Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro: The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism


Human disasters: humanitarianism and the transnational turn in the wake of World War I

The Great War in Europe was an unprecedented catastrophe. By mid August 1914, the devastated cities of Dinant and Louvain had already come to symbolize the horror of industrialized warfare. The first reports of the German Army’s atrocities in Belgium and France, of massacres, rapes, deportations, and the destruction of hospitals and historic monuments, soon followed. These reports were only confirmed by the brutal military occupations on the western front, in the Balkans, in Central and later in Eastern Europe. From the standpoint of humanitarian law, then, in its infancy, the Great War was nothing but a series of bloody affronts to human dignity. The year 1915 marked a turning point, with its increased violence against civilian populations and the beginning of the Armenian genocide. Even the Armistice brought no relief. In Europe and in the Near East, refugees fled revolutions, civil wars, and persecution. Hundreds of thousands of families suffered famine and epidemics. Meanwhile, millions of wounded and disabled soldiers struggled to return to their civilian lives. And yet in the end, the Great War did more than create disaster. It fostered deep and long-term pacifist feeling among a substantial population, and it made the protection of all the war’s victims, civilians and soldiers alike, an absolute necessity—a project that drew to it a surprisingly large and talented group of activists and their supporters.

The Great War did more than create disaster. It fostered deep and long-term pacifist feeling among a substantial population, and it made the protection of all the war’s victims an absolute necessity

The timid steps taken in this direction during the peace negotiations were short-lived. In June 1919, Germany acknowledged the Allies’ right to prosecute, before military tribunals, those accused of committing “acts in violation of the laws and customs of war.” But the Reichsgericht or Supreme Court established in Leipzig in 1921 was a mockery of justice: of the initial list of more than 800 accused “war criminals,” including the German generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the tribunal in fact prosecuted only 45—all of whom were mid-level German Army officers.

The other major power that the Allies might have held accountable was Turkey, for crimes committed in the Ottoman Empire against its Armenian minority. However, according to the Hague Convention of 1907, the concept of “war crime” applied only to acts of violence perpetrated by a belligerent state against the soldiers or civilians of another state. This definition of war crimes excluded any state that persecuted its own civilians. The 1919 Commission on the Responsibilities of the Authors of War and on Enforcement of Penalties asked the salient question: if the atrocities committed against Armenians could not be described as “war crimes,” were they “crimes against the laws of humanity,” as defined in the preamble of the Hague Convention of 1907? The participants at the Paris Peace Conference responded in the negative. In their eyes, “laws of humanity” was too imprecise a concept to have any implications for penal procedure. The United States and Japan bore a historic responsibility for this decision, which was made, no doubt, because the American government considered Turkey a potential bulwark against the Bolshevik threat, and, thus, a potential ally that needed to be appeased. The “crimes against humanity” committed by the Ottoman Empire were explicitly mentioned in Articles 226 and 230 of the Treaty of S`evres (1920) between the Allies and Turkey. But this treaty was never ratified. Instead it was replaced on July 24, 1923, by the Treaty of Lausanne, which granted amnesty to those responsible for the crimes previously mentioned in the Treaty of S`evres. As far as attacks on civilian populations were concerned, a sovereign state still could not be prosecuted for crimes committed against its own citizens. The Turks themselves held a number of trials in which soldiers were convicted of violating the Turkish military code, but that was an entirely domestic matter. This protection of national sovereignty lasted until the immediate aftermath of World War II, when Article 6 of the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal (dated August 8, 1945) established the procedures for the Nuremberg Trials.

However, this failure to recognize “crimes against the laws of humanity” was counterbalanced by other significant new developments. World War I and its aftermath represent a decisive turning point in the redefinition of humanitarianism: a profound transformation of pre-war humanitarian practices and humanitarian law into an assertion of “humanitarian rights.” In a 1922 newspaper article, the Russian Jewish legal scholar Boris Mirkine-Guetz´evitch noted with hope for the future: “A contemporary popular legal conscience has been born, which acknowledges aid to refugees, victims of starvation, and victims of epidemics as a task of an international, public nature.” This transformative moment in the long development of humanitarianism—meaning both humanitarian action on the ground and humanitarian discourse—is the topic of this book.

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