Notes on

"German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial"

John Horne and Alan Kramer

Yale University Press 2001. Isbn 0-300-08975-9

(450 pages of text and 145 pages of notes, sources and bibliography)


(**) page references . [..] own comments.

Introduction: summarizes the events and their aftermath. Regarded as merely the product of Allied propaganda little academic interest until recently. New work much of it based on new material from recovered German files. Still relevant to current problems.

Part 1: Invasion 1914

(Chapters 1 and 2)

Describes the three phases in which atrocities occurred. The first was the taking of Liège and the movement up the Meuse, in which Dinant was the worst incident, and the movement across the plains of Belgium, when Louvain was the worst. The second phase was the advance through the Ardennes into Belgium and France, especially the department of Meurthe et Moselle, when there were again many cases. The third, with only a few cases, was the ending of the "race to the sea" in West Flanders.

Ample documentation, including soldiers'own diaries and letters, of mass killings of civilians of all ages and sexes, burning of houses etc, use of civilians as human shields, killing of French and Belgian wounded soldiers, deportation of large numbers of civilians. Almost total absence of anything resembling any judicial procedure. Several documented instances of regimental officers being involved (eg 33) and one of a general ordering the shooting of prisoners (194) none of officers trying to restrain troops.

Many factors contributed including

German belief that a "franc-tireur" war in late 1870, waged against all the rules of war.

Inexperience leading to lack of discipline amongst German soldiers

Much drunkenness

Many "friendly fire" incidents arising from panic

Frequent collisions with Belgian and French rearguards leading to confusion

[A Belgian counter attack probably precipitated the shooting in Louvain and French soldiers defending the left bank of the Meuse at Dinant were often thought to be francs tireurs.]

Rage at the stubborn and at first successful defence of Liège

Rage at Belgian resistance at all. Not seen as a people entitled to defend themselves.

A prevailing almost hatred of the Roman Catholic clergy in Belgium and France

[Did not Little Willy think that the Pope had sent shotguns to Belgium?]

Ambiguous or inadequate German field service regulations regarding civilians (more detail below)

Failure of German logistics later leading to uncontrolled looting.

Noteworthy that some cases and general behaviour no better in Alsace-Lorraine and that prejudice against priests common even amongst German soldiers from Roman Catholic districts. Also that most German army units involved at some time or other. Rape common but little documented. About 5000 Belgian and 1000 French civilians killed. Numbers fell off later as civilians fled at approach of German army. Towns found to be empty.

(79) Compared 1. Russian invasion of East Prussia 2. Later German invasion of Poland 3. Russian retreat in 1915 and 4. Austrian- Hungarian invasions of Serbia in 1914. Atrocities widely reported from all. For 1, official German conclusion was that it had been greatly exaggerated. Ludendorff agreed. For 2, some foundation in fact but not on remotely the Belgian scale and civilian population undoubtedly worse treated by the retreating Russians than by the Germans. Much the same for 3 exacerbated by Russian anti-semitism and suspicion of subject nationalities. 4 serious but there probably was serious civilian resistance.


Part II

War of Illusions? "Francs Tireurs" and "German Atrocities", 1914.

Chapter 3. The German army and the myth of the francs tireurs, 1914.

Collective delusion based originally on wrong understanding of 1870-71 and fed by press reports. Compared with "The Great Fear" in France in 1789. Similar pattern of rumour, gossip, story telling reinforced by the press and the authorities. Sad cases of Belgian burgomasters who had, on government instructions designed to prevent civilian resistance, collected up the firearms in their districts only to be killed by the Germans in the belief they were aiding francs tireurs. Many legends of women and girls (cf the equally mythical "pétroleuses" of the Commune) involved and of savage attacks on wounded Germans especially mutilation of them. Francs tireurs used as excuse for failure to keep to the timetable and the consequent failure of the Schlieffen Plan [if there was one that is]. Rare cases of German discipline being restored (121). Long discussion of the German failure to understand the distinction between the active and inactive Garde Civique even though it had been made clear by the Belgian government. German officers worried by the breakdown of discipline [and occasionally shot by their own men].

Chapter 4. Memories, mentalities and the German response to the "franc tireur war".

1870 crucial for German memories. French republican government ie after Sedan, urged levée en masse and many irregular units raised, some 300 units with about 57,000 members. 10/70 to 1/71 became very nasty, hostages killed, towns burnt etc. Besides practical problems, people's war deeply distasteful to German leaders. (142). Fierce repression ordered and became in German military thought the orthodox response --- terrorism as a legitimate tactic. Many senior officers of 1914 remembered this experience. But the francs tireurs units did wear at least rudimentary uniforms and one German general thought it not a lot different from what Germans did in 1813. Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907. Countries without large armies (eg Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland) thought people could not be denied the right to defend their homeland. Those with big armies wanted war to be limited to organised armies, the Germans arguing that it was kinder to deter civilians from useless opposition, besides having internal political reasons for disliking any popular participation. Article 2 of the 1907 Hague Convention runs as follows (from Appendix 2)

"The inhabitants of a territory which has not been occupied who, on the approach of the enemy, spontaneously take up arms to resist the invading troops without having had time to organise themselves in accordance with Article 1, shall be regarded as belligerents if they carry arms openly and if they respect the laws and customs of war".

The violent behaviour towards RC clergy may have been a residual effect of the Kulturkampf in Germany.

Before the war, the German army issued a "War Book" or "Kriegsbrauch" but the definitions in it did not conform to those in the Convention, as one German international lawyer stated, and post war attempts were made to claim that few copies were issued. However, the "Felddienstordnung" of 1907 also failed to mention the provisions of the Convention. True, the Hague Convention IV was attached to the Felddienstordnung of 1911 but only as an appendix and the text was unaltered. (149).[In the files of the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv there is an instruction concerning mobilisation 1914-15 which recommends the taking of hostages to ensure security on roads in enemy territory. Old PH3, item 284]. Good evidence of orders encouraging harsh behaviour towards civilians from army corps level (162). . Some German soldiers disagreed and even disobeyed or evaded orders (170).

Chapter 5. Allied Opinion and "German Atrocities", August-October 1914.

Reports of atrocities spread but at first Allied press was reluctant to believe them until about mid August (177). In September, the French government tried to ban such stories fearing a greater exodus of refugees (184). Sheer numbers frustrated all such efforts --- 200,000 Belgian refugees to France, rather fewer to Britain, 400,000 to the Netherlands, and 400,000 French within France.(184) all with stories to tell. Growth of legends eg severed hands and other mutilations. Memories of 1870 evoked in France but not in Belgium where there was no previous history of antipathy to Germany. (214-5).

Part III.


War of Words, 1914-18: German atrocities and the meanings of war.

Chapter 6. The battle of official reports and the tribunal of world opinion.

Efforts made by Allies to collect data. Belgian reports May and October 1915 and French January 1915. British Bryce Committee reported May 1915. Latter much criticized but now known to be substantially accurate, even if it knew little about Dinant, though some legends repeated. (229-234). In September, Germans began collecting evidence, mainly aimed at substantiating the charge of "Volkskrieg" (238). Foreign Ministry pressed for results but "White Book" not published till May 1915. "Defiantly unapologetic". German scholars since found earlier version of the part about Louvain --- very different, witness statements omitted. (240). Both sides made great efforts to win over neutrals. German Social Democrats unconvinced and German Catholics deeply disturbed. (245). Jagow [Foreign Minister] opposed taking matter to the Hague Court "because we already have too much on our conscience". (246). Belgian detailed reply, the "Grey Book". But problem was how to prove a negative, that there had been no franc tireur war? Van Langenhove and Passelecq concluded Germans victims of a self created delusion and blamed their military doctrines and "terrifying intellectual inebriation" of Pan-Germanism (248). Effect on neutrals. Many accurate reports, and some very inaccurate, from US journalists but little effect on German Americans (251). German counter charges --- use of colonial troops, alliance with Russians etc (259).

Chapter 7. Communities of truth and the "atrocities" question.

German socialists resisted rather feebly but demanded evidence. (263) French socialists also wary. Bigger problem for papacy. Mercier, Belgian primate, and papal officials reported in detail but Pope trimmed. Mercier stubbornly opposed German occupiers and fierce dispute with German Catholic church, mainly Cardinal Hartmann of Cologne, followed in spite of German attempts to placate the Belgian civil population . No reconciliation. (267-277). Intellectuals also fell out. Cultural conflict grew. Organized statements from both sides, inflamed as news of atrocities spread. Disastrous German "Appeal to the World of Culture" by 93 leading intellectuals and artists published in Germany and abroad in early October 1914. (280) Claimed Germany did not bring about the war/ Germany did not wantonly violate Belgian neutrality/ life and property of no Belgian citizen infringed except in self defence/German soldiers did not destroy Louvain/ international law not infringed/ not true that war against German militarism is not an attack on German culture. "Without German militarism German culture would long since have been erased from the earth....The German army and the people are one". Some German sceptics and an "Appeal to the Europeans" resulted which protested against German nationalism.

Chapter 8. Wartime culture and enemy atrocities.

Atrocities live issue even after end of mobile warfare. War cultures evolved everywhere often self mobilised and atrocities figured largely in formation of images of enemies. Role of 'Dutch cartoonist Raemaekers on behalf of Belgians (297). Extended to U boat warfare on one side and blockade on the other. Growth in Belgium and France of cult of martyrs. Allied reports circulated secretly in Belgium. Difficult for German authorities with no victims to show.(315). Resorted to mockery and claims of Allied hypocrisy. Effects faded in France and groups sprang up to keep memory alive. (315). Bombing of London, shelling of Paris and what learnt when occupied areas liberated revived issue again. (321)


Part IV


The impossible consensus: German atrocities and memories of war from 1919.

Chapter 9. The moral reckoning.: Versailles and the war crimes trials.

Legal retribution considered throughout war. Commission on responsibilities and penalties set up January 1919. American chairman. America opposed whole idea of judicial procedures (332) but Articles 227-230 were agreed. [And 231 which does not allege "sole" responsibility]. But no court was established. German Foreign Ministry successfully resisted attempts by new German government to publish at once the Kautsky documents [on events in 1914]. (334). Kriegsschuldreferat established late 1918 tried to launch counter attack. German "catastrophist" strategy of reject the Treaty and risk resuming hostilities, civil disorder, Bolshevik revolution etc (336). German parliamentary enquiry came to nothing (339) and extradition efforts to bring 1590 named war criminals (341) to trial fizzled out. Much reduced list submitted for trial in Germany. Leipzig trials began May 1921. A few sentences on U boat officers (sinking hospital ships, firing on survivors) and the British lost interest (347). Substantial case against General Stenger [order to shoot French wounded] failed completely in spite of ample evidence (350) and the Leipzig trials came to nothing. France and Belgium still wanted extradition so tried culprits in absentia. Reichsgericht whitewashed all found guilty as it did at least one of the U boat cases. Continued in this way up to the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. British indifference postwar. French mood of "patriotic pacifism" ie hatred both of the war and of the war criminals (356). Belgian enquiries continued. Especially passionate over Dinant. Another exculpatory book from German semi-official sources but notes found of Col. Schwertfeger's lecture to Foreign Office staff tho not circulated for fear of "falling into the wrong hands". Effectively admitted "quite deliberate deception". German problem of how to depict itself as victim to preserve continuity, victim of encirclement, of defeat by treachery at home and victim of an unjust peace treaty.(363). Counter attack by Gallinger (362). A few German objectors.

Chapter 10. German atrocities and the politics of memory.

In 1920s, pacifists in France eg Demartial and in Britain eg Ponsonby in denouncing war as the greater atrocity attacked the case for German atrocities. Some wartime myths were easy targets and most of the rest was attributed to hysteria. (368). Allied atrocities cited. Détente with Germany sought by revision of the Treaty. In Britain attack on wartime propaganda grew as disillusionment set in (373). Backlash perhaps strongest in USA. Attempt at fresh start at Locarno 1925 but Reichstag revived issue all over again approving a report "Der belgisch Volkskrieg" which repeated all the claims of the "White Book".(379) Refutation by Vandervelde not supported by Belgian government nor by the Vatican or by the French. All governments tried to make an end. (382). But memorials kept issue alive especially at Louvain and Dinant. Oszwald's exculpatory book 1931 (396). More trouble in 1936 over a monument at Dinant. Nazis after 1933 blamed Jewish propaganda (401). Tried to avoid repetition in 1940 and largely successful. Dinant memorial demolished and others defaced (404).Tried to find evidence of franc tireur war in Belgian archives but failed even removing many of the files as late as August 1944 (405). But no basic change in policy as seen in eastern Europe and later in France as resistance grew.(410). Post war, Belgian and German historians attempted to come to an agreement. Peter Schöller's demolition in 1956 of the White Book, having obtained a copy of the internal version of January 1915 (413) accepted by all. Measure of reconciliation followed. Many furious reactions in Germany. Issue ignored by eg Ritter and Fischer in 1960s and German encyclopaedias not corrected.

Conclusion and Perspectives

Confirmed that in 1914 German army deluded itself that it faced civilian resistance. Harsh reaction which followed was ordered in accordance with German army doctrine. Based on aversion to any popular involvement in military matters. Neither accidental nor circumstantial. Even if resistance had existed, it was legitimate.

Return to WWI Resource Centre Index