years after the war. His wife was thrown into a Belgian prison for the crime of being his wife. She would not walk free until 1950, serving 5 years of 10 year sentence. His parents were imprisoned in Belgium for the crime of having given him life. His mother was to die after being “transferred through several prisons in Brussels – Liege, Namur and Arlon”1. His father would meet the same end “shown, completely naked to his children, in deplorable conditions, in the Belgian prison of Saint-Gilles on March 11, 1948.”2 One can feel his anguish through the pages, his despair in the reality of a sacrifice that seemed only to have produced more unbearable suffering, for himself undoubtably, but more painfully for his loved ones. But even at his lowest point, the resilience and perseverance of Degrelle’s spirit, his ideal, his burning soul is strikingly evident:
“One gives for good, without calculation – because all is given, and nothing remains of the giver – only when one first kills the love of the self. This does not come easily, because the human beast is reluctant. We understand so poorly what can be learned from bitterness.
It is sweet to dream of an ideal and to build it in your mind.
Still, to tell the truth, this is precious little.
What is an ideal if it is just a game, or a sweet dream?
You have to build it, after that, in reality.
Each stone must be torn from our comfort, from our joys, from our rest, from our heart.
When, despite everything, the building rises over the years, when you do not stop along the way, when, faced with heavier and heavier stones to be placed, you continue, only then does the ideal begin to live.
It lives only to the extent that we die to ourselves.
What a drama, deep down, that righteous life.”
Part Two: The Wellsprings of Life
If part one illuminates to us the inevitable pain and despair that arise from a sacrifice of the self, part two takes us back to the source of that conviction: The Land of Our Birth. For what nobility lies in a man that is detached from the land of ancestors, from the soil that gives his people life, from the common blood that flows in their veins, connecting the history of his kin together through the centuries? How can the atomized individual, disconnected from the whole, take up the burden of suffering on behalf of a greater ideal? It is not possible. The scourge of hyper-individualism, of the isolated rootless man, can offer no environment or opportunity for the advancement of a people or, more importantly, for the elevation of the burning soul, purified through voluntary suffering.
“As men we belong always to a people, a land, a history. We may not know it. We can try to forget it. But events eternally return us to these sources of life.
They bring us back to the men of our blood: shameful or bright, family binds us together, ever tighter and firmer with time.
It can even become suffocating. We never get rid of it.
Where our blood is concerned, we are bound to it. Blood comes always before reason. We are one with these ties, as if our veins were only one organism and the family had only one heart, a heart that pumps the same blood in each of us and reminds us of our vital hearth.
The same is true of our homeland.
We cannot escape it.”
If a people cannot exist without roots in their land and in their shared history, neither can a child grow without roots in the family and in the home. As previously mentioned, Degrelle’s five children were ripped from their home and scattered to the wind after war. His wife, Marie-Paule, was able to regain custody of their children following her release from prison, but the family life was never the same. Under constant threat of extradition, assassination, and abduction it would never be safe for the family to reunite until the children had grown up. Some years later his only son Leon-Marie(born in 1939 as the war was commencing) would come to live with him in Constantina, only to be tragically killed in a motorcycle accident within months of his arrival on February 22, 1958 at the young age of 19. The importance of proper, rooted upbringing of children was not lost on Degrelle and it pained him that he could not provide the same stability he had been afforded:
“Ah! The horror of our children being born or dying in anonymous apartments, surrounded by living furnishings since departed, where other nomads have, in their turn, resumed their awkward life, without soulful memories, not even daring to remember, so out of place they are.”
“How can we have a soul in a faceless house, one that is changed like a carnival mask?
…the mother will put in the hearts of the little ones only what she will have nourished herself. Their soul will contain what her’s has contained.
The images of her heart will trace great reflections on them, like shadows advancing in the fields under white clouds of the great summer sky.”
The sacred time of Christmas, the Nativity of the Saviour, is recalled from the time of his own childhood. Once again, the reflections are rooted in their place as well as their time.
“We were only little children from the Ardennes.
The snow blanketed the horizon, piled above the eaves of the roofs, and packed itself tight into the bottom of our shoes.
We were sure we saw Saint Joseph turn around the corner of the Rue du Moulin. To climb the way to the church was tough going in the midnight darkness. At the last steep slope, we resorted to carrying our shoes in our hands.Suddenly the night of frozen darts gave way to the warm smell of the dazzling naves.
Our heads were spinning a bit.
The smell of incense intoxicated.
The priest himself was pale…
…but the angels had continued to stand quietly among the candles with their large wings at rest…
…we knew only beautiful mothers with pure eyes, in which we saw everything. We had looked into those eyes so often. But those of the Mother of Little Jesus enchanted us to the extreme, as if Heaven allowed children to see more in them than men did.”
Part Three: The Misery of Mankind
In the opening paragraphs subtitled The Blind Men, Degrelle lambasts the baseness and vanity of the modern man, concerned not with the spirit but with worldly passions and vices of materialism. He displays his wisdom and insight differentiating between the true happiness of a soul purified through suffering versus the empty bodily pleasures “which are just caricatures of joy.”
It is here that the message in the book begins to resonate: The blindness of men has created a misery that is felt in the depths of the soul without the reward which comes from the voluntary suffering achieved through self sacrifice. The carnal desire for what is easy, what is instantaneous, what is physically gratifying has consumed the world of men to the detriment of their spiritual life. The resulting pain and emptiness, the void in the hearts of men, is greater than anything that could result from voluntary sacrifice. And it offers no reward. Such is the condition of fallen man.
“In the desert of time stands the Cross.
The mundane, shady, or perverse life of men flows on like a dull river. Christ will receive the blows and the thorns. He will collapse to the ground. The wood of the cross will crush His flesh. The hammer will strike great blows against the hard beams…
…what will our souls understand about this tragedy? They have not shuddered or cried. Nor even thought about it. Nor seen. Christ moves well alone. Alone.
…yet it is because of man’s spiritual suffocation that the world is falling apart.
…faith is only worth anything as long as it conquers, love as long as it burns, charity as long as it saves.”
Man’s slavery to sin, to selfishness, to the passions are what hold him back from taking up the Cross and following Christ humbly. Our lust for life is a false lust for the temporal, our lack of giving inhibits what we could otherwise receive.
“The great tragedy of sin, what causes so much suffering, is that on account of it we give less of ourselves, or give badly, offering only a portion of what we might have, a portion with hints of indelible defilement.
To love is to give. And to give is to give everything. The punishment for falling is the pain of having trampled on your love, of having reduced the love you might have given.
If only we could remove from our bodies, our hands, our eyes, those forces that pulsed in them at the hours of weakness and abjection.
Too late: much to our chagrin.
We may cry all the tears in the world. No matter what, we can never recover that which we so carelessly lost. The day of the Fall, despite all our repentance and remission, will remain the black hole into which the good of the world is eternally lost.”
Part Four: The Joy of Mankind
The Joy of Mankind is broken up into ten sub-categories. The preceding chapters are also subdivided but it is necessary to emphasize the distinction of this chapter in order to again highlight that the joy of mankind is in no terms its pleasure or its comfort. The sub-categories are as follows: Strong and Hard, The Price of Life, Despoliation, The Power of Joy, To Dream To Think, Patience, Obedience, Kindness, Happy Isolation, Grandeur.
Leon Degrelle’s understanding of joy was always personified through voluntary self sacrifice and noble struggle. He once said that “life is only worth living to the extent it is illuminated by generous giving.” His years in battle on the Eastern Front instilled in him the resolve to resist the mortal urge to attach happiness to worldly things which are momentary and fleeting. In both glorious victory and crushing defeat the soul can prevail through the joy of not having given in.
“Life is not a form of sadness, but joy made flesh
Joy of being useful
Joy of mastering what could demean or weaken us
Joy of acting and giving
Joy of loving all that trembles, spirit and matter, because everything, under the impetus of a righteous life rises, lightens instead of weighing down…
…too many men are debased. But, alongside and in opposition to those whose baseness is a blasphemy to life, there are those we see, or don’t see who redeem the world and bring honour to all life.”
In Degrelle’s memoir of the war, titled The Eastern Front, these same themes are repeated throughout that work. A war account like no other that incapsulates the brutality, the death, the destruction in perfect unison with the joy, the determination, and the hearts of men open to beauty during the darkest moments. A tribute to the men who fought through the cold, the hunger, the disease, and the wounds yet never lost the joy in their hearts even in the moment of death. It is to those men that so many of Degrelle’s passages within The Burning Souls apply and for whom they were most likely written.
“It is often by doing, with maximum nobility, a thousand bothersome things that you are great.
It is infinitely more difficult to stretch your soul a thousand times, every day, without relief, than to give a single grand impulse at the moment of a visionary event.
…tomorrow, when daybreak reaches the crest of the trees, we will have before us only the closed horizon of man.
We will have to be strong and hard, joyful through nothing but the radiance of our souls.
Dying evening, silent and sure of dawn, give us the peace of awaiting the light that is reborn, renewed, from the immense and auspicious night.”
Part Five: A Man’s Duty
In this hyper-individualized age where the only categories of communal grouping permitted are that of victimhood, the very concept of duty has been perilously neglected. The duty of man lies not in the single grand act but in every frozen step, each heavy load, the inevitable procession of hardships. While death hangs over us all, whispering soft utterances of fear and retreat in our ears, a man can rise above the ungodly forces of this world and ascend to the internal happiness and joy of service to his fellow man, devotion to the higher principles, unwavering conviction in the face of that same fearsome and ever present death.
“Which moment will be our end?
Death passes unresponsive and his hands strangle hearts at random. The machine-gun fire, it whizzes, it cracks, or it pierces with its deadly fingers a young man’s body.
What to do, if not to have a pure heart, a quiet regard to the timely sacrifice, made freely? If it comes, our eyelashes will not quiver, and we will leave with the faint, sad smile of the tender memories that surround our last seconds.
If we come back, even though the warmth of life will have made us forget this icy breath, our hearts will forever have the composure of a life that has not trembled before death.
May fate always find us strong and worthy!”
Who knew this duty of a man better than Leon Degrelle? The man charged ahead and defied the odds every day of his life. A politician who became a soldier while simultaneously turning down an esteemed position until it was earned with his own blood, sweat and tears. This cannot be overstated nor can another example of it be found in modern history. Through the grueling day to day grind of a soldier, Degrelle’s beliefs, his view of the world, and his deepest convictions were tested and in turn strengthened and he came out the other side as a man worthy of passing on that wisdom born of experience, that experience born of valor.
“This is it, the thankless life of a soldier, which knows neither exhilaration or glory, where, at any time, one can be stabbed, shot, or dragged off as a prisoner by the enemy on the other side. You have to move forward calmly, meter by meter, even when shots may ring out suddenly from ten paces away. Shots ring out in the night, between the outpost, a hoarse cry, and the night rolls on, impervious, frozen, relentless. At these times our entire being wishes to rebel. We care for our lives, those of our comrades, the blood coursing powerfully through their veins; we are beings of the flesh; we want the light to be reborn.With vigor and heat, the human beast roars and cries out for his will to unfold, to burn, to resound…
…but our taste for life will be even stronger, because we have more intensely experienced the value, the flavor, the burning sweetness of each second, falling like a drop of silence in this great tension of ready hearts.”
Part Six: To Give Completely
Leon Degrelle closes his book with the final chapter titled as it should be, the dominant theme of the entire work. He lays out the path forward for the European peoples who are broken, divided, devastated and disfigured beyond recognition. The Reconquest of the nations must begin internally, in the soul not the flesh. With his Christian foundation on full display he emphasizes the vanity and baseness of economic and political reform or revolution without a balanced and proper ordering of the spiritual in its place above the physical world. All the material possessions, technological advancement, economic prosperity and physical comfort mean nothing if they are not subordinate to soul. It is this prevalent theme throughout the book that is a priceless and beautifully delivered message needed more in our times than even Leon could have imagined. Our societies are in chaos, our people are divided and being deliberately displaced, disordered and confused. Our economic and social condition is getting more grim by the day. But there can be no Reconquest until we learn to conquer our own flesh, our own weakness, our own passions. Though all men fall short of personal perfection and succumb to the infirmity of mortality, a man elevate himself through service and sacrifice to his people, his nation, to a greater ideal. Elevate the soul. Give Completely. Therein lies our answer. Therein lies our freedom.
“You did not think it would be like this. You rejected comfort with sincere enough words. But it still hemmed the edge of your actions, as the foam borders the edge of the sea. You honestly thought that you only lived for this thread of light, beautiful only from afar, on the edge of the sands. The temptation was there in your heart. You wanted something grand, something real. But you still had the thought of yourself near you. You announced your readiness to do your duty. But you made this silent addition, that to fulfill your duty would bring glory to your name and satisfy your own desires, would make you golden with pride…
Are you giving up? You give your flesh and your breath, your heart and your mind, and you think now it is all in vain?
Why, because you no longer give them in service of your selfish pride?
Only now can you start to give of yourself.”
Leon Degrelle, June 15, 1906 – March 31, 1994
The Burning Souls available at Antelope Hill Publishing