“The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” William Faulkner’s sage observation is the best reply we can give to skeptics who would question a history magazine’s relevance to life today. Through words and pictures, World War II Magazine brings the stories of more than 60 years ago to life and shows why those events still matter.
It can sometimes be a difficult case to make. As this issue was going to press, however, a flap between two media personalities provided a timely reminder of how important knowledge of our past can be.
During an October 3, 2005, interview with General Wesley Clark concerning the release of photographs from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly said that the former supreme commander of NATO “needs to look at the Malmédy massacre in World War II and the 82nd Airborne.” In a subsequent interview with Clark on May 30, 2006, this time over the alleged misdeeds of Marines at Haditha, O’Reilly said: “In Malmédy, as you know, U.S. forces captured SS forces that had their hands in the air and they were unarmed and they shot them down. You know that. That’s on the record. Been documented.” In an eerily “Stalinesque” episode, after it was aired the show’s on-line transcript was altered to read “Normandy” instead of “Malmédy.” In reply, on June 1, left-leaning pundit Keith Olbermann used O’Reilly’s historical amnesia and implied deliberate alteration of the historical record to bludgeon his foe in a lengthy diatribe on his own program.
What followed was the predictable vituperative electronic exchange between advocates on both sides of the political divide on various internet blogs, chat rooms and Web sites and the restoration of “Malmédy” to O’Reilly’s transcript. From our perspective, what was most alarming about all of these heated exchanges was that many seemed more concerned with defending their champion than explaining an ignorance of historical events that should have made O’Reilly’s research department blush. While it is not this magazine’s place to comment on current events or to engage in political squabbles, since Olbermann quoted this magazine and showed the cover of our February 2003 issue during his fiery attack, perhaps it is within our purview to set the record straight on a few historical points.
The exact role played by Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper, the commander of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment, is still under some debate, but it is an indisputable fact that at 2 p.m. on the afternoon of December 17, 1944, one of his subordinates, Sturmbannführer Werner Potschke, ordered men under his command to open fire on 120 U.S. soldiers from the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. The Americans had been lined up in eight rows following their capture by Peiper’s men at the Baugnez crossroads outside the Belgian village of Malmédy. In the subsequent hail of fire, 86 of those GIs were killed.
Not mentioned by either O’Reilly or Olbermann is that the barbarity displayed at the Baugnez crossroads was just one of many atrocities committed by Peiper’s men, who had been deliberately ordered by Adolf Hitler to conduct their offensive with “utmost brutality.” This they did. By the time the offensive was over, Kampfgruppe Peiper had committed at least 10 similar acts that accounted for 308 American soldiers and anywhere from 111 to 300 Belgian civilians killed in cold blood.
As troubling as this whole televised fiasco may have been, it clearly demonstrates the relevance of past events to our present times and the important role a magazine such as World War II can play.