Interview with Hans-Martin Leidreiter, winner of the German Cross in Gold and SS-Obersturmführer/Battalion Commander of the elite 1. SS-Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS-Adolf Hitler, Niebull, 1983.

[Above: Hans-Martin Leidreiterformal, this professional photo was probably done on November 4, 1943 when he was given the rank of SS-Obersturmführer.]

Thank you for meeting me, as I asked Max, what brought you to join the SS?

Hans: You saved me for last, as I am the better one. I also joined the LAH [Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler] as it was a very elite group of men, the best in Germany. I was faced with a dilemma, as all young men are and you will be faced with someday. What do I do with my life? My father was a police officer and of course I decided I would follow in his footsteps. My problem was, in order to do this, you had to have military service as well as completing the RAD requirement. If one joined the military you could be guaranteed a nice civil service position with very good retirement. I failed at the military by a strange test, and that set my course towards the SS. I had known guys from my class who tried to enlist and failed. I was fearful this would happen to me, but it did not. I applied specifically to the LAH and was able to pass the many tests given; I was Aryan, smart, and healthy with no defects. It was a happy time for me when I was sent away for the training to become a member of the Führer's personal guard regiment. It was a very proud moment for me, and I also joined the NSDAP as I knew it would show my commitment and loyalty.

Politics were all my father talked about, he would always talk about the Kampfzeit [This was the period from 1919-1933 when the National Socialists struggled for power] and how the reds wanted to destroy Germany and turn it into a satellite nation of Moscow. I had grown up reading the papers and hearing stories about how bad the NSDAP was, since the press was against them. My father pointed out that many of the owners, editors, and writers all had names like Cohen, Levy, Weiss, and Rosenberg. Even though I tended to be non-political I could see that the cards were stacked against the NSDAP and the Führer, so I tended to agree with their platform. This would have bad consequences after the war as the Allies hunted any NSDAP members down and many were killed. So, you could say I was in agreement with most of the NSDAP points, but I was not a fanatic. I also agreed with much of what Reichsführer-SS Himmler had stated about the purpose of the SS. I felt I was in a very elite vanguard of my nation who would be used in times of crises to aid the party and army. I was in no way the fanatic who judged others simply by political beliefs.

You fought in Poland, how did you view the declaration of war and what did you think of the Polish soldier?

Hans: Yes, Poland is what started the war for Germany, we attacked Poland and Britain and France declared war on us. Something that is not discussed outside the older generation of Germany, is that in Poland Germans who were absorbed after Versailles were treated as second class citizens in their former land. I remember being in Prussia and hearing, or reading, stories about the mass exodus of Germans from Poland. The Führer sought several peace deals with Poland, they refused them all. I met a young girl in 1937 who was a refugee and was welcomed back into the Reich. She told of being harassed by Polish boys who just ran loose like animals, her family who raised sheep was forced to sell at very low prices, and Poles would steal animals or kill them to prevent a German to profit. She said many Germans hated this but could do nothing, and it was made worse when the Führer started to speak about the return of German land. They were beaten, attacked, homes burned, and some rapes were reported. When the Führer found this out he laid plans to attack, to free the German minority.

Many of us will tell you we agreed with this decision without reservation. We saw with our own eyes what was happening on the border, and our attack was justified. When we went into Poland we were greeted not just as liberators, but saviors. Germans had land taken from them and were living in homeless areas, trying to find a way to get to the Reich. The Poles killed many German civilians after we invaded; we saw evidence of this in many areas. No one can tell me we had no right to attack Poland, they asked for every bomb and shell. Today they tell us we wanted more land and wanted to take over Europe, in truth we only wanted to safeguard our people. I was with [Kurt 'Panzer'] Meyer in the reconnaissance battalion of the LAH, and we were some of the first to see the Polish soldier. We thought of them as mere idiots who were just pawns of the western allies, being used to get at us. When I saw my first prisoners, I had contempt for them, I was angry that we had to be in this situation. We spoke with them, and one was a German, who was forced to join and fight us, I remember this well.

We joked that they were going to Berlin but not in the way they thought. He introduced us to many like him, who did not want to have a war, and we got along. I changed my views on them and found them to be brave and capable soldiers. Some were bad and committed crimes, but most just wanted to go home and have peace. Many ended up coming to our side when war was declared upon Russia. The people as a whole were just victims of warmongers and were not a threat to us, and we treated them well. It is not true what they say today, we did not put them in forced labor gangs or camps. Many Poles came to Germany to willingly find work, as the war created many openings.

Did you meet many famous people from the LAH and did you meet Hitler?

Hans: Yes, I was SS-Standartenführer [Max] Hansen's adjutant, he is quite famous still. I also was close to Meyer, Peiper, and Dietrich, who bore the Knight's Cross. I knew many more that went on to become great like Witt and Wittmann, Bobby, Krass, Knittel and so on. All were very good men and excellent leaders. I was in the LAH since 1938, and yes, I met the Führer many times. He would personally make it a point to come to greet his regiment. In Poland he came to greet us after our actions. In Metz [a contested area between Germany and France] in 1940, I was there when the LAH was awarded the personal standard of the Führer. Many bearers of the Knight's Cross came from this division who went on to command their own during the war. It was very common to see high awards on our men; I was awarded the German Cross in Gold for leading my unit during hard times. Germany had the best soldiers during the war and the LAH had the best German soldiers.

[Above: A beautiful Leibstandarte SS-Adolf Hitler hall.]

You won the Iron Cross of both classes, how did you do this? Do you still have them?

Hans: The Second Class was for action in Greece, the LAH was ordered to attack a hill and my reconnaissance unit was the tip of the spear. We saw the enemy was pulling back so we went around and cut off their retreat, taking them prisoner. They were glad we did not open fire on them as they had very little ammunition left. The First Class was for attacking a strongpoint, this time in Russia. I was able to lead my company into an attack under heavy fire and took a town, capturing a good deal of equipment for the regiment as well. The Russians we captured were impressed by the ferocity of my men, the officer we captured shook my hand and spoke praise of us. He was a true officer and not a red fanatic. I also won the Close Combat Clasp in Silver for many close engagements with the enemy, and the biggest award is the German Cross in Gold, for leading my unit in another successful attack, I also held the Infantry Assault Badge for reconnaissance. I was wounded at Kursk so also received the Wound Badge. I am told people collect these old medals now, they are part of a lost time, but people seem to want to remember. I threw those away, or else you could have them. They are in Austria, but not in a nice place for you to hunt.

How did you view the Greek soldiers you fought against?

Hans: Very well, they had a sense of fair play that was not seen during the rest of the war. They fought bravely but when they saw it was useless, they confidently gave up and then spoke to us as comrades, giving the National Socialist salute to show they capitulated. I held no grudge toward them and respect them to this day. The British also had a very good sense of fair play then as well, we got along well with the prisoners we took. They thanked us for taking them prisoner as their propaganda said we would shoot them. The Greek people were very good to us as well, offering food and drink. We felt the early war was more of a sightseeing tour, that is until Russia.

Can I ask you about the claims of war crimes against the LAH; on every front the Allies say you committed crimes?

Hans: Oh yes, you must be careful with this question, most soldiers do not like to talk about this. The LAH has borne the brunt of these accusations, and I can say to you they are false. War is not a fair or humane act; innocent people get involved and killed. I saw this all over when there was fighting. The problem many of us have is the Allies are hypocrites; they will point the finger at us regarding a few incidents, and completely dismiss our claims against them. The Russians charged many with crimes and either killed or imprisoned millions just on claims. The Allies did the same thing to my comrades; anyone could say they saw something, and it became fact. No true defense was allowed. My friend Gustav [Knittel] was accused by the Americans of killings and his defense was hindered from presenting a proper defense, all he could do is say the people deserved it. I have spoken to many former comrades who were at a place called Schwäbisch Hall [a city in the German state of Baden-Württemberg], they told of intimidation, threats, force, and deception.

The Americans tricked them into turning on each other by saying a comrade said this story, and implicated you, so to save yourself you have to agree with what they said. These Jews then typed out the statement and had them sign it, proving guilt. It was so bad that in the end, they all had charges reduced greatly or dropped. They did this to Peiper; he took the blame for the supposed Malmedy incident, but was later dismissed. See, our men were not perfect, we did have some inexperienced bad apples, as all armies do. I saw where civilians had been unlucky and surprised a jittery soldier who shot first and then asked questions. I can attest that these incidences were punished. In the Ardennes I saw where people who had been under American control turned on us when we came through again, and they were treated as partisans. These acts were nothing special to the LAH, all armies face these situations. We had orders to not play with anyone who rose against us. If you tried to hinder, intimidate, or threaten our men, you could be dealt with very harshly. Many of our comrades died horrible deaths due to the partisan war and the insurrection the Allies supported. Yet only the supposed victims' voices are heard and promoted, no talk of what they might have done to cause their demise. So, was it a crime to fight back on this? As I mentioned, some of our comrades may have been bad apples who on angry impulse did things they should not have done, but it was in no way the conduct of the entire division or the Waffen-SS.

I must tell you also that the Allies did the same things as they accuse us of doing, even worse. They targeted civilians in their air war, shot prisoners, killed many civilians due to reckless fire, and took hostages. Only we were judged however, and some paid with their lives for crimes that really may not have even been crimes. All German forces were under emergency war orders and the Allies declared these orders illegal. We had to follow our orders or face punishment; the Allies punished us for following the orders our high command gave us. This is why I say they are hypocrites; they accuse us of false crimes and yet hide and pass off their own. Even the famous Malmedy Massacre was a lie; the Americans were unruly and were encouraged by newly arrived units to run away. There was gun fire and our men opened fire on everyone in the field, some did not run, yes, but in the fog of war all they saw was an enemy making a run for it and shooting at them.

[Above: A Leibstandarte SS-Adolf Hitler recruiting postcard. It says: 'Eintritt mit vollendetem 17. Lebensjahr' (Entry at the age of 17).]

You were with the LAH at Kursk, what was it like for you? Do you think you could have won the battle?

Hans: Yes, I was there, I remember it was hot and Ivan had built a ring of surprises for us. We went along with the Panzer regiment; I remember seeing Wittmann, who was at that time becoming known for his command of the new Tiger. I was wounded lightly at Kursk by the Luftwaffe dropping bombs on our position. We hit Ivan with a fully prepared division and broke through ring after ring of defenses. For us, Kursk was a huge success, the Tiger and Panther proved superior and I still see all the littered wrecks of Ivan everywhere. The Luftwaffe controlled the skies, and the battle was going our way. Many of us feel the Führer was deceived about numbers, and the collapse of Italy caused him to pull us back and send us to Italy. We were on the cusp of winning at Kursk, Ivan was at the end of his rope, and he was sending in the last reserves where we still had ours to use. Some say the war would have ended if we would have just kept at it. Rudolf told me some time back his father said Stalin wanted out and was seeking terms of peace to end it.

The Allies talked him into staying in, and then when we were pulled out, it sealed Germany's fate. It took Russia a full year to recover from Kursk. It is one of those great, 'what could have been', if only the right information was given to the Führer. We captured thousands of prisoners and mountains of supplies. We ate the much-favored Allied tins of food which gave us good morale. It was with confusion, sadness, and anger that we disengaged and had to move to Italy.

Do you have any regrets about your time in the LAH?

Hans: No, only that I wish we would have won the war. I met many good men, the best comrades you could ask for. I was an officer in the best division of the German nation. We fought well, and most importantly we fought with honor, showing mercy to our enemies even when we did not have to. You asked about crimes, and I must tell you in Russia our doctors treated everyone, Russian and German. Russian doctors even treated us as well. The war in the east was not the slaughterhouse they say it was. It was a hard, bloody war, but there was mercy shown most of the time. Our staff doctor was killed by partisans after he delivered a baby for a Russian family; there was no race hatred by us. He and his staff routinely treated the civilians wherever we went. The charges against us are not fair and examples of hypocrisy and outright defamation based on lies or hearsay.

[Above & below: SS-Obersturmführer Hans-Martin Leidreiter and SS-Sturmbannführer Gustav Knittel, commander of Kampfgruppe Knittel, near Stavelot. This was taken two days into the Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge). Both men, like many Germans who participated in the offensive, probably hadn't slept in 48 hours.]

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