Berlin, Germany · April 14, 1945

Austria’s capital Vienna fell to the Red Army on April 13, 1945, and the Soviet News Agency announced it to the world on this date in 1945, the same day Adolf Hitler, in his Fuehrer­bunker under the rubble of the Reich Chancellery, learned of it. The Aus­trian front had been defended by one of the fiercest Ger­man SS (Schutz­staffel) tank armies under the command of SS-Oberst­gruppen­fuehrer (the equi­va­lent of a Colo­nel Gen­eral in the Ger­man Army) Josef “Sepp” Diet­rich, whom Hitler had en­trusted with the Decem­ber 1944 Ardennes Offen­sive, popu­larly known as the Battle of the Bulge. (The Ar­dennes Offen­sive, focusing on the rapid sei­zure of the Bel­gian port of Ant­werp, aimed at splitting the British and Amer­i­can forces and pos­sibly forcing a second “Dunkirk” and potential British withdrawal from the war.)

Diet­rich was a burly, stocky Hitler loyalist from the get-go. He was a parti­ci­pant in Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch of Novem­ber 1923 and com­manded the firing squad that exe­cuted many senior Sturm­ab­teilung (SA) leaders impli­cated in the Roehm Putsch of 1934 (“Night of the Long Knives”). He had an office and living quarters in the Reich Chan­cel­lery, where he occupied a room in the Fuehrer’s suite. A like­able, cou­ra­geous front-line soldier, Diet­rich com­manded the 6th Pan­zer Army during the Soviet siege of Vienna, an army that by then was ex­hausted after com­bat in the Ardennes and Hun­gary, to say nothing about being out­gunned and out­manned defending Austria’s capital. With gal­lows humor honesty he told his HQ staff in early 1945: “We call our­selves Panzer­armee 6 because we have only six panzers left.”

On hearing the news of Vienna’s fall—Dietrich had pulled the rem­nants of his armored units out of the city on April 13—Hitler fell into a towering rage, ordering Diet­rich and his men in a radio mes­sage to remove the cuff bands (unit names) on their uni­forms as a sign of their dis­grace. Diet­rich tele­graphed back that he would rather be shot than carry out the order and did not commu­ni­cate it to the rank and file. A myth arose that he and his officers filled a cham­ber pot with their medals and pre­pared it to be sent to Hitler cowering in his underground bunker.

Diet­rich surren­dered his army to Gen. George C. Patton on May 8, 1945. After the war Diet­rich was falsely impli­cated in the Mal­medy mas­sa­cre of 84 Amer­i­can POWs and im­prisoned for life, but he was paroled in February 1958.

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SS-Oberstgruppenfuehrer Josef “Sepp” Dietrich (1892–1966)

Josef “Sepp” Dietrich (1892–1966)Hitler and Dietrich review the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Berlin, December 1935

Left: Josef “Sepp” Dietrich rose from being Adolf Hitler’s chauf­feur and chief body­guard (Chief of Fuehrer Secu­rity) to one of Nazi Ger­many’s most deco­rated sol­diers and com­manders. His rise in rank took off after his SS guards provided a seven-man shooting party during the “Night of the Long Knives” (June 29–30, 1934). His role in killing a number of SA leaders earned him a nine­teen-month sentence in postwar Germany.

Right: Hitler and Dietrich review the Leib­stan­darte (Regimental Body Guard) Adolf Hitler, Decem­ber 17, 1935, in Berlin. Hitler had tasked Diet­rich with creating the SS Watch Bat­tal­ion-Berlin, which later became the Leib­standarte SS Adolf Hitler. Though retaining the desig­nation “regi­mental” (Standarte), the LSSAH even­tually exceeded a strength of 20,000 men (a division). In 1943 the LSSAH became known as the 1st SS Pan­zer Divi­sion Leib­standarte SS Adolf Hitler. The LSSAH’s symbol was a skele­ton key in honor of Dietrich, its first com­mander. (“Dietrich” is the Ger­man word for skeleton key or lock pick.)

Dietrich at awards ceremony, France, June 1940Dietrich with front-line soldiers, January 1945

Left: Dietrich commanded the 1st SS Panzer Division Leib­stan­darte SS Adolf Hitler in the Battle of Nor­mandy (June 6 to mid-July 1944), rising to com­mand the 5th Panzer Army, then assuming com­mand of the newly created (Fall 1944) 6th Pan­zer Army, which saw ser­vice in the Ardennes Offen­sive (Battle of the Bulge), Hungary, and Austria. Here Dietrich is seen four years earlier in France (June 21, 1940), awarding metals to the men of his Leib­stan­darte SS Adolf Hitler. The LSSAH was one of three divi­sions that were the nucleus of the Waffen-SS. The other two were Das Reich and the Toten­kopf (Death’s Head), the latter divi­sion supplying guards to Germany’s concentration and death camps.

Right: Dietrich meeting front-line soldiers on the East­ern Front, January 1945. After his arrest in Aus­tria on May 8, 1945, Diet­rich was con­victed by the U.S. Mili­tary Tri­bu­nal at Dach­au in 1946 in con­nec­tion with the Mal­medy (Bel­gium) mas­sacre, where 84 Amer­i­can POWs were exe­cuted by a group of SS men (Kampf­gruppe Peiper) during the Battle of the Bulge. He was paroled in 1955 but was con­victed in a West Ger­man court for crimes he really did commit in 1934 (Roehm Putsch).

Josef “Sepp” Dietrich and the Creation of SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler