German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial. By John Horne and Alan Kramer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-300-08975-9. Maps. Illustrations. Photographs. Figures. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xv, 608. $40.00.
This impressive, multilayered study is a reexamination of the violent opening stages of World War I. From the war's first weeks, as German armies plunged through Belgium and France to realize the sweeping victory charted in the Schlieffen Plan, reports spread of horrible atrocities against civilians committed by invading forces: summary mass executions, arson, use of "human shields," rapes, and deportations. In the ensuing propaganda war, the Allies cited these reports as evidence of German barbarism. The Kaiser's diplomats and generals denounced them as fabrications. In the disillusionment with great causes that followed this "war to end all wars," many in Western Europe and the United States came to believe that the stories had indeed been manipulative propaganda sponsored by their governments.
In this study, however, the authors return anew to the original sources to reexamine an entire range of questions concerning German actions in 1914. They conclude that there indeed were over 6,400 civilians deliberately killed in the invasion from August to October 1914. To establish these concrete facts, they critically survey a variety of sources: records of Belgian, French, and German investigative committees, diaries, regimental histories, and contemporary press reports, substantiating in detail the claims of atrocities. The book includes excellent maps, vivid illustrations of propaganda, and an appendix with a detailed database of incidents showing locations and army units involved. The authors argue that the German reaction was caused by a mass delusion gripping the invading army of a million men: the false conviction that they faced a mobilized civilian populace resisting their onslaught with guerrilla tactics. The archetypal figure of the "franc-tireur," an invisible sharpshooter lurking in ambush (as in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71) was "the unacceptable alter ego of the nation in arms" (p. 140) for the self-consciously elite German officer caste. In response, the army took brutal reprisals against civilians.
These human casualties, and the destruction of famous sites like the
library of Louvain, soon became notorious. Rumors were supplemented by
legends which were not true but symbolically expressed deep fears. The
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emblematic image of children with severed hands, based on such a
legend, became a touchstone in popular imagination. Allied propaganda
concerning these incidents, the authors argue, was no better than the
German propaganda of denials. Given the facts, the Allies simply had an
easier case to make. Peace in 1918 also did not bring closure. Rather,
the Versailles Treaty demanded war crimes trials, which were frustrated
by the Weimar government, which continued to obscure the reality of
the events, thus contributing to the poisoning of the international
atmosphere. Today, as the world still seeks restraints on violence
against civilians, the events of 1914 deserve the reexamination given
them in this compelling study.
Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius
University of Tennessee