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Honoring of Hitler Era Heroes Stirs Controversy

Times Staff Writer

A sharp controversy has erupted over the sale by a West German firm of a set of medallions commemorating German military heroes of World War II.

The 27 officers commemorated in the medallions, all of whom were awarded Germany’s highest military decoration, include a general in the Waffen SS, Josef (Sepp) Dietrich. Dietrich was convicted as a war criminal for the December, 1943, Malmedy Massacre in which nearly 100 American prisoners of war were shot to death during the Battle of the Bulge.

Rudolf Schneider, a spokesman for the Assn. of Nazi War Victims in Frankfurt, protested the sale of the medallions. He described Dietrich as “nothing but a butcher in uniform.”

Dietrich, an early supporter of Adolf Hitler, commanded the Nazi leader’s personal bodyguard during his rise to power in the 1920s and 1930s. When Hitler created the Waffen SS, the party shock troops that served alongside units of the German army, Dietrich was one of its first commanders. He commanded combat SS troops in France, Belgium, Poland, the Balkans and the Soviet Union.

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Elevated to Full General

Eventually he was promoted to full general and given command of the 6th Panzer Army, which launched the Ardennes offensive in 1944, Hitler’s last-ditch attempt to drive the advancing Allied forces into the English Channel.

As overall commander of the SS troops that summarily shot the American prisoners at Malmedy, Dietrich was convicted by an Allied war crimes tribunal. He served nine years in prison. Upon his release, he was re-arrested and sentenced by a German court to serve 18 months for his role in the 1934 murder of the SA (storm troops) leader Ernst Roehm. Dietrich died in 1966 at the age of 73, and SS veterans turned out, in violation of the law, for a memorial service.

The other officers whose deeds are commemorated by the medallions were military heroes by any country’s standards, according to many historians.

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Among them are Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox of the North African campaign; Maj. Erich Hartmann, who by the age of 23 had shot down a record 352 enemy planes; submarine commander Wolfgang Lueth, whose U-boats sank 253,000 tons of enemy shipping, also a record; Brig. Gen. Theodor Tolsdorff, who was wounded 14 times on the Eastern and Western fronts; Gen. Adolf Galland, who downed 104 planes before taking a staff job, and who is a military consultant today in Bonn; Col. Hans-Ulrich Rudel, who in 2,530 missions as a dive bomber pilot destroyed 519 tanks, a battleship, a cruiser, a destroyer and 70 landing craft and was shot down 30 times and wounded five times.

Also on the list are other pilots with at least 100 kills, along with general officers who scored brilliant tactical successes in combat.

Knight’s Cross

The award they received is the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. It is bestowed much less often than the American Medal of Honor or Britain’s Victoria Cross.

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Generally, a serviceman can earn his nation’s highest decoration with a single act of valor, but to win the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, a World War II German serviceman had first to be awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class for a single act of bravery; the Iron Cross 1st Class for three to five additional acts of courage; then perform still more feats of valor. For additional deeds, the oak leaves were awarded, then the oak leaves with crossed swords, and finally the whole combination with diamonds.

The company that has brought out the medallions, Muenz & Kunst of Kiefersfelden, in Bavaria, is offering the souvenirs in silver for about $70 each, and in gold for about $230 each. A full set in gold costs about $6,300.

Sales manager Siegfried Schmidt said they are selling rapidly, and added, “We are almost out of stock.”

Anonymous Calls

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Schmidt said he has had half a dozen anonymous telephone calls since he first started advertising the medallions. “They were from cranks threatening to blow up the office,” he said. “I have ignored them.”

Schmidt admitted that the inclusion of Dietrich in the series had caused some complaints, but added: “The set would not have been complete and we would have had a storm of protest from old comrades.”

Some observers saw the public issuance of the medallions as another sign of the resurgence of German national pride 40 years after the end of World War II. As Schmidt put it: “The medallions are items of historical interest. They do not glorify the Nazi leaders. They salute the men who fought bravely for their country, just as the Allies did.”

But Schneider countered: “It is a political shame for our country that this so-called art is being used to glorify the tradition of Hitler fascism. This is what caused the deaths of 55 million people in Europe and around the world in Hitler’s war.

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