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Germany’s First World War guilt The Huns' war crimes were the gateway to Nazism

Wilhelm II. Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Wilhelm II. Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images


May 26, 2021   6 mins

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.


John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer on nature and history. His most recent books are The Sheep’s Tale and Nightwalking.

JLewisStempel

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Alexander Morrison
Alexander Morrison
3 years ago

As other commenters have suggested, parts of this are misleading, or at least one-sided. The Imperial German state certainly had profound constitutional flaws that became exposed once Bismarck was dismissed, which allowed the psychologically unstable Wilhelm II to dominate a series of weak Chancellors, and increased the power of the army. As Ferrusian Gambit says though, Germany could have gone in several different directions, given the growing power of the Socialists, the largest party in the Reichstag. It also had a pioneering welfare state and the best system of state education (and best universities) in Europe. A below the line comment is not the place to embark on the endless debate over the origins of the First World War (of recent books I’d highly recommend those by Christopher Clark and Thomas Otte), but it is not true to say that ‘When August 1914 came, the atmosphere in the Prussian war ministry was of utter glee.’ Even here it was more a belief that it was a grim necessity – that Austria had to be supported come what may, given that she was Germany’s only ally, and that war with Russia was coming anyway and it would be better to fight her in 1914 than in 1917 when her great rearmament programme was due to be completed. As for Chancellor von Bethman-Hollweg – a decent if limited man – he was horrified, particularly when it became clear that Britain would enter the war against Germany – the Kaiser also got cold feet at that point. The dominance of the German military Lewis-Stempel refers to was decisive in bringing this about however, owing to their rigid commitment to the Schlieffen Plan. The unprovoked attack on France and the invasion of neutral Belgium were what brought Britain into the war and guaranteed Germany’s defeat.

James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago

The Junkers were aware that their days of unrestricted power were numbered. They wanted a quick victory like 1870 to keep themselves in power.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  James Slade

Had Moltke not tinkered with the Schlieffen Plan*they might have succeeded.

(* Not a single ‘master plan’ as supposed but a series of ideas and directives.)

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

Perhaps we should seek the opinion of that distinguished military historian (and relative), Alice von Schlieffen?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

Touché.
I was curious to see if you were monitoring events Basil.

I think it would exasperate most of the UnHerd readership to return to that contentious subject, and besides I’m too old now for such ‘sport’.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
3 years ago

I was about to flag the “origins” issue, but you got there first. I would add Sean McMeekin’s “The Russian Origins of the First World War” to supplement Clark and Otte when it comes to a more balanced view.

Did British entry in and of itself guarantee German defeat? Without the Americans, post-Brest-Litovsk, I’d say they could have given us a run for our money…

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

Excellent point, we could not have won without US intervention, and would have been very fortunate to gain even a compromise peace after Brest-Litovsk.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
3 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

Interesting, though, if America hadn’t entered.
Would the failure of the last German offensive in 1918, and dwindling Allied reserves have led to a negotiated settlement? Sort of like the Peace of Westphalia.
You can argue that the Germans deserved Versailles. But its memory drove even sane, moderate Germans to plot revenge. Indeed, it could have been the same after WW2–if the Korean War hadn’t convinced most Americans that Germany was better as an ally, than an occupied territory.
I happen to be American, so Brits may see it differently.

Jacques Rossat
Jacques Rossat
3 years ago

Perfect post !

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

Had the US not very generously ‘bailed us out’ in 1916, thanks to the efforts of Paul Warburg and others we would have lost by the Spring of 1917.

Paul Marks
Paul Marks
3 years ago

Bismarck himself created those flaws – back in the 1860s when he increased taxes without the consent of the Prussian Parliament (the very reason for the Civil War on this island in the 1640s) and then engaged in a series of wars of conquest described as the “unification of Germany”.

Graeme R
Graeme R
3 years ago

Interesting article, but it would be more convincing if it was less one sided.
For example as an example of militaries not obeying heir democratic masters and values, rather than the Zabern affair you could describe the Curragh incident in 1914 (when the British garrison in Ireland gave notice that it would not enforce Irish Home rule) or the Dreyfuss affair (with its shocking gap between the democratic principles of “liberty, equiality, and fraternity” and the way that the military establishment acted in practice).
I also don’t doubt that British prisoners had a higher risk of dying than British soldiers, but wonder how many of these prisoners were already wounded when captured, and how much time the average British soldier spent in battle / the front line. Presumably the fact that the allied food blockade of Germany led to massive malnutrition can’t have helped as, depending on your source, between 425,000 and 750,000 civilians died from malnutrition and related disease. As late as March 1919 Winston Churchill was arguing for the continuation of the blockade and is effectiveness by saying that “Germany is very near starvation”. Food shortages certainly can’t have helped with the Cholera and Typhus epidemic plaguing large parts of Germany in 1918. It would be surprising if allied prisoners or war were unaffected by any of this.
I understand that when the list of 900 war criminals was issued, the Prussian Bureau of investigations provided 5,000 detailed dossiers detailing the same actions having been committed by named allied individuals (submarines sinking merchant ships etc etc), and that this is part of the reason why the trials were allowed to quietly fade away.
I know of only 4 British prisoners of war executed by the Germans during WW1, and these were shot in June 1918 following an escape attempt in which they killed a German guard. It would be great to know the source of your figure of 500.
My point is not about whether or not some Germans were bastards, as undoubtedly they were. I only question the central argument of this article, that the Germans were somehow significantly different in attitude to the other belligerents, particularly on the Western Front, and that this somehow leads to the horrors of the third Reich.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Graeme R

I would have thought the humiliation inflicted at Versailles had far more to do with laying the foundations of the Third Reich.

Just think how ‘we’ would have felt had we really lost.
The Royal Navy scrapped, Ireland completely free, with an ‘Irish Corridor’ running from say Hull to Liverpool, Black Askari Germans troops garrisoning the Thames Valley, stripped of the Empire and presented with a whopping great bill for reparations, and a forced admission of guilt, and numerous other humiliations.

I would imagine that ‘we’, led by people such as Churchill, would have sought revenge at any cost, wouldn’t you?

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago

Brilliantly put. I wish more people were able to consider “swapping perspective” exercises like you did. Nothing compares in fostering reasonableness.

Timor Maslow
Timor Maslow
3 years ago

Germany was treated appallingly after the war. Not only did the country lose its defence and was divided up, but many Germans faced real hardship. While they were scraping around for food, or enoug money to buy it during rampant inflation, the ‘elite’ were living lives of luxury and debauchery. And very many of those wealthy people, who owned the media, banking, accountancy, the law profession and so on, were Jewish. All of this, coupled with the political and social chaos which gained traction, the very threat of a Communist take over (Communism being a Jewish construct) directly led to the rise of Hitler.

Beverley Smith
Beverley Smith
2 years ago

Is there a book that covers the events at Versailles? I can’t find anything.Could anyone help? b_howard@hotmail.com

George Bruce
George Bruce
3 years ago

It is politically attractive to seek “no blame” for the start of the Great War, but hopelessly at odds with the evidence.

I am a patriotic British subject, but I would put us in the dock too along with the Germans on this one, as well as the French.
The French for wanting their revenge for their defeat in the Franco-Prussian war.
But also – as Britain watched itself being overhauled in chemical, steel and many other industrial sectors – there was a sense of in alliance with the French we need to sort this lot out while we still can.
So I think we bear a lot of responsibility too for the whole ghastly affair.

Last edited 3 years ago by George Bruce
Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

I would also add the hysterical reporting in British and French press to German war crimes in 1914 (real but grossly exaggerated) in Belgium had a deleterious effect 25-30 years later. Few in Britain or the US were prepared to believe reports on the very real crimes of those years until direct film evidence was released and this affected the attitude towards Jewish refugees negatively unfortunately.

Whilst the Second Reich laid some of the foundations for the Nazi weltanschauung on the right as one clearly sees in Freikorp mythology it is also erroneous to paint it as a proto-Nazi state. Without WW1 it could have gone in various directions given the semi-parliamentary system and the growth of the SPD. For example in the Western front of WW1 Germany executed a much smaller percentage than Britain or France for cowardice or desertion: in Nazi state, like the Soviet Union, industrial execution of their weaker soldiers was commonplace. Few of the worst features of the era before WW1 seem likely to have continued after the death of the rather psychologically damaged pseudo-Neitzschean Wilhelm II – whose downfall it should be remembered was forseen by Bismarck when he was forced out of office.

It should also be remembered the allies included Tsarist Russia, an openly expansionist state seeking domination in the Balkans and Anatolia who were undertaking a policy of strict Russification of Poles in Congress Poland far harsher than in Prussian and especially Austrian controlled Poland seeking to eliminate them as a separate nation. It was also a state that had on and off tolerated brutal pogroms against its Jewish population corralled in the Pale that the many refugees in London back then testified to.

The comments about the communist threat in the 20s seem misguided too. Just as after WW2, preventing the spread of communist tyranny was paramount. Was this morally perfect? No. But we live in a complex world of imperfect options and priorities. Sometimes these must come first to protect the national interest over a moral reflex, and these hard decisions have to he made by powerful adults with great responsibilities for the destinies of millions.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
3 years ago

Excellent comments. It sometimes feels like no one is actually interested in history anymore and that “it was a bit more complicated” are dirty words. It’s nice to be reminded that there are still plenty of history buffs still out there.

Last edited 3 years ago by Matt Hindman
Mark H
Mark H
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

In late stages of the Boer war (1899-1902), when Boer resistance was reduced to roving bands of horsemen succored by local farmers, the British resorted to collecting the farming families into concentration camps where up to 26000 of them (mostly children) died of disease and malnutrition. That was due to negligence and heartlessness rather than malice, but does indicate the different attitude to human life that prevailed at the time.

Richard Burgess
Richard Burgess
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark H

But there was a substantial reaction in England against these concentration camp policies.

Mark H
Mark H
3 years ago

That’s very true but it took a long time for the authorities to change the conditions in the camps. It also has to be said that with the Boer commandos interdicting British supply lines, there was a general problem with supplies and fatality rates in British army hospital were also shockingly high.

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago

The fact that both your point and Mark’s are true encapsulates the reality of things. Both sides did barbaric things. It is however unfair to assume that every citizen felt OK about the actions of their countrymen.

The best example for me are both sides bombing records during WW2. If war is hell, wartime propaganda sits at its lowest levels.

Alexander Morrison
Alexander Morrison
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

And don’t forget Austria-Hungary. As a hopeless Habsburg nostalgist it pains me to say this, but while they didn’t deliberately seek a wider European conflict, they were prepared to risk one in their determination to settle with Serbia. Their diplomacy was reckless and irresponsible.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
3 years ago

Not to mention that Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf was one of the biggest and most destructive idiots to ever grace the world’s stage.

Alexander Morrison
Alexander Morrison
3 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Goodness he was, wasn’t he? And after the war he then produced five vast volumes of the most extraordinarily self-regarding memoirs, while somehow continuing to enjoy the reputation of a military genius. It took a very long time before his legend was debunked.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
3 years ago

Strange, I thought you actually needed victories to be a military genius. Good thing for the Italians that they did not somehow come up with someone even worse. Wait nevermind, Luigi Cadorna existed.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

I often wonder how we would have reacted had the Prince & Princess of Wales had been shot by the IRA, whilst of a State Visit to Norther Ireland, back in the 80’s?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

I don’t see that at all. Britain joined the Triple Entente because Germany was building a battleship navy. That navy had absolutely no mission other than to threaten Britain. In 1814, 1815, 1870 and 1939 Prussia (later Germany) successfully invaded France (and other countries besides) without a navy. It needed one only to assault Britain.
Furthermore, that Triple Entente alliance came into play only if any member was first attacked.
Germany’s plan for defeating Russia, in contrast, sought to manage the risk of becoming embroiled with the French at the same time by attacking France whether at war with her or not. The idea was to defeat France before Russia could mobilise. So if Germany felt like a war with Russia, France, an uninvolved third country, could expect gratuitous unprovoked German attack.
Once the plan had obviously failed, Germany should have exhibited some integrity and sued for peace to end the war by Christmas 1914. Instead they dragged matters on for four years and ten million deaths.
Britain’s contribution, in not standing aside, was to postpone the onset of full-blooded Nazism by 20-odd years.

Last edited 3 years ago by Jon Redman
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Russia was the major the threat to the Empire in 1914 not Germany.
True they had built the second largest fleet in the world but by 1912 if not earlier they had clearly ‘lost’ the Dreadnought Race.

Either way in 1914, as the greatest creditor nation on earth since Ancient Rome, the Great War was an unparalleled catastrophe for both Great Britain and the Empire.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

There were several periods when the German navy had numerical parity with the Grand Fleet. Britain had more ships but they were dispersed globally, not all concentrated in the North Sea.
Because they had to have long cruising range and greater habitability (German sailors lived ashore in barracks), they were also individually less effective.
German strategy was aimed at cutting off and destroying individual RN squadrons until they could win a fleet engagement – and invade. There was no other possible raison d’etre for their navy.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I’m sorry that doesn’t make sense.
“ There were several periods when the German navy had numerical parity with the Grand Fleet. Britain had more ships.”?!

The Imperial Germany Navy never had ‘parity’ with the Royal Navy, the relevant figures* are :
In 1909: Germany 2. GB 7.
“. 1910: “. 4. “. 10.
“ 1911: “. 8 “ 14.
“. 1912: “. 12. “ 21.
“. 1913: “. 16. “ 25
“. 1914: “. 21. “ 32.
“. 1915: “. 22. “. 36.
“. 1916: “. 24. “. 46.
“. 1917: “. 25. “ 48.

From the beginning of hostilities the vast proportion of the Grand Fleet was stationed in Scapa Flow, and not “dispersed globally “ as you would have it.
There were couple of minor exceptions, the two Battlecruisers sent to destroy Von Spee at the Falklands, and the Queen Elizabeth to the Dardanelles.

The Germans soon realised the futility of their task and eventually turned to ‘unrestricted’ submarine warfare instead.

(* Dreadnought Battleships & Battlecruisers.)

Konstantin Kouzovnikov
Konstantin Kouzovnikov
3 years ago

1914. Russian was the best economy in the world and.. the biggest threat to the Europe?..Is this why every Western European country allowed the Russian terrorists/communists to conduct the birth of their organised 5th column? Organised right in the heart of the Western Europe. Just imagine these day terrorists gathering just like It was in London where Lenin had his first beer and his first prostitute, eventually contracting syphilis. The undermensch Slav theory became the undermensch Russian Weltanschauung as it divided the Slavs and made the task of keeping the Russians busy internally as with their neighbours. It ain’t no German any more the theory that is. Try to take it to Hague… 50 million lives later. Or shell we blame Bismarck for such an effective vision? Taking the Russian empire down? It worked. The Russians are the demons deserving no humanity much like the British PoW. We all are still paying for much of the international decisions made between 1914 and 1921, 1919 including. High time to call it The Great Social Delusions Times.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

As Noel Coward said ‘Let’s not be beastly to the Germans’ and I would agree. I went on a school exchange in the 1970’s & would say the younger lot were almost hippys wheras the older people did have war issues. I always felt if they had been saturated with war films every weekend like we did ( I used to annoy my father & ask ‘did we win’?) then allo allo etc they would have got it out of their system. The average person is not responsible for their leaders decisions.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
3 years ago

Well this is some historical revisionist crap. The Poles stopped the expansion of the Communist Red Army at the Battle of Warsaw. Additionally, while the Germans committed many war crimes, especially against the Belgians, the worst were committed by the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Armenian Genocide anyone? How about mass executions in Serbia? The war crimes committed by the Central Powers was the stated reason for making the post war reparations as harsh as they were. This here is why I HATE wannabe “woke” historians.

Last edited 3 years ago by Matt Hindman
Fabian Destouches
Fabian Destouches
3 years ago

The author mentions the higher rate at which British POWs died in German captivity. What he fails to mention is the reason:
Germany was starving due to a British food blockade, there was less food for everyone including British POWs. Estimates say the blockade caused at least 500.000 German civilian deaths.

James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago

The allied blockade wasn’t effective until the US entered the war. The Germans imported food and raw materials via Holland and Sweden from the US.The Germans weren’t victims.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  James Slade

“The allied blockade wasn’t effective until the US entered the war”
You seem to have contradicted yourself! Post April 1917, as you freely admit, the blockade began to work.

Your mention of Holland should also remind us that they were hardly neutral, logically why would they be?
They allowed the Germans total access to their canal system to move war materials down to the Western Front, a complete breach of previous neutrality agreements. Yet they went unpunished.

Similarly cosy little Denmark was quite happy to supply
the ‘Hun’ with copious amounts of pork for all those ‘worsts’ they adore
The result? Denmark was ‘rewarded’ at Versailles with a slice of Schleswig -Holstein that it had lost back in 1864!

James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago

OK you want be clever. The German government caused a food shortage in the first year of the war by imposing price controls on grain but not meat. Farmers feed grain to livestock instead of selling it. The next issue is the the Americans entered the war in April 1917 but it was over six months before the supply lines were cut. Next point the Germans removed previously protected work force in the Hindenburg industrial scheme. So the men that were working on the railways had rifles in their hands instead. The food being grown in the German controlled Ukraine couldn’t be distributed because of the lack of transport. The governor of Budapest was hijacking grain barges on the Danube there were intended for Germany.

Last point until the 1865 war the entirety of Schleswig -Holstein was never part of Denmark but in personal Union with the King of Denmark and the Duke being one and the same. The Danish attempts to annexe Schleswig -Holstein to Denmark is what caused the war.

Enough of the wehrabooism

Last edited 3 years ago by James Slade
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  James Slade

Calm down Princess, there is no need to start your reply in such a vulgar manner.

Otherwise I find your rant rather incoherent. You made your point first time around, the Germans didn’t begin to really suffer until the US entered the war and saved the day.

As to the Ukrainian harvest of 1918 being impossible to transport, Ludendorff should have thought of that before launching his Spring offensive, should he not?

You’ve missed my point entirely over Schleswig-Holstein. I was merely remarking on how ‘unjust’ it was that Denmark should have been rewarded by the Allies for its venal behaviour.

Last edited 3 years ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago

The Germans had a small window of Sping 1918. The Russians had collapsed so the bulk of German forces could be moved west. The addition of released Russian held POWs also added manpower. The removal of skilled labour was part of the same build up. The French army mutined in 1917, Lloyd George was grandstanding and refusing to reinforce the British Army and the Americans hadn’t arrived in numbers. Balance of forces was only going to be in German favor until the Americans arrived in strength in the summer of 1918.

The Spring of 1918 offensive was an all or nothing option. Military defeat and logicistical collapse was inevitable but not stripping out skilled manpower wouldn’t haven’t changed that outcome of failure. The Germans had one last roll of the dice and they stacked it in the favor as much possible.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  James Slade

Ludendorff still had to leave nearly a million men in the East, under Hoffman to police their vast new Ukrainian Empire. They were understandably mainly cavalry.

Come Amiens that Spring, it was the Cavalry that could have made the crucial, breakthrough, had they been present.

Frankly after the triumph of Brest-Litovsk, which must have exceeded Germany’s wildest dreams, Ludendorff should have gone on the defensive in the West, and sought a favourable settlement after the near inevitable rebuff on the Allies 1918 Offensive.

James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago

1. The transformation in late 1917 of artillery from being an art to science meant that the advantage swapped to the attacker. The precise calculation of elevation need for calibre of gun with corrections for wind direction and air pressure meant that each gun didn’t need to registered on its target. Large scale barrages could be achieved without giving the up the element of surprise. Lundendorff’s success in the East in 1917 were based on those tactics. The attacks against the Italians in 1917 were using those tactics. The British perfected a version in the closing stages of Passchendael. Just defending meant the Allies could wait until summer and batter their way forward with tanks and artillery.

2. The Germans had run out of the ability to replace all the lost manpower. Even a successful defence like the Somme would have cost 400,000 casualties that they no longer had the manpower to replace. Just standing their ground would just mean the American numbers would have ground the Germans down

3. The number of automatic weapons at platoon or squad level meant that cavalry was useless on the western front. One guy with a Lewis gun can easily hold off a squadron of cavalry. Especially when you are fighting on the old Somme and Marne battlefields

The Germans had no choice to attack in the Spring of 1918. The French army was still weak after the disasters of 1917 and the infighting between Lloyd George and Haig left the British casualties of Passchendael unreplaced. They had to win before the Summer when the Americans would equalise the German numerical advantage.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  James Slade

They had WON by March 1918.
They should have negotiated Peace with Wilson & Co from a position of strength.

As in many 18th century Wars, nearly all the participants could claim to have WON, if it had been handled skilfully.

James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago

They hadn’t won. They had taken a huge amount of strategically unimportant land. To win they would have needed to break the junction between British and the French and taken Paris. Their numerical advantage had been spent and the Americans were arriving in numbers. All the Allies had to do was wait for a few months.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  James Slade

“They hadn’t won. They had taken a huge amount of strategically unimportant land”.

What an extraordinary statement!!
As a result of Brest-Liovsk Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine became German Client States.

Additionally Russia lost 34% of its population, 54% of its industrial land,
89% of its coalfields, and 26% of its railways.
In other words the Naval blockade would have been decisively negated.

As to your earlier claims about artillery, pioneered successfully on the Eastern Front by Bruckmuller, Hutier & Hoffman* they ultimately failed on Operation Michael because they couldn’t keep up with the speed of the advance. The same problem would have faced the Allies.

Incidentally Cavalry were not completely obsolete as you suggest, particularly in the mounted infantry role.They performed well on the Eastern Front, and also under Allenby & Maude in the Middle East.

Had Ludendorff had Cavalry at Amiens, there was nothing between them and Channel Ports. That would have put the British Army back into its traditional role of waiting to be evacuated by the Navy.

(*Ludendorff had little to do with the victories on the Eastern Front in 1917-18, that ‘honour’ belongs to Max Hoffman.)

James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago

So what, the Germans needed a decisive battlefield victory in spring 1918. The Americans started arriving at the rate of 100,000 a month in
June. 500,000 Americans were in France by September 1918

The allies didn’t need to negotiate, time was on their side. By November the allies outnumbered the Germans by 2 to 1.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  James Slade

Two to one isn’t enough!

Current NATO doctrine * is that you need three to one as the attacker to have a decent chance of prevailing .**

Incidentally Pershing was of the opinion that Germany would only be beaten when Berlin was taken. and the Peace dictated from Sans Souci.

(* based on experience with the Wehrmacht)
(**This assumes similar professionalism, moral, arms & equipment etc. ie: not Arabs, Italians, Argentinians etc etc.)

James Slade
James Slade
3 years ago

That’s on the Western front. The armistice agreement we the Austrians allowed for full military access. The Italians had occupied Innsbruck in October 18. The 700,000 men from the Macedonian front plus the same again available from the middle East would be available in Spring 1919. Then you add the 5 million Italian army. Roughly 7 million men would have been available for operations along the German/Austro Hungarian Empire border in 1919. The Germans couldn’t cover the Western front and the additional 7 million in the East.

Last edited 3 years ago by James Slade
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  James Slade

Abort.

Last edited 3 years ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
3 years ago

Excellent point.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
3 years ago

You beat me to it.
We’re not sitting on top of the data, but the blockade did bite hard — folks were making bread with all types of fillers; see, for example, Ernst Toller’s “I Was a German” (1933) — so we should factor that into our analysis.

Frederick B
Frederick B
3 years ago

Yes indeed. In my very early working life I enjoyed the company of a colleague at the opposite end of his career. He had fought in WW1 and had (as he put it) “gone into the bag” when the Germans made their last big push on the Western Front in July 1918. He remembered vividly that all they had to eat in his PoW camp were potato peelings. “Ruined my good looks” he said.

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
3 years ago

Well said, Mr Lewis-Stempel.
A reassessment of Germany’s conduct 1860-1914 has been one whole century overdue.
It was a malign culture of fierce regimentation, militarism, conformism and all-round bullying. The unification of Germany in the 1860s was a total disaster for humankind. From then on it was a Force for Ruinous Destruction. For a movie entirely made by Germans with this very theme, see “Der ganz grosse Traum” of 2011.
All the horrors the Nazis did were prefigured in the behaviour of Wilhelmine Germany (the Second Empire).
The Germans have led the world in music, folk-tales, discipline, focused working, civil administration in time gone by; and they have been a model to the rest of us in point of civic husbandry; but they have lacked political balance and are still not purged of their itch to rule Europe ruthlessly in their own interests.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Scott

Germany became a unified state in 1871 not 1860. I was already turned off, when the author talked about the “Huns” to emphasise his bias and dislike of Germany. I highly recommend the books by Christopher Clark, who showed the huge complexities of the time which let to WWI. Guess revisionist thinking is the fashion of today. This article about “German cruelty” compares more or less to people trying to topple statues of historical figures from the British Past.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
3 years ago

I’m inclined to agree. There is something hysterical in the tone of the article, not to mention one-sided. For the record, there is no such thing as a perfect society without some history of crime. The British blockade starved and stunted many German children; French north African troops occasionally raped and murdered German soldiers – yes, that’s right, raped and murdered them. Then, in case some woke fanatic is reading this, there are non-European instances of cruelty – gross cruelty, as in the Islamic slave trade, the Ottoman domination of the Balkans, Japan’s invasion of China and so on – ad infinitum. When will these angry, cossetted, self-blaming, safety-first, acidulated snowflakes learn? Nature is red in tooth and claw; and humans partake of nature’s imperfect character. End of. All that sermons and perfectionism do is to add an extra layer of toxin to the mix, for among the grossest of butchers are moralists and idealists – up to their staring eyeballs in blood.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
3 years ago

I’m inclined to agree. There is something hysterical in the tone of the article, not to mention one-sided. For the record, there is no such thing as a perfect society without some history of crime. The British blockade starved and stunted many German children; French north African troops occasionally violated and murdered German soldiers. Then, in case some woke fanatic is reading this, there are non-European instances of cruelty – dreadful cruelty, as in the Islamic slave trade, the Ottoman domination of the Balkans, Japan’s invasion of China and so on – ad infinitum. When will these angry, cossetted, self-blaming, safety-first, acidulated snowflakes learn? Nature is red in tooth and claw; and humans partake of nature’s imperfect character. End of. All that sermons and perfectionism do is to add an extra layer of toxin to the mix, for among the grossest of butchers are moralists and idealists – up to their staring eyes in blood

Stefan Hill
Stefan Hill
3 years ago

It might come as a chock but: The German Empire was not Nazi Germany. It has to do with causality. Time flows in one direction only. The future can not affect the present.

The German Empire was not that different from the British Empire. It shared the same approach to Racism. It had the same idea of Royal legitimacy. Actually it admired Britain and tried to mimic it.

While the British Empire was always at war the German was not. Thus the German Army spent their time on studying the British. When Britain was in war with some kingdom, most likely in Africa, they demanded free passage over neutral territories. If the natives resisted, they were killed. You better step back and let the British pass! If someone fired a shot at the British civilians in the nearest village was killed as retaliation.

The German Army expected the same rules to be applied to them as to the British.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Stefan Hill

Germany savagery in German South West Africa* in 1904 far exceeded anything that the British ever attempted, including Mau Mau in the 1950’s.

(*now Namibia.)

Susan Johnson
Susan Johnson
3 years ago

My grandfather was one of the British soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans in WWI. He was indeed used as slave labour and forced to work in a salt mine, so no, this article is not misleading. It took him years after the war to recover his health, he could hardly eat for at least a year afterwards, such were the starvation rations he had been forced to exist on while a prisoner.

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
3 years ago

I can’t find any reference to bombing civilians here. It was German strategy from 1911,with the Zeppelin and proceeded through the development of the R planes. They thought it would damage British morale, which to some extent it did . Russia and Italy had sizeable bombers at the beginning of WW1, but France and Britain were slow to develop large bombers and bombing of non military targets, they thought it unchivalrous. Britain’s War department eventually sanctioned “The Bloody paralyser ” large Handley Page and Vickers bombers towards 1918,but the war ended before the bombing of Berlin could get underway.

Sam Cel Roman
Sam Cel Roman
3 years ago

Someone really should read the description of what happened to Nurse Cavell in Mein Kampf, and then you’ll see why Hitler’s first hire was Goebbels.
Interesting that this article failed to mention the burning of the library of Leuven.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Sam Cel Roman

Nor the efficacy of the later naval blockade of Germany which produced near starvation conditions for many, including quite obviously, Prisoners of War.

William Murphy
William Murphy
3 years ago

The WW1 crimes pop up in the most unexpected places. Like the German Olympic Museum in Cologne. When I visited in 2008, a wall was covered with video screens displaying Olympic events. And, naturally, the title theme from “Chariots of Fire” was thumping away on a continuous loop. Of course, “Chariots of Fire” is set at the 1924 Paris Olympics. And Germany was banned from the 1924 Olympics as punishment for WW1…..
.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  William Murphy

The nature of Germany must have changed from being a series of principalities-George 1 was Elector of Hanover to rule Kaiser who abdicated in 1918. Nature abhores a vacuum & they have both the political & diplomatic leader in one person. Russia considered Germany was likely to follow them into communism after 1917 , but obviously it didn’t happen

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
3 years ago

Do national characteristics change ? How fast ?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Lee Johnson

No.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

Surely the moral of the story is if you don’t want to end up working in a Westphalian coal mine, don’t ‘throw your rifle to ground, your hands in the air and shout kaput’!

As Winston Churchill said “A prisoner of war is someone who tries to kill you, fails and then begs you not to kill them”.

Susan Johnson
Susan Johnson
3 years ago

My grandfather, who was a prisoner of war in WWI, was an underage volunteer, he was fifteen when he joined up. He joined the territorials after the war, so was one of the first to be sent overseas at the beginning of WWII and was at Dunkirk. Hardly the actions of a coward.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
3 years ago

“Germany was not a democratic state with an army — it was an army with a state.” Very interesting article but in fairness this comment is best directed at Prussia in particular, rather than Germany as a whole.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago

Didn’t the head of MI6 recently admit that Cavell was a spy*?

(* albeit a fairly hopeless one.)