Though he was just 29 years old, Joachim Peiper had lived a lifetime. A Colonel in the SS Sixth Panzer Army, he had served with distinction on the Russian Front, which meant he had witnessed (and been a part of) scenes of violence rarely surpassed in a war full of terrible deeds. Max Hastings, who I consider to be one of the finest historical writers of our generation, gives us a brief introduction to the man in his masterful book Armageddon.
He writes, “Peiper, a Knight’s Cross holder, was the archetypal brave, gifted Waffen SS commander just twenty-nine years old, with a record of brutality on the Russian Front which commanded respect even in SS circles. In one advance, Peiper’s battalion claimed 2,500 Russians killed and just three captured.”
But in December of 1944, Peiper was no longer on the Russian Front. As the Red Army bore down from the east, Peiper had been moved west…to the front facing the Americans. It was hoped that Operation Watch on the Rhine (which we have come to know as the Battle of the Bulge) would push the Allies far enough westward to maybe divide them and get a separate peace deal done. Our Colonel, his men, and his tanks had been secretly moved into place and were prepared to jump off.
And as we remember from last year, it was Peiper’s men who massacred the American soldiers at Malmedy. It’s easy for us to understand how such an event happened. A group of German soldiers, well-versed in a take-no-prisoners style of warfare, led by a take-no-prisoners battalion commander, and placed in a desperate, last-gasp situation. It’s pretty cut and dried.
But I think there’s even more to it. On December 12, 1944 (just four days before the Battle of the Bulge began), Peiper and his men were in Dueren, Germany when it was bombed by light bombers from the U.S. Ninth Air force. Of course, it wasn’t the first time Dueren had been targeted. On November 16th, the city had been absolutely plastered by British and American bombers. More than 1,700 had set their sights on the “city of antiquities” and, in the space of two hours, dropped more than 9,000 tons of bombs on the city’s center. And like Tokyo (and other Japanese cities) would experience a few months down the road, the bombs created a maelstrom of fire and destruction that left the city a complete ruin. In fact, there is no building in Dueren today that dates prior to 1945.
Peiper and his men were witness not only to the aftermath of the November 16 attack, but witnessed first-hand the attack on the 12th. In his biography of Colonel Peiper, Patrick Agte wrote, “The widespread destruction, which lay before them, was worse than at the front. What was even worse was the feeling of powerlessness and helplessness, which came over them in the face of this catastrophe… Encouragement and orders were unnecessary. Everyone was filled with the desire to help and also filled with horror, sympathy and rage!…This isn’t war; it’s mass murder!”
The unarmed Americans slaughtered at Malmedy were victims of an offensive powered by desperation and fought by men seeking revenge…a very bad combination.