Protecting Humanity after World War I: Successes and Failures

Protecting Humanity after World War I: Successes and Failures

The First International War Crimes Trials: Leipzig 1921


The first international war crimes trials, the Leipzig Trials, held in 1921, established an example of how not to conduct a trial against alleged war criminals. Throughout the spring and summer of 1921, Germans charged as war criminals, for their actions in the First World War, were tried and sentenced by Germans in the country’s highest court: the Criminal Senate of the Imperial Court of Justice at Leipzig. Shock at the apparently “light” sentences of the war criminals provoked an outraged response throughout Great Britain, Belgium, and France, who presented charges against Germany. Their expressed resentment for the trials spread across Europe and the United States. The outcome of the trials and their flaws emerged from German partiality and concern for national interest. However, the vying agendas amongst the Allies, the complete lack of guidance for the trials under international law, and the instability of the fragile Weimar Republic allowed for the peculiar structure and conduct of the trials.


Learning Objectives

  • Analyze the immediate and long-term goals of the Leipzig Trials.
  • Analyzes the successes and failures of the Leipzig Trials.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Imperial Court of Justice at Leipzig: Germany’s highest court in 1921

Leipzig Trials: held in Germany in 1921, the first international war crimes trials


Preparing for the First International War Crimes Trials


After WWI, the Allies had called for war crimes trials against the Germans since 1914. However, creating an agreed-upon course of action for the trials caused incessant conflict between the Allies because neither the phrase “war crimes” nor “war criminals” appeared in the 1907 Hague Convention, which governed international law during the First World War. The British first employed the phrases in conjunction with the German occupation and exploitation of neutral Belgium in 1914.

As the war progressed, the focus of British clamor for war trials shifted away from German actions in Belgium to German “atrocities” of mistreatment toward British prisoners of war and unrestricted submarine warfare. These two concerns dominated British charges during postwar discussion of war crimes trials. The French expressed similar charges against German mistreatment of French prisoners of war, particularly in conjunction with the killing of surrendered and wounded prisoners of war. Belgium, the site of severe exploitation and violent mistreatment by the Germans during the war, had a much weaker voice in the dialogue on the war crimes trials, but charged the Germans of committing heinous atrocities against Belgian citizens. Woodrow Wilson, skeptical about the other countries’ agendas in the pursuit of the trials, called for a lenient course of action regarding the trials. However, the four countries agreed on the point that Germany should gather evidence against its own citizens charged as war criminals and present the evidence and the accused persons to the Allies, in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles; these accused would then be tried by an international tribunal. In result, the trials were postponed and United States withdrew from the proceedings.


The Weimar Republic during the Trials


In 1921, the brittle government of the Weimar Republic was caught in a vise as international pressure and domestic strife collided over the pending trials of the first war crime trials. Compliance with Allied demands, the German government argued, would threaten their fragile new republic. Over the course of the war, the bulk of Germany’s resources had been devoted to the war effort. Exhaustion of resources compounded by the loss of more than two million soldiers, demobilization, inflation, and political discontent from both far-leftist and rightist parties, rendered the German Republic an extremely fragile state. The immediate postwar period did not encourage German support for the war crimes trials or the new government. Recognizing the difficulty of their position, the German government’s approach to the war crime trials resulted in a carefully balanced act of attempted appeasement of both Allied and German demands.

As a solution, German Secretary of Finance, Matthias Erzberger led a motion to try German war criminals in Germany’s highest civilian court—Criminal Senate of the Imperial Court of Justice at Leipzig. In an effort to secure support from the Allies, the German proposal asserted that a German committee would investigate Germans charged as war criminals. The proposal also allowed for delegations from each of the prosecuting nations to be present at the trials.


The Leipzig Trials Begin


In the spring of 1921, the Germans assembled eight cases to be tried: four British cases, three French cases, and one Belgian case. These first eight cases comprised the Leipzig Trials. Aware of Allied claims that the Germans systematically violated international law, the court made a concerted effort to appear objective during the proceedings, but from the beginning of the trials in May 1921, German national interest governed the actions of the German court.


Opening of the Leipzig Trials in the Imperial Court of Justice, 1921.


The British Cases


The Germans had a vested interest in appeasing British interests. After the war, Great Britain supported German interests during the Upper Silesian Crisis where Polish Silesians revolted against German rule in Western Silesia. Britain also supported the proposition to hold the trials in Germany.

In return, the Germans pursued the trial of the U-86 submarine crew, after the British abandoned the case. Helmut Patzig, commander of U-86, torpedoed the British hospital ship, Llandovery Castle, on June 27, 1918, and subsequently fired on the lifeboats carrying survivors. Sought after heavily by both the British and German governments following the war for violating multiple clauses within The Hague Convention, Patzig avoided capture and presumably returned to his home in Danzig. Under the Treaty of Versailles, German authorities could not apprehend him there. The British government had clamored for Patzig’s trial, but when it was determined that he could not be found, the British dropped the case. The German government did not. Under the Schücking Committee and against immense protest from the German public, the court brought to trial two of Patzig’s crew members: Johann Boldt and Ludwig Dithmar. The trial ended with the Court issuing both Boldt and Dithmar a four-year prison sentence. Dithmar received his discharge from the navy and Boldt lost the privilege of wearing his uniform. Perceived by the Allies as a light sentence, Claud Mullins—British delegate to the trials—explained the sentence carried significantly more weight in Germany. Free of the constraints of international law, the German court conducted the trials according to German law. Under German law, the military was judged according to laws specifically designated for military cases, separating it from the laws of German civilians. The trial of Boldt and Dithmar demonstrated the complexities in trying members of the military. Although it resulted in the demotion of their statuses, it did little else to men charged with committing wartime atrocities.


The Belgian Case


In contrast to the British cases, the Germans handled the French and Belgian cases with considerably less care and objectivity. Belgium’s only case at Leipzig was the case against Max Ramdohr. He was accused of severe cruelty toward Belgian youths who had “sabotaged” the German railroad line in Grammont. Dozens of young, male Belgian boys between the ages of twelve and eighteen testified that Ramdohr had imprisoned them in poor conditions and interrogated them by plunging their heads into buckets of ice water. A thirteen-year-old testified that Ramdohr had wrapped a string around his neck, then connected the string to a hook above his head and beat his bare legs with a cane. The Leipzig Court listened to the extensive testimonies against Ramdohr, but unlike the British cases, did not consider the evidence presented as legitimate because almost all of the evidence presented against Ramdohr rested on the testimonies of young boys. This German court did not take the evidence seriously because the trial was of a member of the German military, and evidence presented against him came from civilians. The court further argued that the age of the witnesses, and the fact that three years had passed since the events, the Belgian government could easily have swayed their witnesses to have false memories of the events. Based on these assertions, Ramdohr was acquitted.


The Reichsgericht building in Leipzig, Germany where the 1921 Leipzig Trials were held. Photo courtesy of the author.


The French Cases


Following Ramdohr’s acquittal, the French presented their long-awaited trial of Lieutenant-General Karl Stenger and his subordinate officer Major Benno Crusius. In August 1914, upon entering a French village, Stenger reportedly gave the order to the 58th Infantry Brigade to kill all of the wounded French soldiers and prisoners of war.  Upon receiving word of this order, Crusius executed many French prisoners of war. Evidence produced by both German and French witnesses convinced the court that prisoners were executed during two separate incidents in 1914.

The trial did not proceed in the way anticipated by the French. On the day of the trial, Stenger appeared in court supported by two crutches, having lost his right leg in the course of the war. His uniform was bedecked in medals, most prominent of which was the Pour le Mérite. For the Germans, Stenger still embodied the quintessential war hero. His appearance emphasized the credibility of his testimony. Stenger calmly denied the charge that he had issued such an order, and the only prisoners who were shot were those who continued to fight. Improbable as the story was, it justified Stenger’s actions in the eyes of the court.

Soon thereafter, the trial shifted its focus to the actions of Stenger’s subordinate officer, Major Crusius. At the end of the trial, the court asserted that Crusius acted out of a misconstrued order from Stenger. However, Crusius could not be held entirely responsible for his actions because German doctors had determined he was “insane” at the time of the incident, and likewise, the court shared that opinion. The trial ended with Stenger’s acquittal and Crusius lost the right to wear his uniform and received a sentence of two years in prison, of which he had already served fourteen months.

The verdict outraged the French, who called for first called for Stenger’s trial in 1914. In their eyes, Stenger and Crusius had violated the “laws of war and humanity” many times in the execution of the French prisoners. French Prime Minister Alstrid Briand reacted immediately by ordering a withdrawal of the French delegation from the trials. The French government further stated French troops would continue to occupy the Rhine until “justice” was delivered at Leipzig. Both assertions were poor political maneuvers. Premier Briand’s decision to order the delegation to depart from the trials deeply offended the German court, particularly Statspräsident Heinrich Schmidt, whom the British delegation frequently praised as impartial based on his handling of the trials. With their departure, the French government blatantly accused the Leipzig judges of partiality and followed up this maneuver with a threat to the Germans that French troops would continue to occupy the Rhine. Their threat did nothing more than antagonize the Germans, and support the German idea of an unfair Treaty of Versailles

Evaluating the Leipzig Trials presents several challenges. Both the news reports of the era and historians discuss the “failures” of the trials and often overlook its accomplishments. The blatant partiality of the Germans during the cases was clearly displayed by the fact that of the British cases in which six men were tried, five received sentences. The French and Belgian cases tried six men as well, only one of whom received a prison sentence.

However, the flaws of the trials should not entirely overshadow the events of the first international war crimes trial. The Allies exhibited significant cooperation in their pursuit of administering punishment for war criminals, in spite of their vying agendas. Germany also, demonstrated cooperation with the Allies, during the years prior to and during the trials. While the trials were a failure in legal terms, they marked a significant step in the international attempt to protect international law and punish persons who violated the laws of war and humanity in times of war and, during the revision of international law at the Geneva Convention of 1929, influenced the development of protective clauses concerning prisoners of war and captured troops.




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