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The Leipzig War Crimes Trials were a series of trials held in 1921 to try alleged German war criminals of the First World War before the German Reichsgericht (Supreme Court) in Leipzig, as part of the penalties imposed on the German government under the Treaty of Versailles. Only twelve individuals were brought to trial (with mixed results), and the proceedings were widely regarded at the time as a failure. In the longer term, however, the trials have been seen as a significant step towards the introduction of a comprehensive system for the prosecution of violations of international law.
During the First World War the Allied leaders came up with a new concept, that once victory was achieved, defeated enemy leaders should face criminal charges for international law violations made during the war. On 25 January 1919, during the Paris Peace Conference, the Allied governments established the Commission of Responsibilities to make recommendations to that effect. As a result, articles 227–230 of the Treaty of Versailles stipulated the arrest and trial of German officials defined as war criminals by the Allied governments. Article 227 made provision for the establishment of a special tribunal, presided over by a judge from each one of the major Allied powers – Britain, France, Italy, United States and Japan. It identified the former Kaiser Wilhelm II as a war criminal, and demanded that an extradition request be addressed to the Dutch government, which had given him asylum in the Netherlands since his abdication in November 1918. Article 228 allowed the Allied governments to try German war criminals in their military tribunals, notwithstanding any proceedings taken against the same persons in German courts. The German government was required to comply with any extradition order issued by the Allied powers to that effect.
Following the conclusion of the treaty, the Allied government began their legal and diplomatic efforts to arrest the former Kaiser. On 28 June 1919, the day the treaty was signed, the President of the Paris Peace Conference addressed a diplomatic note to the Dutch government requesting the extradition of the ex-Kaiser. On 7 July the Dutch replied that any extradition of the Kaiser would be a violation of Dutch neutrality. Eventually the issue of bringing the ex-Kaiser to trial was dropped, and he remained in the Netherlands until his death on 4 June 1941.
On 3 February 1920, the Allies submitted a further list of 900 names of individuals accused of committing alleged war crimes to the German government. However, the Germans refused to extradite any German citizens to Allied governments, and suggested instead trying them within the German justice system, i.e. at the Reichsgericht in Leipzig. This proposal was accepted by the Allied leaders, and in May 1920 they handed the German government a reduced list of 45 accused persons. Not all these people could be traced, and in other cases there was difficulty in finding credible evidence. In the end only twelve individuals were brought to trial.
The trials were held before the Reichsgericht (comprising seven judges) in Leipzig from 23 May to 16 July 1921.
The cases tried were:
- Sergeant Karl Heynen, charged with mistreating British POWs. He was sentenced to a brief prison term of ten months.
- Captain Emil Müller, charged with mistreating POWs. He was sentenced to six months in prison.
- Private Robert Neumann, charged with mistreating prisoners of war. He was sentenced to six months in prison.
- Commander Karl Neumann of U-boat UC-67 who sank the hospital ship Dover Castle in compliance with superior orders. He was found not guilty due to the fact that he was following orders.
- First-Lieutenants Ludwig Dithmar and John Boldt, charged with war crimes on the high seas. They were two officers of the submarine SM U-86 that had sunk the Canadian hospital ship Llandovery Castle and then machine-gunned survivors in the lifeboats. They were each sentenced to four years in prison, but this was overturned on appeal on the grounds that the commanding officer was responsible. Their commanding officer, Helmut Brümmer-Patzig, had fled to the Free City of Danzig and was never prosecuted.
- Max Ramdohr, charged with crimes against the civilian noncombatants in occupied Belgium. He was found not guilty.
- Lieutenant-General Karl Stenger and Major Benno Crusius, charged with mistreating French POWs. Stenger was found not guilty, while Crusius was sentenced to two years in prison.
- First-Lieutenant Adolph Laule, charged with crimes against the civilian population of occupied France. He was found not guilty.
- Lieutenant-General Hans von Schack and Major-General Benno Kruska, charged with mistreating POWs. Both were found not guilty.
Outside Germany, the trials were seen as something of a travesty because of the small number of cases tried and the perceived leniency of the court. Inside Germany, on the other hand, they were seen as excessively harsh for several reasons:
- Of all the belligerents, only German servicemen were being tried. (See Victor's justice.)
- The accused seemed in several cases to have been only following orders; merely trying to perform their duty under difficult conditions.
- Several of the charges seemed spurious.
- Imprisonment in a civil jail was regarded as insulting to military honor.
Following the Heynen case, the German Gazette commented:
The first verdict in the series of Leipzig trials has agitated public opinion in two great countries, Germany and England, in apparently sharply contrasting ways. The degree of punishment has been criticised in England in a way that is in the highest degree wounding to German susceptibilities.
On 15 January 1922, a commission of Allied jurists, appointed to inquire into the trials, concluded that it was useless to proceed with them any further and recommended that the remaining accused should be handed over to the Allies for trial. This was not done, and the trials were quietly abandoned.
Although largely regarded as a failure at the time, the Leipzig trials were the first attempt to devise a comprehensive system for prosecution of violations of international law. This trend was renewed during the Second World War, as Allied governments decided to try, after the war, defeated Axis leaders for war crimes committed during the war, notably the Nuremberg Trials and International Military Tribunal for the Far East.
- Foreign Relations of the United States, 1919: Paris Peace Conference, vol. 13, pp. 374–375
- The Leipzig Trials, 1921, p. 9.
- Yarnall 2011, pp. 184–5.
- Solis, Gary D. (1999). "Obedience of Orders and the Law of War: Judicial Application in American Forums". American University International Law Review. 15: 481–526.
- Yarnall 2011, pp. 194–5.
- Quoted in Yarnall 2011, p. 194.
- Yarnall 2011, pp. 195–6.
- Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (1919). Violation of the Laws and Customs of War: Reports of Majority and Dissenting Reports of American and Japanese Members of the Commission of Responsibilities, Conference of Paris 1919. London and New York.
- Hankel, Gerd (1982). The Leipzig Trials: German War Crimes and Their Legal Consequences after World War I. Dordrecht: Republic of Letters. ISBN 9789089791320.
- Mullins, Claud (1921). The Leipzig Trials: An Account of the War Criminals' Trials and Study of German Mentality. London: H. F. & G. Witherby.
- Willis, James F. (2014). Prologue to Nuremberg: The Politics and Diplomacy of Punishing War Criminals of the First World War. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780313214547.
- Yarnall, John (2011). Barbed Wire Disease: British & German Prisoners of War, 1914–19. Stroud: Spellmount. pp. 183–96. ISBN 9780752456904.
- Report on the Leipzig Trial 
- Hankel, Gerd: Leipzig War Crimes Trials , in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War.