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Dissertation

Dissertation Title: “The Politics of Reckoning: German War Crimes, Allied Justice, and the Meaning of Punishment after the First World War.”

Letter from the Breslau office of the League of German Men and Women for the Protection of the Personal Freedom and Life of Wilhelm II to Reichspräsident Friedrich Ebert, 23. August 1919.

Letter from the Breslau office of the League of German Men and Women for the Protection of the Personal Freedom and Life of Wilhelm II to Reichspräsident Friedrich Ebert, 23. August 1919.

My dissertation, “The Politics of Reckoning: German War Crimes, Allied Justice, and the Meaning of Punishment after the First World War” examines the first international attempt to render justice for wartime atrocities and violations of international law. After the First World War, the Allied Powers devised a program to punish Germans accused of war crimes before an unprecedented international tribunal. This Punishment Program was intended to usher in a new era of global justice and accountability, beginning with the prosecution of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Written directly into the Treaty of Versailles, the punishment terms compelled German officials to extradite German citizens to their erstwhile enemies as a condition of maintaining peace. However, less than a year later, the initial plan was abandoned, becoming the first major failure of the Versailles system. The Allies were forced to cede authority to the Germans themselves, and the subsequent “Leipzig Trials” failed to produce the intended outcomes.

Utilizing archival and published sources, this study explores how violent atrocities committed during World War I impacted the process of conducting peace and undermined attempts to normalize postwar relations between Germany and its former cobelligerents. In this project, I use the Allies’ abortive Punishment Program to scrutinize how the issue of war crimes became an early and integral feature of political culture in the Weimar Republic and was a crucial ingredient for the political activation of ethnic, völkisch nationalism between the 1919/20 and 1924 German electoral cycles, a period which witnessed a retreat from liberal politics and the emergence of grass-roots radical nationalism as a potent force in Germany’s fledgling democracy. At the same time that the “war crimes question” sparked a hostile, xenophobic nationalist discourse in Germany, I show how the issue became an insurmountable obstacle in international diplomacy, failing to foster consensus and continually driving a wedge between the officials and publics of the concerned European states. At a time when real advances were made by the former belligerents to revise certain aspects of the Versailles Peace Treaty, war crimes proved a sticking point over which little revision and reconciliation could be made.

Guilty verdict in the case of Robert Neumann before the German Reichsgericht (Supreme Court)

Guilty verdict in the case of Robert Neumann before the German Reichsgericht (Supreme Court)

In my dissertation, I ask how public memory and social discourse interact with high politics and international diplomacy. The war crimes issue was decisive in shaping how Germans and other Europeans remembered and understood their respective nations’ experience during wartime. While the Allied countries in the western theater of war had long since established narratives of victimhood to mobilize their populations for total war, in the postwar period the question of what to do with accused war criminals and the fear of “victor’s justice” facilitated the creation and reformulation of victimhood narratives in Germany. Through this dynamic the war crimes discourse and the concrete process of rendering judgment became an existential battleground where mutually exclusive legacies of war competed for legitimacy. I examine how war crimes were understood and defined as a legal and political concept as well as how war crimes functioned in popular discourses. Following World War I, war crimes trials had the potential to render definitive judgment on the violent excesses of war and to establish a new international judicial order that promoted peaceful negotiation and collaboration. Instead, the program to punish German war criminals failed to establish consensus in any form regarding wartime atrocities, and the issue of atrocity remained an open dispute throughout the interwar period. Ultimately, the legacy and meaning of German atrocities proved an explosive source of conflict and an effective means of mobilizing popular agitation and antagonism. 

Using archival documents and governmental materials, I focus on the decisive period between the armistice in November 1918 and the decision to allow German authorities to conduct trials themselves in February 1920. In Part I, I trace the Punishment Program from its origins during the First World War to the Paris Peace Conference. I argue that revanchist zeal among the Allied homefronts placed enormous pressure on Allied leaders to punish the enemy, but this imperative proved irreconcilable with the divergent political interests and legal doctrines among the peacemakers. In Part II, I examine the Punishment Program’s reception in Germany, where counterrevolutionary nationalists, conservatives, and officers used the punishment issue to consolidate popular resentment under an anti-republican banner. These reactionaries mobilized populist unrest against the democratically-elected Weimar government, bringing it to its knees. I argue that the Punishment Program failed to properly account for the volatile domestic situation in Germany, ultimately destabilizing the new democratic regime and emboldening the imperialist, nationalist, and militarist milieus that embodied Germany’s wartime transgressions.