Book Review: The Malmedy Massacre
The War Crimes Trial Controversy
Steven R. Remy
Harvard University Press, 2017
Desperate and hemmed in by a seemingly unbreakable vise of Allied power, Nazi Germany in late 1944 was desperate, seeing the end of the war in sight and not liking what they saw. In the previous decade, they hadn’t only been responsible for the most savage territorial aggression since Napoleon Bonaparte, they’d also conducted massacres, pogroms, and genocides on such a scale and with such methodical rigor that even civilian Germans who didn’t know the details knew their country was something more than a defeated nation – it was also a guilty one. And they could look out from their ruined cities and wasted farmlands and see retribution only a day’s march away: to the West, in the form of the quick, hard justice of the Americans and their British and French allies, and to the East, in the form of the Russian forces advancing along a carpet of looting, raping, and sham trials.
Caught in such a vise, the course was clear: sue for unconditional peace with the Americans and trust in the kind of mercy you yourself had never shown to a conquered people. In such a situation, only a madman would have contemplated military aggression. Only a madman would have thought that German’s forces, depleted and starving for fuel and manpower, could have turned the tide against the biggest and best-supplied occupying force the world had ever seen.
Germany’s elected leader was just such a madman, and Hitler ordered just such military aggression: he instructed his generals to amass their forces and punch like a mailed fist into the Allied lines, hoping to secure fuel and race north to the port at Antwerp. And for the first 15 or 20 minutes or so, it seemed like it might work: the Allied forces scattered in their tiny French and Belgium towns and villages throughout the Ardennes were caught by surprise and rolled back. They fought desperately – the conflict that extended through January and came to be called the Battle of the Bulge would be one of the costliest of the entire war – but they were, very temporarily, outgunned and outmanned. The advancing German troops took scores of prisoners.
But those advancing German troops could also see the end at hand, and the attack force, General Josef “Sepp” Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army – wasn’t interested in prisoners. These men and their leaders wanted instead to give one final vent to simple bloodlust. They killed Allied prisoners with abandon, and the most famous example of this took place in a snowy field outside the village of Malmedy, when 84 unarmed American prisoners were herded out into the open and mowed down by machine gun fire. Most of the fallen men were then face-shot by troops stalking through the bloodied snow to kill survivors.
Not all the survivors, however: some who fled were able to report on what had happened, and when the German advance almost immediately ground to a halt and was rolled back in its turn, the “Malmedy Massacre” became the focus of its own war crimes trials. You wouldn’t think such trials would have been especially complicated; the German killers were all alive and in custody, there were eyewitnesses, and there were all those frozen bodies in the snow. In terms of simple, indictable savagery, atrocities don’t get much clearer than what happened at Malmedy.
And yet, as Steven Remy relates in his definitive new study of the Malmedy trials, complications arose immediately: there were loud voices calling the massacre a fabrication of the vindictive Allies, an excuse to penalize German troops who were only carrying out their Fuhrer’s orders but who wouldn’t dream of violating any universally recognized rules of warfare. “Defenders of the accused and some of the accused themselves would claim they had been prosecuted unjustly because the American public had become enraged by reports of the massacre and incapable of administering justice with any degree of impartiality,” Remy writes. “The Malmedy massacre story as formulated by the press by early 1945 would become a metaphorical lodestar for those seeking punishment and those seeking amnesty.”
The Malmedy Massacre does an especially sensitive job at picking apart the psychological factors involved in giving that “metaphorical lodestar” its power. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the US Army put 74 of the Waffen SS men involved in the massacre on trial and won convictions against all of them, but the whole process was contested from the beginning, with German serial liars claiming they’d been tortured into making false confessions and West German political officials put pressure on East Germany and its allies to sanction an alternate narrative in which the facts of the case were somehow unclear and perhaps the past was best left buried. Remy lays out those facts with eloquent clarity and displays a commendable impatience throughout his book at the persistence of the alternate narrative itself:
The Malmedy massacre retains a prominent place in this accounting of failure and hard-won victory, and no history of the entire battle is complete without a dramatic retelling of the crossroads encounter. The apologetic account of the massacre, investigation, and trial has also enjoyed a long afterlife. Its durability suggests that it is not always the winners who get to write history.
By focusing on the personalities and infighting of the people on both sides of that “apologetic account,” The Malmedy Massacre goes well beyond being just another one of those dramatic retellings; this is as much a story about the battle for history as it is about one set of atrocity trials. The names Remy stitches together in his account will be unfamiliar to readers, but the account itself is one for the permanent collection.