July 13th in German History: The Death of Joachim Peiper

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R65485, Joachim Peiper.jpg
Joachim Peiper.

The Battle of the Bulge is as famous as much for the atrocities committed by German forces during it as much as the action itself. The most famous war criminal to come out of the Battle of the Bulge was Joachim Peiper, an SS officer responsible for the Malmedy massacre. Peiper was murdered in France on July 13th, 1976.

Future SS Colonel Joachim Peiper was born on January 30th, 1915, in Silesia, which is today owned by Poland. His father, Waldemar Peiper, served in the Imperial German Army and later in the nationalist Freikorps paramilitary group where he fought Polish rebels. Peiper joined the SS at the age of 18 and served in the SS Cavalry. In 1934 he met Heinrich Himmler, who supported Peiper’s career from then on. In the following years he attended officer training camp, where he was further indoctrinated in antisemitism, and he joined the Nazi Party in 1938. He then became an aid to Himmler and in 1939 married one of his secretaries. During the invasion of Poland, Peiper accompanied Hitler and witnessed several atrocities, and then went on a tour of concentration camps. During the invasion of France, Peiper joined a combat unit and was awarded the Iron Cross for leading multiple daring and successful assaults. During the following years, Peiper would at various times command units on the Eastern Front and the Italian theater. For most of this period he commanded units within the LSSAH, the SS Panzer Division Adolf Hitler. He demonstrated great tactical ability during the Third Battle of Kharkov and the Battle of Kirsk, and in 1943 was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Peiper’s unit was especially brutal, burning down and slaughtering numerous villages in both Russia and Italy. After sustaining heavy casualties, the LSSAH was sent to be reconstituted in Belgium and Peiper was responsible for the execution of several Belgian teenage volunteers for lack of discipline. He suffered an emotional breakdown during the Invasion of Normandy and he was relieved of command on August 2nd, staying in a military hospital until October 7th. During the Battle of the Bulge, Peiper commanded one of the units tasked with breaking through Allied lines. While advancing, he encountered and defeated a convoy of lightly-armed American vehicles near Malmedy. A number of prisoners from this convoy were captured, and Peiper ordered them shot. The Malmedy massacre took place on December 17th, 1944. After the weather improved and his unit lost the element of surprise, Peiper’s forces were subject to intense Allied air bombardment and the cutting-off of supply routes. He was forced to retreat, in the process losing all of his remaining tanks. Of the 3,000 men he started with, only 717 returned to the German lines at the end of the battle. Peiper commanded forces during several more operations, most notably Operation Spring Awakening, but in May he received orders to surrender to the Allies as Germany collapsed. After the war, he spent time in prison and was sentenced to death for war crimes, although that ruling was later reversed and he was released. He served in administrative positions, most notably at Ferrari and Porsche, but in the 1960s public opinion turned markedly against the SS in Germany and he left it for France. In 1974 he was identified in the village of Traves and in 1976 his house was set on fire. He died, probably of smoke inhalation, and he was buried at Schondorf.

Joachim Peiper’s reputation has fallen far from its height during the second World War. However, it is unfortunately maintained among those who idolize the SS and Nazi Germany in general. His ability as a commander is often emphasized over his failings as a human being. This is both wrong and dangerous, and we must make a conscious effort not to forget the crimes committed by those in the German military in our intense focus on Hitler, Himmler, and others in the highest positions of leadership.

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