SS Standartenführer Peiper and Götterdämmerung I

The new year of 1945 saw the racial war of mutual annihilation in the East reach a terrible climax. At Hitler’s personal order, the Leibstandarte and Kampfgruppe Peiper shuttled to the East for a desperate attack to liberate the Hungarian oil fields.

As the Soviets gutted, raped, and pillaged their way across Prussia and pushed for Berlin, Hedwig Potthast pondered the future from Schönau and “Schneewinkellehen”—the moniker of her new abode. There the snows were thick and inviting for skiing with her sister, who had since reconciled with Hedwig and accepted her sister’s children with Himmler. “I haven’t seen much of Sigurd [Peiper] in the last month,” she wrote, “while I’ve been together with Thilde these days. That crazy girl . . . seeing my new skis did this to her . . . and when I come up with a pair, we are going to run down the mountain together.” Why, she asked, had her klutzy paramour never learned to ski? Thilde, in fact, was pleased with Hedwig’s children, “Helgi” and Nanette, and entranced by the postcard existence at Schneewinkellehen. The two Potthast sisters enjoyed lazy winter holidays together. For a few days the war seemed distant.

Heinrich Himmler thought nothing of skiing, struggling instead with the military leadership of Armeegruppe Vistula. In the meantime Jochen Peiper made his way out of the Ardennes. Peiper returned briefly to Tegernsee to visit his family. In the mail was a weihnachtsgabe—a special holiday gift for the exhausted SS officer from Himmler, including precious foodstuffs, now rare within the Reich: two pounds of coffee, special tea, bottles of red and white wine, cognac, and a hundred cigarettes. Meanwhile, in Rottach, the flames atop the earthen Julleuchter burned while German defenses on the eastern border teetered and collapsed.

A massive daylight raid of a thousand US B-17s from the Eighth Air Force aimed to obliterate the Berlin rail system based on intelligence that the 6th Panzer Army was moving through Berlin on its way to the Eastern Front. The catastrophic blow not only wrecked the railways but also much of the unscarred portions of the city. The already damaged fashionable areas of Unter den Linden, Wilhelmstrasse, and Friedrichstrasse finally collapsed into a sea of ruin. Nearly three thousand Berliners died in the unsurpassed calamity. Hitler, who was still characteristically sleeping at midday, hurriedly awakened to seek shelter. Two dozen bombs had rained on the Reich Chancellery and environs; the roof of its dining room crashed onto a hastily abandoned luncheon table. For Peiper the devastation must have been just as personal. Although his family had been gone from Berlin for more than a year, the bombing the previous autumn had destroyed his childhood Wilmersdorf neighborhood and home at Zähringerstrasse 17. Raging fires started and burned out of control for four days, leaving the entire city cloaked in smoke and ash.

In the meantime, surprised by bold Soviet advances, Himmler once more hastily moved his headquarters back to Birkenwald near Prenzlau, a wooded grove fifty miles north of Berlin and safely away from the bombing. It was the second move in five days. The surging Soviets had just crossed the Oder River and were now barely seventy kilometers away from the capital city. They had been close to Schneidemühle HQ when Himmler and his entourage fled with the refugees.

Simultaneously the 6th Panzer Army was in the process of transferring East. But where? Peiper left Rottach after only days and then motored to Berlin. From there, he drove to see Himmler, arriving at his final headquarters compound at the end of January. Peiper had a new commander, Otto Kumm, who took over when the wounded SS General Wilhelm Mohnke was entrusted with the impending final defense of Berlin. All of the leaders of the Leibstandarte had been called back to Berlin with faked radio transmissions to lure the Soviets into thinking they would shortly be committed on the Eastern Front. We do know that Peiper was with Wilhelm Mohnke at that time. Mohnke supposedly had been injured in a Berlin air raid in January 1945 with damage to his hearing.

The day after the devastation on February 3, Peiper arrived at Himmler’s final headquarters. Birkenwald stood in a snowy birch forest between Haβleben and Prenzlau. Grothmann met Peiper, who quickly conducted his old protégé to Himmler’s court. While his regular army staff lived in featureless wooden barracks nearby, Himmler led activities from his special train, the Sonderzug Steiermark surrounded by heavily armed SS sentries.

Peiper found Himmler’s personal quarters at Birkenwald lavishly furnished in the curious manner to which he was accustomed. The decor reeked of SS austerity. The Reichsführer’s barracks had a redwood-paneled bedroom and quilts, furniture covers, and light green rugs “more appropriate to the bedroom of an elegant woman than to a man directing an army.” The accommodations were also ornately furnished—lounges, dining rooms with fine linen, and saunas and baths. The main entrance led into a vestibule arrayed with tacky handwoven SS carpets hung on the walls and expensive wooden furniture, all cluttered with porcelain knickknacks from the Allach SS-workshops.

After the devastation to Berlin, was it possible to celebrate Peiper’s recent birthday and the Machtergreifung of January 30? It was on that day, in fact, that Himmler issued a new draconian edict, Tod und Stafe für Pflichtvergessenheit—“Death and punishment of those who forget their obligations.” The twelfth anniversary of National Socialism was now the second anniversary of Stalingrad, another Hitler-declared Festung. The Third Reichean penchant for irony was hardly lost on that day, for Himmler was celebrating the raising of a new 32nd SS Division, the “30. Januar.”—a hodgepodge formation was formed around a core of convalescing wounded veterans. Meanwhile, Sepp Dietrich also drove to see Himmler at Birkenwald, worried for his own family living on the Oder Front. What was on Himmler’s mind?

It varied. Still playing field general, Himmler soberly told the Armeegruppe Vistula commanders that the Oder line could not be held after all. Just then, “It began to drip outside.” A snow-eating winter wind left the Russian forces on the east side of the Oder, marooned in a sea of mud. “The thaw which has begun at this precise moment is a gift of fate. . . . God has not forgotten the worthy German people . . . we have been saved as through a miracle. Since then I have never doubted that we will win the war!” Such bluster now fell flat, however. SS General Gottlob Berger informed Himmler that the civilian population now almost completely despised his organization, and even the army was “no longer on speaking terms with the SS.”

On February 4, Himmler did not rise until 8:30 a.m., for the attention of his obese Swedish masseur, Felix Kersten. More than usual, Himmler was overtaxed and stressed. After Kersten, Peiper was the first order of business on Himmler’s calendar. At 1:30 p.m. the two met for a discussion. Afterward SS Gen. Karl Wolff, Peiper’s old superior, was also there for a sit-down lunch of simple Bavarian fare. Oberst Hans Eismann and SS Grupf. Heinz Lammerding were at the table. Released from leadership of the “Das Reich Panzer Division” in the Ardennes, Lammerding was now helping Eismann with staff work, unimpressed by Himmler as military leader.

At 3 p.m. Peiper met privately with Himmler once more. Perfunctory congratulations were in order for Peiper’s new award from the Ardennes campaign, and there was certainly discussion of the crushing bombing raid in Berlin the day before. The long conversation with Peiper also surely touched on the certainty of the failed war. Perhaps Himmler told him of his evolving effort to seek a truce with the United States and Great Britain. He was about to send Karl Wolff off to Italy to enter negotiations with the Americans to seek an armistice there—a fact underscored by Wolff’s presence that day. And there was Himmler’s other favorite late-war topic: his unscrupulously efficient SS engineer Hans Kammler had brought the V-2 rocket into widespread use as a feared vengeance weapon and was manufacturing hundreds of jet fighters in deep caves in the Harz mountains. Now, the mercurial Kammler was secretly working on something even more diabolical. At the front new SS recruits talked of a massive counterattack with the new secret weapons on April 20, Hitler’s birthday. “Die Vergeltung kommt!’ they said—“The Revenge is coming!”

Nor had Himmler lost his love for crackpot science. During the last two weeks he had obsessed over an intelligence service report that said processing fir tree roots could produce high-octane gasoline! He had Oswald Pohl and Rudolf Brandt urging assigned SS engineers to produce rapid results. In the meantime he encouraged adopting Chinese rickshaws to ferry ammunition.

There, too, was the Reichsführer mania for a miracle weapon based on a modern-day embodiment of Thor’s Hammer. Himmler always kept Norse legend close; all the myths were simply ancestral keys to be unlocked to realize the full potential of the Aryan man and state. He waxed enthusiastic about a plan by an arcane company in Hildesheim, Elemag, to produce a gargantuan electric device that would use the atmosphere as a giant conductor. With it, it might be possible to use the very air as a method to turn off all electrically operated machines. Imagine—no Allied tanks, planes, radar, or radio! The Day the Earth Stood Still, courtesy of Thor’s Hammer!

Peiper stayed around Birkenwald until the morning of February 7, when he, Grothmann, and Himmler made a grim tour of the scarred and disfigured capital. Hitler’s Berlin nexus was smashed; grounds where Peiper and his youthful cohorts had once proudly paraded now stood wrecked from bombs and abatis. Deep craters pocked the previously stately gardens; tree stumps, rubble and debris covered everything. Nearby buildings burned and the ravaged streets were choked with smoke. What’s more, Himmler’s old SS headquarters at Prinz Albrecht Straße, where Peiper had spent so many days, had been thoroughly wrecked, with great holes punched in the roof and one floor sagging with bomb debris.

One night soon after the bombing, Himmler dined with Hitler, Hermann Fegelein, Martin Bormann, and Eva Braun. Grothmann and Peiper sat at an adjoining table. The destruction of Berlin dominated the table conversation. With the wave of a hand, Hitler ordered that his mistress depart south the following day for Berchtesgaden. She didn’t do so, but Peiper did leave—he had to be back to the Leibstandarte for Operation Frühlingserwachen—Spring Awakening—to take place in Hungary.

Then, in March 1945, Himmler, foundering in military ineptitude, came down with the flu and checked himself into Hohenlychen Clinic. He was despondent, having been relieved from a disastrous military command in the East and now laid low by influenza. Hedwig left her new home and the children in Schonäu with her nanny, Käte Mueller, and took the train to meet him at the SS hospital. Although Himmler and Potthast had seldom talked politics, a difficult discussion arose.

Before the Allied liberation of France, Hedwig remembered Himmler always being confident of winning the war. Now “he mentioned that he thought it was insane to continue fighting the Americans and that a separate peace ought to be made through a neutral country.” He cautioned Häschen about the children now in Berchtesgaden. It would be okay “if the Americans enter it first,” he told her, “but if the Russians were first I was to kill myself and my children,” she recalled. Oswald Pohl could provide Häschen with the requisite cyanide capsules. Courtesy of Pohl’s wife, Eleonore, Hedwig also now had another address in Teisendorf near Salzburg where she and her children could take refuge if they needed to flee from Berchtesgaden.

Meanwhile the war went on for Peiper. The I SS and II SS Panzer Corps were essayed on either side of the Sarviv Canal to attack Hungary, about thirty miles to the west of the Danube River. Although the Leibstandarte was again brought up to nominal strength, the numbers were illusory. Tank, ammunition, and prime movers were in short supply, and the latest conscripts looked nothing like the strapping SS Zarathustrians of the early days. Even as the assault waves assembled in the muddy Hungarian beet fields, very young or very old replacement grenadiers arrived—young, homesick boys of seventeen just off the farm or old, unenthusiastic Schwabians of over thirty-five years. The last offensive failed with even Hitler losing faith in the Leibstandarte.

Peiper’s battlegroup, had meanwhile pointlessly pierced deep behind Russian lines to Simontornya—to no avail. On March 22, the hydralike advance of the Soviet tank offensive split up the Leibstandarte in Hungary, prompting Otto Kumm, to send the tank battalion to open the Veszprém road. It was cloudless and warm at dawn the next day when Werner Poetschke assembled his tank commanders for a strike. Standing by a shed, he pointed out the enemy tank assembly on the horizon. Suddenly, there was a tremendous roar; a mortar bomb had exploded in the middle of the group. Poetschke staggered and fell. In great agony, he summoned his communications officer as they flopped his bleeding body onto a wooden door used as a stretcher. “Call Peiper on the radio,” he urged, “and tell him what happened.” Within three hours, the fierce panzer commander was dead. Under the heavy psychic blow, the entire division pulled back almost as in a rout. The few remaining tanks had to run a gauntlet, wildly shooting their way out of Veszprém. Peiper’s tank was hit twice.

Kumm ordered a shaken Peiper to the rear. But that night, Peiper ignored orders and drove 30 kilometers to Mattersburg to be at the burial of Poetschke and Hans Malkomes. On March 27, a pale and sallow Peiper looked on as the coffins were nested in muddy, open graves draped with the SS runes and heaped with flowers. The band played the “Song of the Good Comrade,” and the assembled honor guard fired a crestfallen salute. They were gone.

The morning after the depressing funeral, Peiper’s orderly abruptly shook him awake. “Colonel,” he said, pulling on his arm. “Get up! The Reichsführer wants to speak to you.” Peiper angrily rolled out of bed and got dressed. After his relief of military command on March 20, Himmler’s star had greatly dimmed. Everyone in the Leibstandarte knew that the SS Reichsführer was there to order everyone to remove their armbands on direct orders of Hitler. To Peiper, that was repulsive.

Himmler insisted he had nothing to do with the armband order and warmly offered dinner, treating Peiper “like a lost son.” This time, though, Himmler was chagrined. “It’s a terrible situation,” he admitted, “but we can improvise. Remember Frederick the Great.” Himmler rambled on as they took a short walk. “It’s very important now to defend Vienna,” he said blithely. “It shouldn’t be difficult because it is a big city.” Himmler was the perfect Monokelfritz! “I want you to come back with me. I need you urgently.” Light rainfall added to the gray, and Himmler mumbled something about “going his own way.” He had grandiose plans to raise a dozen SS divisions and Peiper could help with recruiting. It was farcical. “That’s impossible,” said the SS colonel, “I have no deputies. I can’t leave my troops.” That morning, his old cohort Jupp Diefenthal had been severely wounded by a machine gun burst. After dinner, Himmler smoked a cigar and offered red wine in an attempt to invoke the spirit of the old days. But Peiper’s telling of the recent fighting put a damper on any rosy feeling—Diefenthal would lose his left leg. As Himmler said farewell, he seemed wistful. It was over.

Returning, Peiper and his command were swept up in a losing battle with the Russians in the Vienna Woods, with one veteran after another dying in the hopeless sacrifice. Hedwig Potthast no longer received any letters from Jochen Peiper.

That same Easter, Thilde Potthast was writing to her sister, Hedwig, after having had to evacuate from Kolmar-Berg in Luxembourg with her Napola school girls to the old medieval abbey on Reichenau on Lake Constance. Amid the calamity Thilde never received another letter from Hedwig, who was still at Berchtesgaden after returning from a frenzied visit to see a convalescing Himmler at Hohenlychen. And Himmler himself?

On April 19 the head of the SS main office, SS Gen. Gottlob Berger, arrived on orders to Himmler’s headquarters, now sixty kilometers northwest of Berlin. Peiper knew Berger well from his days with Himmler. Also there was SS Oberstgruppenführer Hans Prützmann, the man charged with the Operation Werwolf. Himmler ventured that his Werwolves would revive National Socialism after a guerrilla war thwarted the Allied occupation. The logic was tortured at best, but Himmler cornered Berger: “Berger, I need you here,” he implored. “I must have a sensible man at my side.” History does not record how Berger responded to that irony.

In the evening Berger had dinner with Himmler and his head of the SS secret service, Walter Schellenberg. Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte listened incredulously as they discussed convincing Great Britain to consider peace negotiations through Sweden. Through Bernadotte, Himmler had just made secret arrangements to also meet Norbert Masur, a representative of the World Jewish Congress, whom he had covertly flown into Tempelhoff Airport that morning. It was clear to Berger that Himmler awkwardly sought surrender terms with the Allies—behind Hitler’s back.

On that same Thursday morning, April 19, 1945, Hedwig Potthast received what would be her last telephone call from Himmler. In the conversation, they spoke only of personal matters, but Himmler warned, “The situation is getting more difficult each day.” No matter, he said, promising to call the following day. And yet, strangely, that same afternoon SS Stubaf. Paul Baumert, who was serving as a courier, arrived with a personal message from Himmler. The message had the usual greetings but repeated there were “great difficulties.” Then ominously, the communique closed with “the hope that God would protect her, the children and Germany.”

Peiper was still fighting on April 19, although increasingly disillusioned. The old trusted commanders and subordinates in his command had been killed off in the terrible fighting in Hungary in mid-March—Werner Poetschke, Werner Wolff, and Heinz von Westernhagen.22 The very next day, Adolf Hitler’s birthday, on April 20, 1945, saw Jochen Peiper’s promotion to full colonel—SS Standartenführer. Indeed, Peiper would proudly claim that Hitler had personally called him in the field to bestow the honor. But as if to underscore the desperate circumstances, on that day Peiper orchestrated the rescue of eight of his wounded out of hellish fighting in Rohrbach, Austria, when the Russians blocked evacuation by Red Cross ambulance with tank fire. Peiper retaliated with a counterattack against the Soviets probing Hainfeld. Hand-to-hand combat broke out amid a thick mortar barrage. Hardly a house was left standing in the Austrian village as the battle for its streets eddied back and forth. Peiper personally directed the assault, with all eight of the wounded brought out after being strapped on top of one of his tanks.

Meanwhile Peiper’s mother and father, Charlotte and Woldemar, fled bombed-out Berlin, not willing to be in the city to greet the Russians—a foregone conclusion. By April 15, 1945, Woldemar had reached Bad Gastein in Austria, some seventy kilometers south of Salzburg. That village and the sanatorium where he had recuperated from heart problems before being released from the army in 1942 was an ideal hiding place from the Russians. Woldemar listed his situation as “refugee without employment.” Yet his registry card there listed his most recent place of work as a businessman in Warsaw!

Now the Russians were at Berlin’s doorstep. On Hitler’s birthday, Friday, April 20, Himmler and Berger journeyed to Berlin, detouring via Nauen to avoid the closing Allied forces. They reached the city in the afternoon to find the streets wrecked and smoking. Whereas the capital often looked decorative for Hitler’s birthday, only the most ardent fascist dipsomaniacs sought to display allegiance. Even so, those calling on Hitler saw red, white, and black Nazi flags limply draped on the walls of ruins while pathetic placards proclaimed, “Die Kriegsstadt Berlin grüsst den Führer!—“The War City of Berlin Greets Our Leader.” Meanwhile long-range Russian shells whistled overhead and exploded dangerously close. Debouching from their cars, the two men ran for their lives.

Passing the guards and reaching the inside of the Reich Chancellery, Himmler and Berger were greeted by a bleak sight. Göring, Ribbentrop, Karl Dönitz, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, and Albert Speer stood in the huge reception room of polished marble with thirty-foot high ceilings. It was now woefully ravaged. Once intended as the starting point for the reconstruction of Berlin and as a showcase of the Third Reich, the building was now in a splintered ruin, with fragments of concrete and stone strewn about. Almost all of the windows in the great building were shattered. Hitler’s supremely ostentatious monument to his personal power looked meretricious and somehow deeply diabolic. Then the Führer appeared at the far entrance to the ruin, looking stooped and diminished.

With the others, Hitler made a solemn tour of the Chancellery. As he received the men, “his whole body shook violently.” The German leader blustered in mock confidence that the Russians were about to suffer their greatest defeat in Berlin. There were side glances as he spoke. No one said anything, but several, including OKW Chief Wilhelm Keitel, encouraged Hitler to leave while there was still time. “I know what I want,” he said. “How can I call upon the troops to undertake my decisive battle for Berlin if at the same moment I withdraw myself to safety? I shall leave it to fate whether I die in the capital or fly to Obersalzberg at the last moment!” Their leader seemed bent on dragging all with him down to total destruction. With that exchange concluded, the paladins of high Nazi power offered wishes for his fifty-sixth birthday. Each man stepped forward to clasp a feeble hand. Albert Speer was impressed by the maladroit silence: “No one knew quite what to say.”

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