Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Sacred Sovereigns and Punishable War Crimes: The Ambivalence of the Wilson Administration towards a Trial of Kaiser Wilhelm II *

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Sacred Sovereigns and Punishable War Crimes: The Ambivalence of the Wilson Administration towards a Trial of Kaiser Wilhelm II *

Article excerpt

At the conclusion of the First World War, German guilt surrounding the origins of the conflict was decided by executive decision between the Allied victors. A neutral inquiry into the origins of the Great War was considered unnecessary, since German responsibility was assumed: the war had stemmed from the policies of the German state, along with its abusive practices during the conflict, which were considered radically different from the conduct of previous wars. (1) The Commission on Responsibility of the Authors of the War and on Enforcement of Penalties submitted its preliminary report on 29 March 1919 to the delegates. (2) The report expressed a profound shock at German atrocities, the Commissioners asserting that they had gathered "abundant evidence of outrages of every description committed on land, at sea, and in the air, against the laws and customs of war and the laws of humanity". (3) To distance Allied war aims and methods from any suggestion of moral equivalence, the German atrocities were described as unprecedented and against civilization's values: "Germany and her allies have piled outrage upon outrage." (4) The nature of the war, the first of its type in the industrial age on such a massive scale with enormous casualties and suffering, made it easier to personalise responsibility. (5) The Wilson Administration was of a similar view, convinced that the Prussian menace had to be extinguished as a threat to civilization, though its methods of doing so were more restrained. (6) The US Government did "not consider [that] the German note [rejecting Articles 227-231 of the treaty] requires a reply as the responsibility of Germany for the war has already been established". (7)

While the Allies were in general agreement about German guilt, they were divided on how best to punish Germany. One matter attracting considerable dispute was the issue of how to punish war crimes supposedly committed by government leaders of a country, an issue which would become a sticking point between the victors. The extent of German crimes committed during the Great War still provokes scholarly interest, with a most recent work by John Home and Alan Kramer on the subject of German atrocities in the First World War providing a corrective to the allegations that most Allied accusations on the subject were mere "propaganda". (8) But how was the purported liability of Germany's leaders for war crimes resolved in 1919? (9) Importantly, how did American official and public discourses on the subject shape the image of sovereign culpability, its dimensions, its importance as a credible subject of international law and politics? Why, when German Ambassador to Paris Baron von Lersner was presented with the names of 896 German war crime suspects on 3 February 1920, was the Kaiser absent from the list? (10) The issue is particularly relevant in understanding the political processes behind the prosecution of heads of state for crimes at international law, especially given the growing international interest in the punishment of atrocities. The jurisprudence arising from the Rwanda and Yugoslavia Tribunals, the laws of universal jurisdiction enacted by Belgium in 1993, and the tribunals set up in Sierra Leone, demonstrate a remarkable growth in the subject of commander responsibility and an erosion of the principle of a head of state's immunity from prosecution. (11) The trial of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in England for various crimes against humanity in 1998, including torture, may have also "marked a turning point in international law". (12) The House of Lords seemed to indicate that the immunity of a head of state from prosecution does not cover "core crimes" such as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, leaving the way open for another revaluation of a sovereign's immunity for grave offences. (13) The trial of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by a special Iraqi tribunal also presents another stage in this evolution. …

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