Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 29, 2018

The Chenogne Massacre

Filed under: WWII — louisproyect @ 3:21 pm

Ben Ferencz, the 98-year old chief prosecutor of Nazi war crimes at Dachau who calls “the greatest generation” those men and women who resist war, not those who fight.

By far, the best show on NPR is Reveal, a hour-long show co-produced by the Center for Investigative Journalism and PRX, a distribution network for public radio. When I wake up early on Saturday morning, as I did today, I tune in to WNYC to listen to the show that begins at 6am.

Today was an exceptionally powerful episode that dealt with the January 1, 1945 massacre in Chenogne, Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge when American soldiers murdered 71 German soldiers who had just surrendered. Just days earlier, the Germans had killed about the same number of GI’s who had surrendered in the town of Malmedy. I paid close attention to the story since my father had been close to the fighting in Bastogne, about 5 miles away. My father was a mess sergeant assigned to the 10th Armored division while the men fighting in Chenogne were in the 11th Armored division.

Part of the show consisted of an interview with a GI, who had fought in Chenogne. He describes the mass killing but did not take part in it. That being said, he admits to killing two Germans in a foxhole who had their hands up earlier in the day. Now in his 90s, the act still haunts him. Another interviewee is a Belgian who was born in 1946 and became obsessed with the events that day, so much so that he built a house in Chenogne where he began an career as an amateur historian trying to get to the bottom of what happened. Finally, there’s an interview with Ben Ferencz, a Jewish soldier and the last surviving prosecutor of German war crimes at a trial in Dachau after the Germans surrendered. Just before he got the job as a prosecutor, he had been a janitor in company headquarters. They selected him because he had a Harvard law degree with a specialty in international law. He is still alive at 99 and quite lucid, as would be indicated by the interview.

Basically, he regarded the Chenogne massacre as a war crime but one that would never be prosecuted by a state that had just won the war. When asked if Stephen Spielberg and Tom Brokaw were justified in calling WWII GIs “the greatest generation”, he scoffed at the notion and stated emphatically that the greatest generation are those who resist war, like during Vietnam.

Like the soldier who killed two Germans in Chenogne, Ferencz has direct experience on the dehumanization war breeds. In a 2005 Washington Post article titled “Giving Hitler Hell” that dealt with Jewish soldiers during WWII, he recalled what that hell meant:

Ferencz, who today is 85 and lives in New York, cautions against making sweeping armchair moral judgments. “Someone who was not there could never really grasp how unreal the situation was,” he says. “I once saw DPs beat an SS man and then strap him to the steel gurney of a crematorium. They slid him in the oven, turned on the heat and took him back out. Beat him again, and put him back in until he was burnt alive. I did nothing to stop it. I suppose I could have brandished my weapon or shot in the air, but I was not inclined to do so. Does that make me an accomplice to murder?”

Ferencz — who went on to a distinguished legal career, became a founder of the International Criminal Court and is today probably the leading authority on military jurisprudence of the era — cannot specifically address Weiss’s actions. But he says it’s important to recall that military legal norms at the time permitted a host of flexibilities that wouldn’t fly today. “You know how I got witness statements?” he says. “I’d go into a village where, say, an American pilot had parachuted and been beaten to death and line everyone one up against the wall. Then I’d say, ‘Anyone who lies will be shot on the spot.’ It never occurred to me that statements taken under duress would be invalid.”

To hear the Reveal episode titled “Take No Prisoners”, go to https://www.wnyc.org/story/take-no-prisoners-rebroadcast.

Also, there is a Wikipedia entry on the Chenogne massacre at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chenogne_massacre

It refers to the Reveal episode:

According to a declassified file Harland-Dunaway got access to, a soldier named Max Cohen described seeing roughly 70 German prisoners machinegunned by the 11th Armored Division in Chenogne. General Dwight D. Eisenhower demanded a full investigation, but the 11th Armored were uncooperative, saying “it’s too late; the war is over, the units are disbanded.” Ben Ferencz, an American lawyer who served as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunal, upon acquainting himself with the declassified report said: “it smells to me like a cover-up of course.”




  1. I have an uncle who shot a German prisoner who called him a dirty Jew. How deep must the hatred of the German have been that he would say this to an armed captor. What the hell was he thinking.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — December 29, 2018 @ 4:23 pm

  2. All war is hell: Wars are so easy to start and so hard to stop. Human nature is not evil but it can be twisted by neglect, abuse, fear, hate, indoctrination, brainwashing, propaganda and the authority and threats of an alpha male with too much testosterone and a government with too much money. A mind is a terrible thing to mess with. The countries with the most doctrines are the most warlike. Freethinking countries are the least warlike.

    Comment by Bill Reitter — December 29, 2018 @ 7:38 pm

  3. When we train our soldiers to dehumanize the “enemy” and hate their characteristics, how can we punish them for killing them and even slaughtering them and bombing their women and children. That is why war can never be the path to peace. Humanist training begins at birth, and continues for a lifetime of learning, experience and practice.

    Comment by Bill Reitter — December 29, 2018 @ 7:49 pm

  4. My dad was a conscript in the British army in the last war. He took a couple of German soldiers prisoner in northern France. His sergeant was baffled why he took them prisoner rather than just shoot them.

    Comment by Dr Paul — December 30, 2018 @ 6:08 pm

  5. Your Dad was an Honorable man and must have realized that if he were in the same, captured, position, he would want to be treated with decency.

    Comment by Bill Reitter — December 30, 2018 @ 6:16 pm

  6. My father was with an American and Philipine group marching a Japanese soldier back to base and the Japanese soldier made a run for it. My father was going to shoot the Japanese soldier when his officer told him not to. Then a Philippine soldier shot the Japanese soldier.

    Comment by Ron — January 2, 2019 @ 6:56 pm

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