Punishing German War Criminals
after the First World War
One of the key twentieth-century events that prompted debates on war crimes and their adjudication was the experience of the First World War, with its unprecedented level of destructiveness. In the wake of the collapse of Imperial Germany in 1918, Allied leaders considered and then abandoned plans to prosecute German war criminals. Trials were eventually held in 1921 under German auspices at the German Supreme Court (Reichsgericht) in Leipzig, based on Allied allegations. According to traditional interpretations, this attempt at trying German war criminals proved abortive to the point that, in the Allied discussions during the Second World War, “the fiasco of the Leipzig trials” was regarded as an ideal example of how not to proceed.1 In recent years, however, scholarship has embraced a new approach that echoes the assessment by Ernest Pollock, expert on international law, member of the British mission at the Leipzig court, and a prominent spokesman for legal reform at the Versailles peace conference.2 In 1921 Pollock predicted that, in view of their unprecedented nature, “the effect of the [Leipzig] convictions will stand for ever.”3 He was right; the ongoing struggle by the victors and the vanquished with the issue of war crimes points to problems in coming to grips with these types of crimes that transcend the post–World War One setting.
The trials at the Leipzig Reichsgericht in 1921 marked a late phase in the Allies' attempt at addressing atrocities committed by Germans during the First World War. By the end of 1918, public discourse in Allied countries had defined specific incidents as typical of German brutality: in Britain, the execution of nurse Edith Cavell and Captain Charles Fryatt assumed emblematic value, while in the United States it was the sinking of the Lusitania. Belgium and France had less of a need for symbolic events since their people, cities, and landscape dis-