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