The Malmedy Massacre
The War Crimes Trial Controversy
Steven P. Remy
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2017, 352 pages
Book Review published on: July 6, 2018
Steven P. Remy’s The Malmedy Massacre: The War Crimes Trial Controversy explores the trial and retrial of Col. Joachim Peiper and the men of the 1st Schutzstaffel (SS) Panzer Division, a combat unit of the Waffen SS, who committed war crimes against U.S. soldiers and civilians during Germany’s counteroffensive at the Battle of the Bulge. More than just a new interpretation of one of the most controversial war crimes trials in American history, Remy combines his skills as a historian and researcher to revisit the Malmedy affair in a broader strategic, cultural, and political context with the goal of “contributing to an ongoing sea change in how historians and the wider public have understood the relationship between Nazi Germany and the postwar Germanys.”
The book, organized chronologically, enables the reader to easily understand events and switch perspectives. Using a combination of documents including intelligence and investigative reports, trial manuscripts, individual case files, personal correspondence, and sworn statements, Remy skillfully exposes the many layers of this story. The book’s first half focuses on recounting the context of the war crimes committed by members of the 1st SS Panzer Division during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944; the investigative processes; and the subsequent apprehension, confinement, and trials of the accused as part of the Dachau trials in 1946. In his analysis, he clearly demonstrates that the war crimes committed were not isolated incidents but were part of the indoctrination and brutal fighting style of the Waffen SS as a Nazi instrument of terror, and the accusations of systematic torture levied against the U.S. Army by the defendants were untrue. Although Remy exposes the faults of the trial proceedings, the facts show that the seventy-four defendants did receive a fair trial and appropriate sentences for their crimes.
The book’s second half, perhaps the more contentious, demonstrates that the trials were not just about accountability and justice, but they were used to help shape the postwar narrative and “legacy” of the defendants and ex-Nazis in the early days of the Cold War. Defendants, politicians, clergy, and amnesty groups of the United States and Germany fought to discredit and delegitimize the trials by igniting a decades-long controversy fueled by self-preservation, enduring prejudices (anti-Semitism), emotional responses to information reported by the media, and the fear of a failed German-American partnership with the threat of the Soviet Union in a postwar Europe. Remy deftly explains that all sides of the controversy surrounding these events, and his analysis, clearly reveal a campaign of false and distorted information that ultimately led to the release of seventy-four war criminals. Remy also challenges the widely accepted historiography of these events perpetuated by many prominent historians. The author draws many interesting conclusions that will cause readers to reflect on the events that occurred over seventy years ago that parallel some contemporary themes: “controlling the narrative,” “discrediting individuals and institutions,” and “historical mythmaking.”
The Malmedy Massacre: The War Crimes Trial Controversy would definitely benefit military historians and anyone interested in the politics of international justice as it is easy to read and thought provoking. Remy complements his narrative with two maps and multiple pictures that not only aid in the visualization of where the war crimes and subsequent trials took place but also enable the reader to associate the faces and names of the primary actors involved in the trials and posttrial activities. Readers will find the book poses many questions that not only need further study but also question the popular narrative and aspects of the postwar transition and the relationship between Germany and the United States. Whether you agree with Remy’s conclusions or not, this book achieves the author’s goal of spurring debate and enabling dialogue regarding collective memory in postconflict societies.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Edward D. Jennings, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas