Leipzig Trials

"Germans were outraged because the list contained the names of many national heroes"

The First World War ended at 11 a.m. on November 11th, 1918. Representatives of the victorious Allied governments set out the terms of the peace treaty, the Treaty of Versailles, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. One of the terms agreed to in the Treaty allowed the Allied governments to try alleged German war criminals in military tribunals. The Allies submitted a long list of nearly 900 cases to the German government. Nationalistic Germans were outraged because the list contained the names of many national heroes. Many Germans also felt it was unfair because only Germans were to be tried for war crimes when war crimes were allegedly committed by belligerents on all sides. The opposition to the trials was so fierce that some observers believed that had the trials been conducted by the Allied governments as originally planned, the German government would have toppled, resulting in societal and political chaos. To maintain a semblance of stability in Germany, the Allies made compromises. They shortened the list of defendants to forty-five, and trials were to be conducted by the German government in the German city of Leipzig. In the end, because many of the alleged war criminals disappeared or died before the trials began, only twelve faced the courts.

For these reasons, and many others, the general public outside of Germany believed the trials to be a farce. However, the trials set an important historical precedent: atrocities committed in war, at least those committed by the losers, are punishable in a court of law. The trials, for their many shortcomings, were an attempt, in the words of Claud Mullins, a British lawyer and contemporary observer, not to exact vengeance but to “re-establish the law and principles of humanity” and condemn the system that allowed war crimes to happen.

"John Boldt escaped from prison in November of 1921 and Ludwig Dithmar escaped in January of 1922"

Following the war, the whereabouts of First-Lieutenant Helmut Patzig, the commander of the U-boat that sank LLANDOVERY CASTLE, were unknown, or he was outside the jurisdiction of the court. In gathering evidence against Patzig from his crew, the German court came to the conclusion that it could try his two subordinate officers, Ludwig Dithmar and John (Johann) Boldt, for their role in the atrocity instead.

The prosecution charged Dithmar and Boldt for their complicity in murder and the execution of an illegal order. During the trial, both men refused to talk about the events of June 27th, 1918 because of the promise they made to Patzig. As punishment, Dithmar was dismissed from the navy and Boldt, who had already retired from military service, was ordered not to wear his uniform. In addition, both men were sentenced to four years in prison.

The public in Allied countries widely saw these sentences as far too lenient. However, many Germans were outraged because they saw the U-boat officers as heroes who had acted as they did in defence of the German people, under orders from their superior officer. Other Germans simply felt the trials were unfair and humiliating in general.

John Boldt escaped from prison in November of 1921 and Ludwig Dithmar escaped in January of 1922. Their escapes were made possible by the efforts of a secret, right-wing, ultranationalist organization called Organisation Consul (OC), a group connected to multiple attempted and successful assassinations of Weimar Republic politicians and others that they considered political enemies. In 1928, in a session behind closed doors, the German government reversed the guilty verdicts in the case against Dithmar and Boldt. They granted Patzig amnesty for his crimes in 1931.

Question:

  1. Most contemporary observers viewed the Leipzig Trials as a failure, yet it could be argued that they set a historical precedent that allowed for the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War and international human rights tribunals today. Do you think that the Leipzig Trials were a success or a failure and why?