"By the beginning of August, the Germans weren't too eager to surrender. We never took any SS prisoners now and sometimes dealt with Wehrmacht formations in the same way," recalled a Canadian veteran of the Normandy campaign of 1944.
Now, fifty years later, Harold Margolian has revived the canard that only German troops committed atrocities in Normandy. Margolian, who was a researcher with the Crimes against Humanity & War Crimes Section of the Department of Justice from 1990 to 1997, has compiled the classic 1945 case against Kurt Meyer and the 12th SS Panzer Division. Meyer, the 12th SS's commander, was charged with responsibility in the murder of Canadian troops after capture. He was found guilty by a Canadian court martial and was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was released from prison in 1954 and died in Germany in 1961.
Meyer was the cynosure of the Nazi soldier, "Panzermeyer" (Armoured Meyer) to the German media, a brilliant battlefield tactician who rose from commanding a reconnaissance company to divisional commander in Normandy. His unit, the 12th SS, was recruited from teenaged Hitler Youth members and its officers and non-coms were selected veterans of the extermination warfare of the Russian front. It was undoubtedly the most formidable and brutal unit the Canadians faced in Normandy.
Meyer's trial and imprisonment were widely publicized at the time. In 1986, Tony Foster, the son of the Canadian general who sentenced Meyer to death, wrote a dual biography of his father and Meyer called Meeting of Generals. One wonders, then, why Margolian would revive the subject thirteen years after a major work was published on it.
"Conduct Unbecoming," he writes, "has two purposes. First, it is a cautionary tale, a warning of what can happen when soldiers are dehumanized by political indoctrination, the encouragement of ugly prejudices, and the creed of blind obedience."
Indeed, but Canadian soldiers have been known to suffer from these failings as well, and if one substitutes the word "historians" for "soldiers", one will arrive at the weakness of this book.
"The book's second purpose," Margolian writes, "is to honour oft-forgotten and occasionally scorned heroes. In recent years, Canadian veterans of the Second World War have seen the cause for which they fought and bled debated vigorously, and even attacked in some quarters. However well-intentioned, such historical revisionism cannot help but cause considerable anguish.."
True, but to retail the narrowly accusatorial view of 1945 to a young generation learning about the war third-hand does them no service.
After the end of the war, the Canadian government established a war crimes organization to investigate charges that Canadian prisoners had been murdered after capture during the Normandy campaign. There was evidence pointing against several officers of the 12th SS, but the strongest case was against Kurt Meyer, a regimental commander on D-Day who was promoted to command the division a few weeks later.
Two German soldiers testified that Meyer had said, "My unit does not take prisoners," in a speech he had made to the troops before the D-Day invasion. Another soldier testified that he had heard Meyer say, "In future, no more prisoners are to be taken," moments before seven Canadian prisoners were led out and shot in the garden outside his headquarters.
Detailed investigation indicated that 156 Canadian prisoners were murdered by the 12th SS after capture, and Meyer was charged with these crimes. Under traditional military law, the highest officer responsible was the only one who could be charged: subordinates could not be charged with carrying out a superior's order. That precedent was overturned by the post-war trials. They established that a subordinate can be charged if he carries out an order he knows to be criminal, and this principle is now generally accepted.
The trial of Kurt Meyer was a showcase for Canada, the first time that the country had conducted an international prosecution of this sort. Major General Harry Foster and four brigadiers presided over the hearing. In the end, they found Meyer guilty of three of five charges and sentenced him to be shot by firing squad.
His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Major General Chris Vokes, the senior Canadian officer in Germany. Margolian believes (and cites Cabinet memos) that Ottawa pressured Vokes to commute the sentence to win goodwill in post-war Germany. Vokes's own account was that he did it because every Canadian commanding officer he had known during the war had given a take-no-prisoners order at one time or another.
"I told them that Kurt Meyer meant nothing to me, but that after my examination of the evidence, I had decided to commute his sentence to life imprisonment and that only because I didn't have the guts to let him off entirely," Vokes was quoted as saying in Tony Foster's book.
Meyer was confined in Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick. According to Foster's book, he was secretly let out in 1949 and taken to the Northwest Territories so he could help plan the defence of the Alaska Highway against Russian invasion. He was given a Canadian uniform and was introduced to the other officers as a French Canadian, to explain his foreign accent. Meyer's plans for the defence of the Alaska Highway were adopted in toto by the Canadian army.
In 1951, he was transferred to a prison in Germany so he could be visited by his family, and he was pardoned in 1954. In his last years, he was a salesman for a German brewery, and secured the contract for supplying beer to Canadian army bases in Germany. He was only fifty-one when he died in 1961, worn out by hard fighting, hard living, and hard imprisonment.
Evidence that Canadian soldiers were as ready to shoot prisoners as their opponents can be found in books like Alexander McKee's Caen: Anvil of Victory, Barry Broadfoot's Six War Years, and Tony Foster's Meeting of Generals, but Margolian ignores it. He tries to attribute these claims to the inept television series The Valour & the Horror and says, in a footnote, that "the show's producers were taken to task for seeming to equate the rare incidence of the killing of German POWs by Canadians with the systematic slaughter of Canadian prisoners by the Hitler Youth Division."
When Tony Foster asked his father why he had sentenced Meyer to death, the general replied, "Because I had no choice according to those rules of warfare dreamt up by a bunch of bloody barrack-room lawyers who had never heard a shot fired in anger."
Well-written and meticulously researched though Margolian's book is, it does place him among the barrack-room lawyers who have ignored the broader facts of what happened on the battlefields of Normandy.
Ten years after his trial, Meyer wrote Chris Vokes in uncertain English to thank him "that through your impulsion, the death sentence which was passed on me, wasn't carried out."
"No doubt the resolution was a difficult one for you," Meyer added, "however you have nothing to regret-I fought as a soldier."
Kenneth Stickney is a writer who lives in Dartmouth, N.S.