Kurt Meyer

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Kurt Meyer
Bundesarchiv Bild 101III-Ludwig-006-19, Kurt Meyer.jpg
Kurt Meyer
Nickname(s) Panzer Meyer
Born (1910-12-23)23 December 1910
Jerxheim, Duchy of Brunswick, German Empire
Died 23 December 1961(1961-12-23) (aged 51)
Hagen, North Rhine-Westphalia, West Germany
Allegiance  Weimar Republic
 Nazi Germany
Service/branch Flag of the Schutzstaffel.svg Waffen-SS
Years of service 1930–45
Rank SS-Brigadeführer Collar Rank.svg SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS
Service number NSDAP #316,714
SS #17,559
Commands held 1. SS-Panzer-Division Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler.svg14th Anti Tank Company LSSAH
15th Motor Cycle Company LSSAH
1st SS Reconnaissance Battalion LSSAH
SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment 25
12SSHJinsig.svg12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend
Battles/wars Anschluss
Occupation of Czechoslovakia
Invasion of Poland
Battle of the Netherlands
Battle of Belgium
Battle of France
Balkans Campaign
Battle of Greece
Operation Barbarossa
Battle of Taganrog
Battle of Uman
Battle of the Sea of Azov
Third Battle of Kharkov
Normandy Landings
Battle for Caen
Falaise Pocket
Awards Knight's Cross with Oak leaves and Swords
German Cross in Gold
Iron Cross 1st class
Iron Cross 2nd class

Kurt Meyer, nicknamed "Panzermeyer", (23 December 1910 – 23 December 1961) served as an officer in the Waffen-SS during the Second World War. He saw action in many major battles, including the Invasion of France, Operation Barbarossa, and the Battle of Normandy. Meyer was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords. Upon promotion on 16 June 1944 at the age of 33 years, Meyer became one of the youngest divisional commanders in the Waffen-SS during the Second World War.

After the war he was convicted of war crimes relating to the killing of Allied prisoners in Normandy and was sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment; Meyer was released in 1954. Upon his release, Meyer became active in HIAG, an organisation of former Waffen-SS officers that lobbied for the legal, economic and historical rehabilitation of the Waffen-SS. Meyer died in 1961.

Early life

Kurt Adolph Wilhelm Meyer was born in Jerxheim, Duchy of Brunswick (now Lower Saxony) on 23 December 1910.[1] He came from a lower-class family, his father being employed as a factory worker. In 1914, his father joined the Imperial German Army and served as an NCO in the First World War, obtaining the rank of Sergeant Major before being discharged for wounds received in battle.[2]

Meyer attended school in Jerxheim. After completing his education, Meyer found work as an apprentice shopkeeper,[3] followed by work in road construction and then as a mailman.[4] He applied to join the Mecklenburg Landespolizei (Police force) and was accepted on 1 October 1929.

Career in the SS

Pre-war

Meyer joined the Nazi Party on 1 September 1930, three years before Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. He then applied to join the Schutzstaffel, commanded by Heinrich Himmler. He was accepted on 15 October 1931, his first posting being to 22. SS-Standarte based in the town of Schwerin. Meyer was commissioned as an SS-Untersturmführer (2nd Lieutenant) in 1932. In May 1934, he was transferred to the SS's most prestigious unit, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH). By September 1936, Meyer had again been promoted, this time to SS-Obersturmführer (1st Lieutenant), and had also taken command of the LSSAH's Anti-Tank unit, 14. Panzerabwehrkompanie. Meyer and the LSSAH took part in the bloodless annexation of Austria as a part of the XVI. Armeekorps, and later, under General Heinz Guderian, in the occupation of Czechoslovakia.

Campaigns in Poland, France and the Low Countries

During the invasion of Poland, the LSSAH was attached to Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt's Heeresgruppe Süd. Meyer was wounded on 7 September 1939, but continued to command the anti-tank company and received the Iron Cross, second class, on 25 September 1939. Near Modlin, in October, Meyer was alleged to have ordered the shooting of fifty Polish Jews as reprisals, and to have court-martialled a platoon commander who refused to carry out his instructions.[Note 1]

After the campaign in Poland, Meyer commanded the LSSAH's Motorcycle Reconnaissance company (15 Kradschützenkompanie). The LSSAH was attached to General von Wietersheim's XVI. Armeekorps. During this campaign, Meyer was awarded the Iron Cross, first class.

The Balkans and Greece

Further information: Balkans Campaign (World War II)

Following the Western Campaign, the 15 Kradschützenkompanie was reorganized into the LSSAH's Aufklärungsabteilung (Reconnaissance Battalion) and Meyer was promoted to SS-Sturmbannführer (Major).

Benito Mussolini's invasion of Greece resulted in the Barbarossa campaign being delayed, and German forces brought to bear[awkward] on the Yugoslav and Greek forces. Meyer's detachment was to cut off the Greek III Corps, retreating from Albania at that time. Meyer's battalion attacked the Kleisoura Pass, drove for Lake Kastoria and cut off the Greek forces based in the town of Kastoria. Meyer's troops then participated in the Battle of Kleisoura Pass. Meyer was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 18 May 1941.

Further information: Battle of Kleisoura Pass

Barbarossa

Fritz Witt (left) and Kurt Meyer (right), Kharkov, March 1943

Meyer and his battalion participated in the June 1941 Operation Barbarossa as a part of Army Group South. During this campaign he was nicknamed "Der schnelle Meyer" (Speedy Meyer).

In October, Meyer fell ill and relinquished command. He returned to active duty in January 1942 and was later awarded the German Cross in gold.

Kharkov

By Meyer's return, the LSSAH had been transformed into SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. After the II SS-Korps had withdrawn from Kharkov, General Paul Hausser aimed to recapture it. Meyer's SS-Reconnaissance Battalion 1 participated in the fighting, alongside the SS-Panzer-Regiment 1, SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment 2 and III. Battalion, SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment 2.

Meyer was appointed to command the Grenadiers of SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 25. Gustav Knittel succeeded him as commander of the SS-Reconnaissance Battalion 1. Meyer was promoted to SS-Standartenführer (Colonel) on 21 June 1943.

Massacre of civilians

Meyer was alleged to have ordered the destruction of a village during the fighting around Kharkov and the murder of all its inhabitants.[Note 1]

After the war, Obersturmfuhrer Erich Rumpf described an incident that took place on Meyer's orders in the village of Yefremovka (Jefremowka) during the fighting south of Kharkov in March 1943. Billeted in the village, Rumpf heard a pistol shot at 10:30 a.m. in front of the house where he was staying. He ran to the door and saw a Hauptsturmfuhrer (captain) who angrily demanded the the company commander be summoned. Shortly Hauptsturmfuhrer Nueske arrived on the scene to have the SS captain shout once more, "On the orders of Meyer, this town is to be leveled to the ground, because this morning armed civilians attacked this locality." At this he shot a "25-year old woman who was busy cooking our lunch". Later Rumpf heard other shots and learned that the same man shot two other girls in the house nearby. Nueske stormed off, only to return 30 minutes later to confirm Meyer's orders. According to Rumpf, the Waffen-SS men killed all the village inhabitants and burned their homes to the ground.[5]

Not only there were Russian witnesses, but a separate testimony from captured SS Sturmbannfuhrer Jacob Hanreich (provided to the Western Allies interrogators after his capture in France in 1944) substantiates elements of the story:[6]

The reconnaissance battalion of the LSSAH made an advance at the end of February [1943] towards the East and reached the village of Jefremowka. There they were surrounded by Russian forces. Fuel and ammo ran out and they were supplied by air until they were ordered to break through towards the West. Before trying to do so, the entire civilian population was shot and the village burnt to the ground. The battalion at that time was lead by Kurt Meyer.

Ukrainian sources, including surviving witness Ivan Kiselev who was 14 at the time of the massacre, report that the killings took place on 17 February 1943. On 12 February Waffen-SS troops of the LSSAH occupied two villages, Yefremovka and Semyonovka. Retreating Soviet forces had wounded two SS officers. In retaliation, five days later LSSAH troops killed 872 men, women and children. Some 240 of these were burned alive in the church of Yefremovka. Russian sources claim that the massacre was perpetrated by the "Blowtorch Battalion" lead by Jochen Peiper. [7]

Normandy: battles around Caen

On 6 June 1944, the Allies launched Operation Overlord, the amphibious invasion of France, which opened the long-awaited Western Front. After much confusion, the Hitlerjugend got moving at around 1430 on 6 June, and several units advanced on Sword Beach, until they were halted by naval and anti-tank fire, and by Allied air cover. Meyer's regiment was ready for combat by 2200 on 7 June. Meyer set up his command post in Ardenne Abbey. While the division was ordered to break through to the beach, Meyer ordered his regiment to take covering positions during 7 June and await reinforcements.[8] The Canadian Official History described his personal involvement in the battle:

Although Meyer claimed later that only shortage of petrol and ammunition prevented him from carrying the attack on towards the coast, this need not be taken seriously. Indeed, he himself testified that, seeing from his lofty perch "enemy movements deeper in that area"—doubtless the advance of the main body of the 9th Brigade—he came down and rode his motorcycle to the 3rd Battalion to order its C.O. "not to continue the attack north of Buron". Meyer's 2nd Battalion had been drawn into the fight, north of St. Contest "in the direction of Galmanche". Fierce fighting was going on when Meyer visited the battalion in the early evening; just as he arrived the battalion commander's head was taken off by a tank shot... Meyer ordered both this battalion and the 1st (around Cambes) to go "over from attack to defence."[9]

Max Wünsche(left), Fritz Witt(center), Kurt Meyer(right) about 7–14 June 1944 in the vicinity of Caen, France

The 27th Canadian Armoured Regiment reported 31 German tanks destroyed during this engagement, and German casualties were serious enough to halt the SS short of their objective of pushing back the Allies to the sea.

Over the next two weeks, the regiment suffered heavy casualties in the battles for Carpiquet Aérodrome and the villages of Contest, Buron, and Authie.

On 14 June, SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Witt, commander of 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend was killed when a Royal Navy barrage fired from the English Channel hit his command post. Meyer, as the next highest-ranking officer, was promoted to divisional commander; at 33 years of age, he was one of the youngest German divisional commander of the war.[10][11] By 4 July, the division was reduced to a 'weak battlegroup'. On the 10th, despite Hitler's 'No Retreat' order, Meyer ordered that the Hitlerjugend be pulled back behind the Orne River. In just over one month of fighting, the Hitlerjugend had been reduced from 22,000 men to just under 5,000.

Ardenne Abbey massacre

Ardenne Abbey massacre was committed by the division on its second day of operations during Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of France. During the evening of 7 June, 11 Canadian prisoners of war, soldiers from the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and the 27th Armoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment), were shot in the back of the head. At Meyer’s war crimes trial in December 1945, he was found guilty of inciting his troops to commit murder and of being responsible as a commander for the killings at the Abbey.

Falaise pocket

A graphical presentation of the Falaise pocket

The Canadians began their advance on Falaise, planning to meet up with the Americans behind the German lines, with the goal of surrounding and destroying the German divisions around Caen. After several days fighting, Meyer's unit was reduced to about 1,500 men. He led his men in an attempt to break out of the Falaise pocket. He describes the situation as follows:[12]

The misery around us screams to high heaven. Refugees and soldiers from the broken German armies look helplessly at the bombers flying continuously overhead. It is useless to take cover from the bursting shells and bombs. Concentrated in such a confined space, we offer unique targets for the enemy air power. [...] Death shadows us at every step.

Destruction in the Falaise Pocket

Meyer made it out of the Falaise pocket. On 27 August, he was awarded the Swords to the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves. Meyer and the remnants of the Hitlerjugend joined the retreat across the Seine River and into Belgium. On 6 September 1944, in the town of Durnal near Namur in Belgium, he was captured by partisans and handed over to the American forces. As he was missing and presumed dead, he was retroactively promoted to Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen SS effective September 1.

Trent Park

Upon his capture, as a high-ranking officer Meyer was interned at Trent Park in the England, where his conversations with the other prisoners of war of senior rank were covertly audio-taped by British military intelligence. He was quite frank about his political orientation in these exchanges, revealing that he had adopted National Socialism like a religion, and dedicated himself to its ideology, saying that a person 'could only give his heart once in life'.[13] Throughout the covert surveillance recordings Meyer and other SS-men confirmed the Wehrmacht officers' views of them as ideological fanatics with an almost religious belief in Nazism and its III Reich, and the messianic personality cult of Adolf Hitler as its Fuhrer. In a taped conversation from January 1945 Meyer praised Hitler for having inspired a 'tremendous awakening in the German people' and for giving them back their self-confidence.[14] In another taped conversation made in February 1945, when he encountered a demoralized Wehrmacht General, Meyer chided him: "I wish a lot of the officers here could command my division, so that they might learn some inkling of self-sacrifice and fanaticism".[15] According to the evidence revealed by these audio-recordings, Meyer had not just paid lip-service to Nazi ideology to further his military career, he saw himself as the definition of an ideological racial warrior, whose duty it was to inculcate the men he had led in action with the National Socialist creed.[16]

Trial for war crimes

Meyer was held as a prisoner of war until December 1945, when in the town of Aurich in Germany he was put on trial for war crimes, charged with the murder of unarmed Allied prisoners of war in Normandy. The charges were that:-

  • 1. Prior to 7 June 1944, Meyer had incited troops under his command to deny quarter to surrendering Allied soldiers.
  • 2. On or around 7 June 1944, Meyer was responsible for his troops killing twenty-three prisoners of war at Buron and Authie.
  • 3. On or around 8 June 1944, Meyer ordered his troops to kill seven prisoners of war at his headquarters at the Abbaye Ardenne.
  • 4. On or around 8 June 1944, Meyer was responsible for his troops killing seven prisoners of war, as above.
  • 5. On or around 8 June 1944, Meyer was responsible for his troops killing eleven prisoners of war, as above.

The third and fourth charges referred to the same event; the fourth charge was provided as an alternative to the third, in case the killings were found to be a war crime but he was not found to have ordered them. The fifth charge related to a separate group of prisoners; in this case, the prosecution did not allege he had directly ordered their deaths. In total, Meyer was charged with the responsibility for the deaths of twenty-three prisoners on 7 June, and eighteen more on 8 June.[17] He pled not guilty to all five charges.[18]

A second charge sheet, which accused him of responsibility for the death of seven Canadian prisoners of war at Mouen on 8 June 1944, was prepared but, after the successful conclusion of the first trial, it was decided not to try the second set of charges.[18] No charges were laid against him regarding allegations of previous war crimes in Poland or in the Ukraine; the Canadian court was constituted only to deal with crimes committed against Canadian nationals.[19]

Kurt Meyer stands trial in Aurich, Germany for 5 counts of war crimes in December 1945.

The court was the first major Canadian war crimes trial, and faced a number of hurdles before it could be convened. Chief among these was the fact that, as the accused was a general officer, he had to be tried by soldiers of equal rank, and finding sufficient Canadian generals able to sit was difficult. The court, as eventually constituted, had four brigadiers - one, Ian Johnston, a lawyer in civilian life - and was presided over by Major General H. W. Foster, former commander of the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade in Normandy.[20]

Following eyewitness statements by both German and Canadian soldiers, as well as French civilians, the trial found Meyer guilty of the first, fourth and fifth charges, but acquitted of the second and third. This meant that he was deemed guilty of inciting his troops to give no quarter to the enemy, and of the responsibility for his troops killing eighteen prisoners at the Abbaye Ardenne, but not responsible for the killings of twenty-three at Buron and Authie; whilst he was held responsible for the deaths at the Abbaye Ardenne, he was acquitted of directly ordering the killings.[18] In Meyer's closing statement before sentencing, he chose not to ask for clemency, but instead defended the record of his unit and the innocence of his soldiers, and closed by saying that "by the Canadian Army I was treated as a soldier and that the proceedings were fairly conducted."[21]

While most observers expected a sentence of some years imprisonment - the court had not found him guilty of directly ordering the murders, but merely of tacitly condoning them - the court sentenced Meyer to death; one of the five judges, Bell-Irving, later commented that he believed a guilty sentence required the death penalty and that no lesser sentence was permissible.[22] The sentence was subject to confirmation by higher command, and while Meyer was originally willing to accept it, he was persuaded by his wife and by his defence counsel to appeal. The appeal was reviewed by Canadian headquarters and dismissed by Major-General Christopher Vokes, the official convening authority for the court, who noted that he could not see a clear way to mitigate the sentence imposed by the court.[23]

However, shortly before the sentence was to be carried out, the prosecutor realised that the trial regulations contained a section allowing for a final appeal to "the senior combatant officer in the theatre", and on making enquiries found that no-one had completed such a review. The execution was postponed until a review could be carried out; somewhat oddly, the senior officer was found to be the commander of Canadian forces in Europe, the same Christopher Vokes who had just dismissed Meyer's appeal.[24] On encountering the appeal for a second time, Vokes had second thoughts, and began a flurry of meetings with senior officials to discuss how he should proceed. Vokes' main concern was the degree to which a commander should be held responsible for the actions of his men, feeling that it was not simply enough for a commander to fail to prevent such killings. The consensus which emerged from the discussions was that death was an appropriate sentence only when "the offence was conclusively shown to have resulted from the direct act of the commander or by his omission to act."[25] Discussing the case, Vokes conceded that "there isn't a general or colonel on the Allied side that I know of who hasn't said, 'Well, this time we don't want any prisoners'"; indeed, he himself had ordered the shooting of two prisoners in 1943 before his divisional commander intervened.[26]

After his deliberations, Vokes commuted the sentence to one of life imprisonment, stating that he felt Meyer's level of responsibility for the crimes did not warrant the death penalty. Following his reprieve, a Communist-operated German newspaper reported that the Soviet Union was considering putting Meyer on trial for alleged war crimes committed at Kharkov. However, little more was heard of this, and in April, Meyer was transported to Canada to begin his sentence.[27] Meyer served five years in Dorchester Penitentiary, in New Brunswick, Canada where he worked in the library and learned English.[28]

Return to Germany

Meyer petitioned for clemency in late 1950 - somewhat surprisingly including an offer to serve in a Canadian or United Nations military force if released - and was partially supported: the government was willing to let him return to a German prison but not to release him outright. He was transferred to a British military prison in Werl, West Germany in 1951.[29] He was released from prison on 7 September 1954 after the German government received advice[clarification needed] to reduce his sentence to fourteen years. He had now spent nearly ten years in prison and factoring in the conventional reduction[clarification needed] of a third for good behaviour, he was eligible for release as having served his sentence.[30]

Upon his return to Germany in 1951, Meyer told a reporter that nationalism was past and that "a United Europe is now the only answer".[31] He took a job working as a distributor for the Andreas Brewery in Hagen. One of his major clients was the Canadian army mess at Soest, where he spent much time as a guest.[relevant? ]

Activities within HIAG

Main article: HIAG

Meyer became active in the Waffen-SS veteran's organization HIAG and became the organization's spokesperson in 1959. He was considered one of the leading Waffen-SS "apologists.".[32] At a HIAG rally in 1957, he announced that while he stood behind his old commanders, Hitler had made many mistakes and it was now time to look to the future, not to the past.[33] Speaking before some 8000 SS men at the HIAG convention in Karlsberg, Bavaria, in 1957, he proclaimed that "SS troops committed no crimes, except the massacre at Oradour, and that was the action of a single man." He insisted that the Waffen-SS was "as much a regular army outfit as any other in the Wehrmacht."[34]

His memoirs, Grenadiere (1957), were published as part of this campaign and were a glorification of the SS's part in the war as well as of his role in it.[33] Historian Charles W. Sydnor referred to Grenadiere as "perhaps the boldest and most truculent of the apologist works." [35]

Decline & Death

In his middle years he was afflicted with poor health, needing a stick to walk, and suffering from heart and kidney diseases.[33] After a series of mild strokes, he died of a heart-attack in Hagen, Westphalia, on 23 December 1961, his 51st birthday. Fifteen thousand people attended his funeral in Hagen, a cushion-bearer carrying his medals in the cortege.[36]

Summary of SS career

Dates of rank

Notable decorations

Wehrmachtbericht reference

Date Original German Wehrmachtbericht wording Direct English translation
29 June 1944 In diesem Abschnitt haben sich in den Kämpfen der letzten Tage die 12. SS-Panzerdivision "Hitler-Jugend" unter Führung von SS-Standartenführer Meyer, insbesondere die Kampfgruppen des SS-Sturmbannführers Olboetter, besonders ausgezeichnet.[43] During this period, in the battles of the last few days, the 12th SS Panzer Division "Hitler-Jugend", under the command of SS-Standartenführer (Colonel) Meyer, and in particular the combat groups of SS-Sturmbannführer (Major) Oelbetter, have especially distinguished themselves.

Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 Beevor, p. 181. Beevor cites Peter Lieb's Konventioneller Krieg oder NS-Weltanschauungskrieg?: Kriegführung und Partisanenbekämpfung in Frankreich 1943/44, p. 159 (2007), which itself refers to the findings of an Allied court of enquiry on war crimes in Normandy (TS 26/856, The National Archives). Part of this document, relating to the Modlin shootings, is summarised here. Neither case was tried by the Canadian court, which restricted itself solely to cases related to Canadians, but Brode (p. 58) notes that the prosecution was aware of at least the Kharkov case, and contemplated introducing it as additional background material. After Meyer's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, there were reports that the Soviet Union wished to try him for the Kharkov case, but nothing came of this; see Brode, p. 107.
  2. According to Scherzer as commander of Aufklärungs-Abteilung "Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler".[40]

References

Citations

  1. Foster 1986, p. 31.
  2. Foster 1986, p. 36.
  3. Foster 1986, p. 47–51.
  4. Foster 1986, p. 92.
  5. Parker 2014, pp. 95-96.
  6. Parker 2014, pp. 96.
  7. Parker 2014, pp. 356-357.
  8. Stacey 1960, p. 130.
  9. Stacey 1960, p. 132.
  10. Forty 2004, p. 29.
  11. Meyer 2005, p. 238.
  12. Meyer 2005, p. 296.
  13. Neitzel & Welzer 2012, p. 311.
  14. Neitzel & Welzer 2012, p. 211.
  15. Neitzel & Welzer 2012, p. 299.
  16. Neitzel & Welzer 2012, pp. 311-312.
  17. Copy of the formal charge sheet
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 The Abbaye Ardenne Case : trial of SS Brigadefuhrer Kurt Meyer
  19. Brode 1997, p. 31
  20. Brode 1997, pp. 54–55.
  21. Brode 1997, pp. 99–100.
  22. Brode 1997, pp. 100–101.
  23. Brode 1997, p. 102.
  24. Brode 1997, p. 104.
  25. Brode 1997, p. 106.
  26. Brode 1997, p. 105.
  27. Brode 1997, p. 107.
  28. How 1995, p. 366.
  29. Brode 1997, pp. 206–209.
  30. Brode 1997, p. 213.
  31. Brode 1997, p. 210.
  32. Stein 1984, p. 255.
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 Brode 1997, p. 214.
  34. Stein 1984, pp. 255-256.
  35. Sydnor 1973.
  36. Foster 1986, photo caption, pp. 328–329.
  37. 37.0 37.1 Thomas 1998, p. 77.
  38. Patzwall & Scherzer 2001, p. 308.
  39. Fellgiebel 2000, p. 310.
  40. 40.0 40.1 40.2 Scherzer 2007, p. 541.
  41. Fellgiebel 2000, p. 66.
  42. Fellgiebel 2000, p. 45.
  43. Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939–1945 Band 3, p. 141.

Bibliography

External links

Military offices
Preceded by
SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Witt
Commander of 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend
14 June 1944 – 6 September 1944
Succeeded by
SS-Obersturmbannführer Hubert Meyer