Who committed the crime? Who gave the order?

…they have refused, when called upon, every explanation on essential points, on the ground that they had promised Patzig to be silent with respect to the occurrences of the 27th June; 1918. The accused, Dithmar, has only added that he disputes the fact that he did anything deserving punishment. In the course of the proceedings, he also pointed out that he never operated the after gun, which was the one in action. The accused Boldt has said a little more. He likewise repudiated any guilt, and specifically denied having fired. He then went on to say that, whatever part he took in the events in question, he was always under the orders of his commander. He says that it was not known to him that these orders contained anything for which punishment would be inflicted, or that by carrying them out he rendered himself liable to punishment…

For the firing on the lifeboats, only those persons can be held responsible who at the time were on the deck of the U-boat: namely Patzig, the two accused and the chief boatswain’s mate Meissner. Patzig gave the decisive order, which was carried out without demur in virtue of his position as commander. It is possible that he asked the opinion of the two accused beforehand, though of this there is no evidence. As Meissner was the gun-layer and remained on deck by special orders, it may be assumed with certainty that he manned the after gun that was fired. In the opinion of the Naval expert, he was able to act without assistance. According to this view, owing to the nearness of the objects under fire, there was no need for the fire to be directed by an artillery officer, such as the accused Dithmar. The only technical explanation, which both the accused have given and which fits in with the facts, is that they themselves did not fire. Under the circumstances, this is quite credible. They confined themselves to making observations while the firing was going on. The Naval expert also assumes that they kept a look-out. Such a look-out must have brought the lifeboats, which were being fired on, within their view. By reporting their position and the varying distances of the lifeboats and such like, the accused assisted in the firing on the life-boats, and this, quite apart from the fact that their observations saved the U-boat from danger from any other quarter, and that they thereby enabled Patzig to do what he intended as regards the life-boats. The statement of the accused Boldt that, “so far as he took part in what happened, he acted in accordance with his orders” has reference to the question whether the accused took part in the firing on the life-boats, He does not appear to admit any participation. But the two accused must be held guilty for the destruction of the life-boats.


  1. What role did Dithmar and Boldt play in the shooting of the lifeboats?
  2. Does someone need to be an active participant to be guilty of an atrocity?
  3. Who is responsible when an atrocity is committed? Is it the person carrying out an order? Or, the person who gave the order?

Source: "German War Trials: Judgment in Case of Lieutenants Dithmar and Boldt." The American Journal of International Law 16, no. 4 (1922): 708-24.

Found here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2187594?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Civilians on all sides suffer in war

Blockade of Germany:

During the First World War, the British blockaded Germany. This means that the British Navy did not allow foreign trade goods to enter Germany by sea and resulted in the starvation of thousands of German civilians. See the Memorandum to War Cabinet on trade blockade.

The photo to the right shows hungry Germans taking meat from a horse carcass in the street.


  1. Is the intentional suffering of neutral parties in war, like medical personnel and civilians ever acceptable to achieve success in war?

Fair game and the rules of war

“For the defence there were also called two witnesses who said that it was a universal conviction in the minds of all German naval officers during the later years of the war that hospital ships were being abused, and that, therefore, they ought to be regarded as ships of war.”-Claud Mullins, member of the British delegation in Leipzig in his description of court proceedings

Were the German naval officers correct? See the following modern article which addresses this question with regard to another famous sunken ship, the Lusitania: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1098904/Secret-Lusitania-Arms-challenges-Allied-claims-solely-passenger-ship.html


  1. Is a hospital ship ever fair game to attack during war, even if neutral ships were used for military purposes in the past?
  2. Do the rules of war apply to one party if the other party is breaking them?
  3. Can justice ever truly be served if only one party is investigated for crimes?

Bigger fish to fry?

There are two classes of War Criminals, “wholesale” and “retail.” [“Retailers” are unimportant]; the real punishment should fall on the “wholesalers,: [those in power who created and maintained] the old system which brought about and carried through the war].”

-Socialist German Newspaper called Vorwaerts as quoted in Mullins, The Leipzig Trials; an Account of the War Criminals' Trials and a Study of German Mentality


  1. Were Dithmar and Boldt “retailers” or “wholesalers”? “Big fish” or “little fish”? What about Patzig?
  2. Does it matter how important the accused are in society? Why or why not?

On the record: Might is not Right

If the true object of the War Criminals' Trials was neither to punish the offenders nor to convince the Germany of 1921 of her crimes, what justified them? They were a protest against a national system of brute force. The trials were of value to civilisation because in them a German Court denounced and punished conduct of which the deeds of the convicted men were typical. It was not…Dithmar or Boldt, against whom England was really proceeding. The accused were miserable creatures whose very names will be soon forgotten. They received their condemnation…but the vital fact is that through them the system which bred them was condemned.

While war passions are raging, men, and especially women, very naturally crave for revenge and individual punishments there probably never can be a general meting out of justice after a war. Even if there could be, would the sufferings of the injured be really assuaged? What matters is that the system which enabled these sufferings to be inflicted should be condemned in the eyes of the world.

In my view the object of the War Criminals' Trials at Leipzig was to establish a principle, to put on record before history that might is not right…

-Claud Mullins, The Leipzig Trials; an Account of the War Criminals' Trials and a Study of German Mentality


  1. What does the phrase “might is not right” mean?
  2. What was the ultimate purpose of the Leipzig Trials? In considering this ultimate purpose, was justice served?

Prior to FWW, there were rules established to govern actions during war.

During the mid-1800s, the birth of the International Red Cross and The 1864 Geneva Convention were the results of a European movement to establish laws governing the treatment and care of wounded soldiers and prisoners of war. These were the first steps toward creating more general terms for fairness and ethical participation in war laid out in The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907.

From the Convention (X) for the Adaptation to Maritime Warfare of the Principles of the Geneva Convention. The Hague, 18 October 1907.

Article 10. “The religious, medical, and hospital staff of any captured ship is inviolable, and its members cannot be made prisoners of war. On leaving the ship they take away with them the objects and surgical instruments which are their own private property. This staff shall continue to discharge its duties while necessary, and can afterwards leave, when the commander-in-chief considers it possible. The belligerents must guarantee to the said staff, when it has fallen into their hands, the same allowances and pay which are given to the staff of corresponding rank in their own navy.”

Comments regarding Articles 146 – 148. “…The various States were left entirely free to punish or not acts committed by their own troops against the enemy or by enemy troops in violation of the laws and customs of war. In other words, punishment depended solely on the existence or absence of national legislation for the punishment of the acts committed.”


  1. What rules did the crew of the German U-86 break in the events of June 27, 1918?
  2. How were the rules of war in the Hague Convention enforced? How were rule breakers punished?

Source: The International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (ICRC) website

Found here:



Just Following Orders

In a case related to the sinking of LLANDOVERY CASTLE, in which German U-boat Commander, Karl Newmann, was charged with sinking a different British hospital ship, DOVER CASTLE and it was determined that the military chain of command demands that superiors orders (instructions given by a member of superior rank) must be obeyed without question.

“On 26th May, 1917, the accused (German Commander Karl Newmann) was in the Tyrrhenian Sea in command of the Submarine U.C. 67. During the day he sighted two steamers, escorted by two destroyers. The weather was clear and sunny. The accused was therefore soon able to see that the two steamers carried the distinctive outward signs laid down for military hospital ships by the 10th Hague Convention, in accordance with the principles of the Geneva Convention on naval warfare of 18th October, 1907. He then approached nearer to the convoy,which was pursuing a zigzag course, and about 6.00 p.m. he fired a torpedo at the steamer nearest to him. The steamer was hit; it remained stationary, but did not sink. One of the destroyers, which were accompanying it, came alongside its starboard side and took off its crew,as well as all the sick and wounded on board. Only after this had taken place, about 1' hours after the first torpedo, did the accused sink the vessel by firing a second torpedo. He then rose to the surface and found out from the markings on the unmanned life-boats which were drifting about that the sunken steamer was the Dover Castle.

According to the statement of the English Government,the Dover Castle had been serving for several years as a hospital ship and as such had regularly travelled from England to Malta and Salonica and from there back home. When torpedoed she had sick and wounded on board and was on her way to take them from Malta to Gibralta. When the vessel was sunk not one of these perished. The first torpedo that was fired, however, caused the death of six members of the crew.

The accused frankly admits sinking the Dover Castle. He pleads that in so doing he merely carried out an order of the German Admiralty, his superior authority. With respect to this order the circumstances are as follows:

During the first years of the war the German Admiralty respected the military hospital ships of their opponents in accordance with the regulations of the 10th Hague Convention referred to above. Later, however, they came to believe that enemy governments were utilizing their hospital ships not only to aid wounded, sick and shipwrecked people, but also for military purposes and that they were thereby violating this convention. In two memoranda, dated 29th January and 29th March,1917,respectively, the German Government explained its attitude more clearly and gave proof in support of its assertions. It stated that it would not entirely repudiate the convention, but was compelled to restrict the navigation of enemy hospital ships. Accordingly it was announced in the second memorandum that henceforth, as regards the Mediterranean,only such hospital ships would be protected, which fulfilled certain conditions. The hospital ships had to be reported at least six weeks previously and were to keep to a given course on leaving Greece. After a reasonable period of grace, it was announced, all other enemy hospital ships in the Mediterranean would be regarded as vessels of war and forthwith attacked.

The second memorandum reached the enemy governments in the early part of April,1917.

It corresponds with the order of the Admiralty issued on 29th March, 1917, to the German Flotilla in the Mediterranean.

As from 8 April hospital ships generally are no longer to be permitted in the blockaded area of the Mediterranean, including the route to Greece. Only a few special hospital ships, which have been notified by name at least six weeks previously, may use the channel up to the Port of Kalamata. Advise submarines that as from 8 April every hospital ship on the routes named is to be attacked forthwith, excepting such only as have been expressly notified from here,in which cases speed, times of arrival and departure will be exactly stated.

This order was communicated to the accused before his departure from Cattaro. Previously the two memoranda had been also brought to his knowledge. Exceptions in the case of hospital ships had not been arranged, as the enemy governments and no use of the opportunities to notify their hospital ships given in the memorandum of 29th March,1917. In the circumstances, acquittal of the accused has been requested.

It is a military principle that the subordinates bound to obey the orders of his superiors. This duty of obedience is of considerable importance from the point of view of the criminal law. Its consequence is that, when the execution of a service order involves an offence against the criminal law, the superior giving the order is alone responsible.


  1. Why is the “chain of command” such an important principle in the military?
  2. Is is ever acceptable for a military member to refuse an order from a superior? What should happen in this case?

Source: German War Trials: Judgment in Case of Commander Karl Neumann

Found here: https://ia601605.us.archive.org/22/items/jstor-2187593/2187593.pdf

Treatment of Enemy Combatants

“The war highlighted a wide range of varying popular understandings, which also changed over time, as to what constituted prisoner mistreatment: in 1914, British officer prisoners complained that they had been transported to Germany in cattle trucks or second class carriages; the British and French governments found it unacceptable in 1915 that Germany was holding their captives together with Russian prisoners rather than segregating the nationalities. At the other end of the violence spectrum real horrors did occur: in 1914 the French government protested the shooting of prisoners of war during the German invasion of northern France and the killing of medical personnel and wounded soldiers after the surrender of a hospital at Goméry. France also began to gather evidence from captured German soldiers regarding breaches of quarter by the German army on the battlefield in 1914. Germany protested strongly at the use of German prisoners of war by Russia to build the Murmansk railway in terrible conditions. In March 1918, a British Parliamentary Paper claimed that a British prisoner Able Seaman John Genower had burned to death in the Brandenburg prisoner of war camp in 1917 when the camp prison went on fire and guards prevented the evacuation of the prison cells. States also accused the enemy of refusal of quarter on the battlefield as discussed earlier.

Some mistreatment incidents were considered grave enough to trigger reprisals. In 1916, in retaliation for the French use of German prisoner of war labour in North Africa, Germany sent French prisoners of war from home front camps to work in terrible conditions in its occupied Baltic areas; when in the same year Britain commenced using German prisoner labour to unload and load cargo at French ports, Germany retaliated by sending British prisoners from Döberitz camp to work in sub-zero conditions behind the lines on the Eastern Front. While France relented relatively quickly and removed German prisoners from North Africa, thereby ensuring its men were withdrawn from the Eastern reprisals, Britain continued to use German prisoners as labour in French ports, meaning that its men remained in the East in winter 1917.

In general the war saw a radicalization of the use of prisoner reprisals to force better treatment of captives by the enemy. Perhaps the worst reprisal sequence was the decision by the third German OHL in spring 1917 to keep all newly captured, unwounded British and French prisoners of war behind the lines, in retaliation for both the French use of German prisoner labour on the Verdun battlefield where German prisoners endured very difficult – and dangerous – working conditions and the British decision to begin using German other rank prisoners of war to work in labour companies on the Western Front for the British army in 1916. Only when the French and British agreed to remove their German prisoner labourers to a distance of thirty kilometres from the front lines for all work did the OHL call off the reprisals, which took a terrible physical toll upon those prisoners subjected to them.

Public opinion often pushed for the escalation of reprisals. In 1918, the British press baron Alfred Charles William Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe (1865-1922) placed Thomas Wodehouse Legh, Lord Newton (1857-1942), head of the Prisoner of War Committee at the Foreign Office, under significant pressure to start reprisals against German prisoners in retaliation for Germany’s poor treatment of British prisoners working in German mines and labouring for the German army in occupied France and Belgium; Newton resisted. In Germany, the right wing parties in the Reichstag applauded the announcement of the 1917 spring reprisals. In rare cases, the public sought to assist enemy prisoners; one example was the Jewish community of Berlin, which provided unleavened bread to Jewish prisoners held in captivity in neighbouring camps during Passover.


  1. How were enemy militaries expected to treat each other?
  2. Had the rules of war been long enough established to expect enemy combatants to respect them?

Source: The British Library Online, World War One, Prisoners of War article

Found here: http://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/prisoners-of-war

For further exploration of the case's evidence, please see the Extension Sources page.