Conduct Unbecoming

By Howard Margolian

On June 6, 1944, the 3rd Canadian Division landed on the beaches of Normandy and drove inland toward Caen. In their way was the 12th SS Panzer Division “Hitler Youth,” an inexperienced unit largely staffed by Nazi zealots and brutal thugs.

In this valuable new book, war crimes investigator Howard Margolian tells the story of how 156 Canadian PoWs were ruthlessly murdered by several different elements of the 12th SS, in various sectors of the field over a 10-day period from June 7 to 17.

Not stopping there, Conduct Unbecoming goes on to relate the “glaring failure of Canadian justice” in prosecuting those responsible. Once the war was over the government grew strangely apathetic about the whole affair, and seemed content to let matters slip.

The results of this policy were shameful. The most infamous of all the war criminals, Kurt Meyer, ended up spending less than 10 years in prison – and he was one of only two senior officers of the 12th ever to be tried.

While Margolian does a very effective job, and no one can dispute the worthiness of his subject, there is still a need to be critical. Such an important history must be held to the highest standards.

It is hard to fault the research of a book that appends 77 pages of notes to 186 of text. Nor would I question the justice of the author’s morality. But some, admittedly minor things are not made entirely clear.

Take, for example, the issue of reprisals. It is suggested at one point that some of the Normandy murders may have been motivated by revenge for British mistreatment of German prisoners, and later that Canadian soldiers settled “a few old scores” with prisoners of the 12th. But there is little explanation of either of these incidents. Was no further evidence available?

After Kurt Meyer was arrested he was sent to the London Cage (a special detention centre), where he was subjected to “well established” interrogation techniques as well as “less savory practices.” What is being implied here? Was there evidence of torture? Does Margolian know something he isn’t telling?

Margolian admits that the “cornerstone of the historian’s craft” is to be objective and detached. When he does digress into editorial comment he is fully justified in doing so. He manages to “personalize and universalize” the tragic events he describes in a very powerful way.

But passion can be a liability for a historian when it leads to a lack of precision. Here as well I had some concerns. Margolian makes a thorough and convincing case against Wilhelm Mohnke as the instigator of what became “the single worst battlefield atrocity committed against Canadians in the country’s military history.”

He has looked at all of the extant investigative records and shows how they point to the “seemingly inescapable conclusion” of Mohnke’s guilt. I am entirely persuaded by the evidence, but was disturbed to find, only five pages later, Margolian referring to Mohnke’s ordering of the massacre as a “fact.” This it is not.

Another example of (understandably) overzealous prosecution occurs in the description of Meyer’s trial. After pleading not guilty to the charges against him, Margolian describes Meyer as bowing awkwardly to the bench. He then goes on to say that this “gesture of servility seemed out of place in a Canadian court.” This is hard to understand. Even today one is supposed to bow to the bench in a Canadian court. And while this was a military court, Meyer could hardly have been expected to salute (as others present did). Is it not likely that Meyer was simply doing what his lawyer told him to do? And why “servility”? The contemporary newspaper report of the trial only describes the bow as “deferential.” This has an entirely different meaning.

It should go without saying that none of this is meant as a defence of Meyer, Mohnke, or any of the other killers. These are only minor quibbles with what is, overall, an excellent book. Conduct Unbecoming sets out to honour our oft-forgotten Canadian heroes and it does so with rare distinction.

This was a story that needed to be told, and we should be glad that Howard Margolian has told it with such intelligence and feeling.

Review first published April 4, 1998.


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