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Why Kaiser Wilhelm Was Never Tried for Starting World War I

June 28, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

The accusations were explosive: a head of state had not only begun an illegal war, but egged his troops on to a series of horrific atrocities that left thousands dead and an entire continent in ruins. By then, the accused was one of history’s most hated and debated figures, a monarch known for making erratic decisions and doubling down on his sometimes inexplicable actions.

There was just one problem: The accused, Wilhelm II of Germany, couldn’t testify. The accused had been dead for 75 years.

It could have been the trial of the century—if it had been conducted a century before. The trial of Wilhelm II, Germany’s emperor between 1888 and 1918, was a moot one, conducted by historians and legal experts grappling with one of the great mysteries of 20th-century history. Was Wilhelm II guilty of war crimes?

A German soldier forces English prisoners to pilfer corpses of fallen soldiers.

It’s a question that was never answered during Wilhelm’s lifetime. Though the Allies accused him of starting one of history’s bloodiest wars and violating international law, and his troops of committing barbaric acts, he never stood trial. Today, these accusations are remembered as the first stirrings of a modern conception of war crimes. But at the end of World War I, Wilhelm’s responsibility for the bloodshed was a hotly contested—and ultimately unresolved—issue.

The thought of trying him at all was a radical notion. Until World War I, going to war had been seen as the right of any nation or head of state, and war crimes were considered part of war. A sense of victors’ justice held that atrocities committed by the winning side would go unpunished, while the victors could punish or even execute those on the losing side with impunity.

But World War I changed the face of war—and combat norms—forever. Armed with newly destructive weapons of war like tanks, heavy artillery and gas, both sides sustained huge numbers of casualties while deadlocked in years of trench warfare. Over 6.6 million casualties and 8 million combatants died during the war.

From the beginning, atrocities were part of the Great War. After Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914, German troops began murdering civilians. The massacres, sparked in part by the false belief that Belgian villagers were snipers, claimed over 5,000 victims and sparked a fierce debate about which methods of violence were justified during …read more


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