Monday, December 17, 2007

December 17

On this date in 1944, German soldiers slaughtered more than 80 American prisoners of war in a field at Baugnez, about two miles from the Belgian town of Malmedy. The Malmedy Massacre was only one of numerous similar atrocities committed by the Kampfgrupper Peiper, a unit from the 1st Panzer Division participating in the Battle of the Bulge, a month-long confrontation that marked the beginning of the end for German forces in Western Europe.

Named for its commander, Joachim Peiper, the kampfgrupper was supposed to secure a series of bridges along the Meuse River near the town of Huy; delayed by a combination of American resistance and bad roads, Peiper’s unit was already significantly behind schedule when it happened upon about a convoy of 120 Americans from the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. The US convoy was quickly captured and the men -- non-combat soldiers armed with pistols and knives -- taken into German custody. For the next several hours, the Americans were overseen by a revolving door of German units passing through the crossroads at Baugnez. For reasons that have never been adequately explained, German soldiers eventually opened fire on the prisoners, killing nearly all of them in the course of about 15 minutes.

Because the area around Malmedy remained no-man’s-land until mid-January, the bodies remained where they fell until a recovery effort could be assembled and the bodies retrieved from the snow that had buried them. About half of the bodies showed evidence of close-range gunshots to the head, indicating that the massacre had been systematic and deliberate. Peiper’s unit committed similar massacres over the next several days in in Stavelot, Cheneux, Stoumont and other Belgian towns where scores of civilians also died in German assaults.

Peiper and more than 70 other members of the 1st Panzer Division were eventually tried and convicted of the massacre at Malmedy. Forty-three of the defendants received death sentences, with the rest earning ten years to life in prison. The trials themselves became a source of controversy, with defendants accusing the US of harsh interrogation tactics and pre-trial irregularities that would never have stood in an ordinary American court. After conducting its standard post-trial review, an Army panel soon recommended that many of the death sentences be commuted. Among those whose sentences withstood scrutiny, no executions were ever administered, and within a decade all of the convicted soldiers had been released from prison -- one of the compromises deemed necessary to secure West Germany’s friendship during the Cold War.

In the meantime, the plight of the German soldiers had become a cause celebre for right-wing American anti-communists like Joseph McCarthy, who led a Senate investigation into the trial in 1949 and went so far as to accuse American soldiers of lying about the massacre itself. (McCarthy soon turned his attention to other projects.) Holocaust “revisionists” are also especially fond of the episode, which they claim was not a massacre at all but a simple accident of war. To them, Joachim Peiper is nothing less than a hero.

About fourteen years after his release from prison, Joachim Peiper moved to France. On Bastille Day 1976, he died in his home, which had been set ablaze by a petrol bomb of unknown origin.

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