Meyer in 1943
|Died||23 December 1961 (aged 51)|
|Known for||Ardenne Abbey massacre|
Spokesperson for HIAG, Waffen-SS lobby group
|Criminal charge||War crimes|
|Penalty||Death penalty (commuted)|
|Years of service||1934–44|
|Commands held||SS Division Hitlerjugend|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
|Awards||Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords|
Kurt Meyer (23 December 1910 – 23 December 1961) was an SS commander and war criminal during the Nazi era. In World War II, served in the Waffen-SS, the combat branch of the SS, and participated in the Battle of France, Operation Barbarossa, and other engagements. Meyer commanded the SS Division Hitlerjugend during the Allied invasion of Normandy and was a recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords.
Meyer was convicted of war crimes for his role in the Ardenne Abbey massacre, the murder of Canadian prisoners of war in Normandy. He was sentenced to death; the sentence was later commuted to life in prison. Meyer was one of the last German war criminals to be released from prison.
After his release, Meyer became active in HIAG, a lobby group organised by former high-ranking Waffen-SS men. He was a leading Waffen-SS apologist and HIAG's most effective spokesperson, depicting the majority of the Waffen-SS as apolitical, recklessly brave fighters who were not involved in the crimes of the Nazi regime.
- 1 Career in the SS
- 2 War crimes trial
- 3 Activities within HIAG
- 4 Death
- 5 Awards
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Career in the SS
Born in 1910 at Jerxheim, Kurt Meyer came from a lower-class working family. His father, who worked as a miner, joined the German Army in 1914 and served as an NCO in World War I. After completing elementary school, Meyer began a business apprenticeship, but became unemployed in 1928 and was forced to work as a handyman until becoming a policeman in Mecklenburg-Schwerin in 1929.
Politically active from an early age and a fanatical supporter of Nazism, Meyer joined the Hitler Youth when he was fifteen, became a full member of the Nazi Party in September 1930, and joined the SS in October 1931. He was a guest at the marriage of Joseph Goebbels in December 1931. He was transferred to the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH), Hitler's SS bodyguard unit, in May 1934. With this unit, which later became part of the Waffen-SS, the combat branch of the SS, Meyer took part in the annexation of Austria in 1938 and in the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939.
Early World War II
On the outbreak of World War II, Meyer participated in the invasion of Poland with the LSSAH and was awarded the Iron Cross, second class, on 20 September 1939. In October, Meyer was alleged to have ordered the shooting of fifty Polish Jews as a reprisal near Modlin, and to have court-martialled a platoon commander who refused to carry out his instructions.[Note 1] He participated in the Battle of France, and afterwards was awarded the Iron Cross, first class.
Following the Battle of France, Meyer's company was reorganized into the LSSAH's Reconnaissance Battalion and Meyer was promoted. Benito Mussolini's unsuccessful invasion of Greece prompted Germany to invade Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941. In Greece, Meyer's detachment was tasked with cutting off the Greek III Corps, which was retreating from Albania. Beginning on 13 April, Meyer's battalion attacked the Kleisoura Pass, south-west of Vevi and despite stiff resistance from the Greek 20th Division, the German forces captured it. In the course of this engagement, the troops under Meyer's command were reluctant to advance amid heavy machine-gun fire. He reportedly forced them to leave their shelters and to continue the attack by pulling the pin from a grenade and rolling it toward their feet. With the road now open, the German forces drove through to the Kastoria area to cut off retreating Greek and British Commonwealth forces. Afterwards, Meyer was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. The LSSAH Division, including Meyer and his battalion, participated in Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia, in June 1941, as a part of Army Group South. Having achieved a reputation as an "audacious" leader during this operation, he was awarded the German Cross in gold in 1942; while still serving with the LSSAH.
Massacre of civilians on the Eastern Front
In early 1943, Meyer's reconnaissance battalion participated in the Third Battle of Kharkov. Meyer was reported to have ordered the destruction of a village during the fighting around Kharkov and the murder of all its inhabitants.[Note 1] After the war, a former SS man described an incident that took place on Meyer's orders in the village of Yefremovka (Jefremowka) during the fighting south of Kharkov in March 1943. Billeted in the village, the eye witness had heard a pistol shot at 10:30 in the morning. He ran to the door and saw an SS man who demanded that the company commander be summoned. When the latter arrived, the SS commander shouted: "On the orders of Meyer, this town is to be levelled to the ground, because this morning armed civilians attacked this locality." He then shot a 25-year old woman who was cooking the German's lunch. According to the testimony, the Waffen-SS men killed all the inhabitants of the village and set fire to their homes.
A separate testimony from a former SS man (given to the Western Allies interrogators after his capture in France in 1944) substantiates elements of the story:
The reconnaissance battalion of the LSSAH made an advance at the end of February  towards the East and reached the village of Jefremowka. There they were surrounded by Russian forces. Fuel and ammo ran out and they were supplied by air until they were ordered to break through towards the West. Before trying to do so, the entire civilian population was shot and the village burnt to the ground. The battalion at that time was led by Kurt Meyer.
Ukrainian sources, including surviving witness Ivan Kiselev who was 14 at the time of the massacre, report that the killings took place on 17 February 1943. On 12 February, troops of the LSSAH occupied two villages, Yefremovka and Semyonovka. 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. Russian sources claim that the massacre was perpetrated by the "Blowtorch Battalion" led by Jochen Peiper. Meyer continued to serve in the LSSAH until the summer of 1943 when he was appointed commander of a regiment in the newly activated and still-forming SS Division Hitlerjugend, stationed in France.
Battle of Normandy and Falaise pocket
On 6 June 1944, the Allies launched Operation Overlord, the amphibious invasion of France. After much confusion, SS Division Hitlerjugend got moving at around 14:30, and several units advanced towards one of the beaches on which the Allies had landed, until they were halted by naval and anti-tank fire and by Allied air interdiction. Meyer was confident that the Allied forces were "little fishes" and ordered his regiment to counterattack. The attack proved costly and led to heavy casualties. On 7 June, the division was ordered to break through to the beach, but Meyer instructed his regiment to take covering positions and await reinforcements. By 22:00 Meyer had set up his command post in Ardenne Abbey.
During the evening of 7 June, elements of the division under Meyer's command committed the Ardenne Abbey massacre: eleven Canadian prisoners of war, soldiers from the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and the 27th Armoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment) were shot in the back of the head. The Canadian Official History described his personal involvement in the battle:
Although Meyer claimed later that only shortage of petrol and ammunition prevented him from carrying the attack on towards the coast, this need not be taken seriously. Indeed, he himself testified that seeing from his lofty perch "enemy movements deeper in that area"—doubtless the advance of the main body of the 9th Brigade—he came down and rode his motorcycle to the 3rd Battalion to order its C.O. "not to continue the attack north of Buron". Meyer's 2nd Battalion had been drawn into the fight, north of St. Contest "in the direction of Galmanche". Fierce fighting was going on when Meyer visited the battalion in the early evening; just as he arrived the battalion commander's head was taken off by a tank shot... Meyer ordered both this battalion and the 1st (around Cambes) to go "over from attack to defense."
On 14 June, SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Witt, commander of the division, was killed when a naval barrage hit his command post. Meyer, as the next highest-ranking officer, was promoted to divisional commander; at 33 years of age, he was one of the youngest German divisional commanders of the war. By 4 July, the division had been reduced to a weak battlegroup. On 10 July, the division retreated behind the Orne River. In just over one month of fighting, it had sustained more than 60 percent casualties.
The Canadian forces began their advance on Falaise, planning to meet up with the Americans, with the goal of encircling and destroying most of the German forces in Normandy. The Hitlerjugend was holding the northern point of what became known as the Falaise pocket. After several days' fighting, Meyer's unit was reduced to about 1,500 men. He led his men in an attempt to break out of the pocket. Meyer described the conditions in the pocket in his memoirs: "Concentrated in such a confined space, we offer unique targets for the enemy air power. [...] Death shadows us at every step". Meyer was wounded while fighting the 3rd Canadian Division, but escaped from the Falaise pocket with the Hitlerjugend's rearguard. The remnants of the Hitlerjugend joined the retreat across the Seine River and into Belgium. On 27 August, Meyer was awarded the Swords to the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves, and promoted to SS-Brigadeführer. He led his retreating unit as far as the Meuse River, where he and his headquarters were ambushed by an American armoured column on 6 September. The division's staff fled into a nearby village, where Meyer and his driver hid in a barn. A farmer discovered them and informed the Belgian resistance. Meyer surrendered to local partisans, who turned him over to the Americans on 7 September.
As POW under Allied surveillance
After his surrender, Meyer was initially hospitalized due to wounds he received from his American guards during an altercation. He was transferred to a POW camp near Compiègne in August, and attempted to hide his affiliation with the SS, but his identity as a high-ranking SS officer was discovered in November. Meyer was then interned at Trent Park in England, where his conversations with other high ranking prisoners of war were covertly audio-taped by British military intelligence. He was frank about his Nazi-orientated political beliefs in these exchanges; he had dedicated himself to its ideology, saying that a person "could only give his heart once in life". One interrogator described him as "the personification of National Socialism". Throughout the covert surveillance recordings Meyer and other SS-men confirmed the German armed forces officers' view of them as ideological fanatics with an almost religious belief in Nazism and its Third Reich, and the messianic personality cult of Adolf Hitler.
In a taped conversation in January 1945 Meyer praised Hitler for having inspired a "tremendous awakening in the German people" and for giving them back their self-confidence. In another taped conversation made in February 1945, when he encountered a demoralized Wehrmacht general, Meyer chided him: "I wish a lot of the officers here could command my division, so that they might learn some inkling of self-sacrifice and fanaticism". According to the audio recordings, Meyer had not just paid lip-service to Nazi ideology to further his military career, he saw himself as an ideological racial warrior, whose duty it was to inculcate the men he had led in action with the National Socialist creed. Despite rigorous interrogations by the British authorities, Meyer refused to admit to any war crimes, but his involvement in the Ardenne Abbey massacre was eventually revealed by imprisoned SS deserters.
War crimes trial
Meyer was held as a prisoner of war until December 1945, when he was put on trial for war crimes in the German town of Aurich, charged with the murder of unarmed Allied prisoners of war in Normandy.
The charges were that:
- Prior to 7 June 1944, Meyer had incited troops under his command to deny quarter to surrendering Allied soldiers.
- On or around 7 June 1944, Meyer was responsible for his troops killing twenty-three prisoners of war at Buron and Authie.
- On or around 8 June 1944, Meyer ordered his troops to kill seven prisoners of war at his headquarters at the Abbaye Ardenne.
- On or around 8 June 1944, Meyer was responsible for his troops killing seven prisoners of war, as above.
- On or around 8 June 1944, Meyer was responsible for his troops killing eleven prisoners of war, as above.
The third and fourth charges referred to the same event; the fourth charge was provided as an alternative to the third, in case the killings were found to be a war crime but he was found not to have ordered them. The fifth charge related to a separate group of prisoners; in this case, the prosecution did not allege he had directly ordered their deaths. In total, Meyer was charged with responsibility for the deaths of twenty-three prisoners on 7 June, and eighteen more on 8 June. He pleaded not guilty to all five charges.
A second charge sheet, which accused him of responsibility for the death of seven Canadian prisoners of war at Mouen on 8 June 1944, was prepared but, after the successful conclusion of the first trial, it was decided not to try the second set of charges. No charges were laid against him regarding allegations of previous war crimes in Poland or Ukraine; the Canadian court was constituted only to deal with crimes committed against Canadian nationals.
The court was the first major Canadian war crimes trial, and faced a number of problems before it could be convened. Chief among these was the fact that, as the accused was a general, he had to be tried by soldiers of equal rank, and finding sufficient Canadian generals able to sit was difficult. The court, as eventually constituted, had four brigadiers – one, Ian Johnston, was a lawyer in civilian life – and was presided over by Major General H. W. Foster, who had commanded the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade in Normandy.
Following eyewitness statements by both German and Canadian soldiers, and by French civilians, the trial found Meyer guilty of the first, fourth and fifth charges, but acquitted of the second and third. This meant that he was deemed responsible for inciting his troops to give no quarter to the enemy, and for his troops killing eighteen prisoners at the Abbaye Ardenne, but not responsible for the killings of twenty-three at Buron and Authie. He had been found responsible for the deaths at the Abbaye Ardenne, but he was acquitted of directly ordering the killings. In Meyer's closing statement before sentencing, he chose not to ask for clemency, but instead defended the record of his unit and the innocence of his soldiers, and closed by saying that "by the Canadian Army I was treated as a soldier and that the proceedings were fairly conducted".
While most observers expected a sentence of some years imprisonment – the court had not found him guilty of directly ordering the murders, but merely of tacitly condoning them – the court sentenced Meyer to death. One of the judges, Brigadier Bell-Irving, later commented that he believed a guilty sentence required the death penalty and that no lesser sentence was permissible. The sentence was subject to confirmation by higher command, and while Meyer was originally willing to accept it, he was persuaded by his wife and by his defence counsel to appeal. The appeal was reviewed by Canadian headquarters and dismissed by Major-General Christopher Vokes, the official convening authority for the court, who noted that he could not see a clear way to mitigate the sentence imposed by the court.
However, shortly before the sentence was to be carried out, the prosecutor realised that the trial regulations contained a section requiring a final review by "the senior combatant officer in the theatre" and that that no-one had completed such a review. The execution was postponed until it could be carried out. Somewhat oddly, the senior officer was the commander of Canadian forces in Europe, the same Christopher Vokes who had just dismissed Meyer's appeal. Vokes had second thoughts, and began a series of meetings with senior officials to discuss how he should proceed. Vokes' main concern was the degree to which a commander should be held responsible for the actions of his men. The consensus which emerged from the discussions was that death was an appropriate sentence only when "the offence was conclusively shown to have resulted from the direct act of the commander or by his omission to act". Vokes claimed that "there isn't a general or colonel on the Allied side that I know of who hasn't said, 'Well, this time we don't want any prisoners'"; indeed, he had ordered the shooting of two prisoners in 1943 before his divisional commander intervened.
After his deliberations, Vokes commuted the sentence to one of life imprisonment, stating that he felt Meyer's level of responsibility for the crimes did not warrant the death penalty. Following the reprieve, a Communist-operated German newspaper reported that the Soviet Union was considering putting Meyer on trial for war crimes allegedly committed at Kharkov. However, nothing came of this, and, in April 1946, Meyer was transported to Canada to begin his sentence. Meyer served five years in Dorchester Penitentiary, in New Brunswick, Canada where he worked in the library and learned English.
Meyer petitioned for clemency in late 1950 – somewhat surprisingly including an offer to serve in a Canadian or United Nations military force if released. The government was willing to let him return to a German prison but not to release him outright. He was transferred to a British military prison in Werl, West Germany in 1951. Meyer was released from prison on 7 September 1954, after the German government reduced his sentence to fourteen years, and reduced this further for good behaviour. Upon his return to Germany in 1951, he told a reporter that nationalism was past and that "a united Europe is now the only answer".
Activities within HIAG
On release from prison, Meyer became active in HIAG, the Waffen-SS lobby group, formed in 1951 by former high-ranking Waffen-SS men, including Paul Hausser, Felix Steiner and Herbert Gille. He was considered one of the leading Waffen-SS apologists. At a HIAG rally in 1957, he announced that while he stood behind his old commanders, Hitler had made many mistakes and it was now time to look to the future, not to the past. Speaking before some 8,000 ex-SS men at the HIAG convention in Karlsberg, Bavaria, in 1957, he proclaimed that "SS troops committed no crimes, except the massacre at Oradour, and that was the action of a single man". He insisted that the Waffen-SS was "as much a regular army outfit as any other in the Wehrmacht".
His memoirs, Grenadiere (1957), were published as part of this campaign and were a glorification of the SS's part in the war, as well as of his role in it. The book detailed his exploits at the front and served as an element of the Waffen-SS rehabilitation efforts. Meyer condemned the "inhuman suffering" that the Waffen-SS personnel had been subjected to "for crimes which they neither committed, nor were able to prevent". Historian Charles W. Sydnor referred to Grenadiere as "perhaps the boldest and most truculent of the apologist works".  The book was part of HIAG's campaign to promote the perceptions of the Waffen-SS in popular culture as apolitical, recklessly brave fighters who were not involved in the war crimes of the Nazi regime; notions that have since been refuted by historians. In July 1958, Kurt Meyer shook hands with SPD politician Ulrich Lohmar at a HIAG meeting. This event was widely publicised and discussed, with HIAG regarding it as important publicity stunt, whereas many SPD members criticised Lohmar. They argued that Meyer remained unapologetic about SS crimes and an enemy of democracy despite his claims to the contrary.
Having become one of the de facto leaders of HIAG, Meyer was appointed the organization's spokesperson in 1959. In this capacity, he presented himself as pragmatic and loyal to the West German state, and HIAG as apolitical group. While advocating a better treatment of former Waffen-SS members, he repeatedly met with politicians, convincing some that both he as well as HIAG had distanced themselves from radical far-right extremism. In fact, Meyer remained a covert but steadfast adherent of Nazism.
In his later years Meyer was afflicted with poor health, needing a stick to walk, and suffered from heart and kidney disease. After a series of mild strokes, he died of a heart attack in Hagen, Westphalia, on 23 December 1961. 15,000 people attended his funeral in Hagen, a cushion-bearer carrying his medals in the cortege.
- Iron Cross (1939) 2nd Class (20 September 1939) & 1st Class (8 June 1940)
- German Cross in Gold on 8 February 1942 as SS-Sturmbannführer in SS-Division "Adolf Hitler"
- Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords
- Knight's Cross on 18 May 1941 as SS-Sturmbannführer and as commander of Aufklärungs-Abteilung "Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler".
- 195th Oak Leaves on 23 February 1943 as SS-Obersturmbannführer and commander of the SS-Aufklärungs-Abteilung "Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler"
- 91st Swords on 27 August 1944 as SS-Standartenführer and commander of the SS Division Hitlerjugend
- Beevor, p. 181. Beevor cites Peter Lieb's Konventioneller Krieg oder NS-Weltanschauungskrieg?: Kriegführung und Partisanenbekämpfung in Frankreich 1943/44, p. 159 (2007), which itself refers to the findings of an Allied court of enquiry on war crimes in Normandy (TS 26/856, The National Archives). Part of this document, relating to the Modlin shootings, is summarised here. Neither case was tried by the Canadian court, which restricted itself solely to cases related to Canadians, but Brode (p. 58) notes that the prosecution was aware of at least the Kharkov case, and contemplated introducing it as additional background material. After Meyer's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, there were reports that the Soviet Union wished to try him for the Kharkov case, but nothing came of this; see Brode, p. 107.
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SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Witt
| Commander of 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend
14 June 1944 – 6 September 1944
SS-Obersturmbannführer Hubert Meyer