Americans, Germans, and War Crimes: Converging Narratives from “the Good War”

All nations participating in World War II were guilty of war crimes, although that recognition is subject to important qualification. German genocide as the supreme wartime offense, Japanese mass murders of Chinese, the slaughter of Polish officers by the Soviet Union—the list is hardly complete, and some would argue for the inclusion of indiscriminate bombing of cities—are distinct from the smaller-scale and more spontaneous atrocities that were commonplace on all sides. The latter were often the products of combat stresses that were universal and independent of either official programs of extermination or of ideologies and perspectives that dehumanized the enemy and encouraged the annihilation of enemy civilians as well as combatants, programs and perspectives especially characteristic of the German war against the Soviet Union. As the historian John W. Dower has shown, the antagonists’ mutual perceptions of inhuman “otherness” lent the Pacific war its characteristic savagery. Max Hastings, in discussing the murder of prisoners of war (POWS) in Normandy by combatants who generally recognized each other’s common humanity, notes that “in the heat of battle, in the wake of seeing comrades die, many men found it intolerable to send prisoners to the rear knowing that they would thus survive the war, while they themselves seemed to have little prospect of doing so…. it is difficult with hindsight to draw a meaningful moral distinction between the behavior of one side and the other on the battlefield.” The Canadian general Chris Vokes, considering a plea for clemency from Kurt Meyer, commander of the Twelfth SS Panzer Division, who had been condemned to death in a postwar trial for the murders of Canadian pows, conceded “there isn’t a general or colonel on the Allied side that I know of who hasn’t said, ‘Well, this time we don’t want any prisoners.’”[1]

Prisoners were killed in reprisal for real or imagined atrocities, for the utilitarian reason that keeping them was impractical or inconvenient, or out of frustration with a war that was going badly or was being unnecessarily prolonged by the enemy. Civilians often fell victim to the fury of ground combatants, particularly in situations where occupying forces were real or imagined objects of guerrilla warfare. Due to their brutal occupation policies and Allied encouragement and material support of armed resistance to them, Germans troops were frequent targets and reacted with indiscriminate savagery. A particularly horrific example is the slaughter on June 10, 1944, of over 600 civilians in the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane by troops of the Second SS Panzer Division, which had recently been transferred from Russia and was on its way to the Normandy front. For some combatants, the perverse joy young men may derive from killing an overpowered adversary was motivation enough. The late Stephen E. Ambrose recalled that he had interviewed over one thousand American combat veterans, of whom approximately one-third reported witnessing the killing of German prisoners by American troops. The notorious “Malmédy massacre” of December 17, 1944, in which approximately 80 surrendered G.I.s were gunned down by troops of a Waffen SS battle group commanded by SS Lt. Col. Joachim Peiper, is roughly matched by the killing of some 75 Axis pows by troops of the U.S. Forty-fifth Infantry Division at Biscari, Sicily, on July 14, 1943. Both atrocities occurred in the context of intense combat, and in both commanders had, for largely pragmatic reasons, discouraged the taking of prisoners.[2]

Recognition of the ubiquity of war crimes in World War II must not be misconstrued as an argument for the approximate moral equivalence of the parties to it. The modest focus of this essay is, rather, the differential reaction of the United States Army to similar atrocities committed by its own members and by its enemies. Notified of the Malmédy massacre by the United States through Switzerland, German authorities conducted a superficial investigation but claimed they had found no evidence to corroborate the charge. Consequently, no German soldier was tried by the German armed forces for the Malmédy massacre, which, by the standards of the eastern front, was trivial. In contrast and to its credit, the U.S. Army brought to trial two U.S. soldiers for the Biscari murders, although many more had participated in the killings and some had volunteered. One, a sergeant, was found guilty of personally murdering 37 Axis prisoners with a Thompson submachine gun and sentenced to life imprisonment, but he was released and returned to duty after a year. The other, a captain, was acquitted, having successfully argued in his defense that he had acted in obedience to orders originating with Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr., then commander of Seventh Army, of which the Forty-fifth Infantry Division had been a part. Numerous witnesses had testified that Patton, prior to the invasion of Sicily, had argued against the taking of prisoners on multiple grounds, including the logistical burden of feeding them. Another recalled that Patton had urged the killing of civilians who “persisted in staying in the vicinity of combat.” Although the U.S. Army’s Inspector General’s Department investigated Patton’s role in the Biscari atrocity, no charges were brought against him, and he went on to become an iconic figure in American memory of the war. However, 73 German soldiers were tried for the Malmédy massacre and other murders of U.S. pows and Belgian civilians during the Battle of the Bulge in a much-publicized postwar trial conducted by the U.S. Army. All were found guilty, and more than half sentenced to death. Patton’s counterpart, Sixth SS Panzer Army commander Josef Dietrich, was sentenced to life in prison. The Malmédy trial lasted almost two months under the glare of floodlights and accompanied by the whirring of news cameras and closed with the prosecution’s urging that the defendants, characterized as “hardened and dangerous criminals,” be severely punished for bereaving American mothers, fathers, wives, children, and sweethearts. In stark contrast, the War Department’s Bureau of Public Relations urged that no publicity be given the Biscari murders, partly on the grounds that to do so “would arouse a segment of our own citizens that are so distant from combat that they do not understand the savagery that is war.” German battlefield crimes were part and parcel of undeniable Nazi depravity while American atrocities, it seemed, were regrettable but normal products of combat. Due in part to suspicions that some confessions had been coerced, no German convicted in the Malmédy trial went to the gallows, and the last prisoner was paroled in 1956. Nevertheless, the disparity in the U.S. Army’s treatment of the two cases is striking.[3]

The Biscari and Malmédy incidents were not alone in exemplifying ambivalent and self-serving American perspectives on the law and morality of armed conflict during World War II. Two atrocities committed in the final year of the war, although smaller in scale and somewhat different from each other in nature, throw that ambivalence into even higher relief.

Early on the afternoon of August 4, 1944, B-17 no. 909 of the 486th Bombardment Group (Heavy), U.S. Eighth Air Force, which had been damaged in a collision with another plane while on a mission to bomb oil refineries in Hamburg, crash-landed on the German North Sea island of Borkum, long a popular seaside resort. Two crewmen, the flight engineer and the navigator, had bailed out over the mainland and had been captured. They were humanely treated and survived the war. Their seven crewmates on Borkum, led by the pilot, 2nd Lt. Harvey M. Walthall, found a different reception. Rounded up by German naval personnel from a nearby antiaircraft battery, they were marched under armed guard through the town of Borkum, where they were beaten with spades by men of the Nazi Labor Service. Then, incited by the mayor, Jan Akkermann, townspeople kicked and struck them with fists and sticks. Throughout the ordeal, their guards offered them no protection. The guards were equally passive when an off-duty German soldier approached the column with drawn pistol and methodically shot each of the prisoners in the head. The seven murdered fliers were buried the following day in Borkum’s Lutheran cemetery.[4]

Less than eight months later, on the morning of March 27, 1945, the Forty-ninth Armored Infantry Battalion, reinforced by Company B of the Thirty-sixth Tank Battalion, all elements of the U.S. Eighth Armored Division, arrived in the German town of Voerde on the east bank of the Rhine River. Shortly after breakfast 2nd Lt. Robert A. Schneeweiss, a twenty-four-year-old commander of one of Company B’s tank platoons, ordered eighteen-year-old privates William Peppler and Francis Nichols and nineteen-year-old Pvt. Glen Joachims to accompany him to “hunt Germans” or to “shoot Krauts.” Approaching a nearby house, they were informed that two German male civilians were inside. Schneeweiss declared that he would “take care” of them and entered the house with Nichols and Joachims. Schneeweiss ordered the shooting of the two civilians, which Nichols and Joachims carried out in the basement. Schneeweiss then directed Peppler to “get” two women whom he had seen in the vicinity. Looking through the window of a nearby house, Peppler observed the women rummaging through a chest of drawers. He fired into or around the window but claimed he could not bring himself to aim at the women. Reporting his reluctance to Schneeweiss, he was ordered to return to the house with Nichols and to shoot them. As the two G.I.s approached, the women attempted to flee. They were cut down by M-3 submachine gun fire in the backyard of the house. Schneeweiss inspected the scene and, finding the women groaning and thrashing about, killed them both with his .45-caliber pistol. Nichols left for a KP (kitchen police) assignment, while Schneeweiss and Peppler moved on. Finding two male civilians crossing a field adjacent to the road, Schneeweiss opened fire with an M-1 rifle. Both men fell wounded. Peppler appears to have fired in the direction of the victims, but it was Schneeweiss who finished them off with bursts from Peppler’s M-3. One or possibly two more German civilians were apparently murdered, but the circumstances of their killings, for reasons that are not clear, were not investigated.[5]

Both sets of murders were patently war crimes. In combat, persons protected by the laws of war frequently suffer harm because their injury or death cannot be avoided, whether in the pursuit of a legitimate military objective or simply amid the rage and confusion of battle. Heat-of-battle atrocities are often judged with some leniency since intense combat is an extreme experience that can engender reactions that elsewhere might be considered the products of temporary insanity. Neither the Borkum nor the Voerde murders fall into those categories. Antiaircraft guns on the island had fired on the B-17 as it approached, as they normally fired on Allied aircraft that came within range, but it was hardly the kind of combat encounter that produces heated emotions. The downed American fliers were killed some hours after their capture under circumstances that suggested some organization and premeditation. The killings of the Voerde civilians were equally remote from combat, nor had the G.I.s been witnesses to Nazi mass atrocities in liberated concentration camps, an experience that often stimulated hatred of all Germans. The U.S. mechanized group to which Schneeweiss’s platoon belonged had traveled from Venlo in the Netherlands to Voerde without encountering enemy resistance other than a lightning-fast strafing run on the night of March 26–27 in the vicinity of Herongen by a German jet aircraft that did little damage to the column and none to Company B. Schneeweiss had seen virtually no combat. He had not been assigned to a fighting unit until February 1945, and his only experience of being under fire from German ground forces had occurred when, after having test-fired his tank’s guns at targets across the Rhine from its west bank, he had received some German mortar fire in reply. He had attempted to fire the .50-caliber machine gun mounted on the top of his tank’s turret at the marauding German jet, but he failed to get the weapon into operation before the enemy plane was gone.[6]

The crime committed in Borkum was a gross violation of Article 4 of the 1907 Hague Convention (IV), which requires that prisoners of war be humanely treated, and Article 2 of the 1929 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, which mandates not only general humane treatment of prisoners, but their captors’ duty to protect them “against violence, insults and public curiosity.” Schneeweiss’s rampage in Voerde violated Article 46 of the 1907 Hague Convention, which requires an occupying army to respect the lives of persons in occupied territory. Both crimes also violated the municipal law governing the conduct of the armed forces of each nation, and both crimes resulted in trials of the perpetrators, although in very different contexts.[7]

German authorities took no action against those responsible for the ill-treatment and death of the seven American airmen. A report of the incident, which the troops who escorted the airmen into Borkum immediately made to the commander of the antiaircraft battalion, falsely stated that the Americans had been beaten to death by an enraged mob, which had overwhelmed their guards. This fabrication may have arisen because the Nazi regime had given sanction to “spontaneous” assaults by outraged German civilians, but not military personnel, on downed Anglo-American airmen. Gestapo officials on the mainland were apparently notified, and two agents arrived on Borkum several days after the incident to conduct an investigation, but it was without consequence to the perpetrators. The island’s commander claimed he had established a court-martial to try the case near the end of the war, but, if he did so, it was a rather transparent effort to construct a defense against impending Allied retribution.[8]

The path to retribution began with a report on the incident made by Canadian occupation authorities based on information from a former Dutch prisoner of the Germans, who had been employed in the construction of fortifications on the island at the time of the incident. This was followed by a more thorough investigation by U.S. War Crimes Investigation Team 6837 commanded by Maj. Abraham Levine of the U.S. Army Air Forces, which arrived on Borkum in early October 1945. On the basis of that inquiry, fifteen German defendants went on trial before a U.S. Army general military government court from February 6 to March 22, 1946, in the ornate Ordenssaal (ceremonial reception hall) of the palace of the kings of Württemberg in Ludwigsburg.[9]

The defendants were charged with violating the laws of war in that they did “willfully, deliberately and wrongfully encourage, aid, abet and participate” in the assaulting and killing of William Lambertus, William Myers, James Danno, William Dold, Harvey Walthall, Kenneth Faber, and Howard Graham, “all members of the United States Army who were then unarmed, surrendered prisoners of war in the custody of the then German Reich.” There was a figure notably absent from the defendants’ dock—the actual killer of the American airmen, a Pvt. Erich or Wilhelm Langer (his first name was uncertain), who had allegedly been transferred from the island to the mainland shortly after the atrocity and who could not be found by American investigators, possibly because he had been killed in action in the final stages of the war. But the absent Langer was a key figure in the trial and not simply because he had been the triggerman whom the Germans had made no effort to arrest. Multiple witnesses testified that as Langer approached the prisoners with clearly hostile intent, he shouted that his wife and children had been killed in an air raid on Hamburg. “You damned swine, you’ve murdered my wife and four children,” were the words one onlooker claimed to remember nine years later.[10]

Langer personalized in its most extreme form the likely motivation for the Borkumers’ assault on the prisoners. Those who participated conceived of it as an act of reprisal for the deaths, by August 1944, of hundreds of thousands of German civilians in American and British air attacks. Borkum itself had been largely spared the ravages of raids that had pulverized many German cities, but residents of the island had friends and relatives on the mainland and close contact with the populations of nearby Emden and Wilhelmshaven, which had been heavily bombed, and Allied bomber streams from English bases passing overhead almost daily kept the islanders in a state of high tension and fear. Mayor (and Nazi Ortsgruppenleiter [local party leader]) Akkermann testified that he had simply wanted the American prisoners “who had come over there every day at 8,000 meters altitude” to know how helpless the Germans felt, “as worms on the ground.”[11]

But the Borkum atrocity was not a purely spontaneous manifestation of popular outrage, nor was it unique. From the summer of 1943 until the end of the war, over 200 (and perhaps many more) downed American and British airmen may have been murdered by German civilians, military personnel, or police and party officials.[12] Although the number killed represents only a small fraction of the total number of airmen captured on German soil during that period and although some of the murders would probably have occurred in the absence of official encouragement, such encouragement had been plentiful. On August 10, 1943, SS commander and German police chief Heinrich Himmler ordered police officials not to intervene when civilians attacked Allied airmen. On May 21, 1944, Adolf Hitler directed that downed Allied airmen be summarily executed if they had fired on Germans parachuting from stricken aircraft or German aircrewmen who had crash-landed, or if they had attacked trains or individual civilians. And, in an editorial in the Nazi party newspaper Völkischer Beobachter the following week, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, in “a word on the enemy air terror,” accused British and American airmen of the willful murder of German civilians and declared:

It is only possible with the aid of arms to secure the lives of enemy pilots who were shot down during such attacks, for they would otherwise be killed by the sorely tried population. Who is right here? The murderers who after their cowardly misdeeds await a humane treatment on the part of their victims, or the victims who wish to defend themselves according to the principle ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’? … In any case it would be demanding too much of us if it were asked of us that we use German soldiers for the defense of murderers of children.

Residents of Borkum recalled having heard a radio message with similar content. At the end of the month, Hitler’s private secretary and party chancellery chief Martin Bormann circulated a secret memo to Nazi party leaders down to the Kreis (district) level. Suggestively entitled “Re: Justice Exercised by the People against Anglo-American Murderers,” it claimed that British and American fliers had been strafing civilians, including children, while they were engaged in innocent pursuits and continued: “Several instances have occurred where crew members of such aircraft who have bailed out or have made forced landings were lynched on the spot immediately after capture by the outraged public. No police or criminal proceedings were lodged against citizens involved.” Local party bosses, or Ortsgruppenleiter (such as Akkermann), were to be notified orally of the contents of the memo. Orders to the Wehrmacht reflected Goebbels’s rant.[13]

Goebbels was guilty of falsification and hypocrisy of staggering proportions when he contrasted the “unlimited barbarity” of the Allied air campaign with the alleged German wish “that the war should be conducted in a chivalrous manner.” And he was wrong when he claimed that “there is no rule of international law which the enemy can call on in this matter. The Anglo-American pilots place themselves through such a criminal code of warfare outside the pale of every internationally recognized rule of warfare.” International law specifically constraining aerial warfare was virtually nonexistent or at best ambiguous, while that regulating the treatment of prisoners of war and mandating their protection was clear and well established. Seven years before the 1929 Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, an effort to add rules governing aerial warfare to the laws of war, partly with an eye to limiting its destructive effects on civilian populations, had failed. The United States had gone so far as to repudiate the Hague Declaration XIV of October 18, 1907, “prohibiting the discharge of projectiles and explosives from balloons,” although it had also declared the bombing of civilians to be criminal and barbaric. Still, there was little in international law to counter the dominant Allied belief that extreme force from the air was justified in defeating an enemy extreme in its evil.[14]

It would be unrealistic, of course, to expect that many German civilians who were on the receiving end of Allied bombs and bullets would have subjected their experiences and reactions to such legal, moral, and historical calculus, even in the absence of official encouragement to give vent to their desire for retribution. Whether intentionally or not, those prosecuting the Borkum defendants may have reflected that line of thought by bringing charges mostly against military personnel. They were persons whose discipline and training might have led them to discharge their obligations to the American prisoners of war under international law. Although it was not included among the charges, the U.S. prosecution framed its case as a conspiracy or common design in which all of the defendants, to varying degrees, had participated. Following the capture of the airmen, the headquarters of the senior German officer, the Fregattenkapitän (commander) Kurt Goebell, had telephoned Akkermann, informing him that the prisoners would be led through the town and reminding him of the “decree” of Reichminister Josef Goebbels. The guards were ordered to take no action if civilians attacked the prisoners. The ostensible purpose of the march was to move the prisoners to the airfield on the island, from which they could be transported to prisoner of war facilities on the mainland. But there were alternatives to marching the prisoners through the town. A narrow-gauge railroad was available for the purpose as was a shorter march route that would have avoided the town. It was a warm day and the march was a long one, approximately seven miles. Nevertheless, their captors required the prisoners to keep their hands raised and struck them with rifle butts if they lowered their hands. Howard Graham, no. 909’s bombardier, had particular difficulty complying. “The little flyer” in the discourse of the Borkum case, Graham struggled to keep his loose trousers in place around his waist. When he attempted to pull them up, he was forced with shoves and blows to stumble on. Near the town hall, Graham collapsed and was shot by Langer, the first of his victims. The column marched on with Langer in pursuit.[15]

The defendant whose case proved most problematic was the Oberleutnant zur See (naval lieutenant junior grade) Erich Wentzel, former adjutant in the 216th Naval Antiaircraft Battalion under the command of the Korvettenkapitän (lieutenant commander) Walter Krolikowski, also a defendant. In prewar civilian life, Wentzel had been a principal in a family-owned business in Neuwied and had made frequent trips to England, becoming proficient in English. That fact led indirectly to his standing trial for his life. Wentzel testified that he had been instructed by Commander Goebell to conduct a preliminary interrogation of the prisoners, which had kept him near the crash site until the march into town was about to begin. Wentzel asked each crew member his name and nationality, his position on the plane, the plane’s mission, and who had shot them down (the Germans did not learn that no. 909’s primary damage resulted from a collision with another B-17). Most were willing only to identify themselves, but one crewman specified his function and another, that the crash had been the result of “the blocking of the connection from the wheel,” possibly an awkward attempt to mislead his interrogator. The prisoners were then assembled for the march, with one guard for each airman. The noncommissioned officer who was ordered to lead the column was unfamiliar with the prescribed route, and Wentzel volunteered to accompany the column as guide. That made Wentzel the highest-ranking German on the march; according to the prosecution, he was therefore responsible for actions that led the prisoners into danger, for the mistreatment of the prisoners by the guards, and for the failure of the guards to protect them from attack by townspeople and, ultimately, from the fatal shots from Langer’s 9mm Astra pistol. Some testimony suggested that Wentzel might have intentionally directed the column past the men of the labor service who beat the prisoners with spades, although the fact that the Americans survived that ordeal still able to march suggests that the attack may have been largely symbolic. According to the prosecution theory that the defendants had been participants in a criminal conspiracy that had resulted in the murder of the prisoners, Wentzel was a murderer.[16]

It was a strained argument whose persuasiveness, however, was undoubtedly enhanced by the retributive atmosphere permeating war crimes trials in the immediate postwar period. Naval personnel, labor service members, the mayor, and some townspeople had unquestionably contributed to the ill-treatment of the airmen, although there is no evidence that the sudden intervention of Langer with his pistol had been anything but unplanned and unforeseen. But the riotous behavior of the townspeople, incited and facilitated by those in civil and military authority, had encouraged Langer’s murderous foray, the prosecution maintained, and that attack could easily have been prevented.[17]

A panel of seven line officers of the U.S. Army found fourteen of the fifteen defendants guilty on at least one count. Those convicted only on the assault charge received prison sentences ranging from two to twenty-five years. Six defendants were pronounced guilty both of assault and murder, and five of them, including Akkermann and Wentzel, were sentenced to death by hanging. The sixth received a life sentence. Klaas Meyer-Gerhards, the chief of Borkum’s air raid police, was acquitted.[18]

In notable contrast to the failure of German authorities to take action against those involved in the murder of American prisoners of war, the U.S. Army, as after the Biscari murders, moved quickly against the perpetrators of the Voerde killings. The incident was reported to the intelligence officer of the Eighth Armored Division’s Combat Command B, who initiated an inquiry that resulted in Schneeweiss’s prompt arrest. On the afternoon of March 27, 1945, Lt. Col. Harold G. McAdams, the Eighth Armored’s inspector general, was notified by telephone that Schneeweiss was being sent to XIX Corps headquarters in nearby Lintfort in connection with the reported killings of German civilians and that he, McAdams, was to make a thorough investigation. Interrogated by McAdams that evening, Schneeweiss initially denied having shot German civilians. Privates Peppler, Joachims, and Nichols were also questioned, however, and they admitted knowledge of civilian murders and Schneeweiss’s instigation of them. Peppler and Nichols confessed their own participation. When confronted by McAdams with their testimony and that of other witnesses three days later, Schneeweiss came close to making an admission of guilt when he declared in high emotion: “I don’t know what has come over me. I’ve been in a fog ever since it happened. It wasn’t their fault, they would listen to any officer. They shouldn’t suffer for anything I did. They were just obeying orders, that’s all. They are as foolish as I am, I guess.” All four men were charged with murder and held for trial.[19]

The four American soldiers were accused of violations of the 92nd Article of War, part of the body of law for the governance of the U.S. Army (since superseded by the Uniform Code of Military Justice). That article specified that “any person subject to military law [in time of war and outside the United States] that commits murder or rape shall suffer death or imprisonment for life, as a court martial may direct.” “Judicial notice” was taken of the protected status of enemy civilians under international law in the War Department’s Basic Field Manual; Rules of Land Warfare (1940).

It is now universally recognized that hostilities are restricted to the armed forces of belligerents. Inhabitants who refrain from acts of hostility and pursue their ordinary vocations must be distinguished from the armed forces of the belligerent; must be treated leniently; must not be injured in their lives or liberty, except for cause and after due trial; and must not, as a rule, be deprived of their private property.

From the perspective of 1945, those guidelines of 1940 seem quaint. They reflect, moreover, the very different status of enemy civilians in ground and aerial warfare, at least as practiced during World War II.[20]

The trials by courts-martial of the four Americans were deferred until late July 1945. By then, the war in Europe had been over for more than two months, and the Eighth Armored Division was stationed in western Czechoslovakia. Lieutenant Schneeweiss and the three privates were tried separately, thus avoiding the possibility of antagonistic defenses (in which defendants seeking to clear themselves accuse each other) between officers and enlisted men that had been present in the mass Borkum trial. Schneeweiss’s trial was held at Rokycany near Pilsen (in Czech, Plzen) on July 21 and 23, 1945, a second day having been required to permit the appearance of an expert witness. The specifications of the charge of violation of the 92nd Article of War accused Schneeweiss of “with malice aforethought, willfully, deliberately, feloniously, unlawfully and with premeditation” killing Heinrich Payenberg Sr., Heinrich Payenberg Jr., Frieda Payenberg, and Therese Hinnemann. Omitted were the killings of Heinrich Ufermann and Heinrich Neppeney, the two men who had been murdered in the basement of the first house visited by Schneeweiss and the three privates. The reason for the omission is not clear, but may have been the fact that Schneeweiss had not taken an active part in the basement killings, although he had clearly ordered them. Schneeweiss’s defense counsel did not attempt to deny the murders, evidence for which was incontrovertible, but offered instead what amounted to a partial defense of temporary insanity. The defendant, it was alleged, had had a troubled childhood, given his alcoholic father and distracted mother. Consequent emotional instability had been aggravated on the day of the murders by a generalized fear of Germans, encouraged by stories he had heard of German atrocities against American prisoners and guerrilla resistance by German civilians and by his battalion commander’s pep talk prior to leaving Venlo, which Schneeweiss interpreted to mean that their mission was “to kill Krauts” and that “everything on the other side of the Rhine was considered a Kraut.” The defendant, moreover, had gotten no sleep during his unit’s advance from Venlo to Voerde and had seemed nervous and fearful on the morning of the murders. It was not a strong defense, and the prosecution countered with testimony from the division’s psychiatrist that Schneeweiss was sane and capable of telling right from wrong. The absence of evidence that Schneeweiss had any significant exposure to the stresses of combat probably also weakened the defense case.[21]

In line with army procedure, there is no record of the reasoning employed by the nine line officers hearing the case, but while refusing to find Schneeweiss innocent by reason of insanity, they were also unwilling to subject him to the full rigor of the 92nd Article of War, which required life imprisonment or death for those convicted. Schneeweiss was found guilty of the four specifications of the charge with the crucial exception of the phrases “with malice aforethought” and “and with premeditation,” of which he was pronounced innocent. That made him innocent of the charge of violating Article 92 and guilty instead of an infraction of Article 93, a catchall provision covering offenses as diverse as manslaughter, mayhem, burglary, embezzlement, forgery, larceny, and sodomy, for which a court-martial could impose any punishment it chose. Schneeweiss was sentenced to dismissal from the army, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and twenty-five years’ imprisonment at hard labor.[22]

The three privates were tried jointly at the same location three days later before a six-man panel of officers. They were charged, as Schneeweiss had been, with violations of the 92nd Article of War. The crimes specified against Joachims and Nichols were the basement murders of Ufermann and Neppeney and the backyard killings of Therese Hinnemann and Frieda Payenberg; the specifications against Peppler included the killings of the women and the two Heinrich Payenbergs. As in the trial of Schneeweiss, the deaths of the civilians at the hands of the defendants were not at issue but rather the legal liability and moral consciousness of the accused.[23]

The three defendants were very young—in their late teens—and, like Schneeweiss, had been without combat experience at the time of the murders. Psychiatric examinations had found them to have been of sound mind and able, at the time of the offenses, “to adhere to the right and refrain from the wrong.” All claimed to have had reservations about carrying out the orders. But, in court, the young soldiers testified that they had felt compelled to obey the orders of a superior officer, as that is what they had been trained to do. The U.S. Army officers judging the case apparently agreed. The three were acquitted of the charges and specifications.[24]

That the U.S. Army judged war crimes committed by its own members by a more indulgent standard than the one it applied to comparable crimes committed by the enemy is difficult to dispute. In the Voerde case, there had been no allegation of conspiracy, although it would not have required much imagination to have constructed such an argument. At the time of the three Voerde acquittals, the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal, which rejected the defense of superior orders, a rule that would be applied in lesser war crimes trials such as the Borkum case, had not been concluded. But an important change had already been made to the U.S. Army’s Basic Field Manual; Rules of Land Warfare. Article 347 of the 1940 edition, in discussing the liability of soldiers for violations of the laws of war, including the “ill-treatment of inhabitants in occupied territory,” notes that “individuals of the armed forces will not be punished for these offenses in case they are committed under the orders or sanction of their government or commanders.” In anticipation of denying the defense of respondeat superior (let the superior give answer) to Axis defendants after the war, however, the provision was modified effective November 15, 1944. Orders from a superior were no longer to be deemed a complete defense, although they might be considered in determining the degree of a defendant’s culpability and in mitigating his punishment. If the officers who acquitted Joachims, Nichols, or Peppler considered the revised standard, it appears to have had no effect. Officers are understandably uncomfortable with a principle that encourages their own soldiers to refuse to obey orders, although U.S. Army courts trying Germans for war crimes convicted many defendants for not having done so. The Eight Armored Division’s judge advocate clearly adhered to the old standard in reviewing the judgment, noting that a soldier in the position of the defendants “should follow a course of obedience, leaving to the superior officer the responsibility for consequences of the execution of the order.” Almost a year later, the American attorney defending the Germans who had guarded the captured airmen on their fatal march would argue unsuccessfully that the defendants might well have interpreted Dr. Goebbels’s “decree” withholding protection from downed enemy fliers not only as an order that had to be obeyed, but a reasonable one. The propaganda minister’s implicit argument that in killing women and children Allied airmen had become war criminals who had forfeited the protected status of prisoners of war would have seemed perfectly plausible to them, as it undoubtedly did to many other Germans. It would, in fact, be a principle applied less brutally by the United States in its own war crimes trials, in which military personnel suspected of having committed war crimes were held to be ineligible for treatment as prisoners of war.[25]

Ironically, the U.S. Army officer who would lead the prosecution of the Malmédy massacre defendants had found himself in essential agreement with Goebbels when he first confronted the full horror of the devastation wrought in Germany by the Allied air forces. On August 29, 1945, Maj. Burton F. Ellis wrote to his wife back home in California:

On Sunday I went through Darmstadt, a place about the size of Fresno. It was leveled. Block after block with nothing but burned out skeletons of apartment houses. It is a dead city. If your family, your home, your possessions were buried there— what would your reaction be? These people that lived there beat some airmen to death. I can see why they did what they did. I would have done likewise.[26]

For those convicted in their respective trials, execution of sentences awaited a process of review. For the Borkum defendants (and all others convicted in U.S. Army trials of German war criminals), this was multilayered, involving examination of the trial record by army lawyers and judge advocates and, in the case of death penalties, confirmation by occupation commanders. The reviews, particularly for defendants sentenced to death, often continued for years following the trials. U.S. Army justice applied to Germans might have been harsh, but it was not precipitous. Evidence, including hearsay (admissible in these trials, but not in U.S. Army courts-martial), and sometimes-fanciful prosecution arguments that might have persuaded line officers untrained in the law (the Borkum panel lacked a “law member” with formal legal training) were often less convincing when soberly analyzed by army lawyers in posttrial reviews. The cooling of wartime passions combined with skepticism about the quality of army justice to encourage caution, while the deterioration of relations with the Soviet Union gradually transmuted Germans from enemies to be punished to potential allies to be wooed. Reviewing authorities were inundated with legal arguments for clemency from German lawyers hired by defendants and their families, affidavits contradicting prosecution testimony, and emotional appeals for mercy from loved ones and friends. Such efforts, not surprisingly, were most intense when the sentence was death. The majority of those convicted in the Borkum case benefited from this process. Two of the five death sentences were commuted to terms of life imprisonment, but in fact no German convicted in the Borkum case served out a life sentence. Confinements were reduced, often significantly, by sentence modifications and paroles. All those sentenced to prison had been released by February 1956. But three of the Borkum defendants were not, for they had been hanged at the U.S. War Crimes Prison at Landsberg in the course of 1948. Jan Akkermann, Borkum’s mayor, died for having incited violence against the American prisoners and Johann Schmitz because he had headed the guard detail and may have shot one of the American fliers a second time after he had been felled by Langer. Erich Wentzel was hanged because he had directed the column of prisoners and guards into harm’s way and, although an officer, had done nothing to protect the Americans once they had come under attack. Wentzel was condemned less for what he had done than for what he had failed to do. An element of symbolic retribution may have been present in that those executed represented the three categories into which the fifteen defendants had been divided—civilians, enlisted men, and officers.[27]

Robert Schneeweiss’s trial and sentence were reviewed by the Eighth Armored Division’s judge advocate, Lt. Col. Sam Russ, who recommended approval of the sentence “in view of the atrocious nature of the accused’s offenses,” a recommendation that was accepted by Maj. Gen. John M. Devine, the division’s commander. As required for cases of this nature under Article of War 48, the records were then forwarded to the commander of the field army to which the division belonged for confirmation. In the waning months of 1945, that happened to be none other than Gen. George S. Patton Jr., then languishing in relative inactivity and disgrace following his relief from command of Third Army due to his occupation policies in Bavaria, widely regarded as being soft on Nazism. The Schneeweiss case reached his desk as he was serving as temporary commander of the rapidly shrinking United States Forces European Theater. On November 13, 1945, a Patton less bloodthirsty than the combat commander of 1943 signed a confirmation of Schneeweiss’s twenty-five-year sentence, noting, however, that it was “wholly inadequate punishment for an officer guilty of such grave offenses. In imposing such meager punishment the court has reflected no credit upon its conception of its own responsibilities.” Schneeweiss, who had requested (but had not gotten) a meeting with Patton, was transported to the United States where he was to be incarcerated in the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.[28]

There was much that separated Robert Schneeweiss and Erich Wentzel from each other besides nationality and the nearly four thousand miles between Bavaria and central Pennsylvania. Schneeweiss was the (now) twenty-five-year-old emotionally insecure product of an economically struggling and dysfunctional family for whom the war and a commission as a second lieutenant had represented a degree of security and social advancement, while for the well-established forty-five-year-old Wentzel, World War II had interrupted an apparently stable and comfortable position in a family-owned business with international connections. But the modest military careers of both men had resulted, through their own actions and inactions in an environment of total war, in personal catastrophe. And in the years following their trials, both men, assisted by interested parties in the world beyond the walls of their prisons, sought to save themselves—Schneeweiss from the crushing monotony of years of prison labor, and Wentzel from the gallows. Only one succeeded.

Wentzel’s wife, Wera, and his brother Kurt, with the assistance of the German attorney Rolf Galler of Heidelberg, engineered a two-and-a-half-year campaign to save him. Critiques of the legal case against him, culminating in an abortive petition to the U.S. Supreme Court for leave to file for a writ of habeas corpus, were combined with legally irrelevant letters attesting to his good character and lack of Nazi sympathies in an avalanche of paper directed at U.S. Army reviewing authorities and Gen. Lucius Clay, chief of military government in the U.S. occupation zone, whose final confirmation was required for the execution of death sentences. Included was a lurid claim that Maj. Abraham Levine, the chief of the Borkum investigation team, had attempted to seduce and perhaps rape Wera Wentzel, equally disturbing if a fallacious reprise of the Nazi stereotype of the lustful, demonic Jewish male or if true; reprehensible, although understandable, if simply a fabrication by a wife desperate to save her husband. This effort, which merged with a politically volatile campaign of criticism in Germany and the United States of the whole U.S. Army war crimes trial program, yielded stays of execution but not the commutation that Wentzel and his supporters sought. A grimly impersonal telegram to Wera Wentzel at the beginning of December 1948 from Clay’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Clarence Huebner, tersely stated, “It is regretted that the executive clemency which you requested in your telegram of 30 Nov. 1948 cannot be granted.”[29]
A telegram from Rolf Galler to General Clay had crossed that from General Huebner to Frau Wentzel. An article in the November 20 issue of the U.S. armed forces newspaper, the Stars and Stripes, had come to Galler’s attention. It concerned, he informed Clay, a former lieutenant in the U.S. Army who “had shot down four German civilians in cold blood” in March 1945. The article revealed that the lieutenant had been paroled after his twenty-five-year prison sentence had been reduced to eight years. Galler appealed for “equal justice” in the form of clemency for Wentzel who, he noted, had not personally killed or maltreated anyone. The appeal was rebuffed on the grounds that Wentzel’s case had to be judged on its own merits and that “the evidence was found amply sufficient to support the sentence.” On the morning of December 3, 1948, Erich Wentzel was hanged at Landsberg Prison.[30]

The paroled former U.S. Army lieutenant was, of course, Robert Schneeweiss. Schneeweiss’s wife and mother had begun to mobilize forces on his behalf in the immediate aftermath of his conviction. Prominent citizens of his hometown requested that Congress order a reinvestigation of the case and Schneeweiss’s retrial, which, they believed, would “likely warrant his complete pardon,” while the local council of the Veterans of Foreign Wars petitioned President Harry S. Truman to “use your influence” to suspend Schneeweiss’s sentence. Schneeweiss filed repeated petitions for clemency that, at least initially, were received unsympathetically by army reviewers, one noting tartly that “the court gave all the clemency that should be given when they sentenced him to 25 years.” A letter from fifteen employees of the Burbank (California) Evening Review to the “Provost General, War Department,” expressed another point of view that was probably shared by many Americans but that would have made interesting reading in both Borkum and Voerde. Responding to an article in an unnamed publication, the authors declared:

We think the sentence itself a far greater crime than the supposed offence warranting the sentence. The article mentioned that he killed these people WHILE IN COMBAT. What about all the German civilians killed in the bombings over Nazi territory? What about the common soldier, the other men who have killed German civilians? Are they all in prison too? A 25 year prison term is a serious enough sentence on any basis, regardless of the crime committed. It is not even thanks enough, however, to an honest man who has fought for his country. This matter is offending our sense of justice, right and Americanism.

A better understanding of the circumstances of the Voerde killings might have tempered the outrage of writers whose “sense of justice, right and Americanism” seemingly embraced the belief that deaths of civilians incidental to combat were acceptable, at least if those civilians were enemy nationals. But the army’s decision of July 30, 1948, to parole Schneeweiss may have been influenced more by his willingness to risk his own death in a research project on treatments for malaria (an opportunity for redemption not available to Wentzel), which required him to undergo infection with the disease, than by the pressure of public opinion. He remained on parole until August 1952, when the secretary of the army ordered the unexecuted portion of his sentence remitted.[31]

The converging narratives of these two cases raise a complex set of issues. The political scientist Gary Jonathan Bass accepts the inevitability of “victor’s justice” in the aftermath of war but argues that “the kind of justice that one gets depends on the nature of the conquering state.” “Liberal states,” he continues, “are legalist: they put war criminals on trial in rough accordance with domestic norms.”[32] That accordance may have been rough in the Borkum case, but the defendants had the benefit of legal counsel, both American and German, who fought energetically for their clients and a review process that was more than pro forma. The three death sentences were executed more than two years after they had been pronounced. One defendant was acquitted and most of the sentences were substantially reduced—and not solely out of political opportunism on the part of the United States. For all of its flaws, this had not been a show trial or a drumhead court.

Today, it is difficult to imagine a U.S. court putting to death enemy prisoners or anyone else under circumstances similar to those of the Borkum case. That is due in part to changed attitudes toward the death penalty in general, but it is probably also due to the absence, even in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, of an enemy to match the image of malevolent power embodied in Nazi Germany. And that raises an important point. On the level of microjurisprudence, Wentzel and Schneeweiss (not to mention the three acquitted American privates) had been judged according to radically different standards, to the fatal disadvantage of Wentzel and two of his codefendants. The difference may simply reflect the truism that the wrongs one suffers usually seem more reprehensible than the wrongs one inflicts. Although liberal states may honor the principle of due process, they tend, not surprisingly, to value the lives of their own citizens more highly than those of “foreigners,” particularly those with whom they have recently been at war. Patton suffered no penalty for his role in the mass murder of Axis prisoners in Sicily, although he was castigated and risked losing his command for his slapping of two psychologically traumatized G.I.’s, whose “shell shock” he considered “an invention of the Jews.”[33] But might it be plausibly argued that, on the level of macrojurisprudence, such a normative disparity was morally justified since Schneeweiss committed his crimes in the context of an effort to destroy one of human history’s greatest evils, while Wentzel perpetrated his modest offense in defending that evil against seven fliers who were involved in bombing it into morally necessary rubble? It is a proposition with which many, perhaps most, Americans in the immediate postwar years would probably have agreed and may still. The disparity between Wentzel’s and Schneeweiss’s fates, however, could have done nothing to counteract the widespread self-exculpating conviction among Germans that they were being made the victims of a hypocritical American version of vae victis (woe to the conquered).

It is relevant, too, that the legal systems under which the two cases were tried served different purposes, as did the trials themselves. The Articles of War under which Schneeweiss was tried were established to preserve discipline and good order within the U.S. Army, while war crimes trials were imbued with a spirit of retribution for German atrocities, the worst of which beggar the imagination. The punishment inflicted on Schneeweiss arguably served the ends of discipline adequately, but the heaviest of the Borkum penalties were arguably excessive, for the Borkum massacre, for all its horror, was hardly comparable in moral terms to the operation of the Nazi concentration camps at Mauthausen, Dachau, and Buchenwald, or the “euthanasia” facility at Hadamar, whose staff members were also tried, and many of them hanged, by the U.S. Army.

On August 4, 2003, a small memorial was dedicated on Borkum to the seven American airmen murdered there fifty-nine years earlier. It is an incongruous intrusion in a resort community normally preoccupied with serving a thriving tourist trade. Installation of the stone monument, faced with a bronze plaque bearing the names of the victims, was instigated by two local amateur historians and financed by the Rotary Club of Borkum. A brief text in English and German memorializes the U.S. airmen “who were killed under tragic circumstances on August 4, 1944 after being captured on our island.” An uninformed visitor might suppose that the prisoners had been run over by an out-of-control truck or crushed by a collapsing wall. Beneath the names of the murdered Americans, but in German only, is a statement that reads, “With them, we also remember the millions of soldiers of many countries who, in violation of international agreements regarding the treatment of prisoners of war, had to give up their lives [ihr Leben lassen mussten] in captivity.”[34] Once again, it seems, there were victims without perpetrators. The U.S. airmen died, but as a small part of an impersonal and universal wave of wartime brutality.

The memorial reflects the Germans’ tortured (and tortuous) struggles with conflicting memories of German crimes and German suffering during World War II. It is the Holocaust and the genocidal war in the East, of course, that constitute the black hole at the center of the galaxy of German experience that irresistibly attracts and distorts everything around it. German speakers were less ambiguous than the text of the memorial they were dedicating, Pastor Joachim Jannsen expressing remorse for a shameful act that had occurred as “part of the darkest chapter in German history.” The murder of seven airmen who had been engaged in an aspect of World War II that is not without moral ambivalence was implicitly linked thereby to what is arguably the greatest crime of modern history. That, alongside of the obfuscating text of the monument, exemplifies the extraordinary difficulty Germans experience in reconciling the memory of their own wartime suffering with that of the unparalleled catastrophe that Germany inflicted on Europe and doing it without alienating people of divergent perspectives in Germany itself and affected non-Germans, some of whom were among the estimated one thousand participants and spectators. The monument and the ceremonial oratory seem to have been addressing different audiences.[35]

In attendance at the dedication of the memorial were Quentin F. Ingerson and Kazmer Rachak, the two now elderly survivors of no. 909 who had parachuted to safety before their B-17 had crash-landed on Borkum, along with surviving relatives of the martyred airmen, members of the U.S. armed forces, and Robin Smith, the historian of the bombardment group to which no. 909 belonged. Brig. Gen. Stanley Gorenc, representing the U.S. Air Force in Europe, praised the people of Borkum for having confronted their history and lauded the murdered airmen for having made “the highest sacrifice for peace and freedom,” while noting darkly the willingness of Borkumers to “allow a bitter inheritance to live on” in the form of the monument. Col. Kerry Taylor, representing the U.S. Eighth Air Force, recalled “the constellations of fighters and bombers” that had carried 350,000 airmen deep into Europe, of whom 26,000 had paid “the ultimate price.” Borkum provided an ideal venue for reaffirming the proposition that the cost, both in American lives and in the products of U.S. industrial predominance, had been exacted in a self-evidently morally necessary war.[36]

There was an aspect of the war central to the memorial’s historical context that was addressed by neither German nor American speakers, although Reinhold Robbe, Social Democratic chairman of the Defense Committee of the Bundestag, came close. With a brutal frankness unique in an otherwise delicately articulated event, Robbe raged against “blind Nazis,” “guards devoid of decency,” and civilians who had “humiliated and attacked” the American airmen. But, of course, there had also been Langer, “a German soldier obsessed with hate who had executed the Americans one after the other.” That Robbe used the German verb hinrichten (to execute), rather than ermorden (to murder), to describe Langer’s act may have reflected a certain ambivalence, perhaps subconscious.[37] In any event, no overt reference was made to the source of Langer’s hatred—the death of his wife and children in a bombing attack on Hamburg.

To have alluded to any of the six hundred thousand German civilians killed in Allied air raids during World War II would have been awkward. Although in recent years Germans have felt increased freedom to grieve openly for their sufferings under American and British bombing, any reference to them while dedicating a memorial to the murdered crew would have seemed precariously close to an attempt to lessen the gravity of the Borkum atrocity and perhaps to relativize other German crimes that were infinitely worse. The German writer W. G. Sebald has observed that “a nation that had murdered and worked to death millions of people in its camps could hardly call on the victorious powers to explain the military and political logic that dictated the destruction of German cities.” And there was the memory complex of the U.S. guests to consider. While strategic bombing failed to live up to the full promise held out by its proponents, American air power and the industrial and technical virtuosity that gave rise to it contributed significantly to a victory that was relatively economical of American lives, if profligate in its toll of enemy civilians. The romance of clear-eyed young Americans waging high-tech war in the light of day (in contrast to their night-bombing British counterparts) has not lost its appeal. The stirrings of conscience that have animated and embittered the American debate over the morality and necessity of bombing Japanese cities, particularly the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are not matched in postwar American ruminations over the appropriateness of the means by which Nazi Germany was brought down. While this is partly due to the onus for “indiscriminate” urban bombing having been borne—not entirely equitably—by the British and to the “conventional” nature of the bombs employed, it is surely also in part a gauge of the horror that Nazi genocide continues to evoke.[38]

The Borkum memorial and its dedication, as well as the fate of the psychic residues of the Voerde murders, reflect the fragmentary public memories of history’s most destructive war that both Germans and Americans hold. To have acknowledged German civilian deaths in the course of dedicating a memorial to seven murdered American airmen would have seemed as incongruous an act as would the building by Americans of a memorial to murdered German civilians in Voerde. The history of the Thirty-sixth Tank Battalion to which Lieutenant Schneeweiss had belonged recalls Voerde simply as a stop en route to an assembly area near Bruckhausen, a way station on the battalion’s triumphant drive to victory in America’s “good war” less than two months later. Although undoubtedly for very different reasons, Voerde has also repressed public memory of its murdered citizens. Remembered privately by some residents of the town, the murders of civilian men and women by U.S. troops have left no official German imprint. Town records note simply that the deaths occurred durch Kriegseinwirkungen (through the effects of war).[39]

James J. Weingartner is Professor Emeritus of History, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. He would like to thank Guenter Bischof, Elizabeth Hillman, Peter Karsten, Peter Schrijvers, James Tent, Gerhard Weinberg, and the anonymous readers of an earlier version of this essay for their comments and suggestions, and Robin Smith and Danny S. Parker for generously supplying valuable documents.
Readers may contact Weingartner at [email protected].

1 From the vast literature on the Russo-German war, see, for example, Omer Bartov, The Eastern Front, 1941–45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare (New York, 1986). John W. Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York, 1986); Max Hastings, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy (New York, 1984), 211–12; Patrick Brode, Casual Slaughters and Accidental Judgments: Canadian War Crimes Prosecutions, 1944–1948 (Toronto, 1997), 105.

2 Richard Holmes, Acts of War: The Behavior of Men in Battle (New York, 1985), 384–86; Gerald F. Linderman, The World within War: America’s Combat Experience in World War II (New York, 1997), 118–32; Jean-Jacques Fouché, Massacre at Oradour, France, 1944: Coming to Grips with Terror, trans. David Sice and James B. Atkinson (DeKalb, 2005), 102–46. On the sufferings of Belgian civilians during the Battle of the Bulge at the hands of German troops, see Peter Schrijvers, The Unknown Dead: Civilians in the Battle of the Bulge (Lexington, Ky., 2005), 35–36, 42–48, 57–58, 152–53, 227–28, 368–69. Paul Fussell, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic (Boston, 1996), 124. Stephen E. Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944–May 7, 1945 (New York, 1997), 352–53. John M. Bauserman, The Malmedy Massacre (Shippensburg, 1995), 111–15. The number of U.S. POWS alleged to have been murdered varies widely. See James J. Weingartner, A Peculiar Crusade: Willis M. Everett and the Malmedy Massacre (New York, 2000), 118; and James J. Weingartner, “Massacre at Biscari: Patton and an American War Crime,” Historian, 52 (Nov. 1989), 24–39.

3 Alfred M. de Zayas, Die Wehrmacht-Untersuchungsstelle: Deutsche Ermittlungen über allierteVölkerrechtsverletzungen im Zweiten Weltkrieg (The Wehrmacht Investigation Office: German inquiries into Allied violations of international law during the Second World War) (Munich, 1979), 213–15. “Record of Trial of West, Horace T., Sergeant,” Sept. 2, 1943, pp. 4, 112–13, United States v.West, Sgt. Horace T. (Clerk of Court, U.S. Army Judiciary, Arlington, Va.). On George S. Patton’s alleged statements, see “Record of Trial of Compton, John T., Captain, Infantry,” Oct. 23, 1943, pp. 46, 55, 63, United States v. Compton, Capt. John T., ibid.; and Stanley P. Hirshson, General Patton: A Soldier’s Life (New York, 2002), 372–76, 453–56. James J. Weingartner, Crossroads of Death: The Story of the Malmedy Massacre and Trial (Berkeley, 1979), 154–55. “Memorandum for Judge Patterson,” Feb. 1, 1944, U.S. v. West; Weingartner, Peculiar Crusade, 203–17.

4 “Report of Operations Office—Mission of 4 August 1944—Hamburg, Germany, Headquarters 486th Bombardment Group (H),” Aug. 4, 1944, Entry 7 Mission Reports, Records of the U.S. Army Air Forces, rg 18 (National Archives, College Park, Md.); “Report: Murder of Seven American Airmen on Borkum Island, 4 August 1944,” United States of America v. Kurt Goebell et al. (microfilm: frames 66–67, 240, reel 1), Records of the United States Army Commands, 1942–, rg 338 (National Archives, Washington, D.C.); Kazmer Rachak to Helmut Scheder, n.d. (in James J. Weingartner’s possession; courtesy of Mr. Robin Smith).

5 “Review by Staff Judge Advocate,” n.d., p. 2, United States v. Second Lieutenant Robert A. Schneeweiss (Clerk of Court, U.S. Army Judiciary); “Statement of Investigating Officer,” April 2, 1945, ibid.; “Division Judge Advocate’s Review, Sept. 10 1945,” United States v. Private Glen Joachims, Private William Peppler, and Private Francis F. Nichols, ibid. Trial records render the name of the town as “Vorde,” but Voerde is clearly the scene of the murders. Voerde’s archivist has indicated the likelihood that two additional civilians were murdered. Günter Wabnik to James J. Weingartner, e-mail, July 24, 2006 (in Weingartner’s possession).

6 Resumé of Interrogation of Fregattenkapitän Goebell, June 15, 1945, U.S. v. Goebell (frames 140–44, reel 1); “Review by Staff Judge Advocate,” Nov. 9, 1945, pp. 1–2, U.S. v. Schneeweiss.

7 “Laws of War: Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague IV),” Oct. 18, 1907, Article 4, The Avalon Project at Yale Law School,; “Convention between the United States of America and Other Powers, Relating to Prisoners of War,” July 27, 1929, Article 2, ibid.,

8U.S. v. Goebell (frames 81, 155–56, 279, reel 2).

9Ibid. (frames 545, 570, reel 1); K. W. Hammerstein, Landsberg: Henker des Rechts? (Landsberg: Executioner of justice?) (Wuppertal, 1952), 129.

10U.S. v. Goebell (frames 284, 464–66, reel 2, frames 633–38, reel 4).

11Ibid. (frame 52, reel 2).

12 For a list of cases of German civilian lynchings of American airmen, see “Chronologische Auflistung der Fälle sowie alphabetische Auflistung der Tatorte” (Chronological listing of cases and alphabetical listing of locations), Flieger-Lynchmorde im Zweiten Weltkrieg (Lynchings of airmen in the Second World War),; Brode, Casual Slaughters and Accidental Judgments, 116–56; Jörg Friedrich, The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940–1945, trans. Allison Brown (New York, 2006), 433–34; Vasilis Vourkoutiotis, Prisoners of War and the German High Command: The British and American Experience (New York, 2003), 188.

13 Vourkoutiotis, Prisoners of War and the German High Command, 188–89; “Document No. 1676-PS,” in Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, by Office of United States Chief of Counsel for Prosecution of Axis Criminality (8 vols., Washington, 1946–1948), IV, 186–89; Jochen von Lang, The Secretary: Martin Bormann; The Man Who Manipulated Hitler, trans. Christa Armstrong and Peter White (New York, 1979), 411.

14 Tami Davis Biddle, “Air Power,” in The Laws of War: Constraints on Warfare in the Western World, ed. Michael Howard, George Andreopoulos, and Mark R. Shulman (New Haven, 1994), 148; War Department Technical Manual TM 27–251: Treaties Governing Land Warfare (Washington, 1944), iii; John W. Dower, “Three Narratives of Our Humanity,” in History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past, ed. Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt (New York, 1996), 94.

15U.S. v. Goebell (frames 47, 237, 274–76, 379–83, 597–98, reel 2).

16Ibid. (frames 136–39, 144–46, 598).

17Ibid. (frames 604–5).

18Ibid. (frames 697–703).

19 “Statement of Investigating Officer,” April 2, 1945, U.S. v. Schneeweiss; “Testimony of 2nd Lieutenant Robert A. Schneeweiss,” March 27, 1945, ibid.; “Testimony of Private Glen D. Joachims,” March 28, 1945, ibid.; “Testimony of Private William Peppler,” March 28, 1945, ibid.; “Testimony of Private Francis F. Nichols,” March 28, 1945, ibid.; “Further Testimony of 2nd Lieutenant Robert A. Schneeweiss,” March 30, 1945, ibid.

20 “Arraignment,” July 21, 1945, “Record of Trial of Schneeweiss, Robert A.,” 4, U.S. v. Schneeweiss; “Arraignment,” July 26, 1945, “Proceedings of a General Court Martial,” 4, U.S. v. Joachims, Peppler, and Nichols; The Articles of War (Washington, 1920), 24; War Department Field Manual FM 27–10: Basic Field Manual; Rules of Land Warfare (Washington, 1940), 6.

21 “Record of Trial of Schneeweiss, Robert A.,” 36–37, 40, 48–59, U.S. v. Schneeweiss.

22 Ibid., 67–68; Articles of War, 24.

23 “Arraignment,” July 26, 1945, U.S. v. Joachims, Peppler, and Nichols.

24 “Reports of Proceedings of Board of Medical Officers,” May 26, 1945, U.S. v. Joachims, Peppler, and Nichols; “Proceedings of a General Court Martial,” 36–37, 42–43, 46–47, ibid.

25War Department Field Manual FM 27–10, 87; James B. Insco, “Defense of Superior Orders before Military Commissions,” Duke Journal of Comparative and International Law, 13 (Spring 2003), 404,’l+L.+389; “Division Judge Advocate’s Review,” Sept. 10, 1945, Headquarters, Eighth Armored Division, U.S. v. Joachims, Peppler, and Nichols; Maximilian Koessler, “War Crimes Trials in Europe,” Georgetown Law Journal, 39 (Nov. 1950), 49. On the treatment of suspected war criminals by the U.S. military, see Weingartner, Crossroads of Death, 213–14; and U.S. v. Goebell (frame 690, reel 2).

26 Burton F. Ellis to Dee Ellis, Aug. 29, 1945, Burton F. Ellis Papers, Manuscript Group 409 (University of Idaho Library, Moscow). I use this letter courtesy of Mr. Danny S. Parker.

27 Frank M. Buscher, The U.S. War Crimes Trial Program in Germany, 1946–1955 (Westport, 1989), 51; Maximilian Koessler, “Borkum Island Tragedy and Trial,” Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Political Science, 47 (July–Aug. 1956), 192–93.

28 “Division Judge Advocate’s Review,” Aug. 4, 1945, Headquarters, Eighth Armored Division, U.S. v. Schneeweiss; “General Court Martial, Orders No. 636, Headquarters U.S. Forces, European Theater,” Dec. 26, 1945, ibid.; Hirshson, General Patton, 372–79.

29U.S. v. Goebell (frames 134–35, 178–509, reel 5).

30Ibid. (frames 482, 513).

31 “Memorandum for the Judge Advocate General,” April 9, 1947, U.S. v. Schneeweiss; Board of Directors of the Algonquin Club to Senators Alexander Wiley and Joseph McCarthy and Representatives Charles Kersten and John Brophy, April 2, 1947, ibid.; “Clemency Data, Second Lieutenant Robert A. Schneeweiss,” ibid.; Milwaukee County Council of Veterans of Foreign Wars to the President, telegram, Feb. 11, 1947, General File, box 2161, White House Central Files, Harry S. Truman Papers (Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, Mo.); Employees of the Burbank Evening Review to the Provost General, War Department, Jan. 25, 1947, U.S. v. Schneeweiss; “AGPK-CR 201 Schneeweiss, Robert A.,” Aug. 15, 1952, ibid.

32 Gary Jonathan Bass, Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals (Princeton, 2000), 18, 20.

33 On U.S. interest in crimes against American citizens, see ibid., 35, 177–78. Carlo D’Este, Patton: A Genius for War (New York, 1995), 536; Hirshson, General Patton, 393, 399. Joachim Peiper, commander of the SS battle group responsible for the Malmédy massacre, had been adjutant to Heinrich Himmler, reich leader of the SS and architect of the Holocaust, but he was tried only for the murder of U.S. prisoners. On Peiper’s close association with Himmler, see Jens Westemeier, Joachim Peiper: Zwischen Totenkopf und Ritterkreuz (Joachim Peiper: Between death’s-head and knight’s cross) (Bissendorf, 2006), 25–55; and Richard Breitman, The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution (New York, 1991), 95, 168.

34 Jürgen Petschull, “Der Fliegermord von Borkum” (The murder of airmen in Borkum), Biographie (no. 3, 2004), 91.

35 On German memory generally, see Jeffrey Herf, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Cambridge, Mass., 1997). For a pungent discussion of this black hole phenomenon, see Dagmar Barnouw, War in the Empty Air: Victims, Perpetrators, and Postwar Germans (Bloomington, 2005). Wilke Specht, “Borkum erinnert an ermordete US-Gefangene” (Borkum remembers murdered U.S. prisoners), Borkumer Zeitung, Aug. 5, 2003.

36 Specht, “Borkum erinnert an ermordete US-Gefangene”; Petschull, “Fliegermord von Borkum,” 91; Kerry Taylor, “Borkum Commemoration Comments,” Aug. 4, 2003 (in Weingartner’s possession; courtesy of Robin Smith).

37 Petschull, “Fliegermord von Borkum,” 91.

38 W. G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction, trans. Anthea Bell (London, 2003), 13–14; Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial (New York, 1995), 207–97; Linenthal and Engelhardt, eds., History Wars; Barnouw, War in the Empty Air, 102–3. Michael S. Sherry’s distinction between “technological and ideological fanaticism” is relevant. See Michael S. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (New Haven, 1987), 248–55; and William L. O’Neill, A Democracy at War: America’s Fight at Home and Abroad in World War II (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), 301, 319. On the U.S. transition from “precision” to “terror” bombing of German cities, see Ronald Schaffer, Wings of Judgment: American Bombing in World War II (New York, 1985), 80–106.

39 Frederick W. Slater, Invincible: A History of the Men and Armored Might of the Thirty-sixth Tank Battalion, 4,; Wabnik to Weingartner, e-mail, July 24, 2006 (in Weingartner’s possession).

BY: James J. Weingartner