Malmedy massacre trial
The Malmedy massacre trial (U.S. vs. Valentin Bersin, et al.) was held in May–July 1946 in the Dachau concentration camp to try the German Waffen-SS soldiers accused of the Malmedy massacre of December 17, 1944. The highest-ranking defendant was the former SS general, Sepp Dietrich.
The Malmedy massacre was a series of atrocities committed by members of Kampfgruppe Peiper (part of the 1st SS Panzer Division) of the Waffen-SS against American prisoners of war and Belgian civilians during the Battle of the Bulge. Though the main massacre nearest Baugnez (Malmedy itself was not the location of any massacres) resulted in the murder of over 80 American POW and was the primary subject of the eventual trial, it was only one of a series of atrocities and executions committed by Kampfgruppe Peiper between mid-December 1944 and mid-January 1945. In total, over 750 POWs were murdered, mostly executed at close range by gunshots to the head (though the eventual U.S. Senate investigation would tally the official total at 362 POWs and 111 civilians).
Most of the testimonies provided by the survivors state that about 120 Americans from the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion (FAOB), with only light armament, were surprised by the German armored advance on Baugnez, and surrendered. They were gathered in a field near the Baugnez crossroads, at which time the SS troops suddenly fired on their prisoners with machine guns. Several SS prisoners later testified that a few of the prisoners had tried to escape. Others claimed that a few of the prisoners had recovered their previously discarded weapons and fired on the German troops as they continued their progress toward Ligneuville. Of the 84 bodies recovered a month later, most showed wounds to the head, seemingly much more consistent with a deliberate massacre than with self-defense or with injuries inflicted on prisoners who were attempting to escape.
As soon as the SS machine gunners opened fire, the American POWs panicked. Some tried to flee, but most were shot where they stood. A few sought shelter in a café at the crossroads. The SS soldiers set fire to the building, and shot all who tried to escape the flames. Some in the field had dropped to the ground and pretended to be dead when the shooting began. However, SS troops walked among the bodies and shot any who appeared to be alive.
On January 13, 1945, American forces secured the areas where the killings occurred. The bodies were recovered on January 14 and January 15, 1945, with the cold weather preserving the evidence and keeping the bodies and their wounds mostly intact. The autopsies revealed that at least twenty of the victims had suffered fatal gunshot wounds to the head, inflicted at very close range. These were in addition to wounds made by automatic weapons. Another 20 showed evidence of small-calibre gunshot wounds to the head without powder-burn residue; 10 had fatal crushing or blunt-trauma injuries, most likely from rifle butts. Some bodies showed only one wound, in the temple or behind the ear. Most of the bodies were found in a very small area, suggesting the victims had been gathered together just before they were killed.
The trial – Case Number 6-24 (US vs. Valentin Bersin et al.) – was one of the Dachau Trials, which took place from May 16, 1946 to July 16, 1946. The defendants appeared before a military court of senior American commissioned officers.
The defendants were 75 former members of the Waffen SS, mostly from the 1st SS Panzer Division "Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler". Highest in rank were General Sepp Dietrich, commander of the 6th SS Panzer Army, his chief of staff, General Fritz Krämer, Lieutenant General Hermann Priess, commander of the I SS Panzer Corps and Colonel Joachim Peiper, commander of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment - the core element of Kampfgruppe Peiper, which conducted the massacre.
The counts of indictment related to the alleged massacre of more than three hundred American prisoners of war "in the vicinity of Malmedy, Honsfeld, Büllingen, Ligneuville, Stoumont, La Gleize, Cheneux, Petit Thier, Trois Ponts, Stavelot, Wanne and Lutrebois", between December 16, 1944 and January 13, 1945 during the Battle of the Bulge, as well as the massacre of about one hundred Belgian civilians in the vicinity of Stavelot.
The prosecutors admitted that many statements had been obtained from the defendants by various ruses and tricks.[not in citation given] These illegal procedures were not repudiated by the court despite repeated defense objections, and the affidavits were accepted when they accused the informant himself and co-defendants.[improper synthesis?][dubious ]
Six defendants, including Peiper, complained to the court that they had been victims of physical violence or threats of violence meant to force them to provide extrajudicial confessions. Those in charge of the interrogations denied it and the court ignored the objections.
The defendants were invited to confirm the statements they had made under oath. After nine of them had taken the stand, it became obvious that they had accused fellow defendants to minimize their own roles.[dubious ] It was clear to Everett that this would weaken the position of the defense. He persuaded the remaining defendants to give up their right to be heard by the court. Of the nine who testified, only three had claimed mistreatment they had suffered.
For most of the accused, the defense argued that they either had not participated, or had done so by obeying a superior's orders. The court ruled that all but one of the defendants were guilty in some degree. Forty-three were condemned to death by hanging; the rest were sentenced to from ten years to life in prison. Peiper was sentenced to death. Dietrich received a life sentence, Priess 20 years imprisonment. Those sentenced to death requested execution by firing squad, citing their military status. This was refused.
The court's deliberations were short, only a few minutes being devoted to each individual.
On July 16, 1946 the verdict was delivered on 73 members of the Kampfgruppe Peiper.
- 43 sentenced to death by hanging, including Peiper
- 22 sentenced to life imprisonment
- 2 sentenced to 20 years imprisonment
- 1 sentenced to 15 years
- 5 sentenced to 10 years
Pursuant to procedure, an in-house review was undertaken by the American Occupation Army in Germany; the trial was carefully examined by a deputy judge. Taking into account the doubts which surrounded the investigation phase, he issued in several cases recommendations of free pardon or commutation of the death sentences[further explanation needed], which were often followed by General Lucius Clay,[when?] the Commander of the American zone in occupied Germany.
Colonel Everett was convinced that a fair trial had not been granted to the defendants: in addition to alleged mock trials, he claimed that "to extort confessions, U.S. prosecution teams 'had kept the German defendants in dark, solitary confinement at near starvation rations up to six months; had applied various forms of torture, including the driving of burning matches under the prisoners' fingernails; had administered beatings which resulted in broken jaws and arms and permanently injured testicles'."
Furthermore, in Germany proper, voices rose from various circles to speak for the sentenced men. Among others, the Princess Helene Elisabeth von Isenburg, founder of Stille Hilfe, a movement for the assistance of prisoners of war and internees (an organization assisting ex-Nazis), managed to mobilize certain members[who?] of the Catholic and Protestant hierarchies in Germany in favor of the defendants.[dubious ] Rudolf Aschenauer, who had been the defender of one of the accused in the trial of the Einsatzgruppen, had also been in touch with the defendants[when?] and had worked for the revision of the trial results.
Approximately sixteen months after the end of the trial, almost all the defendants presented affidavits repudiating their former confessions and alleging aggravated duress of all types.[not specific enough to verify] Among others, they claimed to have been punched in the mouth and testicles, resulting in irreparable disabilities.[dubious ]
Colonel Everett lodged appeals to the Supreme Court of the United States and the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The latter declared itself incompetent, since it acknowledged only procedures engaged by states and not by individuals. The Supreme Court made no decision[vague]. Four judges decided in favor of a revision and four against. The ninth judge, Robert Jackson, was recused because he had been a prosecutor in the main Nuremberg trial.
The Simpson Commission
The turmoil raised by this case caused the Secretary of the Army, Kenneth Royall, to create a commission chaired by Judge Gordon A. Simpson of Texas to investigate. Apparently, [according to whom?] the Commission was interested not only in the facts of the Malmedy massacre trial, but also had to deal with other cases judged by the International Military Tribunals in Europe.[examples needed] The commission arrived in Europe on July 30, 1948 and issued its report on 14 September recommending that the twelve remaining death sentences be commuted to life imprisonment.
The commission supported Everett's accusations regarding mock trials[specify] and neither disputed nor denied his charges of torture of the defendants. The Commission expressed the opinion that the pre-trial investigation had not been properly conducted and that the members felt that no death sentence should be executed where such a doubt existed. One of the members of the commission, Judge Edward L. Van Roden of Pennsylvania, made several public statements alleging that physical violence had been inflicted on the accused.
All but two of the Germans in the 139 cases we investigated had been kicked in the testicles beyond repair. This was standard operating procedure with our American investigators.
Furthermore, under his signature, an article denouncing the conditions under which the assumed guilt of Malmedy defendants and of other questionable cases was going to be published in February 1949 with the assistance of the National Council for Prevention of War. To the charges of violence confining with torture, Van Roden alleged that during the confinement, the defendants had been put in isolated cells or had been starved. This article would have caused great turmoil in the United States, because it described behaviors in total contradiction with the American principles of fair play.[improper synthesis?] In response, General Clay commuted six more death sentences to life imprisonment.[who?][when?] He however refused to commute the six remaining death sentences, including Peiper’s, but the executions were postponed.
The Senate subcommittee
Eventually, the United States Senate decided to investigate. Ultimately, the case was entrusted to the Committee on Armed Services over the Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Departments. The investigation was entrusted to a subcommittee of three senators chaired by Raymond E. Baldwin. The subcommittee was set up on March 29, 1949, at the beginning of the Cold War and during the Berlin blockade and worked during several months. Its members went to Germany and during its hearings, the commission heard from no less than 108 witnesses.
A young and ambitious Senator, Joseph McCarthy, had obtained from the subcommittee’s chairman authorization to attend the hearings. McCarthy's state, Wisconsin, had a large population of German heritage, spurring allegations that McCarthy was political motivated in his work on behalf of the Malmedy defendants. Although McCarthy was only attending because of Baldwin’s courtesy, and was not actually part of the subcommittee, McCarthy seemed to have successfully taken complete charge of the subcommittee’s investigations and tried to press his views.[according to whom?] He used quite aggressive questioning, even towards the survivors of the massacre, whom he on occasion accused of being liars. Employing tactics for which he would be later become infamous, McCarthy often distorted the facts in order to corroborate his vision of the case, e.g. stating that all of the investigators were Jewish, or that many of the sentenced had been 15 or 16 years old teenagers. McCarthy's antics further inflamed a split between the American Legion (which took a hardline position after Malmedy and generally supported upholding the death sentences) and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (who supported more lenient penalties for the Waffen-SS members under Peiper) which persisted for some time. The last clash took place in May 1949 when he asked that Lieutenant Perl to be given a lie detection test. Since this had been rejected by Baldwin, McCarthy left the session claiming that Baldwin was trying to whitewash the American military.
While on the one hand McCarthy was far from impartial, two of the members of the three-man subcommittee, the chairman Senator Raymond Baldwin and Senator Lester Hunt have been accused by historian David Oshinsky of being "determined to exonerate the Army at all costs". Oshinsky also alleges that the third member of the committee, Senator Estes Kefauver, displayed a lack of interest in the case, attending only two of the first fifteen hearings. Though McCarthy sought to denounce Baldwin in front of the whole Senate, [according to whom?] his efforts were repudiated by the Commission on Armed Forces, which clearly showed its support for Baldwin[how?] and eventually adopted the report of the subcommittee.
The subcommittee report
In its report, the subcommittee rejected the most serious charges, including beatings, torture, mock executions and starvation of the defendants.[page needed] In addition, the subcommittee determined that commutations of sentences pronounced by General Clay had occurred because of the U.S. Army's recognition that procedural irregularities could have occurred during the trial.[page needed] On the other hand, the commission did not exonerate the defendants or absolve them of guilt. On the contrary, for example, it endorsed the conclusions General Clay issued in the particular case of Lieutenant Christ. In summary, Clay had written that “he was personally convinced of the culpability of Christ and, that for this reason his death sentence was fully justified. But, to apply this sentence would be equivalent accepting a bad administration of justice, which led [him], not without reserve, to commute the death penalty to life imprisonment”.
Ultimately, the commission report, combined with the intensification of the Cold War, which required that the United States have the West Germans on their side, led the American Army to commute the last death sentence to life imprisonment.[dubious ] In the years which followed, all of the men were eventually released, the last being Joachim Peiper on December 19, 1956.
- Malmedy massacre Investigation–Report of the Subcommittee of Committee on Armed Services. United States Senate Eighty-first Congress, first session, pursuant to S. res. 42, Investigation of action of Army with Respect to Trial of Persons Responsible for the Massacre of American Soldiers, Battle of the Bulge, near Malmedy, Belgium, December 1944. 13 October 1949.
- Cole, Hugh M. (1965). "Chapter V: The Sixth Panzer Army Attack". The Ardennes. United States Army in World War II, The European Theater of Operations. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History.
- MacDonald, Charles (1984). A Time For Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge. Bantam Books. ISBN 0-553-34226-6.
- Reynolds, Michael (February 2003). Massacre At Malmédy During the Battle of the Bulge. World War II Magazine.
- Wholesale Slaughter at Baugnez-lez-Malmedy, Willy D. Alenus
- Glass, MAJ Scott T. "Mortuary Affairs Operations At Malmedy—Lessons Learned From A Historic Tragedy".
- "Review and recommendation of the deputy judge advocate for war crimes, 20 October 1947".
- Roger Martin, L'Affaire Peiper, Dagorno, 1994, p. 76
- Glass, Lt Col Scott T. (1998-11-22). "Mortuary Affairs Operations at Malmedy". Centre de Recherches et d'Informations sur la Bataille des Ardennes. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2007-03-22.
- War Crimes Office (1948). "Case Number 6-24 (US vs. Valentin Bersin et al.)". U.S. Army Trial Reviews and Recommendations. United States Department of War. Retrieved 2006-12-18. This is a web transcription of microfilmed archives of the original US Army documents. See the site's introduction for more information. The URL is to a HTML frame, you must select "US011" in the left pane to get to case "6-24". The direct URL to the case page is here.
- Malmedy massacre Investigation – Report of the Subcommittee of Committee on armed services – United States Senate – Eighty-first Congress, first session, pursuant to S. res. 42, Investigation of action of army with respect to trial of persons responsible for the massacre of American soldiers, battle of the Bulge, near Malmedy, Belgium, December 1944. October 13, 1949 p. 27
- Clemency, Time magazine, Jan. 17, 1949 (registration required).
- Malmedy massacre Investigation, p. 4
- Malmedy massacre Investigation, p. 28
- Utley, Freda (1948), The High Cost of Vengeance (PDF), Henry Regnery Company p. 186 (From a speech to the Chester Pike Rotary Club on December 14, 1948)
- American atrocities in Germany, by Judge Edward L. Van Roden, The Progressive, février 1949.
- Malmedy massacre Investigation, p. 30
- The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate, Robert Griffith, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987, p. 22
- The Nightmare Decade: The Life and Times of Senator Joe McCarthy, Fred J. Cook, Random House, 1971, p. 133
- The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate, p. 24
- Bitburg in moral and political perspective, Geoffrey H. Hartman, Indiana University Press, 1986 at pp. 68-73.
- The Nightmare Decade: The Life and Times of Senator Joe McCarthy, cité ci-dessus, p. 133
- "Throughout the hearings, McCarthy bullied witnesses, made scores of erroneous statements, exaggerated his evidence, and turned almost every session into a barroom brawl. At the same time, however, he demonstrated that Baldwin and Hunt were no more interested in an impartial investigation than he was. Their manners were better, their tone more subdued, but they were determined to exonerate the Army at all costs, just as Joe was determined to prove its culpability." David M. Oshinsky "A conspiracy so immense: the world of Joe McCarthy" pp. 76-77
- David M. Oshinsky "A conspiracy so immense: the world of Joe McCarthy" pp.76
- Malmedy massacre Investigation, p. 31
- Dachau Trial, Review and Recommendations of the Deputy Judge Advocate, Jewish Virtual Library
- Malmedy Massacre Trial, Jewish Virtual Library
- "Clemency", (Jan. 17, 1949), Time magazine (registration required)
- Utley, Freda, (November 1954) "Malmedy and McCarthy", Printed in The American Mercury