May 26, 2021

It is Europe’s dirty little secret. Exactly a hundred years ago, Germany was put in the dock at Leipzig for the crimes committed by its military during the First World War. This was not an act of vindictiveness by the victorious Allies — Germany was guilty as Hell — but they bungled the process. The Leipzig War Crimes Trials ended, comically, in what amounted to exoneration of the German military’s behaviour, and gave Hitler an a priori wink. The road to Nuremberg began at Leipzig, on May 23rd, 1921. So, the Allies have their own form of war guilt — which is why the Trials have dropped off the media’s platter of celebrated centenaries.

Nazism, alas, was not an isolated retching of bile by Germany; the country recurrently puked up reactionary politics between 1888, when Wilhelm II was crowned, and the entrance of the Red Army into the smoking ruins of Hitler’s bunker. To understand the war crimes examined at Leipzig, it is necessary to rewind to the Kaiser’s Germany on the eve of war, a proto-fascist regime far worse than the popular imagine understands.

Take its racial track record, for instance. This included the virtual extermination of the Herero and Nama peoples of Namibia — judged by the UN in 1985 as the first genocide of the 20th century — and the Kaiser’s infamous advice to German troops departing for China to suppress the Boxer Rebellion to be “like the Huns under their king Attila. Prisoners will not be taken!” (This call to killing gave the Germans their nickname in the Great War: The Huns.) For the Kaiser and his clique, the coming First World War was to be a race war. Writing to the shipping magnate Albert Ballin in 1912, Wilhelm II warned: “There is about to be a racial struggle between the Teutons and the Slavs…” The Untermensch Slavs had to go because an expansionist Germany needed Lebensraum, “living room”, in the East. Hitler put similar notions into action in 1939.

It is politically attractive to seek “no blame” for the start of the Great War, but hopelessly at odds with the evidence. Germany angled for an expansionist race war from 1912 onwards, and was prepared to use any pretext to get one. When August 1914 came, the atmosphere in the Prussian war ministry was of utter glee. Aside from its racism and war-mongering expansionism, Wilhelmine Germany was authoritarian and militaristic to the core. The Emperor was in Germany’s saddle  — his office chair was literally a horse’s saddle — and personally appointed all the great posts, including the Reich Chancellor (the head of government). Nobody dared contradict the Kaiser for fear of losing their position. Men sycophantically abased themselves for His Majesty’s amusement. The Chief of the Military Cabinet danced in a tutu.

In case any German was under the misapprehension they lived in a democracy, along came the “Zabern Affair” of 1913, when the German Army unilaterally imposed military rule in the town after the locals jeered at an officer. A full-blown constitutional crisis engulfed the nation: who ruled, the Reichstag or the Army? The answer came when the military officers involved in the illegal occupation were acquitted. As a Berlin newspaper blared out in a special edition: “MILITARY MEN OPENLY EXULT, LIBERALS DENOUNCE THE OVERTHROW OF CIVIL LAW”. Zabern was the confirmation that Germany was not a democratic state with an army — it was an army with a state.

So it’s no great surprise, then, that the Kaiser’s armies behaved abysmally on the battlefields of the Great War fighting foreigners. As soon as the Germany Army crossed the border into Belgium, the atrocities began. If the sensational stories of German soldiers eating Belgian babies can be discounted as Allied propaganda, the painstaking research of  Alan Kramer and John Horne, in German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (2001), demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that Germany engaged in a systematic programme of civilian executions with the purpose of  striking terror into the heart of the Belgian population. On 23 August, 1914, in the city of Dinant, the German army burned down a thousand buildings and executed some 674 civilians. The oldest among them was in his 90s; the youngest was barely a month old.

On and on the German outrages went: the sinking of the Lusitania, the execution of Nurse Cavell. Of course, the Allies were not saints, but the fashionable fallacy of moral equivalence — that all sides in the Great War were as bad as each other — founders on the rocks of Germany’s treatment of prisoners of war, who became slave labourers.

This was the main substance of the British agenda at Leipzig. Almost 165,000 British soldiers were taken prisoner on the Western Front between 1914-18; by the end of 1916, almost 80% were forced into labour for the Second Reich. Prisoners were literally worked to death in salt mines. And conditions in many camps were inhuman: in Wittenberg, two water taps served 17,000 Allied PoWs. When typhus struck the camp, the German staff abandoned it and left the prisoners to die. Some 13,000 Brits perished in the Kaiser’s camps — the vast majority because of brutality, disease, malnutrition or exhaustion. But 500 British soldiers were summarily shot or beaten to death at the Kaiser’s pleasure during their detention.

Of all the German PoWs held in Britain during the Great War, 3% died; of the British PoWs held in Germany, more than 10% perished. In 1918 it was statistically safer for a British soldier to fight in the trenches of the Western Front than be a prisoner in Germany. That year, 5.8% of British PoWs in Germany died, compared to 4% of British soldiers on the battlefield.

By any measure, the deaths of prisoners — through deliberate negligence, brutality and murder — constitute a war crime. By any measure, the Kaiser’s vast slave army prefigured that of Hitler’s. Yet international conferences, notably those at The Hague in 1899 and 1907, had agreed rules on the treatment of the PoW, from capture to camp. “Prisoners of war,” the regulations stated, “are in the power of the hostile Government, but not of the individuals or corps who capture them. They must be humanely treated.” The long march of European liberal decency stopped at the Prussian doorstep of the Kriegsministerium. A Red Cross commissioner, after observing the PoW camps in Wilhelmine Germany, wrote in exasperation: “Neither treaty nor humanitarian consideration induced the German Government to treat its prisoners of war as human beings, or make much effort to preserve their lives.”

At the Armistice, the British Government promised the nation that the Kaiser and all his men would be brought to book for their misdeeds. The search for justice began well enough, with Article 228 of the Versailles Peace Treaty stating: “The German Government recognises the right of the Allied and Associated Powers to bring before military tribunal persons accused of having committed acts in violation of the laws and customs of war.”

But if Germany lost the war, it won the battle over war crimes, running rings around the Allies. High-profile war criminals simply disappeared or fled to safe havens (notably the No. 1 Most Wanted, the Kaiser, to neutral Holland), and Germany’s calculated effort to stymy Allied demands for justice allowed the defeated nation to take over responsibility for prosecuting war criminals — at home, in Leipzig, by the Deustche Reichsgericht (German Supreme Court). The Germans were allowed to sit in judgement on themselves.

After initially identifying 900 members of the Imperial forces to be tried, the Allies finally issued a reduced list of 45. Just seven of the British cases proceeded, these relating to submarine warfare and the maltreatment of prisoners. What began as a principled effort by the victorious powers to try the most prominent figures of Germany’s war ended in a minor list of minor figures receiving minor prison sentences of between ten and six months. Or acquittal.

The first British case relating to PoW maltreatment was that of Karl Heynen, a Landsturm NCO in charge of British prisoners at Friedrich der Grosse coalmine in Westphalia. Heynen was alleged to have used the butt of his rifle, his fists and boots to make prisoners labour for Germany. The Court accepted that Heynen had used these brutal methods — but he was acquitted, after General von Fransecky argued for the defence that the NCO’s physical methods of securing discipline were “in keeping with the German Army’s finest traditions”.

Effectively, the Reichsgericht turned the trials into a justification of the German way of war. Concepts such as Kriegsnotwendigkeit (“necessity of war”) and das Handeln auf Befehl (“acting on orders”) allowed acquittal for atrocities if they were the consequence of pursuing a legitimate military goal, a definition so broad as to be meaningless.

Covering the Leipzig trials, The Times correspondent described them as a “scandalous failure of justice”. The British government demurred, claiming the trials as fair and satisfactory. Why the oily lie?

By 1921 Britain and the western Allies were engaged in diplomatic and commercial re-engagement with Germany, and it was feared that proper prosecution of war crimes would increase instability in Germany, and so open the door to Communism. Realpolitik demanded that German war crimes be conveniently downplayed, then blanked. No one could be beastly to the Hun anymore. But the Huns carried on being beastly. The Nazis made the permissive violence of the Leipzig Trials a central tenet of their ideology. The rest is World War II history.


John Lewis-Stempel is the author The War Behind the Wire; The Life, Death and Glory of British Pows, 1914-18.