The epitome of the Nazi ideal, Danny S. Parker’s book Hitler’s Warrior takes an unflinching look at the life and wars of SS Colonel Jochen Peiper. Found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to death by hanging for his part in the infamous Malmédy massacre of American servicemen during the Battle of the Bulge, Peiper escaped the noose. Instead he would spend a decade in jail, years working in the German auto industry and die mysteriously on Bastille Day, July 13th 1976, at his secluded home on the banks of the Saone River, France.
Handsome, intelligent and capable, Jochen Peiper had something of the matinee idol look about him. Quick to join the fledgling Schutzstaffel or SS, Peiper applied to become an SS Officer Cadet in 1934 at the suggestion of Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler. By the outbreak of war Peiper was the Reichsführer’s constant companion and faithful adjutant. He would witness mass executions and an experimental gassing while accompanying his boss on SS business trips across the Nazi’s growing empire. A comrade remarked that Peiper was one of the few people who seemed to genuinely like the cold, humourless, rabidly anti-Semitic Himmler. It seems clear from Parker’s meticulous research that the affection was mutual.
A member of the Waffen SS or fighting SS, Peiper was keen to give up his cosy desk job and see some action as part of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. Peiper had a pretty good war. He was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords for extreme bravery and outstanding military leadership. He saw plenty of fighting on the Eastern Front, France and Italy where he revelled in his role as commander of the so-called Blowtorch Battalion, notorious for burning villages and killing the inhabitants regardless of their status as civilian non-combatants. But of course it was his role as commander of the 1st SS Panzer Division, one of the spearheads of the German’s surprise winter offensive through the Ardennes region of Belgium, which brought Jochen Peiper his lasting fame. Most notably Peiper’s men executed 84 defenceless American prisoners of war (POW) at the Baugnez crossroads near Malmédy. His men were also responsible for killing numerous Belgium civilians and other POWs during their advance.
After the war Joachim Peiper was tried and convicted of war crimes, and sentenced to death by hanging on 16 July 1946. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. He was released in 1956 after serving nearly 12 years. His dutiful wife Sigurd, the ex-SS secretary, and three children were waiting for him. Now Peiper started to live something of a double life. He publicly professed that he wanted to put the war behind him and get on with his life in peace. He felt he had paid for his crimes as the Allies saw them. In reality Peiper went to work for Porsche, which appeared to be a haven for ex-Nazis and SS men during the 1950s. He also busied himself with the Mutual Help Association of Former Waffen-SS Members (HIAG) and seems to have spent much of his spare time with former comrades-in-arms. However, trouble was to find him again in the 1960s when he was investigated for his part in the Boves massacre of September 1943, Italy. Eventually acquitted due to lack of evidence, Peiper decided to leave Germany for Traves, France in 1972.
In 1974 Peiper, who never attempted to conceal his identity, was recognised by a former French Resistance fighter who contacted the French Communist Party. Peiper soon became the subject of an increasingly sinister intimidation campaign. Then on the night of the 13thJuly 1976, his house was attacked and set on fire. Peiper made a vigorous defence of the property using a number of firearms, but was trapped under falling debris when the roof collapsed. His body was so badly burned that formal identification was almost impossible. The tabloid press pounced on the idea that the whole episode was an elaborate Nazi ploy allowing Peiper to escape to South America or Spain. Right wing reprisals swiftly followed.
Himmler’s trusted paladin, the youngest Colonel in the Waffen SS, war criminal, the handsome middle aged car salesman, intellectual and nature lover, Jochen Peiper was all of these things and more. For all his protestations and supposed desire to put the past behind him, Jochen Peiper lived and died a committed, unrepentant Nazi and proud SS officer. Danny S. Parker’s book paints a vivid portrait of a complex personality utterly trapped by the times and events he lived through. A man blind to his own crimes and those of the regime he so loyally and obediently served. Shy, engaging, with something of an eye for the ladies, Peiper was no one dimensional villain. He possessed a conscience, love, empathy and compassion; he simply couldn’t conceive that he’d done anything wrong but serve the Fatherland.
George Orwell once said: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” I think this is how Peiper always saw himself, cast in the role of righteous guardian. However, Orwell also wrote, “Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception.” In Parker’s book one of Peiper’s former comrades joked that it would have been better for everyone if he (Peiper) had simply put a bullet through his head in 1945. Maybe so.
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