The ‘German Atrocities’ of 1914
Although most of the dead in World War One were soldiers, the war claimed millions of civilian victims: through malnutrition and famine, forced resettlement, herding into camps, epidemics, forced labour, and aerial bombing. In addition, the war saw the first genocide of the 20th century, that of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. That violence would not be restricted to armed combatants (as the pre-war Conventions of The Hague had prescribed), soon became clear; for the war started with massacres of civilians.
Dynamic of violence
Germany invaded neutral Belgium on 4 August 1914. From the next day, civilians were executed en masse, as the invasion force advanced on its first obstacle, the ring of forts around Liège. To retaliate for the shelling from these forts, the German troops rounded up inhabitants of surrounding villages. Victims were selected and shot, those still alive being killed off with bayonets. By 8 August, nearly 850 civilians were dead. By then, several of the dynamics of this particular type of violence had fully emerged. First, the massacres occurred where the invading army suffered setbacks; the German military did not consider Belgium’s military defence to be legitimate. Second, the victims were accused, incorrectly, of being franc-tireurs (civilian snipers). Most of the German rank and file genuinely believed that the locals were attacking them; this sniper delusion was sometimes countered by the commanding officers, sometimes not. Third, there were women, children and old men among the victims but the vast majority were men of military age. These were more likely to be suspected of sniping; moreover, the invading troops resented them for still enjoying the civilian life that they themselves had so recently been torn from. Fourth, and last, the massacres went together with rituals designed to show civilians how helpless they were. People were made to cheer the troops; local dignitaries (mayors, priests) were publicly mistreated, in some cases killed.
Portrait of Johannes Jørgensen
Portrait of Johannes Jørgensen, a Danish writer, who in 1915 published Klokke Roland (False Witness), describing the German invasion of Belgium in 1914 as a heinous act.
Usage terms: Some rights reserved
With that, the invasion came to an end. Mobile warfare turned to stalemate; the invaded territories in Belgium and northern France were now under military occupation. This also meant the end of the massacres of civilians, which had claimed 906 victims altogether in France, and 5,521 in Belgium. The shift did not mean the end of violence against civilians: the four years of occupation saw individual executions and occasional killings, and, in the second half of the war, some 2,500 Belgian men died in forced-labour camps. But there were virtually no further outbreaks of violence similar to those of the invasion. These massacres were no harbinger of sustained extreme violence against the invaded populations in the West.
The German changes clothes but he is always the same German! Remember!
An Italian propaganda poster from 1918, depicting Germans as barbaric murderers, rapists and thieves.View images from this item (1)
Usage terms: Public Domain
Impact on societies of the First World War
And yet the ‘German Atrocities’ – as they were soon referred to in Allied public opinion - set the tone of the wartime debate about violence against civilians. They established a distinction between ‘just’ violence in war versus ‘atrocities’. Both parties seized the moral high ground by claiming to be fighting a just war against an aggressor who overstepped the boundaries of accepted warfare: the Allied camp, not without justification, against an invader who killed unarmed people; the Germans, with more stretching of the evidence, against encirclement by enemies whose stealth methods included civilian sniping. From now on, instances of violence against enemy civilians were interpreted in these terms; both parties accused the other of ignoring international standards for the just conduct of war. A German manifesto blamed the ‘Russian hordes’ for barbarous methods of warfare during the invasion of East Prussia in August and early September 1914, when about 100 civilians were killed. The Russians accused the Germans of atrocities because of the massacres committed in the first days of August 1914 in Kalisz in Russian Poland (‘Poland’s Louvain’) and Częstochowa in Silesia. Further accusations, all framed in the language of national enmity, would continue to volley back and forth throughout the conflict. In this way, the ‘German Atrocities’ contributed to the image of the war as a crusade against cruelty, even as warfare itself coarsened attitudes towards violence.
Bryce report: Committee on alleged German outrages
Report of the committee led by Viscount Bryce, assessing 'alleged German outrages', 1915.View images from this item (10)
Usage terms: Open Government licence
Held by: © Crown Copyright and provided under an Open Government Licence
Professor Jo Fox discusses how atrocities such as the invasion of Belgium, the execution of Edith Cavell and the sinking of the Lusitania were utilised by World War One propagandists.
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.