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.