Josef “Sepp” Dietrich was an SS general and high-ranking Nazi Party member. He was one of Nazi Germany's most highly decorated soldiers.
During World War I, Dietrich served with the Bavarian Field Artillery and was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery in combat. Thereafter, his life continued to be laced with adventure and danger. In the early years of the Weimar Republic, he joined the Freikorps and participated in the bloody overthrow of Munich's municipal Communist regime. He joined the nascent SS in 1928 and his fortunes rose rapidly.
Most importantly, he belonged to Hitler's inner circle of advisors. In that capacity, he accompanied the führer on all outings and to all engagements, had all kinds of talks with him, and often lunched and dined with the feared warlord. Hitler admired “Sepp” in all ways. Fearless, unswervingly loyal and as straight as an arrow, Dietrich became one of his "closest and most constant associates." (Kurowsi, 412). Consequently, he worked and lived in the Chancellery, occupying a room in the führer's suite.
Assigned by Hitler to create the SS Watch Battalion-Berlin, which later became the SS Leibstandarte (Life Guard)-Adolf Hitler, Dietrich was made Chief of the Fuehrer's Security. His SS guards provided a seven-man shooting party during the Night of the Long Knives (June 28-29, 1934) when SA leader Ernst Röhm and his SA comrades were murdered. On July 1, 1934, he was made SS Obergruppenfuehrer, 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.
Dietrich and his Leibstandarte participated in the whirlwind campaign against France and distinguished themselves in the drive toward Dunkirk. On July 5, 1940, Hitler personally awarded him the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. The Leibstandarte was later beefed up to brigade status when it particpated in Hitler's invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece. Dietrich exhibited a warm fatherly attitude toward his troops during the catastrophic 1941-42 winter campaign in Russia and came to know every man under his command by name. As the Wehrmacht fought a losing retreat back across Russia, he managed to save his troops at least seven times from annihilation. Writes Kurowski: "A natural front-line soldier, he knew how to extricate his troops even in the worst of battle situations and redeploy them swiftly for a deadly counter-attack." (Kurowski, 417).
Though an SS soldier to the core, Sepp Dietrich did not hold extremist views and his loyalty to his troops remained paramount. He protected them against SS Chief Heinrich Himmler whom he frequently referred to with barely concealed contempt as "the Reichsheini." He also personally protested to Hitler twice about the shooting of Jews.
Dietrich played an invaluable part in the German recapture of Kharkov and became the 26th German soldier to be awarded the Swords to the Knight's Cross with Oakleaves. In April 1944, he was promoted to SS Oberstgruppenfuehrer, the equivalent of a Colonel-General in the German army. During June 1944, he commanded the SS 1st Panzer Division in the battle of Normandy. He became greatly disillusioned with Hitler's stubborn refusal to sanction an effective retreat to better ground.
During the day of July 17, 1944, only hours before being seriously wounded by an RAF fighter attack on his motorcade, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was busy touring the Western Front in Normandy and meeting with his subordinate front-line commanders. On that occasion he visited Dietrich. When their meeting ended, Rommel asked him one last question: Would the SS commander be prepared to follow orders given by Rommel even if it contradicts those of the führer. Dietrich is said to have answered: "You, Field Marshal, are my commander-in-chief, and I shall obey only you, whatever the order!" (Kurowski, 418). A confident Rommel returned to his headquarters confiding to his adjutant, Lang, "Dietrich is now on our side." (ibid). But Dietrich was outraged when he heard the news of the July 20th assassination attempt on Hitler, calling it "a cowardly act by the plotters" which had thrown the German military "into a mess." (ibid.).
Hitler for his part never lost faith in Sepp Dietrich to whom he entrusted the December 1944 Ardennes offensive, which nearly turned in Germany's favor. Dietrich's last battle was fought in Vienna when his outmanned outgunned and exhausted Panzer force fail to stop the Red Army from taking the city. He surrendered his army to U.S. General George C. Patton on May 8, 1945.
Dietrich was found guilty of complicity in the massacre of U.S. soldiers near Malmedy during the Ardennes offensive, though his alleged responsibility for the deed was never proven. He was sentenced to life on the charge of "offense against customs and ethics of war," but scores of officers, among them Field Marshal Heinz Guderian and General Hans Speidel, came to his defense and his sentence was commuted to 25 years.
He wa released in October 1955, but later sentenced by a German court to serve an 18-month prison term on the charge of being accomplice to manslaughter in the June 1934 massacre of Röhm and the SA. He was released in February 1958.