Joachim Peiper (January 30, 1915 – July 13, 1976) more often known as Jochen Peiper from the common German nickname for Joachim, was a senior Waffen-SS officer in World War II. By the end of his military career in 1945, Peiper was the youngest regimental colonel in the Waffen-SS, holding the rank of SS-Standartenführer. He also served as personal adjutant to Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, in the period April 1938 to August 1941.
Peiper was recruited into the SS-Verfügungstruppe in 1933. Sepp Dietrich reviewed his application and admitted him into the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) honour guard regiment. In 1935 Peiper attended the SS officer’s training school (Junkerschule) at Braunschweig, and was commissioned the following year. Peiper was appointed adjutant to Heinrich Himmler in April 1938, and held this position until August 1941, except for a period during the Battle of France (1940) in which he was detached for combat service.
While on Himmler’s staff, Peiper met and married his wife, Sigurd, with whom he had three children: Heinrich, Elke, and Silke. Himmler was particularly fond of Peiper and took a keen interest in his ascension towards command. By age 29, Peiper was a full colonel of the Waffen-SS, well respected and a holder of one of wartime Germany’s highest decorations, the Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves and Swords personally awarded to him by Adolf Hitler.
Peiper returned to frontline duty in late 1941 during the war against the Soviet Union. he moved on to command various infantry and panzer units within the Leibstandarte, by now expanded to a full division.
Peiper was a skilled combat leader, and took part in several major battles on the Eastern Front, notably the battles for Kharkov — where he earned particular distinction — and the Kursk offensive of 1943.
In 1944, he commanded “Kampfgruppe Peiper” of the Leibstandarte division (assigned to the Sixth SS Panzer Army under Sepp Dietrich) during the Battle of the Bulge. Peiper advanced as far as the town of La Gleize, Belgium, before running out of fuel and coming under heavy fire from American artillery and tanks. He was forced to abandon over a hundred vehicles in the town, including six Tiger II tanks, and made his way back to German lines with 800 men on foot.
In the early days of this campaign, his unit was involved in firefight with an American unit, which gave rise to the “Malmedy massacre” hoax.
After the end of World War II, Peiper and other members of the Waffen-SS were tried for alleged crimes at Malmedy. Peiper volunteered to take all the blame if the court would set his men free; the court refused. Peiper as commanding officer was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging, as were many of his men. He then requested that his men be executed by firing squad; this request was also denied.
The sentences generated significant controversy in Germany (with the church requesting his release) and in the USA. The commander of the U.S. Army in Germany was thus led to commute the death sentences of Peiper and his co-accused to life imprisonment. In addition, the Germans’ defense attorney, U.S. military attorney Lt. Col. Willis M. Everett, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court claiming that the defendants had been found guilty by means of “illegal and fraudulently procured confessions” and were subjected of a mock trial. His claims touched off a major scandal, eventually leading the U.S. Senate to become involved.
In its investigation of the trial, the Senate Committee on Armed Services came to the conclusion that improper pre-trial procedures (including a mock trial, but not torture as sometime stated) had harmed the process and, although in some cases there was little or no doubt that the accused were indeed guilty of the massacre, the death sentences could not be applied.
Ultimately, the sentences of the Malmedy defendants were commuted to life imprisonment and then to time served. Peiper himself was released from prison on parole at the end of December 1956, after serving 11 and a half years.
Peiper has also been accused of, but never prosecuted for, the Boves massacre in Italy on September 8, 1943. In 1968, the German Minister of Justice declared that there was no reason to prosecute Peiper, and the case was dismissed on December 23, 1968.
In 1972, Peiper went to live in Traves, Haute-Saône, France, and supported himself as a translator of English-language military books into German. He sent his wife to safety in Germany following explicit death threats, but himself remained in France, arming himself with a shotgun and accompanied by his dog.
He was killed on the night of July 13/14, 1976 in a fire-bomb attack on his house by an armed gang calling itself “The Avengers”. The “avengers” were never identified, but were suspected to be French Communists.
His body was badly charred and an autopsy found smoke in his lungs, he’d gone down fighting, firing his .22 rifle and a pistol.
Peiper himself remained unrepentant about his past to the end of his life, saying:
“I was a National-Socialist and I remain one…The Germany of today is no longer a great nation, it has become a province of Europe.”
- “I recognize that after the battles of Normandy my unit was composed mainly of young, fanatical soldiers. A good deal of them had lost their parents, their sisters and brothers during the bombing. They had seen for themselves in Cologne, thousands of mangled corpses after a terror raid had passed. Their hatred for the enemy was such; I swear it and I could not always keep it under control.”
- “Imagine yourself acclaimed, a decorated national hero, an idol to millions of desperate people, then within six months, condemned to death by hanging.”
- “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 know is that I took the blame as a good commanding-officer should have been, and was punished accordingly.” — Peiper on the Malmedy incident, excerpted from “A Traveler’s Guide to the Battle for the German Frontier” by Charles Whiting
- “My men are the products of total war, grown up in the streets of scattered towns without any education. The only thing they knew was to handle weapons for the Reich. They were young people with a hot heart and the desire to win or die: right or wrong – my country. When seeing today the defendants in the dock, don’t believe them to be the old Kampfgruppe Peiper. All of my old friends and comrades have gone before. The real outfit is waiting for me in Valhalla.”
- “History is always written by the victor, and the histories of the losing parties belong to the shrinking circle of those who were there.”
In May 1942, Peiper learned of the death of his brother Hans-Hasso. During the same month, the LSSAH was transferred to France for rest and refit. En route to France, Peiper left his unit and met with Himmler at his headquarters on 1 June. The meeting included a dinner attended by Himmler’s secretary Rudolf Brandt and Heinz Lammerding, a member of the staff headquarters of the SS Division Totenkopf. In July 1942, Peiper again met with Himmler and did not rejoin his battalion until August 1942.
During its stay in France, the LSSAH was reorganised into a Panzergrenadier division and Peiper was promoted to commander of its 3rd Battalion. At the end of 1942, Peiper received permission to visit his family. On 30 January 1943, he was promoted to SS-Obersturmbannführer. Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front, the German situation had seriously worsened, especially in the Battle of Stalingrad. Peiper’s battalion left its quarters in France on 31 January 1943 for Lyubotin, near Kharkiv. It was immediately dispatched to the front.
Relief of 320th Infantry Division
During the Third Battle of Kharkov, Peiper led the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Panzergrenadier Regiment, which broke 48 kilometres (30 mi) through Soviet lines to rescue the encircled 320th Infantry Division. Leading the ambulances back to the German lines, he found his route blocked by a Soviet ski battalion that had destroyed the main bridge across the Udy River. His unit fought through the city and repaired the bridge, securing an exit route for the ambulances back to the German lines. The repaired bridge, however, would not support the unit’s heavy-armored half-tracks and assault guns. Peiper ordered his men back behind the Soviet lines to find another exit, and they returned to the German lines with few casualties.
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!” During this period, the “Nazi propaganda” praised Peiper as an outstanding leader. The official Waffen-SS newspaper, Das Schwarze Korps (“The Black Corps”), described Peiper’s actions in Kharkiv 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” backed by “intellectual work and instinctive safety”. The paper noted the “unconditional trust of his men” and 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”.
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 language. Peiper was seen as an officer who obeyed orders without much discussion and expected the same from his men.
After Italian forces capitulated to the Allies, the LSSAH was moved to Italy for two months to assist in disarming the Italian military and prevent them from attacking German forces. Beginning in August, Peiper’s battalion quarters were near Cuneo. On 10 September, they received orders to disarm Italian garrisons in Alessandria and Asti.
On 19 September, partisans in the village of Boves captured two of Peiper’s men. Faustino Dolmazzo, an advisor to the partisans, reported that when Peiper arrived in Boves, the Germans appointed two Italians, one the village priest, to arrange the men’s freedom. Peiper promised the Germans would not engage in any reprisals.
The two men were freed, but the Germans then set fire to the houses in the village and killed 22 men when they tried to flee. The burned bodies of the two Italian intermediaries were found among the victims.
Peiper himself reported on the action, now known as the Boves massacre: “I am of the opinion that our action to free our encircled comrades in Boves nipped in the bud the Italian army’s attack, for the army fell apart and no attack ever took place on Cuneo or Turin. However regrettable the consequences of our action was for the affected residents of Boves, it should not be overlooked that our one-time intervention prevented further immeasurable casualties which would have resulted from continued Italian attacks.” In 1968, an Italian court concluded there was “…insufficient suspicion of criminal activity on the part of any of the accused to warrant prosecution”. On 23 December 1968, a German District Court in Stuttgart reached the same conclusion, terminating any potential prosecution of Peiper for his activities in Italy.
Beginning November 1943, Peiper’s unit arrived on the Eastern Front, where it took part in combat in the area of Zhytomyr. On 20 November, Georg Schönberger was killed in action, and Peiper took his place as commander of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment; a position he held until the end of the war. Under his command, the regiment fought through the winter and was engaged in numerous night assaults against the Red Army. His panzer unit played an essential role in stalling the Soviet offensive in the area of Zhytomyr. Peiper led actions by attacking the rear of enemy lines and captured four division headquarters. For this action he was awarded the Oak Leaves of the Knight’s Cross.
Peiper’s aggressiveness and regiment command appointment caused resentment by some against him. In the mean time, brutal combat involving his unit continued. On 5 and 6 December 1943, the unit killed 2280 Soviet soldiers and took only three prisoners. During heavy fighting, the village of Pekartschina was completely burned with flamethrowers and its inhabitants killed.
On 20 January 1944, Peiper was withdrawn from the front and left his unit. He went directly to the headquarters of Hitler, who presented him with the Oak Leaves to be added to his Knight’s Cross. Shortly afterwards, on his 29th birthday, Peiper was promoted to Obersturmbannführer. However, Peiper was physically and mentally exhausted. A medical examination carried out by SS doctors in Dachau reached the conclusion that he needed rest. Therefore, he went to see his wife in Bavaria.