The Holocaust Historiography Project

The Malmédy Massacre and Trial

Ray Merriam

In 1977, I received a newspaper clipping from a reader of my own publication, The Military Journal. The clipping contained an interview with Paul Martin, a survivor of the so-called “Malmédy Massacre,” and had apparently been published on the previous anniversary of the incident.

Martin’s comments are quite interesting. It is readily apparent that he has no grudge against the men of Peiper’s unit for what they did, and he states: “They were just doing their job. Besides, we did the same later on. I talked to men in the hospital who said we killed unarmed prisoners of war.”

However, based on what I had read about the “massacre” previously, some points made by Martin and the interviewer did not seem quite correct. This led to my re-reading just about everything I had on the subject (which, at the time, was limited to other historians' published accounts). I not only discovered some points where the interview did not seem factual, but also that the other accounts could not agree on certain important points. Thus, I added some editorial notes in several places when I published the interview in early 1979.

A number of people wrote in to comment on this interview. Though I did not feel my editorial notes were especially controversial, since they were based entirely on fairly standard works, I did expect to receive some mail from irate readers.

However, out of over a dozen letters and brief comments made by readers concerning the Martin interview, only three, surprisingly, questioned my editorial comments. Two were strictly emotional outbursts. The third, however, was considerably less emotional and attempted to refute my comments by utilizing two sources I had not consulted.

The publication of that letter, and rebuttals to it by Mr. Landwehr and myself, produced additional responses, largely favorable to our point of view. The publication of the Martin interview and the subsequent debate in the letters column of my journal, led to Mr. Brandon of the Institute for Historical Review inviting me to this convention to speak on the subject of the “massacre,” the trial and its aftermath.

However, in the short time I had available (about four months), I was unable to acquire all the material that one should really examine in order to discuss this subject sufficiently. Certain items, of prime importance to any serious research of the “massacre,” have been difficult to locate. Perhaps the most important of these, the published record of the Malmédy Massacre investigation conducted by a Subcommittee of the Committee on Armed Services of the U.S. Senate, had been most elusive for me. Numerous unsuccessful attempts to acquire this book through my local library led me to various used book dealers in an attempt to purchase a copy. Finally, just one week ago, a book dealer located a copy which I have purchased; naturally, a few days later the library informed me they had the same material! Unfortunately, acquiring this work only a few days before the convention would not allow me time to even fully read its over 1600 pages, let alone use it in the preparation of this paper.

Some material did not arrive until the last moment and there is still a considerable amount of material I am still trying to locate. Thus, I am presenting today only some of the important points concerning the incident, the trial and its aftermath. My research will continue beyond this and I will provide the Institute for Historical Review with articles based on my continuing research. At some appropriate point in the future, after I am satisfied with my research efforts, I will produce a book covering the entire subject.

The unit commanded by 29-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Joachim Peiper consisted basically of his First SS Panzer Regiment, a battalion plus an additional company of panzergrenadiers, two companies of motorized combat engineers, an anti-aircraft company, a few King Tiger tanks of the 501st Heavy Tank Battalion, and a company of Luftwaffe paratroopers. Such composite formations were known as kampfgruppes, or battle groups, and were formed to perform a specific task. The task of Kampfgruppe Peiper, as the spearhead of the 1st SS Panzer Division, and, indeed, the 6th Panzer Army, was to reach the Meuse River with all possible speed.

Eventually, the route they actually travelled would take them through Honsfeld, Bullingen, Baugnez, Ligneauville, Stavelot, Trois Ponts, La Gleize, and Stoumont, with elements of his command going to Petit Thier, Wanne, Lutrebois, and Cheneux. In each of these towns, and at times on the roads between them, it is alleged that men from Peiper’s command killed various numbers of unarmed American soldiers as they were surrendering, or after they were captured. Additional numbers of dead civilians have been largely attributed to Peiper’s men also.

The exact count of the dead, American military and civilian, has never been conclusively established. At the trial, the prosecution declared they would prove the murder of from 538 to 749 prisoners of war and over 90 Belgian civilians (and they suggested that the number was probably even higher.) It appears that the figures finally settled on were 350 American soldiers and 111 civilians.

And of these, it is not certain how many may have actually been justifiably killed: some Americans may not have totally surrendered to their captors; some may have attempted to delay or impede the progress of Peiper’s troops, or made outright sabotage attempts; some may not have surrendered all their weapons; others may have been slow to obey commands or even totally disobeyed them. There was the possibility of accidental shootings as well.

Yet, one cannot deny the fact that at least some American prisoners had been killed under highly suspect circumstances, if not murdered outright.

The matter of civilian deaths along Peiper’s route of advance is even more clouded. Many were, indeed, killed, but it could not always be clearly established by whom and under what circumstances. In house-to-house fighting it was a common tactic to toss grenades into buildings first and then rush in with weapons firing.

Accidental deaths of civilians caught in battle zones was the rule rather than the exception. One woman, carrying her baby, was killed while running from house to house, trying to escape the battle; it was not determined which side fired the fatal shots, but it was most certainly accidental.

In one instance, a Belgian killed a wounded German soldier with an ax, and was promptly shot by Peiper’s men.

Evidence given at the trial, however, did indicate that some civilians were killed without justification by Peiper’s troops.

Claims that Belgian guerrilla fighters were active throughout the area were proven truthful. One defendant told how an officer instructed him to shoot a Belgian, the officer claiming the Belgian was a guerrilla fighter.

The mere thought of the presence of guerrillas, who would be virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the population, would obviously make any soldier trigger-happy around civilians in a combat zone. Some defendants, including Peiper, claimed to have seen civilians firing on German troops.

But in some cases, the claim by the prosecution of the killing of civilians and military personnel by Peiper’s troops could not be proven or was effectively disproven.

The prosecution claimed at least nine civilians were murdered by Peiper’s men in Bullingen. One of the defense lawyers made a brief investigative trip to Bullingen. He brought back an affidavit from the village mayor and registrar, whose task it was to keep track of the citizenry (and not a very hard task in a small community of about 300), which stated only two citizens had died since 16 December 1944: one of natural causes, in 1946, the other by shrapnel from American artillery fire (the latter claim was supported by an affidavit from the husband of the woman who was killed). Still, it was possible that transient civilians might have been killed in Bullingen by Peiper’s men.

The prosecution, on the basis of a number of sworn statements, alleged that as many as 311 American prisoners had been killed in La Gleize. Hal McCown, ultimately the defense’s star witness, was a major at the time of the Offensive and spent several days as Peiper’s prisoner in La Gleize. He maintained that during that time he had not seen a single dead American prisoner. The prosecution pointed out that McCown had not seen all parts of the village.

The defense was, however, able to offer several affidavits by La Gleize residents who had been present during the Germans' stay there. None had seen any American prisoners shot, nor the dead bodies from any alleged shootings, nor had they even heard of any such incidents.

These were followed by testimony from German witnesses who supported the observations of McCown and the civilians. But, as in other instances during the trial, the Belgians' testimony in favor of the defendants was highly effective, since they had no stake in the outcome of the case. Indeed, they would tend to be hostile towards the defendants if anything.

The defense was often able to counter the prosecution’s allegations, though not always successfully. Part of the problem was in trying to defend 74 men at once. Although all were accused of the same basic crime, each played a different part in it. Separate charges, though not always specific, were brought against each, however, the U.S. Military Government had determined they be tried en masse for the sake of “efficiency.”

The first review of the trial was performed by Maximilian Koessler, a civilian attorney of the War Crimes Branch of the Judge Advocate General’s Department. Koessler believed the mass trial, and especially the use of numbered placards worn around the defendants' necks as a means of identification, made it difficult for the judges to distinguish one prisoner from another. The result was that evidence of guilt against some would tend to be damaging to all.

The defense did request that two separate trials be held: one for those accused of having issued illegal orders, and another for those accused of having carried them out. This request was denied by the court, in the first of many instances where the court would favor the prosecution, even when the defense was clearly in the right.

The bench assembled for the trial consisted of eight men. The presiding officer was Brigadier General Josiah T. Dalbey. The crucial position of law member was filled by Colonel Abraham H. Rosenfeld; it was his duty to interpret applicable law and determine procedure. (Rosenfeld had recently acted for the prosecution in the Mauthausen Concentration Camp case and thus one has to suspect his objectivity in the Malmédy case.) Line officers, all colonels, made up the rest of the bench.

Chief defense counsel was Colonel Willis M. Everett, Jr. Everett had only just arrived overseas and was actually horrified by his assignment. He accepted it with reluctance, due partly to the awareness of his own professional inadequacies (having had virtually no courtroom experience previously), but primarily for the repugnance he felt for the ostensible crimes of his clients.

After the trial, his continuing efforts for the Malmédy defendants was due to his belief that justice had not been properly served.

Six Army attorneys were designated assistant defense counsel; of these, only one, Lieutenant Colonel Granger G. Sutton, had had extensive courtroom experience.

A civilian member of the defense staff, Herbert J. Strong, born and raised in Germany, was a Jew and refugee from Nazi Germany. Being fluent in German, he was an invaluable member of the defense staff. Later, during the Senate hearings on the trial, Strong criticized the Army’s conduct of the investigation and trial. He also believed, that while some of the defendants were guilty, it had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. And his testimony could not be easily brushed off as pro-Nazism or anti-Semitism.

The defendants were also allowed to engage native German counsel, and some did so, but their value was limited due to the ever-present language problem and their unfamiliarity with American legal procedure.

The original investigation team assigned to the case included Captain Dwight Fanton, a graduate of Yale Law School, Captain Raphael Shumacker, First Lieutenant William R. Perl, and two civilian Army employees, Morris Elowitz and Harry Thon. Perl, Thon, Elowitz, Shumacker, and another investigator, Joseph Kirschbaum, were accused, during the trial, of having used physical and psychological duress in order to extract sworn statements from the defendants. The use of mock trials and threats was admitted by the investigators, but all manner of physical abuse was denied.

The following allegations were made by defendant Hendel:

… on 4 April l946 I was led from my cell under a black hood, was put into a cell facing the door and was then beaten in the abdomen and face until I fell to the ground. When a moment later the hood was taken off, Lieutenant Perl and Mr. Thon stood before me. During the subsequent interrogation, I was also beaten several times. No notice was taken of my request to have the interrogation postponed since I was not in condition for it at that time. The facts described happened before my interrogation. During the interrogation, promises were made to me but since I did not know anything and today still do not know anything of an order, all sorts of threats were made to me and since things were immaterial to me and I wanted to avoid further beatings. etc.. I wrote down everything that was dictated to me.

Many additional allegations were made by defendants, all in the same vein.

Later, the Senate investigation would show that at least some of these allegations of physical brutality, denied by the interrogators at the trial, were founded in evidence.

The prosecution team for the trial included interrogators Pert, Thon, Elowitz, Kirschbaum and Shumacker, plus First Lieutenant Robert E. Byrne and Lieutenant Colonels Homer B. Crawford and Burton F. Ellis. Ellis became chief prosecutor. The guards at the prison where the interrogations took place were not under the control of the war crimes team. They also, for a time, included Polish refugees who harbored considerable resentment towards Germans-and especially SS men. Some defendants specifically mention physical abuse by these guards as they were being led between their cells and the interrogation rooms and while waiting in halls, all the time wearing black hoods over their heads. (The hoods were claimed to be necessary to keep the prisoners form recognizing each other and to prevent them form speaking to fellow soldiers.) Kicking, punching, beating about the arms, and pushing prisoners down stairs, in addition to verbal abuse, was conducted frequently, much to the amusement of the perpetrators.

After the trial, Everett attempted to get the Supreme Court to hear the appeal of the Malmédy Case defendants. In May 1948 the Court’s decision not to hear the appeal prompted the Secretary of the Army, Kenneth C. Royall, to order a stay of execution of the sentences pending further investigation.

This decision by Royall prompted at least some persons who had been close to the case to comment. A letter from James R. Rosenfeld, father of one of the American soldiers alleged to have been shot by Peiper’s men at the Baugnez crossroads, to Senator Irving M. Ives, was in protest to Royall’s decision. It stated in part:

It appears that the defense attorney for the Germans, Colonel Everett. does not ask that the sentences be set aside because of their innocence but solely because of the weird procedure allegedly used by the American prosecutors in seeking confessions.

I am altogether in favor of accused German soldiers being ably defended to the last ditch. However, I am certain that they received a fair trial and due justice rendered in their sentences. But in view of the fact that the act for which they were convicted was such an outrageous atrocity, I feel that the War Department would be indulging in mock sentimentality were their sentences to be remitted because of overly shrewd legal tactics or the invoking of minor technicalities of the law.

I would therefore appreciate anything that you can properly do in behalf of the memory of my son and those other American soldiers so cold-bloodedly massacred to the end that just law and not legal technicalities shall prevail.

One of the survivors, Virgil P. Lary, also protested, writing directly to Royall. He stated:

I was the only officer to survive this ordeal and I am now in a retired status due to disability received at that time. I mention this as I feel that it is necessary for you to know that I am competent to discuss this case. It was my pleasure to return to Dachau and to testify with other survivors.

Before the Malmédy Case was heard we spent three months in Europe awaiting the trial to begin. During this period I personally observed the techniques and methods used by the War Crime Teams in obtaining confessions … only the fairest methods were used in the interrogations. No group of Army personnel have ever, in my opinion, conducted their investigation more thoroughly or efficiently. Any criticism from an individual that did not have an opportunity to observe this work is unfair, unkind to the parents, wives and children of those American men and is not based on truth. I am certain that you will quickly find that what I say here is correct when you conduct your investigation.

If you so desire I would be happy to present a true, unquestionable picture to you or your investigating group.

However, a letter from Fiske H. Ventres to Royall, provides a different view:

… at Bremen, Germany, I was billeted with a member of the War Crimes Commission who had just resigned his post because of the methods employed by “Americans” to gain confessions and convictions. According to him confessions were the sole evidence against the accused and no methods were too brutal to employ in gaining the confessions. One defendant was beaten to death because of his refusal to sign a confession and as a lesson to his other unwilling fellow defendants. To prove his point the resigned agent produced from his trunk the blood-caked hood he, himself, had removed from the head of the murdered German.

From one end of Europe to the other, people are quite aware of the true character of these so-called trials, from Nuremberg to the Bulge. They know full well the identity of those conducting the proceedings and, I might add, a great many Europeans are more than a little suspicious that what is being done is more in the interest of another nation than to the United States.

The first two letters characterize the general mood of the country towards the trial and its defendants. Not until the Senate investigation did that mood begin to change. After the investigation, things quieted down. But then in 1956, after Dietrich had been released from prison and Peiper’s release was imminent, the call for vengeance was renewed.

Articles in magazines and newspapers retold the story of the atrocities and the trial-too often glossing over, or totally ignoring, the irregularities in the interrogations and trial. And it made little difference that the facts in these articles were often grossly inaccurate.

One article in particular, written by Emile C. Schurmacher and published in the May 1956 issue of a sensationalistic pulp magazine called Real Adventure, was titled, “Who Turned the Killers Loose?” Schurmacher' s account of the incident reads more like fiction; the majority of his errors could have been corrected had he examined the trial records.

Peiper was, of course, released despite the outcry from “concerned citizens” and most of the veterans organizations. In 1964 he moved to France where he made a comfortable living as a translator. But in 1976 a sensational article on Peiper appeared in a French communist newspaper. A two-week campaign of threats and harassment followed, during which time Peiper was preparing to leave France, and on the night of 14/15 July, he was killed in a fire-bomb attack on his house.

A CIA agent in Bern, Switzerland, claimed to have unmasked Peiper and put the information of his whereabouts in the hands of his killers. Yet Peiper’s residence was not a real secret. A group calling themselves the “Avengers” (supposedly composed of former members of the French resistance) claimed responsibility for Peiper’s death. But it is believed that Israel’s Mossad was actually responsible; they were operating in France at the time against Palestinians; they were the only ones with the motivation and means to kill him, and Simon Wiesenthal had also suddenly started up a campaign against Peiper.

There are still, however, many unanswered, and even unasked, questions:

  • Why are the statements and testimony of a handful of the survivors continuously repeated as evidence of a massacre?
  • What about the statements made by the other survivors?
  • In the initial attack on the American column at the Baugnez crossroads, some GIs were wounded. Descriptions of the attack indicate that the column was fired on by all manner of tank cannon, mortars, machine gun and small arms fire. Photos clearly show the destroyed, burned-out, and bullet-and-shrapnel-riddled vehicles of the column. It would seem highly unlikely that no one would be killed in such a battle. Were any Americans killed in the battle, prior to the alleged massacre? If so, how many — and are they included in the number of dead alleged to have been murdered by Peiper’s men?
  • What was the “new information” Everett wired Peiper he was on his way over with? (Everett died before he could make the trip.) The big question seems to be whether or not an order existed that prisoners were to be shot. No proof of a written order has ever been found. Many of the defendants claimed orders to such effect were given by their superiors, prior to and during the Offensive.
  • The prosecution’s claim that such an order had been given by Hitler or at least some higher authority above Dietrich could not be conclusively proven, although some comments made by Dietrich and others to their subordinates could be interpreted in different ways. If such an order was given by any higher authority above Peiper, why was his unit the only one to carry them out? If the order originated with Peiper, why did they kill only some prisoners and not others?
  • U.S. troops not only brutalized and killed German prisoners on their own — before, during and after the Battle of the Bulge — but orders to that effect had been given. An order issued on 21 December 1944 by Headquarters of the U.S. 328th Infantry Regiment stated: “No SS troops or paratroops will be taken prisoner, and will be shot on sight.” Isn’t just the issuance of such an order a war crime? Weren’t some of the Malmédy Case defendants being accused of the exact same crime? How many German bodies littered the battlefields who had been the victims of American and Allied war crimes? Where is their justice?

And there are many more questions that need to be asked. More importantly, they need to be answered, although many will probably never be satisfactorily answered. For those who desire to do some further reading on this subject, I can recommend James J. Weingartner’s Crossroads of Death: The Story of the Malmédy Massacre and Trial, published last year by the University of California Press. This work, above all others that I have examined to date, is the most complete and, perhaps, the most objective account, but it is still far from the final word on the subject.

Another account which I have been informed is somewhat objective is Charles Whiting’s Massacre at Malmédy, originally published in 1971 by Stein and Day. Some groups thought the book too objective and apparently forced the publisher to stop selling it; copies of that edition have proven hard to find. However, earlier this year Stein and Day’s new catalog included a listing of this title in a paperback edition. At the trial Everett concluded his closing summary with a quote from Tom Paine:

He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression, for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent which will reach himself.

And finally, a personal interview with Peiper had been arranged for Weingartner. Unfortunately, Peiper’s untimely death occurred before the interview took place. Ultimately, Weingartner concludes his book with: “In some sense, Peiper was one more victim of the crossroads of death. May he be the last.”

From The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1981 (Vol. 2, No. 2), page 165.