Josef "Sepp" Dietrich (1892–1966) was a German Waffen-SS general, an commander of the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, and one of the closest men to Adolf Hitler. For his wartime services, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds and obtained several others military decorations as well.
Sepp Dietrich was born in Hawangen, Bavaria, Germany, on May 28, 1892, to Pelagius Dietrich and his wife Kreszentia. When he was young, Dietrich worked as a butcher and hotel servant, but he joined the army in 1911 and served for two years. At the outbreak of the Great War, he volunteered again, serving with the artillery, as a paymaster sergeant and later in the first German tank troops.
After the war, in May, 1919, Dietrich joined the Freikorps and fought against the Bavarian Soviet Republic until the regime was ousted and Bavaria was incorporated to the Weimar Republic. Thereafter, he became unemployed, a man without prospects, migrating from place to place looking for jobs. In the early twenties, Dietrich worked as a waiter, policeman, foreman, farm laborer, gas station attendant and customs officer. In 1928, he joined the Nazi Party (NSDAP) and became commander of Hitler’s Schutzstaffel (SS) bodyguard. He accompanied Hitler on his tours around Germany and was nicknamed "Chauffeureska" by Hitler. Later Hitler arranged other jobs for him and let him live in the chancellery.
Sepp Dietrich was assigned by Hitler to create an SS special unit which was called then the SonderKomando-Berlin, which later became the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Dietrich was made Chief of the Führer’s Security. His SS guards provided a seven-man shooting party during the political purge known as the Night of the Long Knives, on June 30, 1934, when SA leader Ernst Röhm and his SA comrades were executed. On July 1, 1934, he was made SS Obergruppenführer, which is the equivalent to a full army general. General von Fritsch came to like Dietrich a great deal and personally instructed him in war strategy as the SS Leibstandarte developed into an elite combat unit.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Dietrich led the SS Leibstandarte in attacks in the Battle of France. Dietrich remained in command of the Leibstandarte throughout the campaigns in Greece and Yugoslavia. On the Eastern Front, Sepp Dietrich was commander of the 1.SS-Panzerkorps, attached to Army Group Center. Dietrich showed real skill as a leader saving his unit at least seven times with skilful tactical withdrawals during the retreat that the German Army made after Stalingrad. In 1943, he was sent to Italy to recover Benito Mussolini’s mistress Clara Petacci. Although Dietrich was faithful to Hitler, he also displayed some independence from the classic SS image. He did little to disguise his contempt for Himmler, head of the SS, as he personally protested to Hitler on two occasions about the shooting of Jews. In that regard, he was more senior army officer than senior SS leader.
In the Battle of Normandy, in June 1944, Dietrich was commander of the SS 1rst Panzer Division. It was during this campaign that he made it clear that he did not agree with Hitler’s strategy, for he wanted to make a tactical withdrawal to territory that he felt he was better able to defend. But he was not authorized to fall back. Nevertheless Dietrich fought tenaciously and was promoted to command the 6th SS-Panzer Army, which he led in the Battle of the Bulge. He had been assigned to that task because, due to the July 20 Plot, Hitler distrusted Wehrmacht officers.
At this point, Dietrich began to protest Hitler’s unwillingness to let officers act upon their own initiative. In April 1945, after the failure of Hitler’s planned Spring Awakening Offensive at Lake Balaton, spearheaded by Dietrich’s troops, a frustrated Hitler ordered Dietrich that the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler should give up their cuff titles, but Dietrich did not pass on the order. Dietrich commanded tank troops in Vienna but failed to prevent Soviet troops from taking the city. Accompanied by his wife, Dietrich surrendered on May 9, 1945 to Master-Sergeant Herbert Kraus of the U.S. 36th Infantry Division at Krems an der Donau north of St. Pölten in Austria.
After the war, Sepp Dietrich was put on trial for complicity in the Malmedy Massacre during the Battle of the Bulge. Although his direct involvement was never proved, Dietrich was sentenced to life in prison for offences against customs and ethics of war. Many senior German army officers came to his defence and the sentence was cut to 25 years. Dietrich was released in 1955 but was arrested again and charged with taking part in the murders during the Night of the Long Knives of 1934. For this, he was sentenced to 18 months prison. He was released in February 1958.
Dietrich died of a heart attack in Ludwigsburg at age 73, on April 21, 1966. Seven thousand of his wartime comrades came to his funeral. He was eulogized by former SS-Obergruppenführer and General der Waffen-SS Wilhelm Bittrich.