Book Review – Hitler’s Warrior: The Life and Wars of SS Colonel Jochen Peiper

Joachim Peiper was a minor but important figure in Nazi Germany: member of the SS Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler (literally, Hitler’s bodyguard), adjutant to SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, and decorated panzer commander. After the collapse of Nazi Germany, he stood trial for the war crime of the murder of American POWs, was sentenced to be hanged, served a dozen years in prison, and was released as popular sentiment turned away from the punishment of war criminals. He moved to rural France, living an idyllic lifestyle. After his identity was publicized, an unknown group of raiders burned his house in 1976, and he was killed in the blaze.

Peiper’s childhood and rise within the SS is an interesting microcosm of the rise of the Nazi party. Flush with prosperity and success, Peiper dedicated his life and career to charismatic Adolf Hitler, while overlooking the evils done in the Führer’s name. The SS was a political organ even moreso than a military unit, and Peiper was extremely adept at maneuvering within its ranks. He certainly enjoyed the perks and advantages of serving under Himmler, and clearly knew the evils of the Holocaust. Parker makes a very solid case that Peiper was completely cognizant of killing squads and the workings of the labor camps. The record is unclear as to why he asked Himmler to be given a combat assignment–patriotism? quest for glory? revulsion at what was being done to the undesirables of the Third Reich?

Descriptions of his family life add to the book, both to give Peiper more dimension and to show how the elite of Nazi Germany lived. Details of his and his wife’s friendship with Himmler’s mistress, Hedwig Potthast, are interesting without devolving to the titillating or gossipy.

The section of the book covering Peiper’s combat career is lucidly written, as Parker describes maneuver and logistics with an eye for detail that provides richness yet never mistakes minutiae for the narrative. Peiper was a decent commander, if perhaps overenthusiastic in his tendency to push forward beyond support or supply line. He was undoubtedly brave and a very good soldier, respected by his men and even US POWs with whom he had contact. Peiper wound up mentally and physically exhausted from his service. Once the war ended and he was captured by the Americans, he was a model prisoner–even to the point that he led his fellow countrymen in the effort to build their own prison camp!

Peiper’s trial is a difficult section to read, yet very thought-provoking. The testimony presented often hinges on very small details, and I found it hard to follow, requiring me to continually refer back to previous pages. That said, it was enlightening as a window into the relationship between victor and vanquished and highlighted that the line between honorable soldier and war criminal is extremely fine. Peiper accepted command responsibility for the murder of the POWs, while denying personal involvement. For me, the evidence was insufficient to confirm or contradict Peiper’s testimony.

His life in prison and after his sentence was commuted first to life and then to time served illustrated the de-Nazification process, post-war Europe, and the Nazis who were re-assimilated into German culture. In 1972, Peiper and his wife moved to Traves, France, seeking a pastoral retirement. Two years later, his identity is publicized by the local Communist party, and he becomes subject to numerous personal attacks. These attacks culminate in a Bastille Day raid on his farm that left his house burned with his body inside.

I enjoyed Parker’s style quite a bit, and respect that he never shies away from either the honorable or the repugnant qualities of Peiper. He neither damns nor celebrates his subject, concerning himself with fact and evidence above judgment. This is a thought-provoking volume that left me pondering the capability for both honor and horror within humans. “Hitler’s Warrior” is a valuable addition to any World War II library.

Advanced review copy kindly provided by NetGalley.

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