Kaiser Wilhelm II finally tried for WW I war crimes – acquitted on four out of five counts.

51zqXhdzU2L._SX352_BO1,204,203,200_Although much of the last decade’s historical writing is more nuanced (see especially Christopher Clark’s Kaiser Wilhelm II and Sleepwalkers), most people in the English speaking world still consider Kaiser Bill the main actor in starting World War I. During his lifetime the Kaiser was never put in the dock for his alleged war crimes. To make up for that omission and also to shed more light on the ‘whodunnit’ question, a team of Dutch historians and lawyers staged a moot trial of Emperor Wilhelm II for war crimes. They’ve worked on the project for eight years but today, the book documenting the trial was presented at Amerongen Castle – Wilhelm’s first place of refuge after coming to the Netherlands on 10 November 1918.

For the trial, the team used the five allegations against the Kaiser that were documented in 1919’s Versailles Treaty. Article 229 specified that the Allies would request the government of The Netherlands, where Wilhelm had been granted political asylum, to extradite the ex-Kaiser. He would then stand trial in a court consisting of an American,  a British, a French, an Italian and a Japanese judge. In the end, the trial never took place. The Netherlands refused to surrender the Kaiser, and by the early 1920s, the Allies’ focus changed to different matters, such as making sure Germany would stick to the Versailles Treaty’s other measures.

The trial team, consisting of international and criminal law experts and historians, tried to create the kind of trial that Wilhelm could have expected if the Allies had had their way. For this, they studied international law as it was current in the 1910s and 1920s.

Again based on the Treaty of Versailles, the indictment consisted of five counts:

  1. The Kaiser is considered responsible for starting a war of agression,
  2. The Kaiser is considered responsible for the invasion by German troops of neutral Belgium,
  3. The Kaiser is considered responsible for the war crimes committed in Belgium by the German army,
  4.  the Kaiser is considered responsible for declaring unlimited U-Boot war, in violation of international law, and
  5. The Kaiser is considered responsible for the violation of international law and the use of war.

In an interview with Dutch broadcaster NOS, Hans Andriessen, who led the project and also took on the role of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s trial lawyer, explained his trial tactics.

Much like the ex-Yugoslav leaders and generals who were tried at The Hague over the last fifteen years, he first tried to deny the court’s jurisdiction over the Kaiser: at the last minute, the Allies had snuck in many unfavourable clauses into the Versailles Treaty, which the Germans had had no choice but to accept. This duress, Mr. Andriessen argued, rendered the whole Treaty void. This argument was rejected, but Mr. Andriessen was surprised that the other parts of his defence, as judged by contemporary international law, were largely accepted.

On the first count, the Kaiser was acquitted, as starting a war, at the time, was a deplorable but legitimate course of action for nation states that considered themselves threatened. Wilhelm was found guilty on the second count. Andriessen’s repeat of his defence that Germany had felt threatened by the enemies surrounding it to such an extent that its only option was to invade Belgium (and attack France) was considered not plausible.

On count three, the Kaiser again was acquitted as no direct link between his command and the atrocities could be established. Interestingly, count four, total U-Boat war, also led to acquittal. Andriessen’s successful defence was that the British had started arming their merchant vessels even before the start of WWI. This made it unsafe for German submarines to surface and establish whether ships were carrying passengers or not. Having given sufficient warning of its rules of engagement, the German navy, and its supreme commander, could not solely be blamed for the course of the U-Boot war. (The same argument, Andriessen points out, was also successfully used by Admiral Dönitz at the Nuremberg trials after World War II).

The fifth count was struck out by the court as it was considered too vague. This meant the Kaiser was found guilty on only one of the five counts, and a sentence was passed that excluded him from public office and confined him to house arrest for the rest of his life – probably not coincidentally exactly what happened to the Kaiser anyway. He spent the rest of his life on an estate in the Dutch village of Doorn, chopping wood to keep fit and holding court for those who still wanted to visit him. He died there in 1941 and lies buried in a small mausoleum in the grounds.

For more information on the book, for example check amazon.de.

The interview with Mr. Andriessen by NOS can be found here.

ssew.nl is the home page of the Dutch Society for the Study of World War I, which sponsored the moot trial.

Visit huisdoorn.nl to learn more about the Kaiser’s last refuge in the Netherlands, now a museum documenting his life in exile and providing information on World War I.

 

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Google please note: Potsdam’s Mercure hotel is *not* getting torn down!

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Potsdam’s Mercure hotel. In the background there’s the City Palace, the polytechnic and the Nikolaikirche

In newspaper articles, Michael Bauer, the manager of Potsdam city centre’s Mercure hotel, has complained that Google and the city council are killing his business. By continuously floating plans to have the hotel torn down  (for which the council neither has the money, nor the necessary majority), the first thing that travellers find when they google the hotel, apart from the usual booking engines, is lots of links about its imminent demolition. Which isn’t good for business.

So where does the political controversy come from? Of course, any planning initiative in Germany can count on a, let’s say, lively public debate. Especially where ex-GDR architecture is concerned. Let’s take a look at the Mercure’s surroundings.

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“Ceci n’est pas un château” – this is not a castle (but, indeed, a modern reconstruction housing the State Parliament). Polytechnic (and church dome) behind.

The city centre of Potsdam, Berlin’s smaller neighbour but the capital of the Land of Brandenburg nonetheless, is a curious mix of spectacular original classicist, fake baroque, and authentic brutalist GDR architecture.

The Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas’ Church)

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Potsdam’s Nikolaikirche, by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, seen from the Stadtschloss.

First, and the most original, is Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Nikolaikirche (1837) – which looks new but isn’t (at least not completely). Heavily damaged, like most of central Potsdam, in April 1945, it was first restored in the GDR era, and then again in 2010. Hence the bright sandstone colour, which combined with the giant copper-green dome mean that the church is visible from miles away.

The Stadtschloss (City Palace)

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Potsdam’s City Palace in a 1773 painting by Johann Friedrich Meyer (image: wikipedia)

Second is the Landtag – or State Parliament. It’s a reconstruction (completed in 2014) of Potsdam’s former City Palace – the Potsdam winter residence of the Hohenzollern kings. Exactly like its counterpart Stadtschloss in Berlin, it was heavily damaged in the last stages of the Second World War, and then torn down by the communist regime. Also like Berlin’s city palace, it was reconstructed to the outside looks of the old palace, but with a modern interior. On weekdays, you can walk in to see the businesslike insides – and even have lunch in the parliamentary canteen.

The Fachhochschule (Polytechnic)

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Potsdam’s brutalist Fachhochschule

Third, authentic GDR architecture. A prime example in the centre is the Fachhochschule, which rubs shoulders with both parliament and church.

The Fachhochschule was a teachers’ training college in the GDR years and now teaches sociology, architecture and city planning (sic). Three storeys high, it was completed in the early 1970s, and has a rectangular shape with three courtyards. (Bizarrely, the polytechnic’s other Potsdam site is the former “Adolf Hitler” military barracks.)

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Fachhochschule, Stadtschloss and Nikolaikirche. Between the buildings you can make out the 18th century obelisk and behind that, the Old City Hall.

The ramshackle building is one more obstacle to the plans of the city council (and the Land government) to recreate the classical look of Potsdam’s city centre. Last news is that it will be torn down in 2017. Not because the building itself is considered to be ugly (probably a sop to the “Ewiggestrigen”, GDR nostalgists) but simply “because it is in the wrong place”.

Mercure Hotel

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View from the Mercure Hotel towards Potsdam’s old city centre.

The Mercure, a 17-story Plattenbau prefab building, was built as an Interhotel on direct orders of then GDR president Walter Ulbricht, to represent the ‘socialist crown of the city’. It opened in 1969 and also has its Berlin counterpart – the current Park Inn at Alexanderplatz (which was completed in 1970, also as an Interhotel). The hotel was completely refurbished after the fall of the Wall in 1989 and today is pleasant enough – certainly on the inside, where some corridors have a wonderful view of the new Landtag and the Nikolaikirche. If you ask nicely at reception, you can take a lift up to one of the hotel floors and take some pictures.

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The Interhotel when it opened in 1969. In the foreground, the classical colonnades, still there today, that linked the Stadtschloss with the Royal Stables. Pic: Bundesarchiv

Meanwhile, the discussion about the hotel’s future continues. Prominent Potsdam residents, such as fashionista Wolfgang Joop and talkshow host Günter Jauch, have been running a campaign for its demise. Plans to replace it range from an art gallery (since withdrawn) to a recreation of the former Lustgarten (palace park) that used to occupy the site.

But, as stated above, objections are fierce. There’s the large representation of ex-communists on the city council, who view the hotel’s demolition as another affront to the GDR’s cultural heritage (to which one prominent Potsdamer answered: “It’s nothing to do with the GDR. Anyone can see it’s just ugly”). But there are also financial reasons why an attempt for the city to acquire and destroy the hotel could end in tears. Buying and demolishing it could cost some 15 million Euros, and the city would lose its only large central hotel  – leading to a loss of tourist income.

And, finally, there’s the hotel manager, who has just signed another ten year franchise deal with the Mercure chain, and assures anyone who wants to hear that he intends to fully complete the course.