Sepp Dietrich (Joseph Dietrich)
BiographyHawangen, Bavaria, Germany
Born in 1892 in Bavaria, Joseph "Sepp" Dietrich came of age during Imperial Germany's height of power in the early 20th century. After leaving primary school, he became an apprentice butcher. In 1911 he joined a Bavarian artillery regiment, but left the army some months later when he was invalided out due to injuries received in a fall from a horse. In 1914, at the start of the First World War, he again joined the army and, in 1916, was promoted to Vizefeldwebel (Sergeant) and assigned as an NCO in one of the German army's first panzer (tank) units. Read more... of the army's most decorated tank commanders and one of its first tank aces. When the war ended in 1918, Dietrich was discharged from the army and returned to Bavaria, where he joined the Munich police department. In 1923 he became a member of the radical right-wing veterans organization called Stahlhelm and, in that capacity, was first introduced to the Nazi party. That same year he joined the Nazi Strumabteilung (SA Storm Troopers) and served as an SA trooper in the Nazis' Munich headquarters. In 1925 Dietrich resigned from the SA and the Nazi party, after Adolf Hitler was arrested during the abortive attempt to seize control of the Bavarian government known as the "Beer Hall Putsch". For the next three years Dietrich was basically unemployed, with occasional odd jobs in Munich. In 1928, after the Nazi party had regrouped and again was gaining power in Germany, Dietrich returned and was assigned to a special unit of the SA Storm Troopers called the Schutzstaffel (SS). He joined the SS on August 1, 1928, and was appointed as an SS-Führer (Officer) at the party's National Headquarters in Munich. In his new position he was charged with forming a personal bodyguard unit for Hitler, which was named the "Stosstrupp Adolf Hitler" (Shock Troops of Adolf Hitler). At this stage in Nazi history the SS was still a very small unit and Dietrich commanded less than 20 troopers. By September 1929, though, the SS was under the command of Heinrich Himmler, who greatly expanded and modernized the organization. On September 19th, Dietrich was promoted to the newly created rank of SS-Standartenführer (Colonel) and placed in command of all SS units in Bavaria, in addition to his duties as commander of Hitler's Munich bodyguard (now known as the Stabswache, "Staff Guard", and now numbering over 200). A year later, in July 1930, Dietrich was promoted to SS-Oberführer (Brigadier General) and appointed Leader of the SS Group South, in charge of all SS formations throughout lower Germany. In 1931 Himmler again expanded and reorganized the SS, and Dietrich was assigned to the leadership staff of SS-Abschnitt (Brigade) IV North. In December of that year he was promoted to SS-Gruppenführer (Lieutenant General) and, by this time, had also been elected to the German Reichstag (parliament) as the representative for Lower Bavaria. On October 1, 1932, Dietrich was promoted to Commander of the entire SS Group North, a position which he held until the Nazis came to power in 1933. On January 30, 1933, after Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany, Dietrich was recalled to his original position as Hitler's bodyguard commander, and ordered to form a special unit that would come to Berlin to serve as the new Chancellory Guard. The result was the creation of the SS-Stabswache Berlin which, in the summer of 1933, was renamed the SS-Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (Life Guards of Adolf Hitler). In October 1933, while serving as the full-time commander of the Leibstandarte, Dietrich received a further appointment as the Allgemeine-SS (General-SS) commander of SS-Group East, encompassing the cities and states surrounding Berlin. In the meantime Dietrich was lobbying with Hitler to have the Liebstandarte recognized as a regular military unit and to do away with the SA Storm Troopers, who still exercised control over the SS. In June 1934 Dietrich's entreaties paid off, as the SS was ordered to move against the SA and Dietrich personally commanded several SS execution squads which killed over 16 senior SA officers. In an action known as the "Night of the Long Knives", much of the senior SA leadership was murdered and the SS removed from SA control, the Liebstandarte was recognized as a regular branch of the German military and Dietrich received a promotion to SS-Obergruppenführer (General). At the same time his Allgemeine-SS command was expanded and he became the Commander of SS-Oberabschnitt East (Division East). For the next five years Dietrich's SS career was at a standstill; however, opportunity presented itself with the beginning of World War II in 1939. The SS-Liebstandarte was equipped as a military brigade of the German army, and distinguished itself in several major battles in Poland. During the French campaign of 1940 the Liebstandarte had been expanded to division strength and, following the fall of Paris and the surrender of France, Dietrich was awarded the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves. By the end of 1940, with the creation of the Waffen-SS as a regular unit of the German military, Dietrich was promoted to the rank of General der Waffen-SS. In 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Dietrich again led the Leibstandarte into battle. He was awarded Swords to his Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves, and in July 1943 was selected to command the 1st SS Panzer Corps. After being awarded the Diamonds to his Knight's Cross, Dietrich was promoted to the rank of SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS (Colonel General). Dietrich was one of only four persons in the SS to hold this rank, with date of rank listed as April 26, 1942. In 1944 Dietrich was assigned to command the 6th SS Panzer Army and was a major figure in the Battle of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. However, in 1945, with Germany crumbling and the war drawing to a close, Dietrich surrendered to the Allies rather than committing suicide, as many of his senior Nazi colleagues had done, and ordered the men under his command to also surrender. In the summer of 1945, after Germany had surrendered, Dietrich was put on trial by an Allied court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Convicted in 1946 for his part in the Malmedy massacre of 1944, in which dozens of American soldiers captured in the Battle of the Bulge were taken to a field, herded into a group and machine-gunned to death by SS troops under Dietrich's command, he was sentenced to life in prison, but in 1947 the West German government, despite strenuous objections from the Allies, reduced his sentence to 25 years. In 1955 he was pardoned by the West German government but sent back to prison in 1957, after being convicted of manslaughter in the 1934 Night of the Long Knives killings. He served 18 months of a five-year term, being released in February of 1959. In the last years of his life Dietrich became a major advocate for the recognition of Waffen-SS soldiers as regular military veterans, in contrast to those SS members who had participated in the Holocaust and other war crimes, such as the Gestapo, SD and Death's Head Units (Totenkopf). Dietrich's efforts led to the recognition of the World War II Iron Cross as a continued military decoration of Germany, complete with pension rights, and Dietrich also was successful in petitioning the West German government to grant disability and welfare claims to Waffen-SS veterans. Sepp Dietrich died April 21, 1966 in Ludwigsburg, West Germany. He was buried with military honors in a funeral attended by over 1000 veterans of the Waffen-SS and the German military.