Rex was the principal extreme-right political movement in francophone Belgium from the mid-1930s until its collapse at the end of the Second World War. It was led throughout its brief existence by a young Catholic journalist, Léon Degrelle, and its origins lay in the mood of dissatisfaction that developed in the early 1930s among supporters of the Catholic Party, which had been a major force in Belgian politics since the 1880s. Degrelle and his colleagues were predominantly young intellectuals, notably from the University of Louvain (Leuven), who had been inspired by the more militant rhetoric of a Catholic social and political order current among Catholic groups in Belgium during the 1920s. Their noisy denunciation of the corruption of some of the Catholic Party's leaders led to their expulsion from the party, and Degrelle decided to establish Rex (a label derived from Christus Rex, Christ the King) as an independent political movement to fight the parliamentary elections in May 1936.
The youthful dynamism of the Rexist election campaign, and the skills of Degrelle (aged only thirty) as a propagandist and orator, won support for its antipolitician message and vague promises of a new social and political order. In the elections Rex won 11 percent of the vote and had twenty-one deputies elected to parliament. Most of the Rexist votes appear to have been at the expense of the Catholic Party, notably in the southern provinces of Liège and Luxembourg, where Rex's attacks on the parliamentary regime matched more specific material grievances among small businessmen and farmers. The moment of Rexist success proved, however, to be short-lived. Trying to capitalize on the momentum created by their electoral success, Degrelle stood in a by-election in Brussels in April 1937 against the Catholic prime minister, Paul Van Zeeland. All of the other political parties called on their supporters to vote for Van Zeeland, and Degrelle was decisively defeated. In response, the Rexist leader adopted a more consciously fascist style and ideology and developed closer links with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. By the time of the parliamentary elections in April 1939, Rex had lost much of its credibility and won only 4 percent of the vote.
After the German invasion and subsequent occupation of Belgium in May 1940, the Rexists were one of many political forces that initially called for some form of "new order" in Belgium. Degrelle had narrowly escaped death in May 1940, when he had been arrested by the Belgian authorities as a suspected fifth columnist and subsequently transported to detention in France. On his return to Belgium in the summer of 1940, he was determined to seize the political opportunity. But the German military authorities showed little interest in Degrelle, preferring to work with elements of the prewar Belgian elite and the Flemish nationalists of the Vlaams Nationaal Verbond (Flemish National League). In an attempt to capture German attention, the Rexist leader adopted an explicitly collaborationist stance in January 1941. This radical evolution failed, however, to bring him Nazi patronage and prompted a wave of resignations from the already depleted Rexist movement.
Increasingly isolated within Belgium, Degrelle created a small military unit of predominantly Rexist volunteers, the Légion Wallonie, in the summer of 1941 to join the German campaign against the Soviet Union. Degrelle left Belgium with these troops in August 1941 and remained a serving soldier, and ultimately the commander of the Légion, on the eastern front until the end of the war. His military service and more especially his cultivation of an alliance with the SS eventually brought him some rewards. Hitler received Degrelle in February 1944 and awarded him the Iron Cross, and he became a convenient propaganda figure for the Nazi regime in its efforts to portray the war in the east as a European crusade against bolshevism. There is, however, no evidence that Hitler supported Degrelle's ever more unrealistic dreams of re-creating the Burgundian Empire, incorporating Belgium and areas of France, in the western borderlands of the Third Reich. Degrelle's grandiose political ambitions were, moreover, sharply at odds with the increasingly beleaguered situation of the Rexists within Belgium. During the latter war years Rexists were appointed by the Germans to positions of authority, especially as bourgmestres (mayors) of towns in southern Belgium. Public hostility toward them deepened as the war progressed, and many Rexists were the targets of attacks by resistance groups. After the war many Rexist militants were tried by the Belgian authorities for collaboration with the German occupiers. Degrelle, however, was able to escape in May 1945 from the Third Reich to Spain, where the Spanish authorities allowed him to live in semi-hiding until his death in 1994.
Conway, Martin. Collaboration in Belgium: Léon Degrelle and the Rexist Movement, 1940–1944. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1993.
Stengers, Jean. "Belgium." In The European Right: A Historical Profile, edited by Hans Rogger and Eugen Weber, 133–156. London, 1965.