Finest Hour 115, Summer 2002
By LLOYD W. ROBERTSON
Why was Churchill so forgiving of the Germans?
A war crimes tribunal was a novelty at the time of the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. Now such a tribunal—the International Criminal Court—may become a permanent institution. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia made headlines by making a case against Milosevic; Pinochet was ordered back to Chile by a Spanish court. Milosevic was and is guilty of “ethnic cleansing,” which many people take to be equivalent to attempted genocide; Pinochet was charged with crimes similar to those the Nazis committed—not just war crimes, but crimes against humanity. Today many are wondering what will or should be done with surviving leaders of the Taliban and al Qaeda after the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11th. An international trial is again recommended in some circles.
Whether these different cases should all be treated in the same way is a good question. Were the Nazis not merely an extreme case, but a bizarre exception? Pinochet seems hardly comparable. Was Hitler’s a unique pathology? If so, it may not be wise to pattern modern cases after the Nuremberg example; perhaps, instead of thinking only of punishing the guilty, we should try to discover what is beneficial.
As we seek guidance on how to proceed, we may learn from the thoughts of Winston Churchill. What he says about war crimes and war criminals is remarkably consistent, if we allow for his need on occasion to temper his views alongside public opinion.
Churchill came to believe that the Nuremberg trials were both just and beneficial—that they more or less successfully punished those who were guilty of terrible crimes. He referred to “Hitler’s crimes,” and the worst horrors of the Nazi movement, as “squalid.” But his embrace of the Nuremberg trials apparently remained an exception to his general view that defeated war leaders should not be tried. And the advocates of war crimes trials today are almost certainly recommending them in circumstances where Churchill did not.
When World War I ended in 1918, Churchill was in Prime Minister Lloyd George’s cabinet. Lloyd George called an election, and both he and Churchill were surprised by the way the British electorate looked upon the late war. The public had a clear agenda, as Churchill wrote in The Aftermath: “Three demands rose immediate and clangorous from the masses of the people, viz. to hang the Kaiser; to abolish conscription; and to make the Germans pay the uttermost farthing [in reparations to the victors].”
In contemporary language, we would say the British public wanted Kaiser Wilhelm, who had led his country into war, to be punished as a war criminal, and they wanted the German people as a whole to pay a financial penalty. However cruel and shortsighted these demands might seem now, there seemed ample reason for them at the time. Many countries had suffered terribly in the Great War, and Britain has been said to have lost a generation of young men. Germany had suffered as well, but the British people clearly saw the German government, along with Germans who supported what had begun as a very popular war, as aggressors deserving of punishment.
When all parties to a war fight relentlessly and remorselessly, it might be difficult to support the claim that some are more guilty than others. In the case of the Great War, however, vast debates among historians continue to provide some support for the conclusion that Germany’s ambition to build an empire comparable to Britain’s, combined with the Kaiser’s impulsiveness and arrogance, were decisive factors in bringing this terrible war on the countries involved. Likewise, Germany was the first country to develop and use “gas” or chemical warfare; and in the early battles, Germans were known to use tricks such as pretending to surrender, then luring their enemies into an ambush. In short, the British had reason, based on knowledge, to believe that the Great War occurred because Germany wanted it, and was as terrible as it was because the Germans escalated it both in scale and in tactics.
In The Aftermath, Churchill spends more time on the “reparations” question than on the “hang the Kaiser” question, but he does explain why there was such strong popular revulsion to the Kaiser, supported by virtually all politicians. (The moderates, including Churchill, insisted on a trial first. In January 1920 the Allies demanded that the Kaiser be extradited from his place of exile in Holland, but no further action was ever taken. The Kaiser died there in 1941.) “For four years the Kaiser had been pilloried by every form of propaganda as the man whose criminal ambition and wicked folly had loosed the awful flood of misery upon the world,” Churchill wrote. “He was the man responsible for all the slaughter. Why should he not be punished for it?”
Churchill admits he did not seriously challenge this view, at least not in public, but he also reports his private thoughts at the time: “Personally, I was not convinced that the responsibility of princes for acts of state could be dealt with in this way.” He says he considered the effect on the German people and thus on European politics: “It seemed that to hang the Kaiser was the best way to restore at once his dignity and his dynasty.” In later years Churchill was known to say that participants in the Treaty of Versailles were wrong to force a changed regime on Germany, and to end the reign of the royal family. In hindsight, at least, it seems there was something to be said for the Kaiser’s dynasty, and perhaps even for his dignity, if these might have helped prevent the rise of Hitler.
We can get more of the flavour of Churchill’s own view from his report of a conversation he had with Lloyd George on the night of the Armistice, 11 November 1918. Enormous changes would now be required. Soldiers would come home, looking for jobs; women would (presumably) have to give up their munitions work, which had come to be higher-paying than similar jobs for men in peacetime. The economy would have to be switched to a peacetime footing; and of course there were real issues surrounding “the settlement of Europe”—including the moral and legal claims of the victors, and how best to rebuild the economies of friends, and perhaps of enemies as well. “The conversation,” Churchill writes, “ran on the great qualities of the German people, on the tremendous fight they had made against three-quarters of the world, on the impossibility of rebuilding Europe except with their aid.”
Churchill and Lloyd George, apparently, had no interest in blaming the Germans—not even the Kaiser. On the contrary, they praised the former enemy for their war effort. As for whether Britain had an interest in helping or harming Germany, there was no doubt: Britain’s economy could enjoy maximum growth only if there was a healthy German economy.
Churchill and Lloyd George could easily have advanced a more sophisticated version of the “popular” view that Britain was morally in the right and Germany in the wrong. It could have been argued, for example, that the balance of power before the war had not only favoured Britain, but had kept the peace; that any country which threatened the balance was an aggressor, responsible for the harm that ensued; that the British were right to oppose any threat to that balance. That was not a doctrine on which Churchill insisted—in fact, in the crucial passages, he doesn’t even mention it. Why was Churchill in 1918 so forgiving of the Germans, and possibly of the Kaiser himself?
After the end of the Second World War, which in many ways was a continuation of the First, Churchill reflected on the events that led Europe from the First to the Second. Once again he shows no anger at the Germans—certainly not at their ambition, which could easily become war-mongering, but was closely tied to their ability to overcome hardship:
“Germany might be disarmed; her military system shivered in fragments; her fortresses dismantled. Germany might be impoverished; she might be loaded with measureless indemnities; she might become a prey to internal feuds: but all this would pass in ten years or in twenty. The indestructible might ‘of all the German tribes’ would rise once more and the unquenched fires of warrior Prussia glow and burn again.”
Churchill wrote these words, describing the end of World War I, after the end of World War II; by then he was well aware of the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities, and of the Nuremberg Trials which were a response. Did the horror of World War II convince Churchill that some individuals were truly war criminals, and deserved to be punished as such?
As World War II had gone on, Churchill did support the increasingly popular view that German war criminals should be punished. He took credit for drafting a statement issued in the autumn of 1943 in the names of three “heads of government”: Roosevelt and Stalin, along with himself. The statement referred to “atrocities, massacres, and executions,” and promised that “German officers and members of the Nazi Party” who were responsible would be “sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done.” But there is no reference to an international tribunal. In the House of Commons in 1942, Churchill referred to the “mass deportation” of Jews in France and the “scattering of families” as “the most bestial, the most squalid and the most senseless of all offences,” and said that the “hour of liberation” for Europe would also be “the hour of retribution.”
In an Appendix to the final volume of The Second World War, Churchill reprints without comment a letter he wrote to his Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. In it he referred to mass “butcheries,” particularly of Jews, as “probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed” and says “all concerned who may fall into our hands, including those who only obeyed orders…should be put to death after their association with the murders has been proved.” This letter, in particular, has been cited favourably by writers on the Holocaust.
Yet behind or beneath these statements, which may have been intended to keep up morale and hatred of the enemy while the war had not yet been won, was the “old” Churchill, hesitant to judge those who cause wars or inflict terrible deeds during wars. Partly, no doubt, because of his experiences after the First War, Churchill was concerned that the public in Allied countries would demand large-scale punishment of the German people as a whole, which would in the end prove counter-productive.
For example, in his discussion of the Allied demand for “unconditional surrender,” Churchill stresses that the main issue was whether Germans were given hope of clemency; with no hope, they might fight on to the bitter end at a tremendous cost to the Allies.
But Churchill’s hands were tied: “…a statement of the actual conditions on which the three great Allies would have insisted and would have been forced by public opinion to insist, would have been far more repulsive to any German peace movement than the general expression ‘unconditional surrender’….I myself wished to publish a list of some 50 to 100 outlaws of first notoriety with a view to dissociating the mass of the people from those who will suffer capital punishment at the hands of the Allies and of avoiding anything in the nature of mass executions. This would tend to reassure the ordinary people.”
Perhaps jokingly, Stalin proposed at the 1943 Teheran Conference that 50,000 Germans—military officers and technicians—be “rounded up and shot”—not because of the Holocaust or mistreatment of civilians, but so that “German military strength would be extirpated.” Later Stalin, perhaps recalling his success with Russia’s show trials, insisted on trials for alleged war criminals, and was interested in employing some of the defeated enemy as slave labour. Churchill sometimes suggested that one argument for international trials was that they would save some individuals from Soviet justice. At Yalta in 1945, Stalin insisted on trials, preferably public; Roosevelt wanted limited publicity for any trials; Churchill suggested shooting “the grand criminals” only, without trial.*
Churchill wished to give up as few Germans as possible to appease the popular outcry. In “Lawless Redress,” a recent article on war crimes, columnist George Will wrote that in any event, “Leading Nazis were going to be killed. It would have been done by vengeful vigilantes if it had not been done with Nuremberg’s patina of judicial sanction….” To paraphrase: we who are responsible had better ensure a hanging, lest there be a lynching that is out of control.
At another point Churchill says that in the spirit of unconditional surrender, “we would not negotiate with any of the war criminals….It was more probable that Hitler and his associates would be killed or would disappear….” Certainly in 1948, as Sir Martin Gilbert’s biography shows, Churchill opposed the “interminable and indefinite persecution and hunting-down of individuals; after all, the principal criminals have been punished.”
Speaking in the House of Commons in 1946, Churchill advised against judging “vast categories of Germans” as “potentially guilty,”and above all against condemning the “ordinary people” of Germany. When ordinary people are subjected to cruelty, he said, “there are great numbers…who will succumb….I thank God that in this island home of ours, we have never been put to the test which many of the peoples of Europe have had to undergo.”
With all this in mind, it is not surprising that Churchill lobbied to spare the German field marshals and generals, who were not necessarily Nazis, from being treated as criminals. In October 1948 he gave a speech in which he said that “on every ground, soldierly, juridical and humanitarian, [trying the military leaders] is known to be a wrong and base thing to do.” He also mused on several occasions that if the war had gone the other way, he personally would have been “in the dock.” As in the case of the First World War, he was concerned that military and political leaders should not be blamed for doing what they must to achieve national ambitions, even if their actions are morally dubious when taken in isolation.
Apart from the question of justice was that of benefit. Churchill wanted Germany to be rearmed (as part of a European force) as quickly as possible in the late 1940s, “for defence against Communist and Russian aggression.” Trials might influence many Germans still making up their minds whether to side with the West in the new world order. Likewise, Churchill thought, American General MacArthur’s rebuilding of Japan was a model of reconciliation and “statecraft.” Just as when he enthusiastically allied with Stalin during the war, Churchill was always ready and able to concentrate on the greatest threat of the moment.
As the first Nuremberg Trial unfolded, Churchill expressed surprise at the extent of the German atrocities, saying that, while he had had misgivings at the beginning, he had come to feel the trial was justified. Such comments may have been disingenuous, since he was well informed about the Holocaust long before the end of the war. But his comments were misleading in another way. The question he seemed to pose was not whether the guilty were punished, but rather whether Nuremberg served the interests of Britain and other countries involved.
Churchill’s “moral” in The Second World War was: “In War: Resolution; In Defeat: Defiance; In Victory: Magnanimity; In Peace: Good Will.” He may actually have lived up to that motto as much as anyone. By contrast, what we are all too likely to find when public opinion alone guides policy is hesitancy to make war, indignation that anyone actually opposes us, exaggerated rhetoric about the enemy, and vindictiveness and malice in victory.
Why, as seems likely, did Churchill believe that except for the Nazis, there should probably be no war crimes trials? He obviously knew that strong leaders may remain popular in their own country, and might be useful, especially in another war—provided we can free ourselves of recriminations over the last one. Thus Churchill, like the American General Patton, had an interest in seeing a German military force, including many officers, turned, if necessary, against the Soviet Union.
He seems also to have suspected that persons who fall short of true greatness are inclined to judge the great harshly. Churchill preferred that the great be acknowledged. He saw positive attributes in the greatest German generals, such as Rommel and Guderian, and ruminated about the situation had the Axis won, visualizing himself “in the dock.”
Today, the debate about the benefits and justice of war crimes tribunals continues. If trials follow a war, will they continue the divisions and bitterness of the conflict rather than contribute to reconciliation? “History is written by the winners”: won’t the winners always place their opposite numbers on trial? With rare exceptions—the Holocaust certainly is one—won’t those who are accused and convicted, or many of them, appear to a fair observer to have done no worse than many others who go free? Won’t the proceedings institutionalize the notion that an action is criminal when performed by those unfortunate enough to be defeated, but forgivable, even heroic, when performed by the winners? Is selective justice truly justice? Or does it, in the language of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “bring the administration of justice into disrepute”?
Applying Churchill’s thought and experience when considering the fate of the Taliban and al Qaeda may require us to ask: How can we positively affect opinion in the greater Islamic world? This does not mean renouncing violence, for as the World Wars showed, violence is sometimes necessary. But when violence ends we may need to demonstrate we are actually committed to the rule of law and not to vigilante justice. The American leadership seems to have the same reservation about public trials that Roosevelt did in the 1940s. Such trials can be made into a mockery, and a recruiting tool, by determined suspects.
The Nazis who were put on trial acted completely beaten, as indeed they were, so the Nuremberg Trials helped solidify both the outcome of the war and the positive rebuilding effort in Germany and elsewhere. Churchill can teach us to be impressed at that exercise; but also not to assume that such good fortune will always prevail, nor that the same procedure will always be wise.
ENGLISH SPEAKING PEOPLES is a periodic series of articles which apply Churchill’s wisdom and experience to modern-day issues among the Great Democracies. Responsible opposing opinion is welcome and will be published. Mr. Robertson, who holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Toronto, taught in post-secondary education for eight years, including six in the United States. Today he works in government in Ontario, Canada. For anyone who wishes further to consider the issues he raises, he recommends a thoughtful book by a teacher of his, Clifford Orwin, The Humanity of Thucydides.
*In fact, of twenty-two defendants at the International Military Tribunal—the first Nuremberg Trial in 1945-46—twelve were given the death penalty, three were acquitted, three were given life imprisonment, and four were imprisoned for ten to twenty years. This was the first of many trials in Germany and elsewhere. According to the website of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the three main Western Allies convicted more than 5,000 Nazis, sentencing over 800 to death, and executing almost 500. The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) eventually indicted 90,921 suspected Nazi criminals; 6,627 were sentenced to prison terms, and twelve were condemned to death.