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The Malmady Massacre: War Crimes, the SS, and a Lesson in Historical Revision

October 8, 2018

The Schutzstaffel (SS) was the ideological vanguard and independent armed forces of the Nazi Party.  The men who filled its ranks were passionate ideologues and among Adolf Hitler’s most ardent disciples.  As a result they were tasked with imposing Nazi racial policy onto the peoples of occupied Europe and to make Hitler’s dream of Lebensraum (living space) a reality.  While not under the direct command of the German Wehrmacht, the Waffen SS and the army frequently cooperated. In 1939, as the German blitzkrieg roared over Poland, so called Einsatzgruppen or SS death squads followed in the army’s wake, murdering Jews, communists, and other political enemies.  Again in 1941, as the army made its drive towards Moscow, the Einsatzgruppen followed behind bringing death to the Slavs of Eastern Europe [1].  As the tides of war turned against Germany, SS battle groups saw more action in conventional military operations, often becoming infamous for fighting fanatically and with disregard for casualties.  One such regiment was led by Lieutenant Colonel Joachim Peiper. In December 1944, at the outset of what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge, Peiper’s command was given orders to spearhead a surprise offensive through the Ardennes Forest towards the River Meuse [2]. Outside the Belgian town of Malmady, eighty four American GIs were taken prisoner, lined up, and gunned down in a snowy field on the edge of town.  Peiper was alleged to have given the order.

 

The frozen bodies were discovered after an American counterattack and the massacre was highly publicized in the United States and around the world.  In February 1945, Life Magazine, published a collection of photographs entitled “Murder in the Snow” which displayed the bodies of killed American soldiers [3]. A cry for justice soon followed.  In 1945, during early efforts to demilitarize and denazify Germany, Pieper and officers under his command were arrested.  They stood trial for their actions in an American military court in Dachau a year later. The prosecution argued that the massacre violated rules of war regarding treatment of prisoners and was a product of the vicious fighting style of the SS which they believed was rooted in Nazi ideology [4].  The defense, led by American Willis Everett, argued that Pieper and his men were not fanatics but ordinary soldiers. Their actions were simply products of the heat of battle [5]. After the defense rested, the tribunal handed down forty three death sentences, including to Peiper.  The remaining thirty one men on trial were sentenced to at least ten years in prison [6].  Controversy soon followed.  Unfounded accusations of American use of torture by the defendants gained traction in both American and German press. Despite Senate commissions which concluded the accusations were false, the story remained [7]. For the next seventy years the Malmady massacre was indelibly linked with torture in the minds of both historians and the public.  The torture stories persisted largely due to efforts of those pushing for a general amnesty for German soldiers, namely sympathetic Americans led by defense council Willis Everett, SS veterans groups, and both Christian churches in occupied Germany.   

 

 

 

After the verdicts were read and the sentences handed down, Willis Everett was indignant and disgusted with the process.  He almost immediately began lobbying for the defendants release and after securing a record of the trial, though he was unauthorized to do so, he began publicly speaking and writing about the proceedings.   The trial, Everett said, “was an exercise in victor’s justice ‘totally lacking in standards of American justice.’ The defendants had been convicted under totalitarian law” [8]. The mention of totalitarianism was a veiled reference to the accusations of torture and in affect kept that narrative alive in the German consciousness.  The idea of victor’s justice also appealed to the German public, many of whom shared the same opinion of war crimes trials after the first year of occupation [9].  Everett, in many ways, was speaking to a sympathetic public who was open to the idea of clemency for soldiers and it allowed his narrative to gain traction.  From the outside, Everett’s attachment to the case and defendants accused of killing American soldiers is rather peculiar. There is an argument that his motivations were anti-semetic and he desired vengeance against Jews on the prosecution, interrogation teams and those working in the occupation government, the latter of which, assigned him an admittedly difficult case.  In letters home, “Everett had raged…to his family about Jews in the Dachau courtroom and within OMGUS [Office of Military Government, United States] more generally” [10].  In correspondence with Washington supporters and sympathetic Germans, he used obvious euphemisms and veiled speech to convey the same message.  Regardless of his motivations, be they honorable as a defense lawyer or rather petty personal squabbles, Everett and his allies in Germany as well as the United States kept the story in the news.  As a result there were six investigative commissions by the United States beginning with one by General Clay and the occupation government and ending with one by a committee from the United States Senate, during which Joseph McCarthy, then a junior senator, seemed dead set on proving the German soldiers had been tortured.  His rather public denunciation of the Senate investigation undermined what could have been a very powerful rebuttal and allowed the torture narrative to survive.

 

In the years following the Second World War, numerous veteran’s associations were formed throughout Germany.  For those in the SS, their associations attempted to whitewash the organization’s actions during the war. Contrary to what was presented in the introduction above, SS veterans “insisted their various field divisions were comprised of ordinary soldiers who had fought for their nation honorably and within the bounds of international law” [11].  The torture narrative allowed the veterans to push the idea of a “clean SS.” The logic was as follows: The SS men were ordinary and honorable soldiers, therefore the only reason Peiper and his men could be found guilty is if they were tortured and forced to admit to the alleged crimes.  For one narrative to be true the other had to be as well, so they both gained support amongst veterans. When interviewed for an American newspaper Joachim Peiper further supported the notion of an honorable SS, saying “he had nothing to do with the deportations of non-Jewish and Jewish Poles Poles in 1940 and 1941, as any involvement in any such actions would have ‘despoiled’ him ‘as a soldier’”[12].  By emphasizing the importance of martial honor, Peiper not only reinforces the narrative of an innocent SS, and therefore support the torture accusations, he also appeals to the German public, which throughout its history had held the Fatherland’s military in high regard.  By doing so he gained widespread public support for the SS defendants awaiting execution and serving prison sentences. It is also important to note that these men had support in the United States. The Chicago Daily Tribune, as a result of its German-American readership, published articles about alleged prisoner abuse which kept the controversy alive in American public consciousness [13].  Furthermore, the fact that Peiper was being interviewed by an American newspaper highlights the desire in America to at the very least follow the story.

 

 

 

Finally, both the Catholic and Protestant Churches in Germany used their widespread influence to advocate for amnesty and investigations into the torture allegations, allowing the narrative to survive.  Despite its rather abysmal wartime record, where it largely remained silent if not compliant, the German Catholic Church was a staunch opponent to both denazification and war crimes trials, especially the trials at Dachau. Archbishop of Munich Johannes Neuhäusler wrote letters to congress in defense of Peiper and his fellow officers [14].  These appeals were published in the United States and Germany by the Christian News Service, thus influencing public opinion and reinforcing the idea that torture was used as an interrogation method by American investigators.  In a similar manner, Protestant Bishop Theophil Wurm exchanged letters criticizing the trial with newspapers as well as fellow bishops and would subsequently have them published. They had a similar affect as Neuhäusler’s. The influence of the churches in early postwar Germany should not be underestimated.  In an occupied country, where most of the cities were reduced to rubble, the churches were the sole institutions that survived the rise of Hitler and the war. This fact gave Protestant and Catholic leaders a degree of credibility to go along with preexisting moral authority. It is little wonder then that religious institutions had influence on German as well as American public opinion, allowing the torture narrative to survive the immediate postwar era and continue to exist into the Twenty First Century.

 

As Tony Judt points out in his book Postwar, historical revisionism allowed Europe to recover following the catastrophe that was the Second World War.  In France, the legend of La Résistance appeared, despite Vichy collaboration and widespread French indifference towards occupation.  However, the legend was necessary for the people of France to begin again following liberation. Similarly, revisions in Germany by soldiers and SS men may very well have been necessary for them to accept their role in the war and readjust as citizens in a young democracy.  Even if that holds true, historical truth must be held above selective forgetfulness, even if it proves difficult to accept. The torture narrative and the idea of an honorable SS proved to be detrimental to both truth and justice. Joachim Peiper and a number of his comrades were released from prison in 1957 with widespread public support.  Furthermore, the torture accusations were largely taken as fact by historians when discussing the Malmady Massacre. According to historian Steven P. Remy numerous histories of the Battle of the Bulge or the end of World War II, such as Rick Atkinson’s The Guns at Last Light, portray confessions secured through the use of torture [15].  Perhaps more peculiar is the admiration of the SS.  Few historians are now seen as apologists for the SS, but British historian John Keegan drew criticism when he wrote his history of the Second World War for the way he portrayed the soldiers of the SS.  In popular culture the narrative of the clean SS often survives as well. War-game publisher Avalon Hill was met with backlash by some players when the company chose to represent the SS in their games using black counters. Some players thought it unfair to distinguish the SS because they saw it only as an elite German military unit rather than a politically motivated paramilitary.  Popular histories and television shows such as Generation War also whitewash the history of the SS and the Wehrmacht.

 

References 

 

[1] Taylor, Telford, "Opening Statement for the United States of America" (1948). Trial 12 - High Command Case. 6.

[2] Remy, Steven P. The Malmedy Massacre : The War Crimes Trial Controversy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017. Page 18.

[3] Remy The Malmedy Massacre, 35.

[4] Remy The Malmedy Massacre, Chapter 6.

[5] Remy The Malmedy Massacre, Chapter 7.

[6] Remy The Malmedy Massacre, 124

[7] Remy The Malmedy Massacre, 244

[8] Remy The Malmedy Massacre, 129.

[9] See The Papers of General Lucius D. Clay

[10] Remy The Malmedy Massacre, 131

[11] Remy The Malmedy Massacre, 166.

[12] Remy The Malmedy Massacre, 167.

[13] Remy The Malmedy Massacre, 179

[14] Remy The Malmedy Massacre, 189

[15] Remy The Malmedy Massacre, 189

 

Photos were taken from Steven P. Remy's The Malmedy Massacre : The War Crimes Trial Controversy and can also be found in the National Archives. 

 

 

 

 

 

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