War Criminal Joachim Peiper Led His Troops To Death
|This Joachim Peiper mugshot was taken at Schwabish Hall prison.|
We look at bad individuals such as these to understand them and their times, not to honor or glorify them.
|Joachim (on the right) and his brother Horst, around 1924.|
In brief, where do uncompromising patriotism and effective order-execution end and criminality begin? Because Peiper straddled that line. Perhaps he went way over it. That is for you to decide.
|Peiper accompanying Himmler, July 1940. He already has his Iron Cross (Weill, Federal Archive).|
|Peiper in the rear to the right. He and Himmler do not look happy. Perhaps a concentration camp inspection? September 1940 (Weill, Federal Archives).|
The elder Peiper's military career had developed valuable contacts, such as later-General Walther von Reichenau. Reichenau became a family friend, and his influence no doubt helped Joachim's advancement. Young Joachim was an indifferent student, but he did show aptitude for various pursuits such as sports. It is said that Peiper became a Boy Scout in 1926, though it is unclear if that is an urban legend. The German Boy Scouts ultimately were absorbed into the Hitler Youth in 1933, and Peiper definitely did join the Hitler Youth so it may be true. Peiper followed his brother Horst from the Hitlerjugend into the SS, where Joachim was promoted to Obersturmführer right before the war.
|Peiper with his family, father and brother Horst roughly ten years after the earlier picture. Note the close family resemblance. Also note they all are in uniform, even the father - long-since retired. This was a classic military family.|
Note the fact that their boy apparently was named after Himmler, and that, by marrying the friend of Himmler's mistress, Joachim further ingratiated himself with his boss. This all follows a typical pattern of a careerist of any time period. Nothing wrong with that, Peiper wanted to get ahead. But recognize it for what it was.
|The Peiper his fans see.|
|The real Peiper: "I was a [Party member] and I remain one."|
“I was a [Party member] and I remain one…The Germany of today is no longer a great nation, it has become a province of Europe.”It is unclear if Peiper was speaking literally when he said that he was a lifelong Party member, or merely figuratively. As in so many instances, we get into shades of meaning with Peiper. His fans will believe whichever side of that particular equation makes him seem more heroic to them, that's how it goes with Peiper in so many ways.
|A perfect product of the Hitler Youth.|
|Hitler welcomes two children from Deutsche`s Jungvolk at the Berghof. Behind is Obersturmführer Waffen SS Joachim Peiper.|
|Peiper enjoying some Hennessy, perhaps captured during the Battle of the Bulge.|
|Peiper at Kursk. By now, the situation was getting grim.|
|Note the immaculate dress uniform, everything neat and tidy. Peiper was relatively unique at being both a front-line soldier and a spit-and-polish adjutant.|
|Peiper and Heinz von Westernhagen (commander of Leibstandarte Sturmgeschütz (Assault Gun) Battalion), vicinity of Kharkov, Feb-Mar 1943.|
|Peiper in the Kharkov sector, early 1943.|
By now, Peiper's unit was completely hardened and ruthless due to conditions on the Eastern Front, and they had developed bad habits. In reprisal for various partisan activities, it allegedly set fire to a village and killed 22 men, including two who had been helping his unit (the "Boves massacre"). A trail of criminality always seemed to follow Peiper's units, but his defenders never see any connection there.
|Leibstandarte soldiers at Kursk.|
|You did not want Joachim Peiper frowning at you. Someone is about to get shot.|
Peiper received the Oak Leaves of the Knight's Cross at this time, a very high decoration. Peiper's men burned down villages (as in Italy) and took very, very few prisoners, repeating a common pattern. It was the Eastern Front, though, so few noticed.
|Peiper receives a decoration from the hand of Hitler at the Wolfschanze, Feb 1944.|
|Sepp Dietrich, Hitler's former chauffeur who became an SS General.|
Battlegroup Peiper in the Ardennes
Peiper was chosen to lead the premier striking force in (Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein ("Operation Watch on the Rhine")). The operation was an ill-advised German offensive that was only possible due to a period of relative quiet on all fronts. "Wacht am Rhein" was renamed "Herbstnebel" ("Autumn Mist") in early December.
Battlegroup Peiper was the most powerful out of four separate battlegroups, and it had the most critical objective: capturing a bridge intact over the Meuse and holding it for the rest of the Heer. The plan was that, rather than constituting simply the tank raid that it turned into, the Peiper advance would smooth things out for those that followed.
Peiper knew that this operation was Germany's last real chance. As recalled in 1946 by a SS Hstuf. Gruble, Peiper had this to say in the order he issued for the offensive (which apparently originally came from Sepp Dietrich):
"The German nation has lined up for its last big fight. The objective is Antwerp and to break up the Allied forces that have lined up in the Aachen area. The German nation expects from its soldiers the greatest preparedness for action, courage and sacrifice. The people will not welcome our advance in whose territory we carry out the fight. Any resistance from this quarter and any acts of terror will be countered with the greatest ruthlessness. This fight will be conducted stubbornly with no regard for Allied prisoners of war who will have to be shot if the situation makes it necessary."The battlegroup incorporated the most advanced Tiger II tanks and had about 5,000 men, basically a brigade (though, at that late stage of the war, it was about the size of a normal division). The attack began in bad weather on December 16, 1944.
Kampfgruppe Peiper made quick progress. While the attack fell behind the overly ambitious schedule almost at once, Peiper kept as close to it as anyone in the entire offensive. His troops scored a major victory early on when they captured 50,000 gallons of gasoline for his vehicles - necessary for the advance and a part of the operational plan (and a key weakness of that plan). Peiper's men advanced ahead of the entire army group, making detours when necessary due to bad roads and bridges and wiping out the opposition. Part of this "wiping out" occurred in the infamous "Malmedy massacre," in which Peiper's men took captured Americans into a field and machine-gunned them (a couple survived, including later-famous actor Charles Durning).
There are some graphic images in this section.
The Malmedy massacre deserves its own section because it is the major reason for Peiper's infamy. In brief, Peiper was tasked during the Ardennes offensive with impossible objectives by the OKW, but he came closer than anybody at fulfilling them. The offensive was in full swing on 17 December 1944, but even then, the second day, it was behind schedule. Fighting in the Ardennes with armored troops was almost equivalent to a naval battle: everything depended upon subduing islands of resistance at crossroads. Bastogne was one such crossroad, and it was never captured; Malmedy (or rather about five miles (8 km) south of there, at the Baugnez Crossroads, where five roads intersected) was another.
US soldiers of Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, a lightly armed technical unit, were retreating from Malmedy south through the crossroads. The location is always referred to as Malmedy, but in actuality, it was along the road between Bullingen and Ligneuville, about 8 km (5 miles) from Malmedy. I take great pains to make this distinction because someone from Malmédy contacted me about this and expressed indignation that his town is continually linked to this tragedy when, in fact, it occurred... 8 km (5 miles) south of there.
The traffic that day was an ordinary US convoy of jeeps and trucks, with an MP directing traffic. Nobody knew where the Germans were, but everybody knew they were on the way, so the Americans were bugging out. Peiper's men suddenly erupted out of the woods from another road and a fierce battle ensued. When some of the out-gunned Americans took refuge in a tavern, Peiper's men set the building on fire and gunned down everyone leaving it. Resistance ended quickly, as it was men with rifles against German tanks. Peiper was on the scene, but he was pressed for time and troops. He had his men stand the surviving Americans in a snowy field next to the burned-out tavern. He had them guarded by only a few SS troops, including some non-German ones. Then, Peiper and his convoy left and headed down the road for Ligneuville and, later to Stavelot.
The Americans stood shivering in the cold. They had every right to expect to be treated humanely in accord with the Geneva Convention. The SS stood looking at them, but there was no transport and there did not appear to be anywhere to go. Something was different this time.
|The Malmedy massacre. Note the burned-out cafe in the background.|
The POWs, on the other hand, said the guards just waited until Peiper was out of sight and started blasting. Those that ran were simply fleeing for their lives from the murderous gunfire. The court believed the POWs, but some will always take the side of the perpetrators.
What is certain is that, once Peiper's column was gone, the SS opened fire on the defenseless prisoners. Pvt. 1st Class Georg Fleps, a Waffen-SS soldier from Rumania, was identified as the first to fire a shot. As noted above, what purpose he had in mind in firing was the subject of intense disagreement at trial. The result, though was obvious. Within a matter of moments, 72 defenseless American soldiers lay dead or dying in the snow from machine gun fire. Only three survived. The field was open, with few trees, and the POWs had nowhere to run to. The SS account was greatly undercut by the fact that the guards later went around to the prisoners who were laying helpless in the snow but still breathing and administered "kill shots" to their heads.
The majority of the corpses of the murdered GIs were eventually shipped back to the US for a private burial. Twenty-one, though, still lie buried in the American Military Cemetery at Henri-Chappelle, about forty kilometers north of Malmédy.
|Peiper (right center, blowing smoke) leading his troops near Malmedy.|
Peiper had this to say much later:
"It's so long ago now. Even I don't know the truth. If I had ever known it, I have long forgotten it. All I knew is that I took the blame as a good CO should and was punished accordingly."Some would like to place Peiper miles away throughout the entire incident and having nothing to do with it. That would make no sense. Peiper was advancing at the head of his column and was in total command throughout the operation. He had just left the massacre site when it took place. If his men did something in his extremely disciplined unit, it was with the understanding that Peiper wanted it that way.
The Offensive Runs Tight
Fighting intensified, and Peiper's advance thrilled the German public, with his superiors telling him that the "eyes of Germany" were on Battlegroup Peiper. The unit continued forward along the Ambleve River. Peiper's men took Stavelot the next day, and then Trois Points, but the American defense stiffened there and around La Gleize. American engineers blew up a bridge over the Ambleve that Peiper required to continue toward the Meuse. After December 19th, Peiper was stuck in a defensive battle that he could not win, and he also could not be re-supplied.
|Peiper decorating a grunt with a medal at Kursk.|
|Peiper on the stand for war crimes at Malmedy. His translator is beside him, but Peiper spoke English well.|
Peiper After the War
Peiper walked out a free man on December 22, 1956, the last of the accused to finally leave Landsberg Prison. He was not the last German prisoner of all, though: some of the Party bosses such as Albert Speer remained in Spandau Prison for another decade, and Hitler aide Rudolf Hess remained there until his death in 1988. However, Peiper was one of the last "small fry" to get out.
|Marked for death: some folks drew this on the road to Peiper's French house. It was later scrubbed clean, but the point was made, here and elsewhere in the village.|
"On the surface he was very friendly, while he made scathing reports to the management.... He did not seek to hide the fact that he had been a Colonel in the Waffen SS, but he continued to be a proponent of [German] propaganda. He teased incessantly those who professed, as I, democratic views. And he made fun of those who do not have blonde hair and blue eyes, telling them that they did not belong to the Aryan race. He remained a ... fanatic."Peiper apparently got along well with many co-workers, and perhaps this Junghans just disliked Peiper for political reasons. However, if Peiper did act this way, it is easy to see why he had some issues fitting in.
Finally, for some reason, Peiper moved his family to Traves, France. It seems odd that such a notorious figure would go to live among a populace where he had been accused of war crimes, but Peiper was an in-your-face type throughout his life. Peiper lived openly but quietly, mostly avoiding controversy and notoriety and perhaps just wanting to be left alone. In 1976, though, he gave an interview where he seemed proud of his wartime past, and that seemed to set the final act in motion.
|Peiper in 1957.|
|Peiper a few weeks before his death in 1976. He is shown giving an interview to a journalist after years of seclusion. Perhaps this sudden publicity blitz contributed to the decision to kill him?|
Joachim Peiper was a product of his time, the ultimate Hitler Youth who never learned the difference between right and wrong. Peiper, as an uncompromising and ruthless warrior, unfortunately, has become a symbol for many devotees who are quick to make excuses for what he did. Ultimately, though, Joachim Peiper was just a vicious and sad man, deprived of a normal life from childhood due to his training, who due to his ambition lived to hurt and kill others.
|The courtroom at Dachau where Peiper's trial took place.|
|Peiper in the dock, lower right. He would have been mortified if he wasn't in the front row, for sure.|
- 33. Fritz Kramer
- 45. Hermann Preiss
- 42. Joachim Peiper
- 8. Manfred Coblenz
- 13. Arndt Fischer
- 19. Hans Gruhle
- 23. Hans Henneck
- 31. Gustav Knittel
- 34. Werner Kuhn
Third, Peiper tried to justify the killings at the Malmedy massacre on the argument that British commandos did the same thing routinely to German soldiers. Fourth, he marches out of the courtroom after receiving the death sentence without a word, maintaining precise military bearing and head held high, not even waiting for the German translation to conclude. Perfectly composed at all times. Again, his charisma is on full display.
The photos below are from a new soldier introduction to the Leibstandarte in Hasselt, Fiandre, Belgium, May 1944. This was an elite formation which had a long and colorful history in the field after its origins as Hitler's personal bodyguard.
|Joachim at his trial (Colorized).|