- Kurt Meyer on Trial: A Documentary Record
The trial and conviction, in Aurich, Germany, in December 1945, of ss Brigadeführer (Major-General) Kurt Meyer, charged with the murder of forty-one Canadian prisoners of war in the wake of the D-Day landings in Normandy, was part of the inaugural run for Canada in the prosecution of war crimes and one of the very first applications of the doctrine of command responsibility, by which superior officers could be held liable for atrocities committed by troops under their command. First argued by American prosecutors in the nearly concurrent case of the Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita, command responsibility proved to be far more readily accepted by the officers of Meyer's military court than it was by Canadian diplomatic officials, politicians, and the highest-ranking Canadian military commanders. In consequence, the appeal process led to the Canadian authorities' commuting Meyer's death penalty, agreeing to his incarceration in Germany, and eventually releasing him in 1954. Still controversial and actively debated among historians and the interested general public, the circumstances of Meyer's crimes and subsequent treatment are the subject of this weighty volume of documents, likely to be the last word for documentary publications devoted to this subject.
Particularly mindful of the powerful evidence against Meyer by a nineteen-year-old Polish conscript in the ss, Jan Jesionek, a Canadian Military Court convicted Meyer of war crimes after a proceeding that lasted eighteen days. Chief prosecutor Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Mac-Donald, formerly a regimental combat officer who fought in Normandy and who in civilian life was a lawyer from Windsor, referred to Meyer's 'vicarious responsibility for … crimes committed by troops under his command' (97). A decorated Waffen-ss war hero who had risen in the ranks of the ss after fighting in Poland in 1939, in France and the Low Countries in 1940, and in the Balkans in 1941, Meyer was commander of the 25th ss Panzer Grenadier Regiment, part of the crack 12th ss 'Hitler Jugend' Division at the time of the killings. [End Page 162] 'Panzer Meyer' as he was known, was described in a performance review as a 'passionate soldier' whose leadership reflected what the authors refer to as 'the best and the worst of the Waffen-ss' (6). In the last year of the war, as available German manpower dwindled, Meyer and his fellow Hitler Jugend officers made the most strenuous efforts to whip seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds into a fanatical fighting force. 'At best,' say the authors, 'the training created only a partial soldier, one semi-skilled in the arts of fighting but devoid of understanding the responsibilities and limits to the application of violence' (8). Before Normandy, having put his youthful charges through a gruelling and ruthlessly foreshortened period of training, Meyer allegedly told these ideologically mobilized subordinates that they were to accept no quarter and take no prisoners. From one point of view, the brutal killings of the disarmed Canadians followed as a matter of course. According to one estimate, more than 150 Canadians perished in this way; seen otherwise, as the authors point out, 'one in six Canadians killed in Normandy died after capture, a ratio far higher than the Allies experienced in their encounters with any other Germany formation in Normandy' (10).
Whitney Lackenbauer and Chris Madsen, respectively from St Jerome's University in Waterloo, and the Royal Military College in Kingston and the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, take us through pretrial investigative records, trial transcripts, the extensively documented debate over the commutation of his sentence, the conditions of his incarceration, his imprisonment in Canada, his transfer back to Germany, and finally the decision to release Meyer after he had served less than ten years. From the voluminous evidence presented here, readers will be able to make up their own minds about the original findings of the court and the eventual retreat from the judgment of the immediate postwar period. Such a reading should supplement the well-balanced study...