Pieter Lagrou and Ornella Rovetta were interviewed by Jean-Pol Hecq on justice after the First World War, an interview broadcasted on RTBF’s Un jour dans l’histoire on 24 October 2018.
On 22 August 2018, Pieter Lagrou gave a keynote lecture at the Conference To End All Wars, in Ypres, Belgium.
The Gendarmerie in Grammont. Between October and November 1917, the Geheime Feldpolizei arrested children in Grammont for alleged sabotage of the railways in September-October 1917. The trial of Max Ramdohr was held in Leipzig in June 1921.
Appraisals of the various attempts to bring the authors of war crimes to justice after 1918 are univocal: they all resulted in pitiful failure and constituted the scenario of disaster the victorious allies of 1945 were determined to avoid.
The inter-allied special tribunal to judge the Kaiser as foreseen in the Versailles Treaty never materialized. Germany, Turkey and even neutral countries like The Netherlands refused to extradite suspects.
Trials held in Leipzig and Istanbul were largely perceived as making a mockery of justice and the trials in absentia held out of spite in France and Belgium were considered illegitimate by the nations of the defendants and ultimately frustrating by the nations of the victims. The accumulated effect of these failures was the triumph of a culture of impunity, with dramatic consequences during the second World War.
This blighting and widely shared assessment does call for a reassessment. The various attempts to bring war criminals to justice were the result of grassroots initiatives to gather evidence, record testimony and invent ways to challenge standing practice that national states and national armies had the exclusive and sovereign right to bring their own soldiers to trial.
The sheer size of popular involvement in initiatives to collect evidence on crimes in anticipation of legal process turned it, in all belligerent societies, into a weapon of mass documentation.
Neither can these attempts be reduced to the judicial version of nationalist propaganda campaigns denouncing the enemy. Part of the public opinion, of the political leaders and of the judicial profession in Germany and Turkey were sincerely committed to reign in the culture of impunity in which their national armies and their political allies acted and to distance themselves of some of the most heinous crimes committed in their name.
Investigating judges and political leaders in countries that had been exposed to these crimes framed some of their cases in such a way as to seize on what they perceived as overtures on the side of the judiciary of their former enemies and establish a dialogue of shared norms of what constituted humanity, atrocity, war crimes and due legal process.
The attempts were ultimately unsuccessful but they did constitute a crucial and massive attempt to defeat impunity and, in a way, to End All Wars of unlimited recourse to violence.
On 10 July 2018, Delphine Lauwers gave a paper at the International Society for First World War Studies conference “Recording, Narrating and Archiving the First World War”, held in Melbourne.
Being able to explore new sources on the Great War, a hundred years after it ended is a quite unique and exciting experience for any WWI historian. But the very nature of the documents that we are dealing with in the present case makes it even more thrilling. We are indeed facing hundreds of investigation and prosecution files, produced by both military and civil jurisdictions during and after the Great War in Belgium. These records offer new material for the study of WWI in Belgium, as well as of the history of international criminal law.
But why would such a rich, fascinating collection remain unexploited? All of it was in fact packed together with a vast amount of various documents, and kept more than 2.500 km away from Brussels for 57 years. It seems like the very existence of some of these documents fell into oblivion as time passed. Before diving into these amazing “sleeping beauties”, let us briefly explain why they have traveled that far and have remained largely unheard of until recently.