Interview with SS-Sturmbannführer Walter Reder, who served in the SS Division Totenkopf and was Battalion Commander of the 16. SS-Panzergrenadier Division 'Reichsführer-SS'.
Reder was also a winner of the German Cross in Gold and Knight's Cross, amongst a plethora of other medals. 1988, Vienna.

Thanks for meeting with me; I would like to start by asking what attracted you to join the SS?

Walter: The political times I would say, it was so long ago but one must know what times we lived in. I was born during the first war but grew up in the post-war world. Germany and Austria were dismantled and smaller nations created as punishment. Life became hard for many former citizens who were now forced to be part of something they detested. Tensions were always high, and Czechs often attacked those they called 'former rulers' and some innocent people were killed by these hate mobs. Growing up, I detested what was happening around me, order and calm eluded us. I saw in National Socialist Germany the peace and stability I craved. When I was old enough, I sought to legally become a German citizen, and was granted this. I was in the Hitler Jugend and liked this very much, we camped, learned life skills, and how to be good citizens. One day an SS man came to speak to us and it was then I knew I wanted to join this special group. He was sharp and his uniform was a symbol of a new age, a true National Socialist who loved his people.

I saw in the SS the spear tip of the National Socialist movement, Himmler had a great vision for the Germanic peoples, and the SS would ensure the survival of our people. I went through the application process and interviews and was finally accepted into the elite Totenkopf Standarte Oberbayern. I took the oath to the Führer on the sacred date of the 9th of November. I threw my life's work into being the best SS man I could and was always pushed to move upward. I trained in military tactics and arms, in case we were needed for war.

Did you ever meet Reichsführer-SS Himmler, and what was your impression?

Walter: Yes, Reichsführer-SS Himmler was a constant fixture and one thing I can say is, he loved his men. He took personal interest in whom we married, and how our lives were going. A pillar of the SS vision was to have a very good home life that was stable and debt free so that children could be raised without problems. When I was promoted to officer status, he gave greetings to us all and gave lasting advice on how to make our legacy an eternal torch for our people to follow. He was a great leader.

Did you ever see a concentration camp, since you were in Totenkopf Standarte?

Walter: Yes, and what is being told today is not the truth and Dachau was just like any other prison camp in any other nation. The Allies caused a situation that created sick and diseased prisoners, of which many died in the last weeks. They caused all this and then blamed us for the consequences. They tried to beat me and convince me we did this on purpose, I am not fooled.

[Above: Walter Reder in his Stahlhelm and his 1942 award document for his German Cross in Gold.]

Your unit was in Poland, what do you remember about the 1939 invasion?

Walter: My unit was sent into Poland to round up stragglers. We were unhappy about being used as a police force, but we did what we had to do. I will tell you about what we encountered. The Polish people were not war-like and most wanted nothing to do with war; they saw their share with border wars and fighting the red army. We went from town to town looking for Polish soldiers, which there were many. There were many Jews in Poland also, whom I will note were very kind to us. We were looking for criminals and saboteurs, who liked to hide in Jewish areas and we became good at searching. They would often offer us food or water, but most Jews were very dirty and we were afraid of getting sick, so we politely declined most of the time. We also protected Jews from militia attacks, of which there were a few.

There were times my regiment came across saboteurs and criminals, which we turned over to police units or military courts; most were executed for severe crimes. There were many instances of Germans, even soldiers, who were murdered by these Polish militias. I saw this personally and had to hold back my anger when the widows of the fallen men pointed out their killer from a line-up. Part of my regiment's duty was to find who did these things. I will tell you one example, Polish citizens asked us to go to a small farm nearby as Germans lived there and it had been burned. We saw an older couple, their daughter, and a dog shot. We went back to the town and asked what happened. We were brought into a shack of a house and were told bands had roved through attacking German people.

This person told our translator that one of the men in the village had been with the band. We went to his shack and found him hiding. He was brought to interrogation, where he admitted he was with people who hated that Germans lived in Poland. He said they may have attacked the couple, but did not mean to harm them and said that Jews in the group did it. We did not believe him and he was convicted of murder by officers and ordered shot by firing squad. A mixed group of Totenkopf Standarte and police carried this out. This type of senseless killing plagued us the whole war, and on every front. Civilians were forbidden to conduct any actions against the occupier, but the Allies convinced them to, and we had to hold them accountable to deter any further attacks. Reprisals were the most effective method to deter them. Totenkopf Standarte saw some combat also. We would stumble onto hidden Polish units, who would fight rather than surrender. I want to add that I was impressed with the Polish citizens, they many times refused aid to these units, instead urging them to give up. They would tell them it was over and senseless to die for nothing. I met several farmers who complained the Polish army stole food, livestock, and goods, and threatened to shoot them if they refused. It was strange in Poland; most people had no desire for war.

[Above: We certainly weren't taught about this in school were we? Jewish residents of Litzmannstadt, screamed 'Herzlich Willkommen!' (Heartfelt Welcome!). Litzmannstadt was a Jewish ghetto in Poland. This picture shows German soldiers as they enter the city...]

You were also in the Western Campaign; the Totenkopf Division is accused of many war crimes in France, is this true?

Walter: Not in a million years young man. The Allies pestered me after my capture regarding various crimes leveled against Totenkopf. We did execute some French soldiers, especially black ones. The reason was they had attacked and raped French women, whom they were supposed to be fighting for. One example was in a tiny hamlet they were billeted in, a 13-year-old girl, if I remember correctly, was raped by 3 large black men who she was able to identify. Our commander ordered them to be shot on the spot. I will never forget the look in her eyes as she stared them down and pointed them out from a lineup of a dozen. If this is a crime, then yes, we are guilty of shooting rapists. Before anyone claims we had no evidence, our doctor confirmed she was forcefully raped, tearing her hymen. The negros had blood on their undergarments and they were staying in the family's home as unwanted guests. As to the incident with British soldiers, I understand some were shot but only due to using illegal ammunition and falsely surrendering only to shoot soldiers under a white flag, which was a crime.

There was nowhere near the number the British now claim and I believe most were killed in combat, as we did not want to fall for another trick. It is possible that our men cracked due to the stress of seeing comrades gravely wounded by illegal methods and cowardly acts, but I doubt it. We were too disciplined. I do not believe anything our enemies say regarding war crimes, they won the war so they get to remake the rules and tell the stories, while we can present no defense.

It seems like most of your career was fighting partisans, did you ever see combat against regular army units?

Walter: Of course I did, Totenkopf was a frontline combat unit, we only happened to be rear area troops in Poland. In France and everywhere else we fought as frontline soldiers. We endured brutal attacks by the British and French and in the east the Soviets had overwhelming superiority and made life tough. We were an elite combat trained unit who could best any enemy, even when outnumbered 10 to 1. The steppes of Russia are littered with the graves of Soviet soldiers who can testify to our will to win. All of my medals and decorations, especially the Knight's Cross, came from actions with frontline enemy units. The Soviets usually hit us with massed attacks that took super-human effort and courage to beat back. Often you could smell the vodka courage on their breath as they overran our lines. Many times, we ran out of ammunition and had to resort to the bayonet so we could take their weapons and use them. The Soviets were like a mass of leaderless men who would be drunk, then attack mindlessly, take huge losses, and be back again for more. Once captured, they put on a completely different face when they sobered up.

One thing you may not be aware of, and is not mentioned today, is that many Russians aided us, and we recruited vast amounts of men from the former POWs who formed both Heer and SS units. Of course, most of these men were shot when captured by the Soviets, and then Stalin blamed us for their deaths. This had to be in the hundreds of thousands. My unit had several Russian helpers, who would fight when needed.

[Above: Walter with his wife and his signature.]

Can I ask you about your actions in Italy, and if you feel like you committed war crimes against the Italian people?

Walter: I am glad to defend the honor of my men and myself. I was sentenced to prison by a misled and vengeful court, and as you know, recently released due to action by Pope John Paul, the Austrian government, and many thousands of supporters. It may seem hard to defend killing civilians, but not all is what it seems. Italy was under Il Duce's leadership, but not under his total control. There were areas in the north where communists were concentrated and were left alone to grow and organize. I was wounded quite severely on the Eastern Front, and after coming home and getting a divorce from a scared wife who could not bear the military life anymore, I was transferred to a new unit. This unit was named after Reichsführer-SS Himmler, and it was specially trained in dealing with the growing menace of partisan warfare. My men were young and from all over south Europe, but shared a hatred of the injustices of the war, and the partisans. We were sent to Italy in 1944 and knew the area was in the hands of communist partisans. We had to keep supply lines open to the south. No sooner did we set up quarters than a messenger came delivering a letter from one of the many factions we faced. He demanded money and said if we paid, he would allow us to operate in his area. He was a gangster, and many more like him existed.

We had RSI [Repubblica Sociale Italiana, or Italian Social Republic] soldiers with us, and they said it was common for the bandits to do this. We ignored the request and started scouting the area to secure it. My first taste of this front was when a column of wounded, under the Red Cross, was attacked. The wounded were killed and the others taken as hostages. We received a demand for payment, or the release of certain prisoners. The partisans fought this way, like common criminals. Many German and RSI soldiers were killed in cold blood like this. We had many Italians who supported us and gave the RSI and SD [Sicherheitsdienst, Security Service] information on where the base was for this group. We attacked and took many prisoners and found the graves of their victims. Our orders came from high up that these criminals were to be shot on sight when caught as punishment for their deeds. Often times, in the beginning, we did not do this as they made valuable prisoners and could be used to secure the release of our own. Many of the communists we fought deserted from other nation's armed forces and were welcomed into these newly formed Soviet republics.

We even dealt with a few German communists who were shot on the spot as traitors, after we saw their cruelty on display. This part of Italy simmered with hatred, especially close to the borders, even the partisans fought each other when not fighting us. Many of the murders committed by them were then blamed on us. I will tell you another example I witnessed personally. We were ordered to give armored support to a supply column bringing medicine and food to an RSI unit. We heard gunfire in the distance and prepared for action; there was none. As we entered a small hamlet we saw dead in the street. After taking the town and searching, we found that a rival partisan group had attacked this partisan group who were planning to attack our column. They killed every man and woman in this group, even a child was hit. We recorded this and moved on to continue our mission, it was then circulated that we did this. It was very common for the partisans to blame us for every death, even though they did it.

For what I was tried for I can now speak openly as I cannot be retried for anything. During these fights with partisans, I saw how brutal and evil they were. If one did not join them, you were an enemy. They would take over small hamlets, bring in weapons, explosives, and equipment, and recruit the population to aid them. If they refused, they were killed. I was amazed at the amount of terror they instilled, and because they held the children hostage, sometimes the parents took reckless action against us. The Allies hold much blame in all this, as they encouraged and supplied these illegal bandits. Often times we would capture Allied personnel who were directing air drops and intelligence. In almost all hamlets we had to attack, it was the same story, civilians defending, and us finding large weapons stashes. Many civilians, in accordance with the laws of war, and direct orders were executed as a deterrent. To the best of our ability, we made sure to only punish those who were proven to have acted against us, we committed no crime. The Holy Father will be my judge when I am called to the next world, and I will be absolved, and only then will it be known that I and my comrades did nothing wrong and had to defend against the devil and his agents.

What was it like going home on leave after these bitter fights, and when did you realize the war was lost?

Walter: Getting leave was good; it was good to see family and friends, to see what we were fighting for. I was divorced due to the strains the war put on my wife, we had a child then, and it was hard for her, even with SS support. She mentally could not cope well, and many of her friends had lost their men. It was hard on me, but I had to do my duty. My people and culture were worth suffering for. Seeing the children happy and secure at home gave me a warm feeling that we had a good future ahead if we could only win. This feeling drove most all Germans, the belief that this was the final battle to end the darkness forever and bring a new age to the people of Europe, one which gave them faith, happiness, and eternal optimism that their future was secured and guaranteed. I was a Knight's Cross winner and treated well. Meals and beer were free, people sought my autograph and the papers took pictures; it is funny that my mind was yearning for my men and the front. In Poland I was a guest speaker at a university, a class was studying the war in the east. I was impressed the lads took such an interest, but they understood what communism meant to their future.

I was surprised that back home, life went on; there were dances, restaurants, and movies. The war was a distant thing and most people did not want to dwell on it. It was not until 1943 that Germany geared up to fight the war with all our might, a big mistake. Our leaders were misled, I believe, on the strength of our enemies. If you ask me, I believe we could have won only if we attacked Russia earlier, like in April or May, but circumstances spiraled out of the Führer's control; Italy cost us the war in my opinion. It was not until 1945, when the Allies crossed the border, that the war was lost for me, but even then, I hoped for a divine miracle, a wonder weapon, or intervention that would save us. It was not to be for reasons unknown as of now, but I will state to you, the wrong side won. Now they say spiteful things regarding the Waffen-SS, but there is hope. I wanted to meet your President at Bitburg [American President Ronald Reagan, May 5, 1985]. To me, that would be a big step towards reconciliation and recognition that we were soldiers too, not better or worse than any others. In prison, I received thousands of letters from supporters all over the world who know the truth; it is what kept me going. I even received a visit from a repentant member of a partisan force who was dying of cancer, he apologized to me that they had caused so much suffering, and I was paying the unjust price for doing only my duty under the laws of war.

*After the war Reder was extradited to Italy in May 1948 to stand trial for 'war crimes'. He was tried by a communist kangaroo court in Bologna for 'ordering the destruction of the town of Marzabotto and other villages near Bologna in August and September of 1944'. In reality the towns were havens of communist terrorists. International law states that when civilians take up arms against soldiers they are criminals and can be subject to a firing squad.

In October 1951 Reder was sentenced to life in prison. After spending almost 37 years in the enemy's dungeons he was finally released and returned to Austria, where he died four years later in 1991.

[Above: This newspaper says:

'Walter Reder
Der Gefangene von Gaeta'

(Walter Reder
The prisoner of Gaeta)

Gaeta is a coastal city in central Italy and has a famous castle with a military prison within it. Both Reder and Herbert Kappler (head of German police and security services in Rome) were held at this prison.
Kappler was sentenced to life but was broken out by his wife in a daring escape. He died shortly after in Austria, but nonetheless died a free man.]

[Above: Here is a rare envelope that was sent to Walter Reder while imprisoned in Italy. It was sent by 'Ordensgemeinschaft der Ritterkreuzträger' (Order of Knight's Cross Holders) on January 9, 1979. Click to enlarge.]

[Above: The great soldier Walter Reder, in his enemies' hands, walks with them to his merciless fate.]

[Above: Walter Reder, after so many years in confinement, now an old man.]

[Above: Walter Reder, his spirit unbroken.]

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