Peiper’s Letter From Landsberg Prison

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On a dark and gloomy Fall day in 1952 in Bavaria, or more precisely in Landsberg on the Lech, at the huge building complex on Hindenburg ring 12, which housed War Criminal Prison No. 1 of the American Occupation Forces, Joachim Peiper, a German officer condemned to life imprisonment, sat in his cell, writing:

“A war criminal sits on his folding bed in monastic solitude and day dreams. On the door it says” Life Imprisonment “and on the calendar” October 1952 “. The stove sings, the spider looks for a new place to spend the winter, and autumn places its rough hand on the Swedish curtains. Thirteen years of separation from wife and family, five birthdays spent as a man condemned to death, and now this eighth Christmas in the penitentiary. A really great way to spend your youth. No animal should be this badly treated. Man is capable of great sacrifice and great vileness. Oh, how endlessly long must the chain of experience be before we even begin to sort it all out. The wartime generation has learned about others. And in Landsberg there is even more time to examine this knowledge and to try to make sense of it.

When we entered the world of barbed wire for the first time seven and a half years ago, we were like children who had lost their mother during the night. Growing up and maturing under the simple rules of the front lines, we found ourselves unable to grasp the new rules of the game. Whoever initially said that a policy blinded by anger would have its eyes opened by the truth, soon had to admit that you can expect very little justice when a blood soaked figure needed to be painted on the wall for demagogic purposes. However, our good conscience was limitless and so was our ignorance. The state had only taught its youth how to use weapons.

We had never practiced how to behave in the face of betrayal. Yesterday, we were still a part of the Wehrmacht; today, we are shunned and outlawed, whipping boys surrounded by a howling mob. We, who so far had only known a part of the impulse for self preservation – courageous trembling in the face of danger-now had to get used to shouts of “Stop, thief!” and to denunciations by those sorry figures who wished to rise by stooping low. Who could have kept from having doubts about Germany? Whose mouths weren’t shut in disgust?

As our living space gradually constricted, from camp to barracks to cell, we became blind to what bound us together and could see clearly that which separated us. Distrust and spiritual nihilism took the place of comradeship. Everyone pointed out the failure of someone else and used accusation as an excuse for his own behaviour. “Homo vulgaris” had freed himself from his chains. Primitive instinct celebrated its liberation from all restraint and we ourselves trampled about on others with self-destructive joy. Hunger swung its whip and human dignity cringed. Honourable tradition and proud class consciousness bowed to the ground for a cigarette butt. Was it any wonder that the vengeful enemy assault found many weak positions amongst us? Discord and distrust are poor advisors in the court room. Regardless, the mission could not have been accomplished. Those who had ensnared us had put too much work into their preparations. Knowing this, we entered the arena and stood silent for three long months in the pillory. For three times thirty days we were dragged through the gutter behind the victor’s chariots. Then it was finally over – A final wave of venom seized its prey and swept it through the dismal prison gates. Flotsam from the Second World War!

The meaning of freedom is first learned by losing it. What a priceless gift this seems to those imprisoned. Only someone who has lost his freedom can dare to estimate how long a day can be and what it can mean when the nightmare of concern and uncertainty descends upon our next-of-kin for four years and seven months. Each of us was granted 23 cubic meters of breathing space. From then on, our entire being stood on tiptoe in our cells.

Slowly things quieted down around us, except for the eternal rumble of our bellies and the song of life proclaimed by the blackbirds mornings and evenings. Oh you blackbirds! Is there any prisoner to whom you haven’t given new hope?

Nerves – raw from the prosecutor’s lash – welcomed isolation. Our fists opened slowly and savage protest against fate faded. Only the lack of understanding remained – anguish for our loved ones and our quarrels with Providence, which had cheated us disgracefully of an honourable bullet. We learned how to sit in the twilight …

The further we sank, the more the present faded, the nearer we came to our roots and, the more the past could be seen in a stronger light. The old battlefields became fields of renunciation and our fallen comrades the example and guardians of our conduct.

The hard lesson began to dawn that life gave nothing without reason, that all of life’s fortunes generally come with a price. Even the youngest among us never shirked in the face of the enemy.

We sat in Germany’s darkest comer and looked back at our sun-soaked flight of Icarus. No one should cast down his eyes. What did our inadequacies and mistakes count against our ardent hearts which we were ready to bring to bear anytime and anywhere? Supermen, men, and those less than men had crossed our path and it turned out that these categories were always fluid. The more we progressed and moved away from the cliches, the clearer it seemed that life, like light, consisted of complementary colours. Nothing was painted in black and white, but in shades of gray. Very slowly, things grew brighter again.

We were young and challenges were inevitable. But who dies willingly on the gallows? We called out to Germany, and heard not an echo. We played chess through the walls, learned sign language and – in an emotional manner-wrote our obituaries.

Then we became tired and indifferent and gave up our eavesdropping along with our hopes. We became unfair and bitter.

Was there any decent guy who hadn’t been jailed or any goodwill that hadn’t been trampled? No matter-many of us rejected the human race, became misanthropes, and dedicated our brain and glandular activity henceforth only to the production of rancour. There is that type of person who can be recognized anywhere by an inexhaustible memory which cultivates old resentments.

Others recognized that the pseudo-democratic motto, “Here we are all equal”, was no more than stupid, empty words, a life preserver filled with lead and dragging you in the gutter. They fought with all their strength against the mass mentality and the continuous drag downwards. They became philosophers and attempted to preserve their internal freedom by conscious individualization and differentiation. They eventually sat in jail as if in an armchair. The most fortunate however, were those who knew how to make the best out of any situation and had the same outlook on life as a may-fly. Who hasn’t run into these happy creatures whose native wit, even in the nastiest of situations, can’t come up with an even nastier reply? We all began to lead withdrawn, introspective lives, put on masks, and bared our teeth. We all flapped our wings until they were sore and developed calluses which protected the elbows.

When your life runs on behind stone walls, separate from wife and children, it is hard to remain just and objective. Young men pulled in powerless anger at their chains, felt their strength weaken and their courage tire. The leveling continued.

The time was so hard, that we forgot it quickly, like a bad dream. It brought indolence and torment with it, spilled over its banks, and could no longer be exorcised by magic scratchings on the wall. We began to tell time by shaving days and pudding days.

What got into our death-row cells from the outside wasn’t calculated to make dying easier for us either. We discovered that we had belonged to a criminal organization and had served an unjust state. A slimy flood of investigative literature and memoirs produced explanations from diplomats and military men who had apparently worked for the defeat of their fatherland. We seemed to be a “Decius Mus” fallen into a cesspool. Henceforth, there was no possibility of charting our position in the gloomy cellars of our ghostly country. The only fixed point in this chaos was the quiet heroism of our wives and mothers.

But time not only separated, it also healed. Gradually and timidly, a national consciousness began to find a foothold outside. The fad for corpse looting was over. Order and long-suppressed, credible decency returned. And with these first skirmishers our comrades who had long held their tongues stepped back onto the scene. The pariahs of the post-war period had not forgotten their even less fortunate brothers.What did it matter that their readiness to help was inversely proportional to their previous rank? Germany’s most loyal sons have usually come from small cottages. For us, however, it was as if a cut-off battle group had finally got air-dropped supplies, and, taking a deep breath, realized that it had not been written off. A Panzer radioman, blinded in the war, sat in some damp cellar apartment and wove a cushion cover for his condemned tank commander. A double amputee tore himself from his favorite book, and helping hands moved on distant continents. Shouldn’t a weak spark of hope flare up again? A nonsensical period began to recover its meaning.

We had become so defiant and surly because of continuous beating, that the alienation process was almost irreversible. Suddenly we felt again the revitalizing breath of fresh air of the comradeship borne of the front lines and became aware that there were other values on the outside besides rewarding the vulgar and showing contempt for all values. We gained a new understanding of the difficulties of life outside the gates, and the belief that Landsberg was the centre of the earth died.

We found the concept of tolerance through pressure and ferment, and it may be that the value of those lost years lies in that tolerance. We first had to push into the region of self-understanding, so difficult to reach, before we found our human shortcomings.

And there, in this hard way, we began to learn to envy ourselves. Then in our fight for the truth and the essence of things, we first became conscious of the relativity and the subjectivity of any point of view. After a hard learning period, a broader outlook emerged from narrow-mindedness, and we threw off our blinders.

While the former senselessness of our period of suffering changed almost unnoticed into significance and understanding, a great change also took place on the outside, and the enormous sacrifices of our people received noticeable justification. Where would the torn-apart west be today, without each of those dikes of German bodies that were so important to history and that can no longer be ignored? The line of occidental combat outposts runs in a wide circle from the Caucasus to Finland. Representatives of our entire culture kept watch silently. And although their grave mounds are levelled and many nations are still ashamed of their noblest sons, it is still only thanks to this avant-garde that Genghis Khan’s heirs didn’t ride their tanks all the way to the Atlantic.

Let us bury our hatred for their sakes, comrades. History will be a fairer judge than contemporaries blind by anger. The danger is so menacing and the need so great, that no one can be allowed to fail to answer the call.

Never forget that the first European fell in the ranks of the Waffen-SS, that those killed after the war mostly came from our ranks. It only became open season on them because of their belief in the indivisible unity of western society. Consider the evidence of their blood. Don’t take half measures. The idea of Europe is the only political ideal that is still worth fighting for today. Never was its realization closer. Strangle lies, punch slander in the nose, help your neighbor and the war widow. When everyone goes back to simple values, gives up egoism, makes a virtue of poverty, and once more feels himself responsible to all, then once more we will get the carts out of the mud; the dams will be ready when the storm tide comes.

During the war our proud divisions were considered a solid elite. According to captured documents, our steadiness made us a legend in every nation. Hopefully our children will be able to say the same of us, that in misfortune we too were not unequal to our fate, that we ourselves in the Diaspora provided the leaven for reconciliation and the European idea. I salute everyone WHO Remained Free in Prison. “

 

–  Jochen Peiper in a letter to Paul Hausser

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Published in: on February 10, 2017 at 12:50 am  Leave a Comment  

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