Joachim Peiper

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Joachim Peiper
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R65485, Joachim Peiper.jpg
Peiper in 1942
Born(1915-01-30)30 January 1915
Died14 July 1976(1976-07-14) (aged 61)
Resting placeSchondorf, Germany
Known forMalmedy massacre
Boves massacre
Political partyNazi Party
Criminal chargeWar crimes
TrialMalmedy massacre trial
PenaltyDeath penalty (commuted)
SS career
Allegiance Nazi Germany
Service/branchFlag of the Schutzstaffel.svg SS-Verfügungstruppe
Years of service1934–45
RankSS-Standartenführer (colonel)
UnitPersonal Staff Reichsführer-SS (as adjutant to Heinrich Himmler)
SS Division Leibstandarte
Battles/warsWorld War II
AwardsKnight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords
Other workTechnical and Sales Manager at Porsche, Sales trainer at Volkswagen

Joachim Peiper (30 January 1915 – 14 July 1976), also known as Jochen Peiper, was a member of the German SS and a war criminal who was responsible for the 1944 Malmedy massacre of American prisoners of war. During World War II in Europe he served as personal adjutant to Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, between September 1939 and September/October 1941, and thereafter as a Waffen-SS commander.

During his career with Himmler, Peiper witnessed the SS policies of ethnic cleansing and genocide in Eastern Europe; he persistently denied or obfuscated this fact following the war. Transferred to a combat role, Peiper served in the SS Division Leibstandarte on both the Eastern and the Western Fronts, commanding a battalion and then a regiment. He fought in the Third Battle of Kharkov and the Battle of the Bulge. Peiper's command became known for atrocities against civilians and prisoners of war.

Peiper was convicted in the Malmedy massacre trial and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted, with Peiper serving 12 years in prison. He was accused of committing the Boves massacre in Italy; the investigation was closed due to insufficient evidence that Peiper issued the order to kill civilians directly. After his release from prison, he worked for both Porsche and Volkswagen, before moving to France, where he worked as a freelance translator. Throughout, Peiper maintained frequent, albeit discreet, contact with his SS network, including HIAG, a Waffen-SS lobby group. Peiper was murdered in France in July 1976, after his identity as an SS-man and war criminal had been publicized there.

A relatively insignificant combat leader, Peiper achieved cult status among those who romanticize the Waffen-SS.[1] With his good looks and a multitude of awards, Peiper came to represent the image of the daring Panzer divisions.[2] The admiration continues to the 2010s, with the official Facebook account of the US Department of Defense featuring a glamorized picture of Peiper to commemorate the 2019 anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.[3][4][5] In fact, Peiper was an embodiment of the Nazi ideology and an egocentric, ruthless commander who ignored his own losses and created a culture within his unit where war crimes were not only tolerated but expected.[6]

Early life[edit]

Peiper was born on 30 January 1915 into a middle-class family from the Silesian region of Germany. His father, Waldemar Peiper, served in the Imperial German Army and fought in the colonial campaigns in German East Africa.[7] In 1915, he retired from active duty for health reasons. After the war, Waldemar Peiper joined the paramilitary Freikorps and took part in the Silesian Uprisings.[2] With the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, he evolved into a dedicated National Socialist and an antisemite.[8]

In 1926, Peiper followed his older brother Horst (born 1912) and joined the Scouting movement, developing an interest in a military career.[9] Horst joined the SS and served in the SS concentration camp guard. Transferred to a combat role, Horst participated in the Battle of France with the SS Division Totenkopf. He died in June 1941 in Poland in an accident that was never officially explained. Rumor had it that Horst was gay and was forced to commit suicide by others in his unit.[10] His eldest brother, Hans Hasso (born 1910), suffered from mental issues and unsuccessfully attempted suicide while in high school; in a permanent vegetative state, he was placed in an institution in 1931.[11]

SS career pre-World War II[edit]

When Peiper turned 18, he joined the Hitler Youth with his brother Horst.[12] In October 1933, Peiper volunteered for the SS and joined the Cavalry SS. His first superior was Gustav Lombard, a Nazi zealot, antisemite, and later a regimental commander in the notorious SS Cavalry Brigade that murdered tens of thousands of Jews in the occupied Soviet Union.[13]

On 23 January 1934, Peiper received the rank of the SS-Mann under number 132.496. This made him a member of the SS even before it emerged from the shadow of the Sturmabteilung (SA) as an independent organization within the Nazi Party in the aftermath of the SA purge known as the Night of the Long Knives. During the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, Peiper was promoted to SS-Sturmmann and attracted the attention of Heinrich Himmler.[14] For Himmler, Peiper was likely the embodiment of the SS concept of the "Aryan race"; although not as tall and muscular as other SS recruits, Peiper made up for this with handsome features and self-confidence.[15]

From January 1935 onward, Peiper was on the SS payroll and was sent to attend a leadership course of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH, Hitler's personal bodyguard unit).[16] He received a favorable review from his SS instructors but only a conditional approval in the psychological evaluation conducted by German military doctors. They noted Peiper's egocentricity, negative attitude, and attempts to impress the evaluators with his connection to Himmler. The doctors concluded that Peiper might turn into a "difficult subordinate" or an "arrogant superior".[17]

Peiper later attended an SS-Junker School (SS officer training camp) in Braunschweig that, under the direction of Paul Hausser, prepared future SS leaders.[18] In addition to military training, the courses aimed to instill a proper ideological worldview, with antisemitism being the main tenet. Instructors such as Matthias Kleinheisterkamp (an army has-been and alcoholic), or future war criminals, such as Franz Magill [de] of the notorious SS Cavalry Brigade were of questionable competence. Peiper attended from 24 April 1935 to 30 March 1936 and was then posted to the LSSAH.[19] On 1 March 1938, Peiper received his Nazi Party membership card with the number 5.508.134. After the war he tried to deny, or at least obfuscate, his membership in the party, as it was inconsistent with the image that he had constructed for himself as being "merely a soldier". [20]

Peiper remained with the LSSAH until June 1938[7] when he was appointed an adjutant to Heinrich Himmler, a step that Himmler considered necessary in the career path of an SS leader with promising potential. At that time, Himmler's personal staff was under the command of Karl Wolff.[21] Peiper worked in Himmler's anteroom in the SS Main Office on Prinz-Albrecht-Straße in Berlin. He became one of Himmler's favourite adjutants; Peiper admired him in return. Although after the war people from Himmler's inner circle, including Karl Wolff, tried to minimise the role of Himmler's adjutants, the role was far from inconsequential: the longer they stayed in Himmler's service, the more they gained influence and political connections.[22] By 1939, Peiper was quickly becoming Himmler's closest aid and accompanied him on all official functions and assisted his every move.[23]

In 1938, Peiper met and began courting Sigurd Hinrichsen, a secretary on Himmler's personal staff who was friends with both Lina Heydrich (Reinhard Heydrich's wife) and Himmler's secretary Hedwig Potthast, later to be Himmler's mistress.[24] On 26 June 1939, he married Sigurd in an SS ceremony. Himmler was the guest of honor at the wedding and delivered a short toast.[25] The couple lived in Berlin until the first allied air raids on the city, when Sigurd was sent to Rottach-Egern, Upper Bavaria, near Himmler's second residence.[26] The couple later had three children.[27]

Himmler's adjutant during World War II[edit]

Sepp Dietrich (left), Himmler, and Peiper (right) at Metz, September 1940

Invasions of Poland and France[edit]

On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Peiper joined Himmler on board his special train and, on occasion, acted as his liaison to Adolf Hitler, travelling with Erwin Rommel to accompany Hitler as he met with Wehrmacht generals near the front.[28] Peiper was with Himmler on 20 September in Bydgoszcz (Bromberg) when they witnessed the execution of 20 Poles organized by the leader of the local Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz and SS functionary, Ludolf von Alvensleben.[29][30] As Peiper later told Ernst Schäfer, Hitler had ordered Himmler to eliminate "Polish intellectuals".[31]

After Poland was defeated, Peiper witnessed the developing SS policies of deportations and ethnic cleansing of the Polish population.[32] On 13 December 1939, Peiper and Himmler witnessed the gassing of residents of a psychiatric facility in Owińska near Poznań. In post-war interrogations, Peiper described the experience in a detached, factual manner:

The action [gassing] was done before a circle of invited guests. ... The insane were lead into a prepared casemate the door of which had a Plexiglas window. After the door was closed, one could see how, in the beginning, the insane still laughed and talked to each other. But, soon they sat down on the straw, obviously under the influence of the gas. ... Very soon, they no longer moved.[33]

In the winter of 1940, Peiper accompanied Himmler on a tour of Nazi concentration camps, including Neuengamme and Sachsenhausen, with a trip to Poland to meet with Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, Higher SS and Police Leader in occupied Poland, and his subordinate Odilo Globocnik. The latter was tasked with deporting Jews from Polish territories annexed to Germany to Warsaw and Lublin.[33] The tour continued in April 1940, with visits to Buchenwald and Flossenbürg concentration camps, followed by a visit to Poland to meet with SS and Police Leader Wilhelm Rediess and the SS official Otto Rasch to discuss how further "evacuations" (i.e. shootings of civilian population) could be efficiently accomplished. In early May, Himmler, accompanied by Peiper, discussed with Odilo Globocnik, the SS and Police Leader in Lublin, the mass murder of the disabled. Peiper also learned about Globocnik's work on the Lublin Reservation.[34]

In May 1940, Peiper accompanied Himmler as he followed Waffen-SS troops during the Battle of France. On 18 May, Peiper obtained permission to join a combat unit and became a platoon leader within the LSSAH. After seizing an artillery battery on the hills of Wattenberg, Peiper was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd class and promoted to SS-Hauptsturmführer.[35] For an audacious attack on 19 June, Peiper, now a company commander, received the Iron Cross 1st class.[36] As further remuneration, Peiper brought back a sports car from France for personal use; the car was added to the inventory of Himmler's staff on the latter's decree.[37]

Karl Wolff, Peiper and Himmler are received by Francisco Franco, Spain, October 1940.

Peiper returned to his duties as Himmler's adjutant on 21 June 1940.[38] On 7 September, Himmler addressed the LSSAH leaders to thank them for the help in expelling Jews from Alsace in eastern France. He referred to expulsions and massacres perpetrated in Poland, stating: "We had to have the toughness—this should be said and soon forgotten—to shoot thousands of leading Poles". He stressed the so-called difficulty of "carrying out executions", "hauling away people", or "evicting crying and hysterical women".[39] Following a visit to Francoist Spain to meet its dictator Francisco Franco, Peiper was officially promoted to the position of First Adjutant on 1 November.[40]

Invasion of the Soviet Union[edit]

In February 1941, Himmler told Peiper about the German plan to invade the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. The following months were devoted to the preparation of the SS for this war. Thus, Himmler and his staff travelled to Norway, Austria, Poland, and Greece. The trip included a visit to the Łódź ghetto, about which Peiper wrote: "It was a macabre image: we saw how the Jewish Ghetto police, who wore hats without rims and were armed with wooden clubs, inconsiderately made room for us". This episode shows that Peiper was perfectly able to remember the details of the criminal process without forgetting anecdotes intended to prove that Jews were hitting other Jews which, by comparison, was supposed to reduce his own complicity.[41] 

From 11 to 15 June, Peiper was present for the SS conference where Himmler spoke of the plans to eliminate 30 million Slavic people. The event had brought together senior SS and police commanders who were to become SS and Police Leaders in the occupied Soviet Union. Also present were Karl Wolff; Kurt Daluege, head of the Order Police; Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, future Higher SS and Police Leader in occupied Belarus; and Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Main Office.[42] When the invasion began on 22 June 1941, Himmler transferred his headquarters to a special train and embarked on a tour of newly conquered territories with Peiper and other staff. Peiper accompanied Himmler on field inspections of various murder units. In Augustów, they were informed by the commander of the Einsatzkommando Tilsit [de] about the shooting of 200 people, while in Grodno Heydrich, in their presence, berated the local death squad leader for having shot only 96 Jews on that day.[43] 

In July, Peiper and Himmler were in Białystok where they reviewed the progress achieved by the Order Police battalions and met again with Bach-Zalewski. Himmler informed him about the arrival of the units of the Kommandostab Reichsführer-SS (Himmler's Command Staff), half of whom would assist Bach-Zalewski in his area of command.[44] The recently created body supervised Waffen-SS formations set up for Himmler's racial and ideological war.[45] These formations included two motorized SS Infantry Brigades (1st and 2nd) and two SS Cavalry Regiments combined into the SS Cavalry Brigade, totalling about 25,000 Waffen-SS troops.[46] The individual units were subordinated to local Higher SS and Police Leaders and used in the murder of Jews and other "undesirables", in addition to providing rear area security. In the former function, the units' activities were indistinguishable from the Einsatzgruppen and the Order Police battalions.[47] 

The reports of the Kommandostab units were received daily, and it was Peiper's role to present them to Himmler every morning.[45] For example, the 30 July report from Gustav Lombard's SS cavalry regiment announced that 800 Jews including women and children had been shot. On 11 August, Lombard reported the total number of shot "looters" (a code word for the Jews) was 6,526. As the first adjutant, Peiper's job included providing Himmler with the murder statistics from the Einsatzgruppen units each morning.[48] The daily briefing included a review of operations; one surviving map shows a "cleansing action" (shooting) by the SS Cavalry Brigade. Peiper and Werner Grothmann, Second Adjutant, were aware of all incoming communications; all of Himmler's orders passed through their hands.[49]

Peiper's role beside Himmler gradually came to an end beginning in the late summer of 1941.[50] Himmler transferred Peiper's duties as the first adjutant to his successor Werner Grothmann. Although no longer Himmler's official First Adjutant, Peiper continued to update his appointment diary until mid-September 1941. During the transition time, Peiper likely served as Himmler's observer to LSSAH. Available records show that Peiper formally transferred to the LSSAH in early October 1941.[50] Peiper remained in close contact with Himmler as shown by their ongoing correspondence through to the end of the war; Himmler addressed Peiper as "my dear Jochen".[45]

With SS Division Leibstandarte[edit]

When Peiper rejoined the LSSAH, it was engaged on the Eastern Front near the Black Sea. An injury to a unit commander soon gave him an opportunity to take command of the 11th Company.[51] It fought at Mariupol and Rostov-on-Don. Peiper was noted for his fighting spirit, although his unit suffered high casualties as a consequence of his aggressive tactics.[52] During its combat action, the LSSAH was followed by Einsatzgruppe D, with which the division shared winter quarters. Sepp Dietrich, LSSAH's commander, volunteered his troops to assist with the murder operations by sealing Taganrog and delivering Jews, Roma, and others to the death squads; the massacre of roughly 1,800 people took place on 29 October in the Gully of Petrushino.[53] 

In May 1942, the LSSAH was transferred to France for rest and refit.[54] En route to France, Peiper left his unit and met with Himmler at his headquarters on 1 June. In July 1942, Peiper again met with Himmler and did not rejoin his unit until August 1942.[55] During its stay in France, the LSSAH was reorganised into a Panzergrenadier (mechanized infantry) division, and Peiper was promoted to command its 3rd Battalion.[56] Peiper continued to maintain a close relationship with Himmler, attending functions with high-ranking SS leaders. He even met with Himmler one-on-one.[56]

"Blowtorch Battalion"[edit]

Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front, the German situation had seriously worsened, especially in the Battle of Stalingrad. Peiper's battalion left France in January 1943 for the Eastern Front.[57] During the Third Battle of Kharkov, Peiper's battalion became known for an audacious rescue of the encircled 320th Infantry Division.[58] In a letter home, Peiper described hand-to-hand fighting with a Soviet ski battalion in an effort to lead the division, including its sick and wounded, to safety.[59] The rescue culminated with a fierce battle with the Soviet forces at the village of Krasnaya Polyana. Upon entering the village, Peiper's troops made a terrible discovery. All the men in his small rearguard medical detachment who had been left there had been killed and then mutilated. An SS sergeant in Peiper's ration supply company later stated that Peiper responded in kind: "In the village, the two petrol trucks were burnt and 25 Germans killed by partisans and Soviet soldiers. As a revenge, Peiper ordered the burning down of the whole village and the shooting of its inhabitants".[58] (The testimony was obtained in November 1944 by the Western Allies.)[60]

On 6 May 1943, Peiper was awarded the German Cross in Gold for his achievements in February 1943 around Kharkov, where his unit gained the nickname the "Blowtorch Battalion". Reportedly, the nickname derived from the torching and slaughter of two Soviet villages where their inhabitants were either shot or burned.[61] Ukrainian sources, including surviving witness Ivan Kiselev, who was 14 at the time of the massacre, described the killings at the villages of Yefremovka and Semyonovka on 17 February 1943. On 12 February troops of the LSSAH occupied the two villages, where retreating Soviet forces had wounded two SS officers. In retaliation, five days later, LSSAH troops killed 872 men, women and children. Some 240 of these were burned alive in the church of Yefremovka.[62] In August 1944, when an SS commander, formerly of LSSAH, was captured south of Falaise in France and interrogated by the Allies, he stated that Peiper was "particularly eager to execute the order to burn villages".[63] Peiper wrote to Potthast in March 1943: "Our reputation precedes us as a wave of terror and is one of our best weapons. Even old Genghis Khan would gladly have hired us as assistants."[64]

In Nazi propaganda[edit]

On 9 March 1943, Peiper was awarded Germany's highest decoration, the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. Himmler sent personal congratulations over the radio: "Heartfelt congratulations for the Knight's Cross my dear Jochen! I am proud of you!"[65] During this period, Nazi propaganda praised Peiper as an outstanding leader. The official SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps ("The Black Corps") described Peiper's actions in Kharkov in glowing terms such as "the master of the situation in all its phases" and extolled Peiper's "quick decision making", "caring" attitude and "bold and unorthodox orders". The paper emphasized that he was "a born leader, one filled with the highest sense of responsibility for the life of every single one of his men, but who [was] also able to be hard if necessary".[66]

The descriptions of his tactical skills propelled Peiper to become an icon of the Waffen-SS after the war, with former battalion members describing him in glowing terms.[67] Peiper was seen as an officer who obeyed orders without much discussion and expected the same from his men.[68] In July 1943, the LSSAH took part in Operation Citadel in the area of Kursk, with Peiper's unit distinguishing itself in the fighting.[69] After the failure of the operation, the LSSAH was withdrawn from the Eastern Front and transferred to Northern Italy.[70]

Operations in Italy and the Boves massacre[edit]

After Italian forces capitulated to the Allies, the LSSAH was moved to Italy for two months to participate in Operation Achse, the disarming of the Italian military. Beginning in August, Peiper's battalion was stationed near Cuneo.[71] On 19 September, Italian partisans captured two of Peiper's men in the vicinity of Boves, Piedmont.[72] An attempt to free the German prisoners by a company of the LSSAH failed, resulting in one dead on each side and a number of German soldiers wounded. After this, Peiper and his unit were called in to free the German soldiers and took up positions in Boves, controlling access to the town. They threatened to destroy the town and its inhabitants should their demands not be met. Peiper committed to sparing the town if the German soldiers were freed.[73]

The parish priest of Boves, don Giuseppe Bernardi, and local industrialist Alessandro Vassallo, who had acted as negotiators between Peiper and the Italian soldiers and partisans, successfully secured the release of the prisoners and the return of the body of the killed SS trooper.[74] As Peiper's unit was withdrawing, violence erupted in the village. There were 24 victims; all were males, with the except for one woman who died of smoke inhalation in her home after it was set on fire by looting SS men. At least seventeen were murdered in cold blood, rather than in a battle. Most, especially those killed near the cemetery, were of non-military age and were found shot by small arms fire. LSSAH glibly reported that "during the fights [with partisans] the villages of Boves and Costellar were burned down. In nearly all burning houses ammunition exploded. Some bandits were shot."[75]

Return to the Eastern Front[edit]

Beginning in November 1943, Peiper's unit arrived on the Eastern Front, where it took part in combat in the area of Zhytomyr. Peiper was soon appointed commander of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment after its previous leader had been killed in action, yet he had no experience leading tanks.[76] The December fighting earned Peiper another award nomination. His personal record in support of the nomination stated that, from 5 to 7 December, Peiper's regiment eliminated several Soviet artillery batteries, destroyed a divisional headquarters, and killed 2,280 "Russians", with only three taken prisoner. During the action at the village of Pekartchina [ru], Peiper "attacked with all weapons and flame-throwers from his SPW [armored fighting vehicle]". The village was burned to the ground and "completely destroyed".[77]

Peiper's command style, aggressive and without regard for casualties, reached its limits. Headlong attacks without proper reconnaissance lead to heavy losses in men and materiel.[78] After one month, Peiper's Panzer regiment was reduced to twelve still-operational tanks.[79] In late December, he was ordered to the divisional staff; with so few operational tanks, his command of the regiment was no longer needed. The remnants of the unit were taken over by another officer on 22 December. On 20 January 1944, Peiper left his unit and went to Hitler's headquarters. Hitler presented him with a new award, the Oak Leaves to be added to his Knight's Cross. Peiper was physically and mentally exhausted. A medical examination concluded that he needed rest. Peiper went on a long leave with his family in Bavaria.[80]

Battle of Normandy[edit]

In March 1944, the LSSAH was withdrawn from the Eastern Front and sent to be reformed in Belgium. New recruits, many of whom were teenagers, had little in common with fanatical SS volunteers of years past. The recruits underwent brutal training; five were sentenced to death for shirking their duties. Peiper gave the command to the executioners and later had recruits march past the bodies. In 1956, he was investigated by German authorities in connection with this event; Peiper denied everything, and the case was closed in 1966.[81]

As the Allied Operation Overlord began, LSSAH was moved closer to the Channel Coast, in anticipation of the "real" invasion at Pas de Calais. Transportation was limited, and the Allies had near-total air superiority.[82] Thus, Peiper's regiment only saw action from 18 July. Peiper was rarely in the frontline command, due to the terrain and the need to maintain radio silence.[83] As with the other German units in the area, they fought a defensive battle, until the German front began to collapse following Allied Operation Cobra. Having gone to the front with 19,618 men, the LSSAH lost 25% of its men and all of its tanks.[84]

Peiper was not in command of his Panzer regiment during Operation Luttich, the failed counter-attacks near Avranches. Suffering from a nervous breakdown, he was relieved of command on 2 August and dispatched to the rear. From September 1944 forward, he was in a military hospital in Upper Bavaria, not far from his family. He was discharged on 7 October.[85]

Battle of the Bulge[edit]

During the autumn, German forces had to counter the attempts of the Western Allies to cross the Westwall, while Hitler was looking for an opportunity to seize the initiative on the Western Front.[86] The result was Operation Wacht am Rhein (Battle of the Bulge). In a desperate attempt to defeat the Allies on the Western Front, the German armies were to break through the U.S. lines in the Ardennes, cross the River Meuse and take Antwerp, cutting the Allied forces in two.[87]

The main role in the breakthrough was devoted to the 6th SS Panzer Army under the command of Sepp Dietrich. It was to pierce the American lines between Aachen and the Schnee Eifel and seize bridges on the Meuse on both sides of Liège. Within the 6th Panzer Army, a mobile strike role was assigned to the LSSAH, then under the command of SS-Oberführer Wilhelm Mohnke. The division was split into four combined-arms battle groups with Peiper commanding the most substantial, which included all armored sections of the division. Peiper also received the 501st Heavy Panzer Battalion with the new 70 ton Tiger II (King Tigers). His battle group was to take bridges on the Meuse between Liège and Huy. To address the lack of fuel, Peiper was provided with a map showing American fuel depots, to allow him to seize fuel there if needed.[88]


The route followed by Peiper's battle group. The crossroads of Baugnez where the Malmedy massacre occurred is marked by a black circle.

Peiper's assigned route included narrow, and in many places, single-track roads which forced units of the Kampfgruppe to tail each other, creating a column of infantry and armor up to 25 kilometres (16 mi) long. Peiper complained that the road assigned to his Kampfgruppe was suitable for bicycles, but not for tanks.[89] Fritz Krämer, chief of staff for the 6th Panzer Army responded, "I don't care how and what you do. Just make it to the Meuse. Even if you've only one tank left when you get there."[90]

Peiper's mechanized column did not reach the jumping-off point until midnight, delaying his attack by almost 24 hours.[91] Peiper had planned to advance through Losheimergraben, but the two infantry divisions assigned the task of opening the route for Peiper's unit failed to do so on the first day as planned. In the early morning of 17 December, they captured Honsfeld and much-needed fuel. Peiper continued west on his assigned route until he had to deflect shortly before Ligneuville [fr] because the assigned road was impassable. This bypass forced him towards the Baugnez crossroads near Malmedy.[92]

Malmedy and other atrocities[edit]

Aftermath of the Malmedy massacre. American troops are recovering victims' bodies.
War correspondent Jean Marin looks at bodies of civilians massacred at the Legaye house in Stavelot.

During Peiper's advance on 17 December 1944, his armored units and half-tracks confronted a lightly armed convoy of about 30 American vehicles at the Baugnez crossroads near Malmedy. The troops, mainly elements of the American 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, were quickly overcome and captured.[93] Along with other American POWs captured earlier, they were ordered to stand in a meadow before the Germans opened fire on them with machine guns, killing 84 soldiers, and leaving the bodies in the snow. The survivors were able to reach American lines later that day, and their story spread rapidly throughout the American front lines.[citation needed]

The atrocities continued. In Honsfeld, Peiper's men murdered several American prisoners.[94][95] Other murders of POWs and civilians were reported in Büllingen,[94] Ligneuville and Stavelot,[96] Cheneux, La Gleize, and Stoumont on 17, 18, 19 and 20 December.[citation needed] On 19 December 1944, in the area between Stavelot and Trois-Ponts, while the Germans were trying to regain control of the bridge over the Amblève River, (crucial for allowing reinforcements and supplies to reach them) men of Kampfgruppe Peiper killed a number of Belgian civilians. The battle group was eventually declared responsible for the deaths of 362 prisoners of war and 111 civilians.[94]

Stall and retreat[edit]

Moving ahead, Peiper crossed Ligneuville and reached the heights of Stavelot on the left bank of the Amblève River at nightfall of the second day of the operation. The battle group paused for the night, allowing Americans to reorganise. After heavy fighting, Peiper's armor crossed the bridge on the Amblève. The spearhead continued on, without having fully secured Stavelot. By then, the surprise factor had been lost. The U.S. forces regrouped and blew up several bridges ahead of Peiper's advance, trapping the battle group in the deep valley of the Amblève, downstream from Trois-Ponts. The weather also improved, permitting the Allied air forces to operate. The U.S. airstrikes destroyed or heavily damaged numerous German vehicles. Peiper's command was in disarray: some units had lost their way among difficult terrain or in the dark, while company commanders preferred to stay with Peiper at the head of the column and thus were unable to provide guidance to their own units.[97]

Peiper attacked Stoumont on 19 December and took the town amid heavy fighting. He was unable to protect his rear, which enabled American troops to cut him off from the only possible supply road for ammunition and fuel at Stavelot.[98] Without supplies, and with no contact with other German units behind him, Peiper could advance no further. American attacks on Stoumont forced the remnants of the battle group to retreat to La Gleize. On 24 December, Peiper abandoned his vehicles and retreated with the remaining men. German wounded and American prisoners were also left behind.[99] According to Peiper, 717 men returned to the German lines out of 3,000 at the beginning of the operation.[100]

Despite the failure of Peiper's battle group and the loss of all tanks, Wilhelm Mohnke, LSSAH's commander, recommended Peiper for a further award. The events at the Baugnez crossroads were described in glowing terms:[101]

Without regard for threats from the flanks and only inspired by the thought of a deep breakthrough, the Kampfgruppe proceeded ... to Ligneuville and destroyed at Baugnez an enemy supply column and after annihilation of the units blocking their advance, succeeded in causing the staff of the 49th Anti-Aircraft Brigade to flee.

Rather than a stain on Peiper's honour, the killing of POWs was celebrated in official records.[102] In January 1945, the Swords were added to his Knight's Cross. The great fame of Peiper as a Waffen-SS commander during the Battle of the Bulge was born.[103]

End of the war[edit]

On 4 February, Peiper met for the last time with Himmler at his provisional headquarters. His unit took part in Operation Spring Awakening, which failed. Although Peiper's unit inflicted a large number of casualties, due to his aggressive style of command he lost many men.[104] On 1 May, as LSSAH was forced into Austria, the men were informed of Hitler's death. On 8 May, the LSSAH received the order to cross the Enns and surrender to the American troops.[105] Instead of surrendering, Peiper chose to trek home. He was apprehended on 22 May by American troops.[106]

Through July 1945, Peiper was held in a POW camp in Bavaria with about 500 other German soldiers and SS men.[107] As an unofficial leader of the group, Peiper came to the attention of the commander of the camp,[108] and then of higher command. When asked about the plight of Poles and Jews, Peiper reportedly responded: "All the Jews are bad and all Poles are bad. We have just cleansed our society and moved these people into camps and you let them loose!" Peiper also lamented that the Americans refused to incorporate the SS into its army to "prepare to fight the Russians".[109]

Meanwhile, an active investigation into the Malmedy massacre was launched at the end of June 1945 by American war crimes investigators.[110] Crimes during the Battle of the Bulge were attributed to Kampfgruppe Peiper, resulting in American investigative teams searching POW camps for its men.[94] Peiper topped the list of alleged perpetrators but was difficult to locate due to an enormous number of prisoners (four million) and haphazard communications.[111] Peiper was finally identified as a Malmedy suspect on 21 August 1945, after a transfer to a much larger camp where his file came to the attention of its commander by chance. Peiper was immediately transferred to a military intelligence interrogation center in Freising.[112]

War crimes conviction[edit]

Interrogation and trial[edit]

Jailed in Freising, Upper Bavaria, Peiper underwent his first interrogations.[113] Investigators quickly found that the SS men, including Peiper, although hardened soldiers, were not trained to withstand interrogation.[113] Some men freely gave the requested information, while others only did so after having been allegedly subject to various forms of torture such as beatings, threats and mock executions.[113] Peiper took command responsibility for the actions of the men under his command. In December 1945, he was transferred to the prison at Schwäbisch Hall, where 1,000 former members of the LSSAH were assembled.[113] On 16 April 1946, approximately 300 prisoners were moved from Schwäbisch Hall to Dachau, where they were put on trial.[113]

The trial took place at Dachau from 16 May to 16 July 1946 before a military tribunal. The 74 defendants included Sepp Dietrich, commander of the 6th SS Panzer Army, his chief of staff Fritz Krämer, Hermann Prieß, I SS Panzer Corps commander, and Peiper, commander of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment (the unit to which the crimes were attributed).[114] The accusations were mainly based on the sworn and written statements provided by the defendants in Schwäbisch Hall. To counter the evidence given in the men's sworn statements and by prosecution witnesses, the lead defense attorney, Lt. Colonel Willis M. Everett tried to show that the statements had been obtained by inappropriate methods.[115]

Everett called Lt. Colonel Hal D. McCown, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 119th Infantry Regiment, to testify about Peiper's troops' treatment of American prisoners at La Gleize. McCown, who, along with his command, had been captured by Peiper on 21 December, testified that he had not seen any American prisoners mistreated by the SS.[116] It was noted by the prosecution that by the time McCown was captured on 21 December, Peiper was aware that his tactical situation had deteriorated substantially and that he and his men were in danger of becoming POWs themselves. On 17 December at Malmedy, Peiper's unit was advancing aggressively and still hoped to reach its objective, whereas by 21 December the unit found itself nearly cut off at La Gleize and out of fuel, having suffered over 80% casualties. Peiper's shifting attitude towards POWs was calculated, as he held Col. McCown and others as his unit fled La Gleize on foot, intending to use them as bargaining chips in the event of capture.[117]

Everett had decided to call only Peiper to testify. However, other defendants, supported by their German lawyers, wanted to testify as well. This would soon prove to be a huge mistake, for when the prosecution cross-examined the defendants, they behaved like "a bunch of drowning rats (...) turning on each other."[115] According to Everett, these testimonies gave the court enough reason to sentence several of the defendants to death.[115]

The military court was not convinced by Peiper's testimony about the murder of the POWs under his battle group's control.[115] During the trial, several witnesses testified of at least two instances when Peiper had ordered the murder of prisoners of war.[118] When questioned by the prosecution, Peiper denied these allegations, stating that they were obtained from witnesses under torture.[119] When questioned about the murder of Belgian civilians, Peiper said they were partisans.[120]

Death sentence[edit]

Together with 42 other defendants, Joachim Peiper was sentenced to death by hanging on 16 July 1946. The sentences were automatically subject to review by the U.S. Army Review Board. In October 1947, the results were submitted, and many verdicts were subsequently changed. Starting in March 1948, sentences were further reviewed by General Lucius D. Clay, commander-in-chief in Germany. Clay confirmed 12 death sentences, including Peiper's.[121]

The turmoil raised by this case caused the Secretary of the Army, Kenneth Royall, to create a commission chaired by Judge Gordon A. Simpson of Texas to investigate. The commission was interested in the Malmedy massacre trial and in other cases judged at Dachau. The commission arrived in Europe on 30 July 1948 and issued its report on 14 September. In this report, it recommended that the twelve remaining death sentences be commuted to life imprisonment. The commission confirmed the accuracy of Everett's accusations regarding mock trials but neither disputed nor denied his charges of torture of the defendants. The commission expressed the opinion that the pre-trial investigation had not been properly conducted. Its members felt that no death sentence should be carried out where such a doubt existed.[citation needed]

The United States Senate launched its own investigations, which were opened in early 1950 by several Senate committees. One of them included Joseph McCarthy who prepared to launch his sensationalist career. Receiving encouragement and information from right-wing and anti-Semitic circles, McCarthy dominated the proceedings and grabbed headlines. He was probably encouraged by the right-wing judge, LeRoy van Roden, who saw the trials as a Jewish effort to take revenge on the Germans, and who had also served on the investigating commissions.[122] The Senate Committee on Armed Services came to the conclusion of improper pre-trial procedures, including a mock trial, had indeed affected the trial process but not torture as sometimes stated. There was little or no doubt that some of the accused were indeed guilty of the massacre.[123]

Release from prison[edit]

The popular Wehrmacht ex-general Heinz Guderian actively campaigned for Peiper. He wrote to one of his subordinates in 1951:[124]

At the moment I'm negotiating with General Handy [Heidelberg] because [he] wants to hang the unfortunate Peiper. McCloy is powerless, because the Malmedy trial is being handled by Eucom, and is not subordinate to McCloy. As a result, I have decided to cable President Truman and ask him if he is familiar with this idiocy.

Ultimately, the sentences of the Malmedy defendants were commuted to life imprisonment and then to time served. Peiper's sentence was commuted to 35 years in 1954, and he was released in December 1956, the last of the Malmedy condemned to be freed.[122]

The "old boys' network" of SS peers helped him to obtain his release from prison and secure employment. HIAG, an organisation of former Waffen-SS men, had already helped Peiper's wife find a job near the Landsberg Prison. They then worked to achieve the conditional release of Peiper himself. Peiper had to prove he could obtain a job. Through an intermediary, Albert Prinzing, a former SS functionary in the Sicherheitsdienst (SS security service), he got a job at the car manufacturer Porsche.[125]

Return to civilian life[edit]

Following his release from Landsberg Prison, Peiper was careful not to associate too closely with former Waffen-SS men and their organization, HIAG, at least publicly. Privately, however, he maintained contact with and was closely involved with many former SS members. In 1959, he attended the national meeting of the Association of Knight's Cross Recipients. Travelling with HIAG's official historian Walter Harzer, he reunited with Sepp Dietrich and Heinz Lammerding at the closed-door meeting.[126] Peiper was often seen at the funerals of personalities such as Kurt Meyer, Dietrich and Paul Hausser.[127] He assisted the efforts of HIAG to rehabilitate the Waffen-SS by hiding its criminal aspects and exalting its combat achievements, claiming that the SS were just like other soldiers. Peiper once told one of his friends: "I personally think that every attempt at rehabilitation during our lifetime is unrealistic, but one can still collect material."[127]

On 17 January 1957, Peiper began work at Porsche in Stuttgart in its technical division.[128] As he advanced within Porsche, he was accused by Italian union workers of the Boves massacre in Italy during World War II. Ferry Porsche personally intervened and promised Peiper a senior management position, but the offer was derailed by the trade unions, who objected to convicted war criminals serving in the upper management of the company. The strong antipathy to Peiper, his association with Ferry Porsche, and the related negative effect on sales in Porsche's biggest market, the United States, forced Porsche's management to dismiss him.[129]

On 30 December 1960, Peiper filed a suit against Porsche.[129] In court documents, his attorney stated that Peiper was not a war criminal and that the Allies had used the trials to defame the German people. He asserted that the Nuremberg trial and the Malmedy massacre trial were merely propaganda. Citing documents published by the anti-Communist activist and McCarthyist, as well as controversial scholar and Holocaust denier, Freda Utley, he asserted that the Malmedy massacre trial defendants had been tortured by the Americans. At the request of the court, Porsche and Peiper reached an agreement to terminate the employment contract, and Peiper received six months of wages as compensation. HIAG's official periodical, Der Freiwillige [de], capitalized on the award and wrote that Peiper had been "unfairly sentenced" for war crimes.[130] Peiper became a car sales trainer for Volkswagen.[131]

Criminal investigations in the 1960s[edit]

At the beginning of the 1960s, the perception and opinion the public had of the Nazi crimes began to change. The German economic recovery did not allow SS men to hide, and holding a high position in society could raise questions that people like Peiper preferred to avoid.[132] The Adolf Eichmann trial and the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in the first half of the 1960s (which had a large audience in West Germany) shone a new light on this period.[132] Prosecution was now initiated by the West German authorities themselves, not the Allies. The statute of limitations for the prosecution of Nazi crimes had been extended several times, which made those who had been involved in these crimes uncomfortable.[132]

In the early 1960s, Peiper's name came up several times in war crimes trials in Germany. He was mentioned in the proceedings against Karl Wolff, Himmler's senior adjutant, which began in early 1962 and concluded in 1964 with a 15-year sentence. Werner Grothmann, Peiper's successor as Himmler's adjutant, was also under investigation. In both of these proceedings, the court heard testimony from notorious Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, former Bandenbekämpfung chief for occupied Europe, covering Himmler's pre-invasion designs to "rid Russia of 30 million Slavic people" or his pronouncements, following the Minsk killings, that he was "determined to eliminate the Jews" (Peiper was with Himmler at that time but had gone to a field assignment following his brother's death).[133]

In 1964, Peiper learned that the village of Boves had installed a memorial naming his command as perpetrators of the Boves massacre. He immediately got in touch with others from his unit to coordinate a defense strategy. Mostly it consisted of blaming Italian communists for manufacturing false accusations and insisting that the destruction of the village was due to a fierce battle with partisans.[134] On 23 June 1964, criminal charges were filed against Peiper by the Central Office of the State Justice Administration for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes in Ludwigsburg having to do with the massacre.[132] The charges included statements from two former Italian partisans who recognised Peiper from a book on the Battle of the Bulge and a photograph of Peiper taken as the village burned below his position.[135] In 1968, the German District Court in Stuttgart concluded that Peiper's unit had set houses on fire and that "a portion of the victims killed was from rioting that was committed by [the SS men]".[136] Nevertheless, the investigation was closed for lack of evidence that Peiper had issued a direct order to kill civilians and burn houses.[132] The court also somewhat naively concluded that since the testimonies of the former SS men were so consistent, no collusion between them was possible.[136]

In December 1964, Simon Wiesenthal made a highly damaging accusation that Peiper's unit arrested Jews in Borgo San Dalmazzo. The Borgo San Dalmazzo investigation was closed in 1969. Peiper was later called as a witness during the Werner Best trial, where he was confronted about his role of Himmler's adjutant. He did not deny having had close contact with Himmler, but he managed to avoid being directly implicated in Nazi crimes by claiming memory failure.[137]

Last years and death[edit]

In 1972, Peiper moved to a small village of Traves, Haute-Saône in France, where he owned property. At that time he was a self-employed translator for the publisher Stuttgarter Motor-Buch Verlag. Under the pen name of "Rainer Buschmann", he translated books devoted to military history from English to German.[27]

Peiper led a quiet and discreet life; however, he continued to use his name.[27] In 1974, he was identified by a former resistance member of the region who issued a report for the French Communist Party. In 1976, the party's history specialist, investigating the Gestapo archives, found the Peiper file.[138] On 21 June, flyers denouncing his presence were distributed in Traves. A day later, an article in L'Humanité revealed Peiper's presence in the village.[138] Soon media descended on Traves, with Peiper freely granting interviews and presenting himself as the victim. In one, titled "J'ai payé", Peiper stated that he had paid for the Malmedy crime with 12 years in prison and that he was innocent of any crimes committed in Italy. Amid threats, Peiper accelerated his plans to move back to Germany, which had already been underway.[139] Sigurd, Peiper's wife, left for Germany on 12 July.[140]

During the early morning hours of 14 July 1976 (Bastille Day), Peiper's home was attacked and set on fire. In the ruins, Peiper's charred corpse was found together with a .22 calibre rifle and a pistol.[131] Investigators determined that he died of smoke inhalation apparently while trying to salvage documents, papers, and his wife's clothing. The body was charred beyond recognition.[141] A group calling itself "The Avengers" claimed responsibility while suppositions continued as to who the culprits may have been. The circumstances of Peiper's death led to speculation that it had been faked.[81]

Peiper's wife Sigurd (1912–1979) is buried alongside Peiper at Schondorf. The gravestone also bears the name of his brothers Horst (1912–1941) and Hasso (1910–1942), but it is unclear whether they are buried there. The local church community at Schondorf became aware that a Nazi war criminal was buried there in 2013 after receiving a letter from Boves. They were initially concerned that it would become a place of pilgrimage for Nazi sympathisers. A small group, the Boves circle, was formed in the village, to hold prayers on every 19th of the month, the day of the Boves massacre. In 2013 a group of citizens from Boves visited Schondorf and prayed at Peiper's grave.[142]

Cult status[edit]

Historians Ronald Smelser and Edward J. Davies note that Peiper is one of the darlings of the Americans who romanticise the Waffen-SS.[1] Within the framework of the Cold War and the McCarthy era, he had emerged as a hero rather than a criminal. Peiper nearly became a folk hero in 1950s Germany with multiple groups working on his release from prison. This image then found its adherents in the United States. His behavior at trial, his physical appearance and his decorations all aided in the process. Smelser and Davies conclude: "Here in the flesh was the perfect mythical man – both a tragic and heroic figure."[143]

For some interested in World War II history, Peiper became the embodiment of German fighting spirit and a symbol of Panzer divisions daringly rushing forward. Because the Battle of the Bulge was viewed as "decisive" by the American public, Peiper, a relatively insignificant combat leader, became a sort of legendary figure "deciding the fate of the German Reich, only to turn back due to lack of gasoline!", wrote historian Jens Westemeier.[2]

The admiration continues to this day. On 16 December 2019, an official US Department of Defense Facebook account featured a picture of Peiper as part of its celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. According to The New York Times, the Facebook celebration's inclusion of Peiper triggered a "widespread backlash on social media." When it was taken down, a Pentagon spokesmen defended its use by claiming that Peiper was profiled only to show the odds the Airborne Corps faced during the battle.[3][4][5]

The Washington Post quoted challengers who described the DoD's profile of Peiper "vile and disturbing", and a "'fanboy' flavored piece".[4] It noted that researchers had traced the flattering, colorized version of the photo the DoD used to illustrate their post to the online work of a man whose activity there also included photos of Adolf Hitler striking American POWs, and concluded:

It remains unclear how Pentagon and Army officials cleared an image apparently created by an artist who celebrates Nazi propaganda online to be published alongside a tribute to the American soldiers who fought and died to defeat a fascist regime 75 years ago. But the misstep is just the latest in a month of embarrassing incidents for the U.S. Army, which has been recently slammed with multiple allegations of white supremacist activity.[4]



  1. ^ a b Smelser & Davies 2008, p. 111.
  2. ^ a b c Westemeier 2007, pp. 15–16.
  3. ^ a b Mihir Zaveri (17 December 2019). "Army Unit 'Regrets' Using Photo of Nazi War Criminal to Honor Battle of the Bulge". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 17 December 2019. Retrieved 17 December 2019. Colonel Rainsford said the post was not intended to glorify German forces or Peiper. The unit said the post was part of a series that would last for six weeks, with each post highlighting what happened during the battle on that day 75 years ago.
  4. ^ a b c d Katie Shepherd (17 December 2019). "'Vile and disturbing': Army unit marks Battle of the Bulge with picture of Nazi war criminal who massacred Americans". Washington Post. Archived from the original on 17 December 2019. Retrieved 17 December 2019. The Army unit posted a glamorous, colorized photo of Peiper alongside an intimate narrative depicting the Nazi writing in his diary. The photo was also shared on the Facebook pages for the Defense Department and the Army’s 10th Mountain Division.
  5. ^ a b Rhonda Vance (17 December 2019). "Army unit remembers Ardennes offensive with Nazi portrait". Mash Viral. Archived from the original on 17 December 2019. Retrieved 17 December 2019. Don't worry: you haven't yet entered the alternative universe depicted in The Man in the High Castle, where the Nazis won World War II.
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  123. ^ Malmedy massacre Investigation – Report of the Subcommittee of Committee on armed services – United States Senate –Eighty-first Congress, first session, pursuant to S. res. 42, Investigation of action of army with respect to trial of persons responsible for the massacre of American soldiers, Battle of the Bulge, near Malmedy, Belgium, December 1944, October 13, 1949
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  131. ^ a b "Pech für ihn". Der Spiegel (in German) (30/1976). 19 July 1976. Archived from the original on 10 March 2012. Retrieved 11 September 2010.
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  142. ^ "Nach SS-Massaker: Nachkommen der Opfer beten am Grab des Täters" [SS-Massacre: Descendants of victims pray at the grave of the perpetrator] (in German). Augsburger Allgemeine. 10 June 2017. Archived from the original on 25 September 2018. Retrieved 22 September 2018.
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