The Malm­e­dy Mas­sacre: The War Crimes Tri­al Controversy

Steven P. Remy
  • Review
By – August 25, 2017

The worst atroc­i­ty expe­ri­enced by Amer­i­can sol­diers in Europe dur­ing World War II was the exe­cu­tion of eighty-four Amer­i­can pris­on­ers of war by Bat­tle Group Peiper, a Waf­fen SS unit head­ed by Lieu­tenant Colonel Joachim Peiper. The mas­sacre occurred on Decem­ber 17, 1944, the day after the Ger­mans launched an offen­sive which result­ed in the Bat­tle of the Bulge, near the Bel­gian vil­lages of Baugnez and Malm­e­dy. The atroc­i­ty was not sur­pris­ing in view of the behav­ior of Waf­fen SS units else­where in Europe and the orders that the SS troops had received from Peiper and oth­er SS offi­cers to be as ruth­less as pos­si­ble. The Malm­e­dy Mas­sacre was the most famous in a series of atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by Ger­man forces in gen­er­al, and by Bat­tle Group Peiper in par­tic­u­lar, dur­ing the Bat­tle of the Bulge. This event is fea­tured in the Hol­ly­wood film The Bat­tle of the Bulge.

After the War, sev­en­ty-four SS sol­diers involved in the mas­sacre were tracked down by the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary and put on tri­al. Forty-three were sen­tenced to death and twen­ty-two to life in prison. Because of doubts raised regard­ing the fair­ness of the tri­als and changes in geopol­i­tics, not one defen­dant was exe­cut­ed, not even Peiper. All of the defen­dants served dras­ti­cal­ly reduced sen­tences. In an engross­ing and dis­turb­ing account of the Malm­e­dy Mas­sacre and its after­math, Steven P. Remy, a promi­nent his­to­ri­an at Brook­lyn Col­lege and the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, focus­es on how such a mis­car­riage of jus­tice could have occurred despite the irrefutable evi­dence of the cul­pa­bil­i­ty of the defendants. 

Crit­ics of the Malm­e­dy Tri­als described them as vic­tors’ jus­tice pos­ing as impar­tial judi­cial pro­ceed­ings. Among the crit­ics were a small num­ber of Amer­i­can politi­cians, most notably fresh­man Sen­a­tor Joseph R. McCarthy of Wis­con­sin and the anti-Semit­ic Con­gress­man John Rankin of Mis­sis­sip­pi, Ger­mans and Amer­i­cans fear­ful that the war crimes issue would hin­der Ger­man-Amer­i­can uni­ty in the face of the post­war threat of the Sovi­et Union, and anti-Semi­tes in Ger­many and Amer­i­ca who accused Jews of seek­ing a venge­ful Mosa­ic jus­tice” and orches­trat­ing a lynch mob men­tal­i­ty at the tri­als. War­ren Magee, an Amer­i­can lawyer who served as a defense coun­sel in the Nurem­berg tri­als, claimed it was impos­si­ble for the war crimes tri­als to be objec­tive because Jews lacked the Chris­t­ian tenets of humil­i­ty and char­i­ty” and were moti­vat­ed by vin­dic­tive­ness, per­son­al griev­ances, and racial desires for revenge.” 

In his care­ful recon­struc­tion of the Malm­e­dy Tri­als, Remy refutes the var­i­ous claims of the tri­als’ crit­ics. The tri­als were, in fact, fair, none of the defen­dants were tor­tured or threat­ened, their con­fes­sions were not coerced, they were ably rep­re­sent­ed by coun­sel and had every oppor­tu­ni­ty to defend them­selves, and, most impor­tant, they were guilty as charged. Unfor­tu­nate­ly the sen­sa­tion­al­ist claims of the tri­als’ crit­ics were dis­sem­i­nat­ed by a gullible Amer­i­can press, and by Jan­u­ary, 1957 all of the Malm­e­dy defen­dants had been released from prison.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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