The war crimes of Joachim Peiper

The poster boy of the Waffen-SS

Joachim Peiper, the poster boy of the Waffen-SS (and of Nazi wartime atrocities)
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Joachim Peiper (1915-1976) was one of the individuals who were lifted up by the Nazi propaganda machine and depicted as the ideal example of the new breed of German: a dedicated Nazi, a war hero and a great combat commander, and a genetically pure specimen of the Aryan race. Today, he is better known as a war criminal on three different fronts of World War II, a leader whose men died in droves because of his recklessness, and an officer whose subordinates have murdered hundreds of American prisoners of war and Belgian civilians during the Battle of the Bulge. Captured at the end of the war, he surprisingly managed to avoid the hangman’s noose, only to be killed by anti-fascists decades later.
Peiper was born as the third son of Woldemar Peiper, a Silesian German who himself served as an officer of the German Imperial Army in the first decade of the 20th century. He participated in the German campaign of racial genocide against the Herero and Nama people of German South West Africa (Namibia today) after they rebelled against colonial rule; he later served in World War I before having to retire due to health reasons.
Joachim (left) with his father Woldemar and middle brother Horst

After the Great War, Woldemar joined a Freikorps, a paramilitary unit comprising conservative veterans who were angry over the country’s defeat and were quick to blame the Jews and the Communists for it. He actively helped suppress a Polish uprising that intended to join Silesia with newly established independent Poland.
With a family background like that, it’s no surprise that young Joachim quickly found his way to National Socialism. At the age of eleven, he followed his middle brother Horst in joining first the boy scouts, then the Hitler Youth, and eventually the Schutzstaffel (SS), the Nazi Party’s major paramilitary organization. (Horst served as a concentration camp guard, fought in the Battle of France, and died under unclear circumstances in 1941, possibly driven to suicide by his fellow SS-men because of his homosexuality.)

Class at an SS-Junkerschule, a cadet school for the Waffen-SS, similar to the ones Peiper attended
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Joachim caught the eye of SS leader Heinrich Himmler at the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi Party rally. Handsome, pleasant-mannered and a self-confident SS officer by the time, Peiper seemed like the poster boy of the true Aryan to Himmler, who took him under his wing. Peiper was sent on a military leadership training course, where he received favorable reviews, with one blemish: while the military psychologists also gave their stamp of approval, they noted that he was egocentric, had a negative attitude, and was constantly trying to impress people with his personal relationship to Himmler; they stated that he might become a difficult subordinate or an arrogant superior.

Peiper at the rank of SS-Obersturmbannführer (lieutenant colonel) on the cover of Stuttgart Illustrated
(Photo: Stuttgart Illustrated)

Peiper became an adjutant to Himmler in 1938, a position the latter considered necessary for every SS officer suitable for higher ranks. Peiper travelled with Himmler a lot, and occasionally also served as liaison to Hitler. While at Himmler’s side, he witnessed the execution of Polish leaders who were thought to be potential future partisans, the gassing of mentally ill patients, the operation of concentration camps, and the SS’s gradual administrative refinement of ethnic cleansing methods.
In May 1940, during the invasion of France, Peiper was given a combat position as platoon leader in the motorized regiment of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (“LSSAH”) a division that began its existence as Hitler’s personal bodyguard unit. He was promoted to SS-Hauptsturmführer (captain) and decorated the Iron Cross 2nd class for his courage during the capture of a French artillery battery. In late June, with France conquered, he returned to his position as personal adjutant to Himmler. Promoted to First Adjutant in late 1940, he accompanied Himmler on a tour of German-occupied territories to check on the state of SS and Waffen-SS operations, and participated in a conference where Himmler presented plans to kill 30 million Slavs in Eastern Europe. As Himmler’s first adjutant, Peiper delivered to him the daily kill counts of the ongoing ethnic cleansing.

Peiper (right) with Himmler in the city of Metz in France, 1940
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Peiper was reassigned to the motorized regiment of the LSSAH again in the summer of 1941. Fighting in the Soviet Union near the Black Sea, Peiper earned a reputation as an aggressive commander, but one whose victories came at the cost of many SS-men’s lives. During the Third Battle of Kharkov in early 1943, Peiper’s battalion rescued an encircled German infantry division in an operation that came down to hand-to-hand fighting with Soviet ski troops. During the rescue mission, Peiper discovered that a small German medical unit that was left behind in a village was killed and mutilated by the Soviets. He responded by burning down the village and shooting its inhabitants.

Peiper near Kharkov, early 1943
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Peiper’s actions earned him the German Cross in Gold, and his unit the nickname “Blowtorch Battalion,” the latter for the torching and slaughter of two villages. In the incident, Peiper’s men killed 872 men, women and children (240 of them burned alive in a church) as retaliation for the earlier wounding of two SS officers.  Peiper was particularly eager to burn down villages, and once wrote to a colleague "Our reputation precedes us as a wave of terror and is one of our best weapons. Even old Genghis Khan would gladly have hired us as assistants."
Peiper was awarded Nazi Germany’s highest military decoration, the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, and Himmler congratulated him personally in a radio broadcast. Nazi propaganda painted him as a brilliant and quick-thinking commander with unorthodox orders, while neglecting to mention his high casualty rates, which usually resulted from his overly aggressive style that neglected scouting in favor of a full-on assault with vehicles and infantry regardless of the situation.

Peiper enjoying a bottle of Hennessy somewhere near Kharkov in 1943
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Peiper’s unit, Kampfgruppe (“combat group”) Peiper participated in the Battle of Kursk in July 1943 (Read our earlier article), and was then transferred to Italy, the Axis ally that was already teetering due to the Allied invasion of Sicily. The unit was stationed in Northwest Italy, not far from the village of Boves. When the Italian government deposed Mussolini and surrendered to the Allies in early December 1943, the LSSAH invaded Northern Italy and took control of it before it could join the Allied war effort. On September 19, Italian guerillas killed an SS-man and captured two others in a firefight in Boves. Peiper surrounded the village and threatened to destroy it if the two captives were not released. The local parish priest and a businessman negotiated the release of the prisoners and the dead body of the third man, but Peiper still ordered the execution of 24 men (one woman was also killed when the SS looted and torched her house).

An SS unit burning down a village in Ukraine
(Photo: unknown photographer)
The LSSAH returned to the Eastern Front in late 1943 to once more fight the Red Army, the latter now on an inexorable westward advance. Despite having no experience with tanks, Peiper was made commander of the division’s 1st Tank Regiment. Thanks to his overly aggressive style, the regiment was down to 12 working tanks after a single month of his leadership. He was relieved and assigned to a staff position to make sure he didn’t cause more damage. Meanwhile, his propaganda fame reached even higher levels, and Hitler presented him with the Oak Leaves for his Knight’s Cross.
The LSSAH was withdrawn from the east in March 1944, and sent to Western Europe for reorganization. Many new soldiers arrived, mostly adolescent boys with little ideological training. As part of the brutal initiation rituals, Peiper had five of his own soldiers shot for not meeting the Kampfgruppe’s standards, then forced the newcomers to look at the bodies.
Peiper (left) during a ceremony to decorate his comrades who distinguished themselves on the Eastern Front, after the unit had already moved to Belgium
(Photo: unknown photographer)
The LSSAH fought defensively during the Allied landings in Normandy and Operation Cobra (Read our earlier article), eventually losing all of its tanks and 25% of its manpower. Peiper was relieved of command and treated in hospital with a nervous breakdown, but returned to service in the winter of 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge.
During preparations for the German surprise attack in the Ardennes, Hitler ordered commanders to terrify the enemy by conducting the battle with cruelty typical of the Eastern Front but previously unpracticed in the west. Kampfgruppe Peiper was one of the spearheads of the German advance, their ultimate goal being to divide Allied forces by breaking through them and capturing Antwerp.

The unit quickly learned that the mountainous backroads assigned to them were barely capable of supporting their heavier vehicles such as Tiger II tanks, and that several important bridges were out, some blown up by the Germans themselves during their retreat earlier that year. Quickly falling behind schedule due to tenacious defense by Allied soldiers, massive traffic jams behind the frontline and precariously low fuel supplies, Peiper and his men soldiers were getting ever more frustrated.
Men from the LSSAH on the way to Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Kampfgruppe Peiper’s massacres began in the early morning of December 17, 1944, with LSSAH already 16 hours behind schedule. Low on fuel, Peiper’s unit deviated from its planned course to capture a small Allied fuel depot in Büllingen, where they executed 59 captured soldiers and a civilian.
Between noon and 1 p.m. on the same day, the group came upon an American convoy of about 30 vehicles, mainly transporting members of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, at the Baugnez crossroads two miles from the city of Malmedy. German tank fire quickly immobilized the first and last vehicles, trapping the rest on the road and forcing the passengers to surrender.

A U.S. soldier with the victims of the Malmedy massacre
(Photo: U.S. Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Peiper’s tank column moved on, leaving behind some soldiers to guard the approximately 120 American POWs. The captives were herded into a field, where SS men cut them down with machine guns, and executed the survivors with a shot to the head. Some Americans were able to run away and hide in a nearby café, but the Germans set fire to the building and shot anyone coming out. Eighty-six POWs were murdered, but another 43 managed to run into the forest and eventually made contact with other U.S. units. By late evening, news of the Germans massacring captives started circulating among forward American divisions, along with unofficial orders not to take SS-men or Wehrmacht soldiers alive. (In fact, American soldiers massacred some 80 German prisoners of war in a very similar manner on January 1, 1945, as retaliation for the events at Malmedy.)

U.S. investigators identifying the massacre victims at the Baugnez crossroads
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Of Kampfgruppe Peiper’s further massacres, the ones occurring at and around the town of Stavelot stand out with the murder of around a hundred civilians and eight POWs in total. On one particular occasion, some 20 civilians, mainly women and children, were hiding in the cellar of a building that was later chosen by Allied troops as a defensive point. After the Allies were defeated, the Germans tossed two grenades down the cellar door. The explosion only wounded a single person, but the screams of panic alerted the soldiers. They herded the civilians up and out of the house, claiming that they must have been firing at them before. The victims, 23 in number, were lined up against a hedge and shot, with only a German-speaking woman and her daughters spared.

The house were the victims of the Stavelot massacre were hiding.

Another massacre, smaller in scope and largely forgotten until the 21st century, was that of the Wereth 11. These eleven U.S. soldiers were African American men from the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, a segregated unit highly regarded for the combat experience they gained since D-Day. On December 17, 1944, Battery C of the battalion was overrun by the Germans, with most defenders killed or taken captive. Eleven men, however, managed to get away and made it to the village of Wereth after six hours of marching in freezing rain. A friendly couple there offered them shelter and hot food. Wereth, however, had been part of Germany before World War I and some families were German sympathizers. An unknown local alerted nearby German forces of the presence of the African American soldiers and a patrol soon arrived to capture them. The men were forced to run to a nearby field with the Germans following them in a car and were never seen alive again.

Three of the Wereth 11
(Photo: unknown photographer)

When the bodies were found two months later, they bore signs of torture. Some had their legs broken and skulls cracked by rifle butts. Others had their fingers cut off or eyes gouged out. Still others had multiple stab wounds. Today, a memorial honors the sacrifice of these men, thanks in no small part to the then-12-year-old son of the couple who sheltered them, who tracked down the victims’ names in the 1990s. According to a U.S. Senate subcommittee report, 362 POWs and 111 civilians were murdered by the SS in the series of killings, though other sources claim more victims, possibly 500-750 POWs alone. Peiper’s action during the battle earned him the Swords for his Knight’s Cross, and the atrocities committed by his troops celebrated in official records.
Peiper last led troops in February and March 1945, fighting against the Red Army in Hungary. With the war essentially lost, the LSSAH was ordered to surrender to American forces in early May. Peiper defied the order and traveled home, but was captured within the month and charged with war crimes in 1946. 43 out of 73 members of Kampfgruppe Peiper, including Peiper himself, were sentenced to death by hanging. Two witnesses testified that Peiper had personally given orders to execute POWs on two occasions.

Peiper (standing) at the Malmedy Massacre trials
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

Peiper was never hanged, as his sentence, and those of several of his men, were commuted to life imprisonment. That, in turn, was later reduced to 35 years in prison, and he was released on parole in 1956, a mere 10 years after his original sentencing. Once out, he became active in the circles of former Waffen-SS veterans who were helping each other out and covering up their wartime records. He briefly worked at the Porsche automobile company, but was dismissed because Italian trade union workers refused to work with the man who ordered the killing of civilians at Boves.
Peiper moved to a village in Southern France in 1972 and worked as an English-to-German translator of military history books. He was recognized by a former member of the French Resistance, and his presence was made public. He happily gave interviews to the journalists who turned up at his home, claiming to be innocent of the Boves massacre, to be a victim of Communist harassment, and to have already paid for his crimes with his prison time. He also made disparaging comments about the French, such as "In 1940, French people weren't brave, that's why I'm here."
In the early hours of July 14, 1976, French anti-Nazis burned down Peiper’s house. It was probably not coincidental that the day was Bastille Day, the national celebration of the French Revolution of 1789. Firefighters found the charred body of a man, still holding a pistol and a rifle as if trying to protect himself, and apparently having died of smoke inhalation. While the body was generally assumed to have been Peiper’s, it could not be identified with certainty.

Firefighters putting out the fire in Peiper’s house
(Photo: unknown photographer)

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American soldiers in a foxhole in January 1945
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