This book, dealing with charges of German atrocities in World War I, matters because goes to the heart of an important question about World War II. Were the horrors of the war that followed an aberration, a madness induced by Hitler cleverly exploiting the alleged harshness of Versailles, or were they based on something deeply flawed in the German psyche? If the first is true, then the Allies who imposed Versailles--Britain, France, and the United States--are as much to blame as Germany. If the latter is true, then blame for the horrors of both wars falls almost solely on Germany.
The authors do their best to understand German behavior, noting that, from the generals on down, before the fighting began the nation's soldiers strongly believed that they would face stiff guerilla warfare (by francs-tierurs) in Belgium, so much so that they interpreted everything that happened that way. Belgian and French soldiers firing from a distance and German soldiers firing in panic were seen as Belgian civilians firing from the windows of their homes, a problem compounded by the fact that few in German's large army were professional soldiers and fewer still had seen actual combat.
That, of course, does not excuse what actually happened, as the authors note. The use of human shields in combat, the execution of hostages, the systematic destruction of towns was quite clearly intended to terrorize the Belgian population into accepting a harsh German occupation and was not done by rank-and-file soldiers caught up in a moment of panic. Writing at the time, G. K. Chesterton summarized their behavior in a December 1915 article that sought to explain why, despite cries of outrage from around the world, Germany would execute Edith Cavell, an English nurse in a hospital in occupied Belgium who'd helped British soldiers evade capture.
"The thing was not done to protect the Prussian power. It was done to satisfy a Prussian appetite. The mad disproportion between the possible need of restraining their enemy and the frantic needlessness of killing her, is simply the measure of the distance by which the distorted Prussian psychology has departed from the moral instincts of mankind. The key to the Prussian is in this extraordinary fact: that he does truly and in his heart believe that he is admired whenever he can manage to be dreaded."
During the war, Chesterton himself would note that the evil that Germany had done that had also been done by others, even devoting an entire wartime book to The Crimes of England. But he noted in 1916 that there as an important difference, that "there never was an English wrong without an English protest." England had within itself the ability to correct itself. Germany, caught up in its own sense of its historical greatness, taught by its universities, did not.
The authors do an excellent job of pointing out that German atrocities did happen, that even while the war was raging the formal condemnations did not depend on tabloid reports of children having their hands cut off, and that the Germans themselves were not discovering any credible evidence of more than a few sporadic civilian attacks on German soldiers. They also establish that German behavior was unacceptable by the standards that Europeans set for warfare between themselves at that time. When combined with the fact that Germany began the war with an unprovoked attack on neutral Belgium, they demonstrate German guilt for the war and do suggest that German culture did have deeply engrained moral flaws that Hitler did not create, but merely exploited.
The authors also do us an excellent service by pointing out that both German militarists and English pacifists did the world a great evil when they attempted to discredit charges of German guilt for the war and for the atrocities. At the time, Chesterton explained why this strange ideological alliance existence when he noted that, "Pacifism and Prussianism are always in alliance, by a fatal logic far beyond any conscious conspiracy." Prussian militarism, fiercely nationalistic, wanted to deny that Germany could do wrong. Pacifists wanted to deny that there exists in this world evils that justify war, evils that cannot be done away with with soft words and paper treaties.
Since their influence on English thinking was greater, pacifist must bear a great portion of the blame for Britain's policy of appeasement during the 1930s and the refusal of so many to believe, even as the evidence mounted during WWII, that Germany was committed still more horrible atrocities in their second war. In 1933, for instance, Norman Angell, a leading pacifist and the winner of the 1933 Nobel Peace Prize, would gloat over the success of pacifist propaganda, claiming:
"No one pretends now--as the papers above quoted used to pretend--that war was due to the special wickedness of Germans, the sudden swoop of the satanic wolf in a peaceful world lust to each such harmless lambs as France and Russia."
Next to Nazism, pacifism bears the greatest blame for that most horrible of wars and much of their blame rests in their efforts to discredit the evidence of German atrocities in World War I that this book so effectively documents.
Those who'd like to explore this topic in greater depth should read the newly published collection of Chesterton's wartime articles I edited that's available on Amazon. During WWI, Chesterton was taking note of German behavior and warning that, if Europe did not come down hard on the nation, "wars more horrible" would follow. In 1932, he went even further, warning the Germany would start the next European war over a border dispute with Poland, precisely what happened seven years later.
No praise can be too high for this book, which is based on meticulous research and establishes conclusively that the German army carried out terrible atrocities against civilians in Belgium and northern France in the early part of the First World War. It was not only that the Germans deluded themselves into thinking that they faced mass civilian resistance. Their whole military outlook before 1914 had predisposed them to believe that this is what they would face. The Germans also went to extraordinary lengths to cover all this up after 1918. A very important book: get it before it goes out of print.
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The authors cast light, through their meticulous, sustained and fulsome research, on dramatic and quite horrific events, previously ignored as propaganda or exaggeration. A great read - highly illuminating and fascinating, although I thought it a shame they concentrated on the large-scale massacres.
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