'Hitler's Warrior' is good reading

Publié le par Daily News reviewed by Dwight R. Pounds

'Hitler's Warrior' is good reading

“Hitler’s Warrior,” by Danny S. Parker. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-306-82154-7, 420 pages, $29.99 (hardcover).

'Hitler's Warrior' is good reading

Hitler’s Warrior” is a fitting title in that SS Col. Joachim (Jochen) Peiper arguably was the World War II German equivalent of America’s Audie Murphy, who won virtually every combat award in the books. The Nazis corrupted the traditional Knights (Iron) Cross and handed them out by the proverbial bushel.

To recognize truly outstanding accomplishments, it was necessary to embellish the medal with wreaths, diamonds and swords, some of which apparently were added specifically for Peiper. Despite the many honors and medals he earned, Peiper’s primary concern throughout the war and the rest of his life was for the well-being of the troops under his command.

Peiper was of good Aryan stock that the SS prized so highly. He was blond, handsome, athletic, physically strong, ambitious and highly intelligent. Still, he was a most enigmatic man, personally and professionally. He loved music and literature, yet was ferocious in battle. 

He rose to the rank of sturmbahnführer (colonel) in the dreaded SS at age 30, but he never joined the National Socialist (Nazi) Party. He could have spent the duration of the war in relative safety as a staff officer (adjutant) to Heinrich Himmler but seized the opportunity to command Waffen SS tank battalions on the Eastern and Italian fronts. Peiper and his personal tank crew destroyed an estimated 200 enemy tanks or more on all fronts. So extraordinary were his leadership skills and audacity in battle that he was chosen to lead the German attack in the 1944 Ardennes Offensive, known in Allied circles as the Battle of the Bulge. It was during the Italian campaign and the winter offensive in Belgium that two war atrocities were branded to his reputation, and from which he could never extricate himself: The attack in 1943 on Boves, Italy, in which numerous homes were destroyed and 33 civilians killed, and the massacre of 87 American prisoners of war at Malmédy, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. (He admitted that the killings in both incidents occurred, and under his command, but vehemently denied that he gave the orders for either.) 

Equally damning were his closeness to Himmler as a trusted member of his staff and being one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite soldiers. He had been a member of the elite and infamous “Leibstandarte Adolph Hitler,” the only military unit honored by the Führer’s name on their uniform sleeves. Yet, rather than assume a false identity at the war’s conclusion, Peiper surrendered under his own name and made no attempt to leave the country, and he took nominal command of the prison camp as ranking officer.

Telling Peiper’s story and doing so objectively was no small task for the author, Danny Parker, who spent more than a decade collecting materials and interviewing people in his subject’s life. Somehow he managed to condense his voluminous material into five sections covering Peiper’s life: his rise to power, his battles, his trials for war crimes and imprisonment, his eventual release and employment at Porsche AG and Motorsport Magazine, and, finally, his tragic end following a self-imposed exile in France. The reader can despise the cause to which Peiper devoted his life but still respect his personal integrity and leadership on the battlefield. These stories unfold in 309 pages of text and 111 pages of notes.

The book is good reading for anyone interested in military history, Nazi Germany, the war crimes, the Holocaust and WWII. Parker offers an intriguing look into the distorted mind of the despicable Himmler, whom Gen. Heinz Guderian referred to as a “certified nut case.” Peiper’s letters reflect a keen mind, often taking on a philosophical or poetic quality, even in translation. Particularly interesting is the account of Peiper’s war crimes trial as detailed in chapter 13. Descriptions of interactions between Peiper, his defense council, Lt. Col. Willis Everett, and the prosecutor, Lt. Col. Burton Ellis, and their arguments for and against the defendants are engrossing and resulted in a death sentence, later commuted to life imprisonment, and parole following 10 years of incarceration.

Although a reading knowledge of German is by no means necessary for in-depth reading of this book, there are several recurring terms with which one should be familiar. The schützstaffel, or “SS,” came into being as the leibstandarte (bodyguard) for Hitler, and, during the war, evolved in part to the waffen (weapons) SS, elite and fanatical combat units, and the totenkopf (death head) units that ran concentration camps and presided over the deaths of thousands. The SS had its own tradition of ranks, with each usually being translated into English in the text. Panzer and Tiger refer to tanks; SPW (schützenpanzerwagen) refers to half-tracks.

The ultimate tragedy of Peiper was that he was shaped by war while yet a young man. As hostilities continued, his unprecedented awards, his connections to Hitler, Himmler and the SS, Boves, the Battle of the Bulge and the Malmédy Massacre became well known. The war crimes trials simply cemented his checkered reputation in place, a reputation that he could not repair even during his French exile when he sought to live out his days peacefully. He lived five uneventful years near Traves, France, until an old member of the French underground recognized his name and went to the press. A firestorm of old passions that could not be quenched ensued and eventually led to his death. His murder is shrouded in mystery and remains unsolved, but absurd rumors and speculation concerning the circumstances and whether he actually died persisted for years and were reminiscent of the conspiracy theories following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Rather than the Israelis, the French Resistance, or the East German Stasi, people so insignificant as local young toughs with Molotov cocktails probably killed him, but the legend of Peiper was such that he would not “go gentle into that good night.”

— Reviewed by Dwight R. Pounds, Ph.D; Col., USAFR (Ret.)

Publié dans Articles de Presse

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