Josef "Sepp" Dietrich was born May 8th, 1892 in Hawangen in Bavaria. He started his military career in 1911 in the 4th Artillery Regiment of the Bavarian army and took part with this unit in the First Wold War. He was an artilleryman but was in fact ashamed of it, later on he claimed to have been a non commissioned officer in the infantry. In the course of the war he was wounded several times and earned various decorations like the Iron Cross II and I, as well as the Verwundetenabzeichen in Schwarz (Wounded Badge in Black).
He left the army on March 26th, 1919 in the rank of Vizewachtmeister and joined the Bavarian policeforce. On May 1st, 1928 he became a member of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers Party) where he formed a personal relationship with Hitler. His agressive attitude was highly appreciated and he became Hitler’s personal bodyguard.
On May 5th, 1928 he joined the SS. After having been in charge of 1 Sturm in Munich for two months, he retained his command after the Sturm was enlarged to a Standarte. On June 1st, 1928 he held the rank of SS-Sturmführer.
On August 1st of the same year he was promoted to SS-Sturmbannführer and ultimatelty to SS-Standartenführer on September 28th, 1929. Up to that day, he remained in command of the unit. Subsequently, on September 19th, he was promoted to SS Gauführer Oberbayern (Upper Bavaria) and commander of the Brigade Bayern. He held this position until June 11th, 1930 when he was promoted to SS-Oberführer, retaining this rank until October 10th, 1930.
At the end of Augustus 1932, Dietrich won a seat in the Reichstag (German parliament) for the first time, keeping it until the end of the war. He represented Oberbayern/Schwabenland, Niederbayern (Lower Bavaria) and Frankfurt a.d. Oder several times. On the restructuring of the Allgemeine SS on July 11th, 19830, Dietrich was appointed leader of SS Abschnitte (Section) I and IV. Following this, he was named commander of SS Gruppe Süd (Group South) at the end of October 1930. He retained this command until the beginning of October 1932 as the deputy of Rudolf Hess; from that moment until April 19th, 1933 he was commander of SS Gruppe Nord. In the end he transfered to SS Gruppe Ost, remaining in command of this unit until November 14th, 1939. Dietrich’s command was then renamed Oberabschnitt Spree, a posting he was to keep until the end of the war. He did not pay too much attention to those duties, as he also served in the Leibstandarte and in larger units of the Waffen-SS.
Apart from his other functions, he was in charge of the SS-Begleitkommando "Der Führer" (Escort command), which was responsible for Adolf Hitler’s personal safety, from February 29th, 1932 until March 17th, 1933. In the course of time, the initial number of 120 increased to that of a division. Dietrich personally selected the first members in accordance with prevalent racial laws. Later on, the unit was enlarged and renamed SS Stabswache Berlin with Dietrich in command until August 2nd, 1933. In his next posting, he was in charge of Gruppenstab SS Sonderkommando Berlin, a combination of the Sonderkommandos Zossen and Jüterborg and he was head of the staff group from August 2nd until September 3rd, 1933.
On September 3rd, 1933, units of the Sonderkommandos Berlin and Zossen were fused together to form the Adolf Hitler Standarte with Dietrich becoming commander of this unit which was to develop into the Leibstandarte. On April 13th, a decree was issued by which the unit was to be named Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, a name which was retained until August 17th, 1940. That month, the unit was enlarged to a brigade. July 1st, 1934 saw Dietrich being promoted to SS-Gruppenführer.
On June 30th, 1934 at Bad Wiessee, Dietrich, with Hitler and six others, was involved in the arrest of Ernst Röhm, Hitler’s Chief of Staff and head of the SA (Sturmabteilung). In the Night of the Long Knives, Röhm was apprehended and subsequently executed at Stadelheim prison in Munich. Hitler had decided to remove Röhm because he and his SA were becoming too powerful.
During the Polish campaign, the Leibstandarte saw action for the first time as part of Panzerdivision Kempf. There, the Leibstandarte committed one of the first war crimes: Musikkorps Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler murdered 50 Jews in a synagogue. Generals Von Reichenau and Von Rundstedt had an investigation started and a military court ruled that Leibstandarten Obermusikmeister Hermann Müller-John was responsible for the murders but Sepp Dietrich personally intervened with Hitler who subsequently granted a pardon. Officially that was because he considered "crimes committed in anger over the way the Poles treated the Volksdeutsche were understandable and should not be punished".
The first time the Leibstandarte was deployed as an independant unit was in the fighting for Lodz and later on also near Warsaw. Hitler personally took great interest in Dietrich’s action’s in combat. At the end of the campaign, Dietrich was given the rank of General der Waffen-SS in March 1940, effective as from July 1st, 1934 and he was in charge of the Leibstandarte when it was enlarged to a brigade.
When Germany attacked France, Belgium and Holland in 1940, the Leibstandarte under Dietrich advanced quickly through Holland. The unit was also involved in the encirclement of Dunkirk. Hitler had ordered his armies not to advance any further in order to let the Luftwaffe finish the drive but Dietrich was the only commander who ignored the order and continued fighting. Once again, the Leibstandarte was involved in war crimes. At Wormhoudt in Belgium, 100 Britse prisoners of war, including several wounded, were locked up in a barn. A British officer protested against this but according to eyewitness Richard Perry, five handgrenades were thrown into the barn. The surviving British were forced to come outside and some of them were executed. In this way, more than 80 prisoners of war were murdered. Dietrich later claimed he had been elsewhere and SS-HauptsturmführerWilhelm Moncke had given the execution order. Up until today, it is still unclear who was really responsible for this mass murder. After the battle for France was over, Dietrich was awarded the Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross).
In April 1941, the Leibstandarte took part in the invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece and captured a number of mountainpasses which were of great importance for the success of the campaign. At the start of Operarton Barbarossa, the unit was incorporated in Heeresgruppe Süd (Armygroup South). In April 1942 the Leibstandarte would have murdered 4.000 Soviet prisoners of war. In this case also, all the ins and outs are not (yet) known. In December 1942, Dietrich received the Eichenlaub (Oak Leaves) to his Knight’s Cross.
On May 9th, 1941, his command had been expanded to that of a division. Dietrich’s unit was later, along with a tankregiment, converted into a Panzer Grenadier Division and he was given command of the the new unit. Meanwhile, the German army had withdrawn from the city of Charkov, without Hitler’s permission and Hitler, for whom withdrawal was always anathema, ordered the city to be retaken at any cost. Fieldmarshall Erich von Manstein drew up a plan and the 1 Panzer Korps, under Hauser, including the Leibstandarte, launched a brilliant counter-attack and recaptured the city. For this operation, Dietrich received the Swords to his Knight’s Cross on March 16th, 1943.On June 4th, 1943, he transfered command to Theodor Wisch and after a short delay he established the Panzer-Korps Leibstandarte on July 27th, 1943. In June 1944 he was named commander of the 1. SS-Panzerdivision, stationed in France, officially retaining this post untul October 24th, 1944 when he was relieved by Hermann Preis. Dietrich received the Diamonds to his Knight’s Cross for his leadership during the fighting in Normandy. His deputy, Priess, was in charge of the Korps during the operations from August to early September 1944 when Dietrich went to Italy to supervise the disarming of the Italian army.
During the invasion of Normandy, the Leibstandarte failed to push the Allies back into the sea. They did prevent however an Allied breakthrough for three weeks. Following this, Dietrich was promoted to SS-Oberstgruppenführer and Generaloberst der Waffen-SS, after Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler the highest rank in the Waffen-SS. Due to his seniority, it was decided this promotion to be effective as from April 20th, 1942, the day on which Hitler had planned to promote him to this rank. This was delayed however because otherwise he would have become higher in rank than Paul Hauser who was already establishing the first unit of the size of an SS Korps in 1942. Dietrich was also given the honorary rank of Panzer Generaloberst der Waffen-SS, the only officer holding this rank. August 9th, 1944, Dietrich was given command over 5 Panzerarmee, succeeding Heinrich Eberbach as commander.
During the Ardennes offensive (Battle of the Bulge), his divisions met strong resistance by the Americans, thus preventing Dietrich from achieving a breakthrough by his forces. Once again, the SS was involved in war crimes. Near Malmédy in Belgium, 86 American prisoners of war were butchered. Up until today, the facts of this war crime are still controversial. After the failure of the Ardennes offensive, Dietrich received orders to take charge of the last German offensive of the war, Operation Frühlingserwachen (Spring awakening ), in order to recapture the Rumenian oilfields near Budapest. In this he did not succeed, the offensive failed because of bad weather.
What kind of man was Josef Dietrich? The men of the Leibstandarte adored him for having participated in the heavy streetfighting and political revolts in the 20’s. He was a man of little intelligence but a fine leader in the field, as can be seen from his career and his decorations. Many regular officers of the Wehrmacht despised him. Von Rundstedt called him "capable but stupid" and Hitler considerd him "cunning, energetic and bold". There is no question that he, as commander, has been responsible for numerous war crimes, committed by his subordinates (whether or not by his order).
Following the capitulation on May 8th, 1945, Dietrich, accompanied by his wife, surrendered to the American general Patton. He was imprisoned and in 1946 he was brought before the war Tribunal in Nurnberg. He was charged with various war crimes. Dietrich was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. When his release from prison at Landsberg was put forward to 1955, he was indicted again for his role in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. He was sentenced to a further 1.5 years imprisonment. Josef Dietrich passed away on April 21st, 1966 in Ludwigsburg at the age of 74.