The Malmedy trial remains an example of how competent professionals confronted a blizzard of fake news and fought against that era’s most dangerous demagogues.
In December 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, members of a Nazi SS combat division executed 84 captured GIs near the Belgian town of Malmedy. It was the deadliest encounter of its kind between American and German forces. General Dwight Eisenhower vowed to hold the perpetrators accountable. However, controversy soon enveloped the US investigation. Today, this episode remains an example of how competent professionals confronted a blizzard of fake news and faced down one of the era’s most dangerous demagogues.
Over 16 months in 1945 and 1946, a small team of US army investigators built a damning case against 74 former SS officers and enlisted men. The chief interrogator was William Perl, one of thousands of Jewish refugees from the Nazis who had joined the US army. Trained to obtain information without resorting to physical force, Perl and his team began with interrogating hundreds of former SS men, and gathered a large amount of information from non-combatant personnel. Nothing was considered inconsequential: nicknames, gossip, personal grudges, ‘even where they had stopped along the route to urinate’, as one interrogator put it. They then used what they learned to approach a suspect with ‘the whole history of his unit’. Under informed and lengthy questioning, a suspect would fill in the gaps for the interrogators, often admitting responsibility for a crime. The process was tedious and time-consuming. Yet they reveal that most suspects, when interrogated in this manner, talked freely.
In July 1946, a US army court found all 73 guilty of violating provisions of the Geneva and Hague conventions. But within a few months, the chief defence lawyer, Colonel Willis Everett, was pressuring…