German War Crimes
Professor John Horne
This discussion considers an episode of military brutality which accompanied the German invasion of Belgium and France before the consolidation of trench warfare in mid-October 1914. Although notorious at the time, the ‘German Atrocities’ of 1914 were retrospectively explained in the inter-war period as propaganda fabrication by the Allied governments, an interpretation which has prevailed to the present.
In August-October 1914, some 6,500 Belgian and French civilians were massacred by German soldiers, over twenty thousand buildings were deliberately destroyed by arson and artillery fire, civilians were widely used as ‘human shields’ by German troops advancing into battle, and tens of thousands of inhabitants of the invasion zone were deported to Germany where they were interned. In the most notorious incidents, the historic university library of Louvain was destroyed while much of Dinant was razed and 674 of its inhabitants killed.
The German army claimed that it had met sustained civilian resistance – a Volkskrieg, or People’s War, conducted by civilian guerillas, or franc-tireurs, often led by Catholic priests, and organised according to the orders of the Belgian and French governments. Invoking the illegality of such actions in the light of its own understanding of the ‘laws and customs of war’, the German army engaged in concerted reprisals to repress the civilian uprising and to dissuade its further spread.
These reprisals were condemned by the Allied governments (and eventually by much of neutral opinion) as illegal by the light of Hague Convention IV on Land Warfare, signed by the belligerent powers of 1914, including Germany, at the second Hague Conference of 1907. Hague Convention IV permitted, under certain conditions, a civilian population to resist the invasion of its country by a levée en masse, or military uprising, against the invader.
In reality, in 1914, there was no such uprising, although the Allied governments maintained that it would have been legal had it occurred. Instead, a Great Fear, comparable to that which swept revolutionary France in 1789, seized all seven German armies engaged in the invasion and the persuaded them by a collective delusion that they faced mass civilian resistance.
The People’s War was a fantasy, but one which led over half the regiments involved in the invasion to commit acts of brutality against civilians. The fantasy took the form of a myth-complex which centred on the figure of the male franc-tireur. But it also had sub-variants including the evil priest, the revolutionary proletarian, and the seemingly innocent women and girls who blinded, castrated and poisoned hapless German soldiers.
The source of the collective fantasy of the People’s War and of the harsh reprisals with which the German army (up to its highest level) responded are to be found in the memory of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, when the German armies indeed faced irregular Republican soldiers (or francs-tireurs), and in the way in which the spectre of civilian involvement in warfare conjured up the worst fears of democratic and revolutionary disorder for a conservative officer corps.
Internalised in the teaching and operational assumptions of the German army between 1870 and 1914, this concern to limit warfare to a contest between professionally-officered national armies generated its own worst fears as collective fantasy in 1914, and simultaneously justified harsh reprisals as legitimate response, even though these contravened current international law.
Professor John Horne
B.A. (Oxon), D.Phil. (Sussex), FTCD, professor of Modern History, Europe, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. Research interest: Twentieth century France, Comparative history of the First World War, French and comparative Labour History.
Publications on this subject.
-"'Les Mains Coupees: 'atrocites allemandes' et opinion francaise en 1914" (Severed Hands: ‘German atrocities’ and French opinion in 1914), in Guerre et cultures, 1914-1918, ed. J.J. Becker et al., Paris, Armand Colin, (1994).
- (with Alan Kramer)"'German 'atrocities' and Franco-German Opinion: The Evidence of German Soldiers' Diaries", in Journal of Modern History, Chicago, 66, 1, (1994).
- "Soldiers, Civilians and the Warfare of Attrition: Representations of Combat in France, 1914-1918", in Authority, Identity and the Social History of the First World War, eds. F. Coetzee and M. Shevin-Coetzee, Providence, R.I., and Oxford, Berghahn Books, (1995).
- "L'Etranger, la guerre et l'image de <l'autre> (The Stranger, War and the Image of the ‘Other’), 1914-1918, in L'image de l'autre dans 'Europe du Nord-Ouest a travers l'Histoire, ed. J.-P. Jessenne, Lille, Universite Charles de Gaulle-Lille, (1996).
- "'Remobilizing for 'total' war: France and Britain, 1917-1918", in State, Society and Mobilisation in Europe during the First World War, ed. John Horne, Cambridge University Press, (1997).
- "L'invasion de 1914 dans la memoire (The 1914 Invasion in Public Memory: France, England, Belgium and Germany), in Traces de 14-18: Actes du colloque de Carcassone, 24-27 April 1996, eds. R. Cazals and S. Caucanas, Carcassonne, Les Audois, (1997).
Together with Dr Alan Kramer, he has just completed a study on the subject of German Atrocities in 1914, Meanings and Memories of War, which will be published by Cambridge University Press.
This is a summary of an address given at the "Unquiet Graves" International Conference on Executions held in Flanders in May 2000.