Dachau, Germany July 16, 1946

On this date in 1946, at the former Nazi concen­tra­tion camp in Dachau about 20 miles north­west of the Bavarian capital of Munich, a U.S. mili­tary tribu­nal con­victed all 73 men on trial in the Mal­medy Massa­cre case; 43 were sentenced to death by hanging and the rest were given long prison sentences. Known collec­tively as “the Dachau trials”—there were 489 pro­ceedings con­ducted in Dachau between Novem­ber 15, 1945, and 1948—the Amer­i­can mili­tary tribu­nals at Dachau are not to be con­fused with the pro­ceedings against the major German war crimi­nals before the four-power Inter­national Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.

At Dachau a panel of eight high-ranking U.S. Army offi­cers acted as judge and jury in a manner simi­lar to a U.S. Army court martial. Convic­tions required a two-thirds majority of panel mem­bers. Attor­neys for the defense were also Amer­i­can army officers. The prose­cu­tion did not need to prove the accused guilty of charges. During pre-trial investi­ga­tions their guilt had been estab­lished by inter­ro­gators tasked with obtaining confes­sions from the defen­dants, who were then of course pre­sumed guilty. Hear­say testi­mony was allowed by the court. Wit­nesses who sub­mitted affi­da­vits but did not appear in per­son could not be sub­poenaed and cross-examined. Some of the accused were not per­mitted to testi­fy in their own defense. Indeed, the defense encouraged most of the accused not to testify. Thus the out­come of any of the Dachau trials was never in doubt.

The Malmedy Massacre proceedings (Case Number 6-24)—the most famous of the Dachau trials—focused primar­ily on the grisly killing of 84 out of perhaps 125 Amer­i­can soldiers who had surren­dered on Decem­ber 17, 1944, one day after Adolf Hitler had launched a furious offen­sive in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium and Luxem­bourg aimed a punching a hole in Allied lines, an offen­sive popularly known as the Battle of the Bulge. The dis­armed soldiers had surren­dered to a unit of the Waffen-SS (the mili­tary arm of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party) at the Baugnez road crossing 2‑1/2 miles south of Malmedy in Eastern Belgium. More than 30 Amer­i­cans sur­vived the slaughter to tell about it. The accused war crimi­nals in the Dachau court­room included former Schutz­staffel (SS) Gen. Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, com­mander of the German Sixth Panzer Army and Lt. Col. “Jochen” (Joachim) Peiper, then a 29‑year-old SS officer com­manding Kampf­gruppe Peiper, the 5,000-strong armored battle group that spear­headed the German Ardennes offen­sive. It was a small cadre of SS panzer­grena­diers left by Peiper to “guard” the Amer­i­cans in a field beside the Ligneuville–St. Vith road at Baugnez who murdered their charges in cold blood after shouting, as survivors testified, “Macht alle kaputt.”

Besides the casual killing of disarmed Amer­i­can soldiers at the Baugnez road crossing, the 73 SS men standing trial at Dachau were accused of mur­dering addi­tional POWs (between 538 and 749 in all) and hun­dreds of Belgian civil­ians whom the Germans claimed had aided the Allies or had engaged in parti­san attacks; few claims had a basis in truth. On the same day as the Baugnez-Malmedy slaughter, Peiper’s SS panzer­grena­diers executed 19 Amer­i­can POWs in a field near Hons­feld; two villagers who were made to face a wall were shot in the back of the head. In the fighting in and around Stave­lot south­west of Malmedy shortly after the German offen­sive began, Peiper’s panzer­grena­diers killed more than 130 civil­ians, mostly women and chil­dren, the men having fled west to safety. Prac­tically every­where in the war-ravaged Ardennes, one and a half months of intense fighting reached a sav­agery similar to that on the Eastern Front, where horrific violence such as that lasted five long years.

The Malmedy Massacre Trial at Dachau, Germany, May–July 1946

Malmedy Massacre Trial: U.S. military courthouse, Dachau, GermanyMalmedy Massacre Trial: U.S. military courtroom, Dachau, Germany

Above: The Dachau courthouse (left frame) and court­room (right frame) where the Malmedy case, officially known as U.S. vs. Valentin Bersin, et al., was tried. The U.S. mili­tary selected Dachau for its German war crimes proceedings, in part for the abun­dant housing avail­able at the former concen­tra­tion camp and the large SS training camp there, and in part because the site was most asso­ci­ated in the minds of the Amer­i­can public with German atrocities in World War II. The Malmedy Mas­sacre pro­ceedings began on May 12, 1946, and the ver­dicts were handed down on July 16, 1946. The pro­ceedings captured media head­lines and were filmed; scenes were shown in newsreels in American theaters.

Malmedy Massacre: African American graves detail, Baugnez-Malmedy, January 1945Malmedy Massacre victims at Baugnez execution site

Above: These photographs taken in mid-January 1945 show some of the 72 bodies that were recovered on Janu­ary 14 and 15, 1945, after laying under 2 feet of Bel­gian snow four weeks after their murder. Another 12 bodies were recovered 4 months later following snow­melt, making a total of 84 vic­tims. Some Germans testified that the Amer­i­can pri­soners, lightly armed mem­bers of Battery B of the 285th Field Artil­lery Obser­va­tion Bat­talion, which had just departed Malmedy, tried to escape or had recovered weapons and fired on their captors. How­ever, detailed autop­sies by U.S. Army sur­geons revealed that at least 20 vic­tims had suffered fatal gun­shot wounds to the head or neck, inflicted at point-blank range, which left powder burns. These bullet wounds were in addi­tion to those made by auto­matic wea­pons fired from a dis­tance. Another 20 vic­tims showed evi­dence of small-calibre gun­shot wounds to the head without powder-burn resi­due. Another 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. To shoot unarmed pri­soners was pro­hibited by secu­lar inter­na­tional law (Hague Con­ven­tions of 1899 and 1907). But to machine gun pri­soners and then method­ically, heart­lessly, and laughingly (per the testi­mony of three sur­vivors who feigned death) move among the dead and dying with hand guns to finish off any­one still showing signs of life, stripping the victims of dog tags, wallets and watches—that was considered an unspeakable atrocity.

Malmedy Massacre Trial: Joachim Peiper at U.S. Military Tribunal Dachau, May 1946Malmedy Massacre defendants await sentencing, July 1946

Left: Accused war criminal Joachim Peiper (center), Dachau 1946. The leader of Kampf­gruppe Peiper and many of his SS panzer­grena­diers were brought to trial for their killing frenzy in Bel­gium during the German Ardennes Offen­sive in Decem­ber 1944 and January 1945. Over 300 Amer­i­cans and Bel­gians were mur­dered by Kampf­gruppe Peiper. The weight of histor­ical evi­dence in the Decem­ber 17, 1944, inci­dent near Malmedy is that Peiper made a battle­field deci­sion, ordering the exe­cution of Amer­i­can pri­soners based on his armored unit’s assign­ment to capture the bridge over the Meuse River in the Belgian town of Huy and hold it until SS Gen. Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army could cross over it. Heavy Amer­i­can artil­lery fire forced Peiper to take an alternate route through the tiny village of Malmedy. Doubt­less Peiper factored in the diffi­culty of evac­u­ating large num­bers of captured men with little avail­able infan­try with­out it threatening the momen­tum of his striking spear­head. Peiper him­self departed what became the exe­cu­tion site. Making the deci­sion easier on the few panzer­grena­diers Peiper left nervously holding the captives was the ethos Peiper’s men had acquired fighting in Italy and on the Eastern Front, where they showed how little they valued an enemy’s life. With despi­cable ruth­less­ness and brutal­ity, Peiper’s men took pride in their unit’s nick­name, the “Blow­torch Bat­talion,” because of its pen­chant for setting fire to every building it could and burning to death every man, woman, and child inside.

Right: Defendants at the Malmedy Massacre trial listen to closing argu­ments. Peiper sits with crossed arms in the front row. After delib­erating less than 2‑1/2 hours, the court handed down 43 death sen­tences as well as prison terms of 10, 15, and 20 years to life. SS Gen. Sepp Dietrich (obscured by figure on left) was sen­tenced to life in prison along with 21 other men. SS Gen. Fritz Kraemer (33) was sen­tenced to 10 years in prison and SS Lt. Gen. Her­mann Priess (45), Peiper’s corps com­mander, was sen­tenced to life, subse­quently com­muted to 20 years. Peiper was con­demned to death for his part in the massa­cre, although no direct evi­dence was pre­sented at the pro­ceedings that he had ordered the killings. Ulti­mately not one of those sen­tenced to death was exe­cuted, and none served a full prison sen­tence after evi­dence of proce­dural irreg­u­larities sur­faced. Last to be released from prison was Peiper in Decem­ber 1956, having served a little over 11 years, the same number of years he had served in Hitler’s armed forces. Following his release Peiper pur­sued a career in the auto indus­try in West Ger­many, employed for a time by Porsche and a Volks­wagen dealer­ship. But Peiper’s war­time past followed him every­where. “I was a Nazi and I remain one,” he told a French writer in 1967. Even­tually he and his wife settled in a house they had built near Traves in Eastern France. On July 14 (Bas­tille Day), 1976, his ill deeds caught up with him when unknown assail­ants (quite possi­bly vete­rans of the French Resis­tance) attacked his house with fire­bombs, killing him but not his wife who was not home.

Contemporary German and U.S. Newsreels Recount Malmedy Massacre and Trial, 1945–1946. WARNING: Some graphic images