Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The U.S. Army really screwed up the trial of perpetrators of the Malmedy massacre

One of the more notorious incidents of World War II was the massacre late in 1944 of at least 70 American PoWs in Malmedy, Belgium, by an SS unit led by Col. Joachim Peiper. I knew about that, but not about the screwy trial of the perps two years later. Thrice-blessed Fred Borch III tells ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

One of the more notorious incidents of World War II was the massacre late in 1944 of at least 70 American PoWs in Malmedy, Belgium, by an SS unit led by Col. Joachim Peiper. I knew about that, but not about the screwy trial of the perps two years later.

Thrice-blessed Fred Borch III tells the tale in the new issue of Army Lawyer. If your copy hasn't yet arrived, here's the story: Of the 73 German soldiers tried near Dachau in 1946, all were found guilty, and 43 were sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. Yet none actually was executed, and everyone was freed from prison by the end of 1956.

How come? It turns out some of the evidence had been obtained by telling Germans being interrogated that they would be hanged the next day, so they might was well write a confession and clear some comrades before departing this world. Two or more of these people had ropes placed around their necks.

One of the more notorious incidents of World War II was the massacre late in 1944 of at least 70 American PoWs in Malmedy, Belgium, by an SS unit led by Col. Joachim Peiper. I knew about that, but not about the screwy trial of the perps two years later.

Thrice-blessed Fred Borch III tells the tale in the new issue of Army Lawyer. If your copy hasn’t yet arrived, here’s the story: Of the 73 German soldiers tried near Dachau in 1946, all were found guilty, and 43 were sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. Yet none actually was executed, and everyone was freed from prison by the end of 1956.

How come? It turns out some of the evidence had been obtained by telling Germans being interrogated that they would be hanged the next day, so they might was well write a confession and clear some comrades before departing this world. Two or more of these people had ropes placed around their necks.

Their defense attorney, Col. Willis Everett, was a persistent man — and a racist. Even after leaving the military he continued to work on behalf of the convicted SS men. He also attacked one member of the military court, Col. Abraham Rosenfeld, as the “Jew Law Member” and spoke of “Jewish pressure…demanding blood and death penalties.” He also spluttered some nasty stuff about black Americans, Borch notes.  

Peiper had been almost contemptuous in his trial, stating that of course experienced commanders knew it sometimes was necessary in combat to shoot PoWs. Once freed, he went to work for Porsche and then went that became controversial, he moved to eastern France. There rough justice caught up with him on Bastille Day 1976, when he was died after his house was firebombed and he was perhaps shot — accounts differ on that last point.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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