Joseph Dietrich was born in Hawangen, near Memmingen in Bavaria on May 28, 1892. He became a butcher but joined the German Imperial army in 1911. In the First World War, he served as a paymaster sergeant and later in the first German tank troops.
After the war, Dietrich served briefly in the Freikorps against the Spartacus uprising in Berlin. Thereafter, he migrated from one job to another, including waiter, policeman, foreman, farm laborer, gas station attendant and customs officer. He joined the Nazi party in 1928 and became commander of Hitler's SS bodyguard in 1928. He accompanied Hitler in his tours around Germany and received a nickname "Chauffeureska" from Hitler. Later Hitler arranged other jobs for him, including various SS posts and let him live in the chancellery.
In 1930, Dietrich was elected to a Reichstag as a delegate for Lower Bavaria. By 1931, he had become SS lieutenant general.
When Nazi party took over in 1933, Dietrich rose swiftly in in Nazi hierarchy. He rose to the rank of SS colonel general, commander of Hitler's bodyguard regiment, general of the Waffen-SS and member of the Prussian state council.
In 1934, Dietrich played an active role in the Night of the Long Knives. Hitler told him to take six men and go to the Ministry of Justice to execute a number of SA leaders. Shortly thereafter, he was promoted to SS Obergruppenfuehrer, equivalent to a full army general.
When World War Two began, Dietrich led Waffen-SS Panzer troops in attacks on Paris and Dunkirk. Later, he commanded tank troops in Greece and Yugoslavia and the 1st SS Panzer Corps on the eastern front. In 1943, he was sent to Italy to recover Mussolini's mistress Clara Petacci. He received numerous German military medals but also became notorious for his mistreatment of prisoners of war.
Dietrich commanded the SS 1st Panzer Division in the battle of Normandy. Because of his success, Hitler gave him the command of the 6th Panzer Division as well.
Dietrich commanded the 6th SS Panzer Division in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. He had been assigned to that task because, due to July Plot, Hitler distrusted Wehrmacht officers. During the battle on December 17, he and others executed 82 US prisoners of war near Malmedy, Belgium.
At this point, Dietrich began to protest Hitler's unwillingness to let officers to act upon their own initiative. In April 1945, a frustrated Hitler ordered Dietrich and his men to give up their SS armbands. Dietrich announced that he would return all his decorations or shoot himself. Together with his troops, Dietrich was transferred to the eastern front. There he reportedly summarily executed Russian prisoners of war.
In 1946, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for ordering the execution of US prisoners of war in Malmedy. Due to testimony in his defense by other German officers, his sentence was shortened to 25 years. He served only ten years but was rearrested after his release in 1956. On May 14, 1957, he was sentenced to nineteen months for his part in the Night of the Long Knives.
Joseph Dietrich died of a heart attack in Ludwigsburg at age 72.