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A Scrap of Paper

A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law during the Great War

Isabel V. Hull
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Cornell University Press
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  • Book Info
    A Scrap of Paper
    Book Description:

    A century after the outbreak of the Great War, we have forgotten the central role that international law and the dramatically different interpretations of it played in the conflict's origins and conduct. In A Scrap of Paper, Isabel V. Hull compares wartime decision making in Germany, Great Britain, and France, weighing the impact of legal considerations in each. Throughout, she emphasizes the profound tension between international law and military necessity in time of war, and demonstrates how differences in state structures and legal traditions shaped the way in which each of the three belligerents fought the war

    Hull focuses on seven cases in which each government's response was shaped by its understanding of and respect for the law: Belgian neutrality, the land war in the west, the occupation of enemy territory, the blockade, unrestricted submarine warfare, the introduction of new weaponry (including poison gas and the zeppelin), and reprisals. Drawing on voluminous research in German, British, and French archives, the author reconstructs the debates over military decision making and clarifies the role played by law-where it constrained action, where it was manipulated to serve military need, where it was simply ignored, and how it developed in the crucible of combat. She concludes that Germany did not speak the same legal language as the two liberal democracies, with disastrous and far-reaching consequences. The first book on international law and the Great War published since 1920, A Scrap of Paper is a passionate defense of the role that the law must play to govern interstate relations in both peace and war.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7065-3
    Subjects: History, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xi)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xii-xvi)
  6. 1 Prologue: What We Have Forgotten
    (pp. 1-15)

    Precisely four years after the beginning of the First World War, the British minister of blockade, Robert Cecil, approved an internal memorandum written by the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office setting out, among other things, why the Allies fought and how they had explained the war to neutrals and to their enemies. It summarized “the principles at stake in the war” as the destruction of “Prussian militarism” and the triumph of “the ideal of a peaceful settlement based on the rights of small nations, on the reign of international law, and on the introduction into all civilised States...

  7. 2 Belgian Neutrality
    (pp. 16-50)

    The First World War began with an international crime: Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality. The issue considered in this chapter is not why Germany went to war in 1914. I have excluded the controversies over the origins of the war, Germany’s role in starting it, and its war aims, in order to focus squarely on international law during the conflict itself. In any case, in 1914 launching an aggressive war was not forbidden in international law, though public and state opinion were changing. The avalanche of documents each government immediately published to prove its innocence and the Allied charge at...

  8. 3 The “Belgian Atrocities” and the Laws of War on Land
    (pp. 51-94)

    The opening days of combat instantly made the laws of war the center of public attention. Whether belligerents’ conduct upheld or broke international law became hugely important to policy makers and to world public opinion. For the Western Allies, Imperial Germany’s methods confirmed the impression of lawlessness produced by its violation of Belgian neutrality. For Germany, the disputes over lawful means of warfare revealed the cleft that seemed to separate it from many states whose militaries operated differently. For us, the inner European disagreement on lawful combat, especially regarding treatment of civilians, shows the enormous complexities involved in how international...

  9. 4 Occupation and the Treatment of Enemy Civilians
    (pp. 95-140)

    The partial success of the Schlieff en Plan placed between nine and ten million enemy civilians under Germany’s control, some seven million in Belgium and over two million in France.¹ By the end of 1915 Erich Falkenhayn’s defeat of Russia brought another three million Poles, Lithuanians, and others to this number.² After the defeat of Romania in 1916, the collapse of the Russian Empire, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, many millions more were added.³ Imperial Germany was therefore the Great War’s greatest occupant. In comparison, France administered a tiny sliver of Alsace near the Swiss border, Austria occupied...

  10. 5 Great Britain and the Blockade
    (pp. 141-182)

    Great Britain’s “blockade” was its most controversial method of warfare during the First World War.¹ Controversy at the time focused primarily on its legality and only secondarily on the ethics of potentially starving enemy civilians, though that issue grew in importance. We will begin with the legal dilemma. As the world’s preeminent naval, maritime, financial, and commercial power, Britain, in its use of that power, provides an apposite comparison to Germany’s use of its preeminent army. Britain’s methods were often hard to square with international law, and they therefore raise a number of questions: How much did the British government...

  11. 6 Breaking and Making International Law: The Blockade, 1915–1918
    (pp. 183-210)

    On February 26, 1915, Sir Edward Grey, referring to the blockade, said, “We believe that up to the present all we have done has been sanctioned by precedent, including that of the United States.”¹ Two weeks later, he could not have said the same, for on March 11, 1915, Britain used the cover of reprisal to launch policies that were quite unprecedented.

    The Admiralty had actually begun this course on November 2, 1914, when it unilaterally declared the North Sea a “war zone.”² The readiness to adopt such a course might have been prepared almost two weeks earlier when First...

  12. 7 Germany and New Weapons: Submarines, Zeppelins, Poison Gas, Flamethrowers
    (pp. 211-239)

    The Allies believed that Imperial Germany was simply lawless. But German decision makers did weigh law as a factor in policy. However, their interpretation of law was fundamentally different from that of the Allies, not just in its substance, but more important in how law worked, and in its importance for its own sake.

    No decisions better reveal the German understanding of international law than those concerning submarine warfare. For one thing, the decision-making process stretched from September 1914 to January 1917 and thus left behind a large documentary record. But submarine warfare was also one of the few issues...

  13. 8 Unrestricted Submarine Warfare
    (pp. 240-275)

    In contrast to the careful deliberations of the fall, the actual launching of submarine warfare occurred in a rather ad hoc fashion. Three separate initiatives, none of which qualified as national policy, shaped the strong drift within the navy toward using the new weapon against commerce. First, in October and November 1914, two submarines commanders on their own initiative sank three enemy merchant vessels, saving the crews each time.¹ Then, in January 1915, Lieutenant Commander Bauer ordered the U-boats under his command to enter the Irish Sea “and by sinking one or more vessels introduce insecurity into shipping and harm...

  14. 9 Reprisals: Prisoners of War and Allied Aerial Bombardment
    (pp. 276-316)

    Reprisal is the most direct means by which a belligerent may try to force an opponent to behave within the law. International-legal skeptics of the time believed that reprisal was the only sanction upholding international law, but even proponents of international law agreed that “reprisals cannot be dispensed with, because without them illegitimate acts of warfare would be innumerable.”¹ But reprisals could just as easily destroy the law as uphold it: they hit the innocent, rather than the guilty; they used methods otherwise held to be illegal; they were hard to distinguish from mere revenge; and they could lead to...

  15. 10 Conclusion
    (pp. 317-332)

    International law defined most clearly what was at stake in the war: namely, for Europe, the continued existence or disappearance of a state system that allowed for nations organized as states to determine their own paths within a common framework. Treaties, conventions, and customary law were the products and the guarantors of this system. The laws of war were similarly the lowest common denominator of behaviorin extremisthat qualified a state for membership. The instant Imperial German breaches of treaty, convention, and customary law signaled, first, a strong challenge to the existence of this system and, second, Germany’s estrangement...

  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 333-356)
  17. Index
    (pp. 357-368)