SS Standartenführer Peiper and Götterdämmerung II

Outside, the booming artillery filled the air like a roaring thunderstorm. Soon the entourage moved back down into the musty confines of the bunker for Hitler’s daily war conference. The usual situation map was present, with lots of ugly red lines outlining a penciled noose around the German capital. The Russians were encircling Berlin. Hitler told those assembled that he could see it would be a street battle—this would be the Soviet’s reckoning as his had been at Stalingrad. Ignoring the vacuous historical parallels, several generals nervously pointed out that it would be necessary to move the headquarters to Obersalzberg before they were completely surrounded. Göring quickly agreed, pointing out there was now but one route through the Bavarian Forest to the south through which they might escape.

Later that afternoon Adolf Hitler emerged above ground for the final time. Hitler Youth leader Artur Axmann slowly escorted him out to the garden. Even the heavy jacket drawn around him could not hide his frail-looking figure. The grounds were scarred by shell craters and surrounded by great mounds of rubble. Gunfire crackled in the air. A small group of very young Hitler Youth had been assembled for the German leader to meet. Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels looked on as Hitler smiled tiredly and moved down the line, shaking young hands and doling out Iron Crosses. Although the youths wore duck-billed army caps, they were mere boys.

While Hitler pinched the ears of Hitler Youth in the garden, Heinrich Himmler engaged his tall former doctor, Dr. Ludwig Stumpfegger, in urgent conversation. Stumpfegger was now charged with caring for Hitler. Himmler announced that he had a very serious favor to ask of his old friend: if he cared for the fate of Germany, Himmler told him, he would covertly kill Hitler by lethal injection—he would not live for more than a few days longer any way. Yet that was not about to happen. Himmler described Stumpfegger as now completely under the Führer’s spell, “so drunk with Hitler” that any sense of realism was gone. Himmler turned to Hermann Göring, the head of the Luftwaffe, telling him that Count Bernadotte had come to see him. “You know, he must have been the man Eisenhower sent as a negotiator.” “I can’t believe that!” the rotund Göring said, turning away. In a cold night rain Himmler got in his car and drove off to meet with the representative from the World Jewish Congress at Felix Kersten’s estate—perversely ironic. He would never see Hitler again.

The following morning Hitler woke uncharacteristically early at 9:30 a.m. The deep underground bunker was shaking. He hurriedly shaved before confronting General Wilhelm Burgdorf, Otto Günsche, and Oberst Nicolaus von Below. “What’s going on?” he demanded. “Where is this firing coming from?” Heavy artillery of the Red Army, Burgdorf replied. “Are the Russians already so near?” Hitler asked in disbelief. Indeed they were. For, that same day, his SS adjutant had to inform him that the city was now as good as encircled with Soviet spearheads north at Oranienburg and south at Zossen. OKH and the armed forces high command fled hurriedly.

Nevertheless, it remained possible to get to Berlin through the narrow neck in the Russian tide. Unlike his SS master, Gottlob Berger remained loyal. On Sunday, April 22, he toiled his way back to Hitler’s headquarters in another hazard-laden trek by automobile. The final approach was a dangerous gauntlet through a maze of streets blocked by rubble and carcasses of burned-out automobiles and tramcars. During a lull in the Soviet shelling he dashed inside the Chancellery headquarters to find another situation briefing in full swing. When Hitler came in at half past eight, he immediately obsessed over the progress of Army Detachment Steiner, a grandiose appraisal of a ten thousand–man SS force of limited means. He ordered Felix Steiner to counterattack the Russian right flank, threatening his officers with execution if they failed to heed his orders. “Whoever throws in the last battalion will be the winner,” he bellowed, invoking Frederick the Great. Indeed, he was now taking to reclusive hours in his study, gazing at the huge portrait of Frederick the Great as if the historical figure might impart some mystical clarity to his dilemma.

The circle of officers was small, including Alfred Jodl and Hermann Fegelein, the arrogant liaison officer representing the SS. The ruinous military situation was explained while the bunker perceptively shook from shell impacts. At that, Hitler flew into an apoplectic rage. “Everyone has deceived me. No one has told me the truth. The Wehrmacht has lied to me and finally the SS has left me in the lurch.” He continued in a loud voice as “his face went bluish purple.” Berger thought he was having a stroke.

Upon his return, Himmler announced plans: “You are my man of intrigue,” he told Berger. Even though it was a Sunday, he ordered the SS general to drive to a bank, where he would be met by a representative who would give him eleven large bags of foreign currency, and then he would load them onto a waiting plane and fly south. So, financially stoked, Berger would then take charge of the southern battle group that would fight on after Berlin capitulated. Berger flew off later that day, fully expecting that Himmler would soon join him, escaping on the wings of the supersecret Luftwaffe command, KG 200. Werner Baumbach still held the reins of a huge escape aircraft, fueled and waiting.

On Monday, April 23, Peiper’s former commander, Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke, took over command of defending Berlin, now suggestively dubbed “The Citadel.” Mohnke would fight by the Führer’s side, as Hitler’s own bodyguard, to serve as Hitler’s last general. At the close of April 1945 a Wagnerian end seemed certain. There was little to work with. “Bring your own weapons, equipment and rations,” Mohnke advised in the chaos of April 25. “Every German man is needed.” And German women too. The limping SS leader soon recruited “Mohnke Girls” to sacrifice themselves like the men.

On April 25, at 5:30 a.m., the Soviet guns spouted great cascades of rockets and shells into Berlin. The thunderous salvo was to herald their final assault. Hundreds of Russian planes loosed more bombs to hit anything still standing. Buildings sank into grotesque piles of rubble and ash. Bitter street fighting raged. Russian tanks were shot down by flak batteries until they ran out of ammunition or were run over by fire-spitting T-34s. Desperate attack and counterattack eddied around the Olympic Stadium as Hitler Jugend battalions sacrificed themselves.

In the meantime Hitler called in his valet, Heinz Linge, to a private meeting. Hitler had surprising instructions: after the German leader ended his own life, Linge was entrusted with the task of carrying his body from the bunker and cremating it—thoroughly. “No one must see or recognize me after death,” he said. “After seeing to the burning, go back to my room and collect everything I could be remembered by after death. Take everything—uniforms, papers, everything I’ve used—anything that people could say belonged to the Führer. Take it outside and burn it.” Only a single personal possession was to be saved: his portrait of Frederick the Great by Anton Graff. The portrait was to be somehow flown out of Berlin by Hitler’s personal pilot, Hans Baur.

On April 26 the Soviet 79th Guards Division fought its way up the Landwehr Canal only four hundred meters from the Reich Chancellery. The approaches to that final bastion of the Third Reich were defended by a battalion of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler led by Valkyrie-like members determined to die rather than surrender. Later that day the Soviets had reached the Alexanderplatz in the heart of Berlin. The Russians had the capital under a steel-jawed concentric attack. Hitler called for the defense to hold another twenty-four hours until Armeegruppe Wenck would arrive. But Wenck’s forces were weak.

The German leader now lived in a fantasy. “I was more aware of the developments of the war than Hitler,” said his longtime secretary, Johanna Wolf. “I realized much sooner that the war was approaching its end. He saw only the overall issues—unlike a woman, one of whose family had been lost due to the war . . . he had lost contact with the people. Up to the very last day, he still believed in victory.”

On Friday, April 27, Mohnke interrupted the morning military briefing to announce that Soviet tanks had smashed their way to the Wilhelmsplatz. Gen. Hans Krebs laconically estimated that the Russians would be crawling over the Führer’s bunker in less than forty-eight hours. But it was the former commander of the SS Leibstandarte who capped off the flooding pessimism. “My Führer!” Mohnke blurted out, “We haven’t quite brought about what we wanted in 1933!”

His sarcasm was barely noticed. Instead, Hitler and Goebbels floated off to recall the glory of the old days. When they were done, Hitler slunk down; he would stay in Berlin. Mohnke, meanwhile, had cobbled together a desperate attack against the Soviet army bearing down on the Führerbunker and turned it back temporarily with volleys of point-blank gunfire and hand-to-hand combat. Few of the SS general’s sacrificial warriors would survive.

Meanwhile Heinrich Himmler was not ready to end his life. In mid-April he recruited Werner Baumbach’s KG 200 from its endgame sacrificial operations for a special assignment. Baumbach had recently been appointed Chef der Regierungsstaffel—a special detachment that could spirit away high-ranking Nazi leaders at the last moment. On April 28, 1945, Baumbach negotiated roads clogged with refugees after requested to urgently meet with Himmler in Güstrow in Mecklenburg.

When escorted up a spiral staircase to Himmler’s study, Werner Baumbach found the head of the SS in a simple room, looking tired and unhealthy. A machine pistol, with its safety off, leaned against the nearby corner. There the Reichsführer SS, confident of his coming appointment to take Hitler’s place, told the highly decorated bomber pilot of his grandiose plans to broker peace with the Allies, likely from a neutral country. “The war is entering its final stage and there are some very important decisions that I shall have to take. The Führer is isolated in Berlin. I shall be the only man to prevent chaos in Germany. . . . I think that foreigners will not negotiate with anyone other than me.” Baumbach tried hard to not look away.

“The situation is far from hopeless,” Himmler chirped. Then he pointedly asked about Baumbach’s aircraft. He might need to be whisked to a neutral country to carry on the negotiations, Himmler said. “I’ve heard all aircraft available for that purpose are under your command. What possibilities are there?”

Baumbach gazed off through the windows of the estate. “I was examining a map of the world yesterday to see where we could fly to,” he said. “I have planes and flying boats ready to fly to any point on the globe. The aircraft are manned by trustworthy crews.” Himmler seemed to pause. “If I start negotiations, I shall need airplanes.”

“I have enough aircraft ready to start any time.” Himmler said if things went as expected, he could need those aircraft soon. Baumbach replied that big Blohm and Voss long-range flying boats would be at Travemünde, where he would be as well—the port on the sandy coast overlooking the Baltic northeast of Hamburg. Himmler told Baumbach he would be in contact soon.

But Himmler was not willing to face his death with Hitler in Berlin. On the evening of April 28 a radio operator in Hitler’s bunker intercepted a BBC broadcast reporting Himmler’s attempted surrender negotiations with the Western Allies. Hitler, who had long referred to Himmler as “der treue Heinrich”—the loyal Heinrich—flew into a rage. He ordered Himmler’s arrest and had Hermann Fegelein, his missing SS representative at Hitler’s headquarters, located and shot.

Regardless of Hitler’s rage at betrayal, within the Führerbunker it was endgame. On Thursday, April 29, Adolf Hitler married his mistress, Eva Braun, and composed a vitriolic last testament. Yet, in spite of his wrangle to vanquish Bolshevism, the collapse of Hitler’s empire had instead brought it thundering into the very heart of Europe. After saying good-bye to his staff the next morning, he spoke to his SS adjutant, Otto Günsche, as the Soviet columns advanced within a single street of the bunker. He and his new bride would kill themselves the next day, he told him. Günsche quickly got on the phone to Hitler’s driver, Erich Kempka. “I need 200 liters of gasoline immediately!”

“Impossible!” Kempka replied. “What do you need it for?” Günsche wouldn’t say, but he ordered Kempka to produce the gasoline without fail.

That next afternoon, at 3:30 p.m., Adolf and his new wife retired to their quarters. Sitting under the gigantic portrait of Frederick the Great, Hitler cradled a Walther PPK pistol, held it to his right temple and pulled the trigger. Startled by the sudden report, SS orderly Heinz Linge broke in to find Hitler sprawled out, face down on the table. On the couch next to him was Eva, pale and lifeless. The sickly sweet smell of almonds—cyanide—permeated the air. “The chief is dead!” Günsche called out. Erich Kempka came running.

Together with Hitler’s manservant, Heinz Linge, the two men laboriously hauled the bodies up four flights of stairs. Reaching the entrance, the men dropped the corpses into a shallow depression not ten feet from the ruins of the bunker. Just then a Soviet artillery barrage detonated, sending everyone scurrying for cover. Only the two lifeless bodies of Hitler and his bride were unmoved, staring up in death from just outside the bunker. Between salvos, Kempa dosed one jerrican after another of gasoline onto the bodies—a revolting process. Finally, when the forms were almost floating in gasoline, Kempka found a rag and doused it with fuel.

During a pause in the shelling Günsche dashed from the bunker entrance to throw the incendiary. A pall of flame flared above the bunker. Against the backdrop of Berlin’s rubble, the fireball twisted and roiled in ugly smoke and flame, hardly visible amid the larger pyrotechnic death agonies of National Socialist Berlin. In a final act of obedience, all those in attendance “looked towards the fire and all saluted with raised hands.” Yet the salute was only momentary, for presently, another salvo of Russian shells began landing on the Chancellery grounds. Over the next three hours the attendants poured gasoline on the gruesome pyre until there was little left.

There was more sacrifice at the bunker, but by the first day of May it was over. Joseph Goebbels and his wife poisoned their children and then had themselves shot by an SS orderly in the Reich Chancellery garden. Afterward they too were set ablaze; Wilhelm Mohnke ordered the same done to the Führerbunker. A few Jerricans sloshed about, a blazing rag, and much went up in flames. In the meantime Mohnke, Artur Axmann, and Martin Bormann met in the cellar of the Chancellery. They would attempt to break out separately in ten small groups. Dressed in a plain field gray SS uniform covered by a leather coat, Bormann looked panicked, mumbling of his determination to escape. Donning a steel helmet, he darted off to the east with Dr. Ludwig Stumpfegger. Artillery shells exploded in the darkness, punctuating the crackling din of small arms fire. They headed toward the Invalidenstrasse, disappearing like ghosts into the night.

As Mohnke, Otto Günsche, and the others attempted to escape northwest on foot, the radio airwaves over Berlin were suffused with the dirge of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. Determined to flee, the two SS officers clattered downstairs into the underground U-bahn, but an impetulant station attendant rebuffed them. It was midnight, he complained; the subway was closed. Obediently, the SS officers turned back, moments later pronouncing themselves fools—they carried machine pistols! Just after midnight the music stopped. A drumroll faded to a sober-voiced announcer:

Our Führer, Adolf Hitler, fighting to the last breath against Bolshevism, fell for Germany this afternoon in his operational headquarters in the Reichs Chancellery. On April 30, the Führer appointed Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz as his successor.

As Hitler and Berlin lay dying, Peiper and his men were still fighting in Austria. Word reached Peiper just as they received a new tank delivery. “On 1 May we heard on the radio of the catastrophe in Berlin and the death of the Führer. Dönitz spoke words of encouragement, but we knew our hour of defeat had arrived.” Peiper, for his part, agonized with regret: “In the end of the war, when the Führer was needing his Leibstandarte most,” he later wrote, “fate separated us from him.”

An SS captain spoke candidly to Otto Wichmann, who, at twenty six, had been a tool weapons sergeant at the headquarters company of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment as the war fell in around them:

I remember on the day that it was obvious to every SS man that the war was finally lost. It was the day which the death of the Führer became known, SS Captain Schulze said to me, “The Fuhrer is dead, but we will rally around our commander. In the future we must never lose touch with him. We will continue the work of the Führer with Standartenführer Peiper as our leader even after the war is lost.”

During those last weeks shocking radio dispatches came from the Western Allies describing scenes of horror as they liberated the German concentration camps. Peiper professed apathy. “When we heard about the things in the concentration camps in the last phase of the war,” he would later recall, “I couldn’t have cared less. Everything was crumbling—I thought, let this all go to hell. All my comrades were gone.”

Even delivery of six monster seventy-ton “invincible” Jagdtiger tanks waddling to 1st SS Panzer Regiment could no longer excite. Arriving straight from the Herman Göring factory works to St. Pölten, the SS colonel reckoned these behemoths would have to be blown up with the rest. On the night of May 7, 1945, Peiper met with his officers at an abandoned school in St. Anton. Ironically, he would announce capitulation next to the famous ski resort where he, Sigurd, and Häschen Potthast had once enjoyed carefree winter holidays. Now all was changed. He looked at each man. His voice was shrill: “The dream of the Reich is over!”

The rapidly increasing pressure by the Soviet 9th Guards tank army forced the Leibstandarte back in the direction of Mariazell and then the city of Steyr. A terse message arrived from the division—the war would end on May 9, 1945. The evening before, Gen. Dietrich urged all his units in contact with American troops to surrender to these forces along the Enns River; units facing the Russians were to hastily fall back to the Linz/Danube line. Reinhold Kyriss of the 7th Panzer Company remembered the last day of the war with his commander, Werner Sternebeck:

I was on the road, having been hurt by a falling fuel drum. Peiper showed up in a VW Kubelwagen and picked me up. “Where are our tanks?” I asked him. “The tanks can’t get through,” he told me. They tended to my minor injury. “You sit back,” Peiper told me putting me in the car, “don’t worry boy, you’ll get home.” Later the order of the day was passed down by Peiper. “The war is over. We shall meet in the city of Steyr and shall bring our tanks over to the American side.” I had found Sternebeck in a nearby house. He sat at a table; he was totally drunk with riding breeches on, no shirt and suspenders wearing his saber on his waist. When he received the capitulation order from Peiper, he cried. He wept, but then regained his composure. I helped him on with his clothes. He then faced the men and told them the news with a straight face. Sternebeck struggled to reach an officer’s composure. “We stand here . . . undefeated.” Our mood was low.

That morning Peiper met with the men of his command for the last time as the remaining tanks were scuttled and sent careening into the Enns River. Peiper stood tall on the bridge as his entire command filed past, looking immaculate in his tanker’s uniform. “The war is over!” he shouted. That was all.

Throughout Berlin and on the Russian front SS officers were shooting themselves or crunching on cyanide capsules rather than surrendering. In a calm voice Peiper thanked his men for their sacrifice. The Leibstandarte prided itself as the Garde Napolienne: “The guard dies, but it never surrenders.” With that in mind, Peiper warned his men against the wave of suicide sweeping SS ranks. “Look how to get home,” he said. Germany needed each man alive for the new challenge.

LOYALTY FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, PEIPER SAID, WAS BEST LEFT TO THE Nibelungs.

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