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John Laughland writes on the First World War for the Italian journal LIMES

Date de publication: 11.07.2014


"A total war in the name of The Good"

John Laughland

Limes, Rivista Italiana di Geopolitica (Rome), May 2014



On the evening of 3 August 1914, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, looked out of his office into the street below.  It was late and the gas lamps were being lit one by one around St James' Park.  Grey turned to a colleague, full of presentiment and foreboding, and said, "The lights are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." Germany having attacked Belgium and France that day, Britain was to declare war on Germany the following morning.

Grey claims that he later forgot having made this prophetic remark but it has entered history as one of the seminal quotes about the First World War.  It was not the only example of Grey's farsightedness.  Just over a week previously, on 24 July, the day after Austria had presented her ultimatum to Serbia, Grey had told the Austrian ambassador to the Court of St James, Count Mensdorff, that he had "never before seen one State address another independent State a document of so formidable character. Demand No. 5 would be hardly consistent with Serbia's independent sovereignty if it were to mean, as it seemed that it might, that Austria-Hungary was to be invested with the right to appoint officials who would have authority within the frontiers of Serbia.."  Demand No. 5 did indeed demand precisely that.

Even before it broke out, therefore, it is clear that Grey understood that the First World War was to be unlike any other war - and not just because modern technology would throw any notions of just war to the winds.  He understood that the it was to usher in what I have called the "punishment ethic" in international relations.  Today this punishment ethic dominates the relations between states, or at least between the so-called "West" and the rest of the world - the imposition of punitive sanctions against Russia over the Crimean affair is but the latest example - but in 1914 it was a radical novelty.

Austria went to war against Serbia because she wanted to punish her. Prior to 1914, states had waged war as equals.  The concept of sovereign statehood as the basis of international relations had been a fundamental principle of international relations for very many centuries.  It grew from the recognition of the equality between princes:  Velazquez's magnificent depiction, ten years after the event, of the courtly encounter between the victorious Spanish general, Ambrosio Spinola and his defeated counterpart, the Prince of Nassau, after the siege of Breda in 1625, may have been an idealised version of reality.  But the painting  communicates beautifully the concept of sovereign equality between princes, even in warfare, and this tradition stretched back even then into time immemorial.

Austria's desire to punish Serbia was followed, in the very first months and weeks of the war, by vehement moral outrage in Allied states at events real or imagined, such as the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 or the tossing of Belgian babies on German bayonets alleged in the notorious Bryce report the same month.  By the end of the war, passions were even more inflamed. A War Crimes Commission was set up just days before the armistice to examine atrocities committed by Germans and Article 237 of the treaty of Versailles was famously a Bill of Attainder - a legal act directed at the punishment of a specific individual, in this case the German emperor, William II. He escaped trial only because he fled to the Netherlands which, as the symbolic guardian of nascent international law, refused to recognise that any law permitting the prosecution of sovereigns had been previously passed. The Allies similarly demanded that defeated Turkey prosecute her own wartime leadership, the Grand Vizier and other officials, whom they had proclaimed guilty of crimes against humanity after the Armenian massacres in 1915. (The trial ended in farce when the main defendants were acquitted by the court in Constantinople and then immediately taken into custody by the outraged British. They were eventually reluctantly returned to Turkey in exchange for some British soldiers who had been taken hostage in reprisal by Kemal Atatürk.) 

However the desire for vengeance had been definitively inscribed as a principle of international law.  It has never left it since. Austria's formal explanation for the ultimatum she delivered to Serbia on 23 July used what was to become, in the early 21st century, the everyday language of the new international criminal tribunals which have sprung up like mushrooms since the end of the Cold War. Vienna explained to other European powers that "civilized nations ... cannot permit regicide to become a weapon that can be employed with impunity."  100 years later, trials are now regularly conducted in The Hague and elsewhere, often against the will of the states concerned, on precisely this pretext. In other words, the Austrian ultimatum ushered in what we now recognise as international humanitarian law, i.e. the use in international relations of concepts drawn not from that classical international law which governs relations between equal states but instead from domestic criminal law. Or to be more precise, it expressed for the first time the concept of moral hierarchy between states and the concomitant right of some to inflict punishment on others.

This was novel because, for centuries, the criminal law had been specifically excluded from international relations.  The entire structure of international relations, of which the laws of war were an integral part, from at least the 14th century onwards, was based on the legal concept of iustus hostis:  the enemy was a legitimate fighter and not a criminal.  Moreover - and this point seems to have been quite forgotten today, so submerged are we by the punishment ethic - all peace treaties concluded from at least the early 14th century onwards until the Treaty of Versailles, systematically contained amnesty clauses which forbade any judicial proceedings between the former combatants. These amnesties were typically proclaimed in the form of a "general abolition" of all fines or punishments which would have accrued for acts committed during war time. 

To give just one example among hundreds, in 1360 the King of France signed the Treaty of Bretigny with King Edward III of England, in which he proclaimed that, "We acquit, remit and pardon for ever by a special act of grace, with certain knowledge and by royal authority, all those of our kingdom and our subjects from all punishment, offence, criminal or civil sentence which they may have incurred for having sided with our brother." The history of treaties shows that such clauses were considered to be an integral part of peacemaking, so much so that, in later centuries, when such clauses were occasionally not present, international lawyers agreed that they were implicit in the very concept of peace itself. In 1625 Grotius wrote quite clearly that in case of doubt amnesty should be assumed:  "If no other agreement has been made, in every peace it ought to be considered settled that there shall be no liability on account of the damages which have been caused by the war." Emmerich de Vattel, in the 18th century, agreed: "An amnesty is a perfect oblivion of the past; and the end of peace being to extinguish all subjects of discord, this should be the leading article of the treaty: and accordingly, such is at present the constant practice. But if the treaty should be wholly silent on this head, the amnesty, by the very nature of peace, is necessarily implied in it ... All damages caused during the war are likewise buried in oblivion; and no action can be brought for those of which the treaty does not stipulate the reparation: they are considered as having never happened."

For the European mind prior to 1914, indeed, peace could be built only upon forgiveness. Peace between states meant peace and friendship (amity).  It did not require, as is often claimed today, "justice", i.e. punishment. Article 2 of the Treaty of Osnabrück (one of the two treaties of Westphalia) expressed this very clearly when it enjoined that:  "There be on both sides a perpetual Oblivion and Amnesty of all that has been done since the beginning of these Troubles … so that neither for any of those things, nor upon any other Account or Pretext whatsoever, any Act of Hostility or Enmity, Vexation or Hindrance shall be exercised or suffered ... but that all Injuries, Violences, Hostilities and Damages and all Expenses … and all Libels by Words and Writing shall be entirely forgotten … so that whatever might be demanded or pretended by one against another upon this account, shall be buried in perpetual Oblivion.”

This tradition continued well into the modern era - in fact, right until 1918. Throughout the 19th century, peace was concluded on the basis of amnesty. Article 16 of the Peace of Paris in 1814, for instance, signed between France and Britain before Napoleon's ephemeral return to power, proclaimed "perpetual peace and friendship" between the two countries, and then stated that: "The high contracting parties, desirous to bury in entire oblivion the dissensions which have agitated Europe, declare and promise, that no individual, of whatever rank or condition he may be, in the countries restored and ceded by the present treaty, shall be prosecuted, disturbed, or molested, in his person or property, under any pretext whatsoever, either on account of his conduct or political opinions, his attachment either to any of the contracting parties, or to any government which has ceased to exist, or for any other reason, except for debts contracted towards individuals, or acts posterior to the date of the present treaty." Article 5 of the Treaty of Paris of 1856, which put an end to the Crimean War, also contained a detailed and explicit amnesty provision: "Their Majesties the Emperor of the French, the Queen of the United Kingdom, the Emperor of all the Russias, the King of Sardinia and the Sultan accord a full and complete amnesty to their subjects who may have been compromised by any kind of participation in the events of the war in favour of the enemy cause." The tradition was so entrenched that it survived even the irruption of the punishment ethic in the Austrian ultimatum of July 1914 and was expressed in the ephemeral Treaty of Bucharest signed between the Central Powers and Romania on 7 May 1918, when the contracting parties mutually renounced indemnification for their losses incurred during the war and specifically recognised the decree of amnesties.

This tradition was destroyed by the Paris Peace Treaties which ended the First World War. Not only was there suddenly no commitment to peace; there was also no commitment to amnesty. Instead, there was the famous indictment of the Kaiser and the punitive reparations imposed on Germany. Versailles was not, therefore, a "peace" treaty at all in the pre-1918 sense of the word.  No amity was proclaimed with the defeated enemy.  Instead, what was proclaimed was the moral condemnation of Germany. That the art of peacemaking had indeed been lost or forgotten was demonstrated again in 1945 when the Second World War was also not concluded by a peace treaty, at least not until 1990.

How are we to understand this sudden disappearance of centuries of European peacemaking?  I would like to suggest that the answer lies in the rise a new form of international law underpinned by new ideas about the unity of mankind.  Throughout the second half of the 19th century, indeed, belief in what we today call globalisation came to dominate minds. Landmark international conventions, declarations and treaties constituting a new corpus of international humanitarian law were signed in 1856, 1863, 1864, 1868, 1874, 1880, 1899, 1906, 1907, 1909, 1910 and 1913. There was an explosion of international peace initiatives: the first International Congress of the Friends of Peace was held in London in 1843; the International League of Peace was created by Frédéric Passy in 1867; the International League of Peace and Liberty was created under Garibaldi's chairmanship, also in 1867; the Permanent International Peace Bureau was founded in 1891, based in Bern; the practice of holding Universal Expositions started in 1851 in London and at the 1889 exposition in Paris Pierre de Coubertin presented his plans for what were to become the Olympic Games, imbued as they are to this day with one-world pacifist ideology about the unity of mankind; Universal Peace Congresses were held every year from 1889 until the outbreak of Great War, and then again in the inter-war period, in various European cities; and the Inter-parliamentary Union was created in Geneva in 1889 and, by the outbreak of the First World War counted more than three thousand deputies. The first Nobel Peace Prize - the Nobel Prize was to make a massive contribution to the ideology of peace through supranationalism, including in 2013 when it was awarded to the European Union - was awarded in 1901 to Henri Dunant who operated inter- and supranationally:  he had created the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863 and his organisation had sponsored the first Geneva Conventions in 1864.  In academic circles, the foundation of the influential Institut de Droit international in Ghent in 1873 was a landmark (it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1904), the Association internationale pour le progrès des sciences sociales having been created by the same three jurists - Gustave Rolin-Jaequemyns, Tobias Asser and John Westlake - in Brussels in 1862. The principle of compulsory arbitration for the peaceful settlement of disputes was accepted at The Hague in 1907, the Permanent Court of Arbitration having been established in 1899.

All this coincided with a similar explosion in international travel and communication: the International Telegraphic Union was created in 1865; the General Postal Union in 1874 (in Bern; later known as Universal Postal Union); the Free Trade Congress at Brussels in 1847. (Marx, paradoxically a great proponent of the socially revolutionary force of world capitalism, spoke at the Congress held there the following year.) Crucially, these technological developments were ideologised in the same way as the internet was to be in the 1990s: the idea took root that communication would promote civilisation.  Camille Delessert, the Director of Posts for Lausanne and Dean of the Postal Union, declared, at the end of the 1897 Universal Postal in Congress in Washington DC, "Where the Union ends, there begin the darkness and misery of barbarism." In other words, whereas the 19th century, especially the latter part, is often presented as the age of nationalism and the cult of the nation, it should perhaps instead be argued that the six decades from 1848 to 1914 were those of the cult of humanity and of the new religion of the unity of mankind.  Some people, Garibaldi for instance, saw national unification as only a stepping-stone to more general unification of all mankind.

What all these movements had in common was the dangerous belief, very deeply held by their proponents, that they were advancing the cause of human civilisation or that they were identical with it. At the first meeting of the Institut de droit international in Ghent in September 1873, the Institute's Statute was adopted, Article 1 of which stated that its purpose was to become "the legal conscience of the civilised world." Anyone who opposed the Institute's ideas and projects was, by implication, uncivilised. Inevitably, states became as intoxicated by this notion of civlisational hierarchy as much as individuals: it was this belief in moral superiority which inspired Austria to demand the right to punish Serbia and the Kaiser to use terror tactics against the "degenerate" French. It was the same belief which led the Allies to want to punish the Germans in 1918 (and then again in 1945).

The liberal jurists and other internationalists who drove their agenda forward in the 19th century were convinced that peace would be promoted by this advance of civilisation. Unfortunately, the corollary was that any opponent of peace was by definition a barbarian who deserved to be crushed. Moreover, because the old Millennial dream of united humanity had taken such strong root during the long peace which preceded 1914, people sincerely imagined that everlasting peace was just within their grasp after it. As H G Wells wrote in September 1914, "Every sword that is drawn against Germany now is a sword drawn for peace. ... This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war - it is the last war!"In 2014 was have not moved beyond the logic of 1914. On the contrary, our wars are now peacekeeping operations and our peace settlements acts of punishment. National and international tribunals to condemn defeated regimes have proliferated so fast that a new trial of a former head of state is announced every six months or so. The belief remains stronger than ever than only international organisations can ensure peace and that nations are by definition anarchic, uncivilised and violent. The post-Christian order is characterised not, as some people say, by a collapse of morality but instead by a veritable explosion of it:  not by shame but instead by positive eagerness to cast the first stone.  



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