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The Leipzig War Crimes Trials were a series of trials held in 1921 to try alleged German war criminals of the First World War before the German Reichsgericht (Supreme Court) in Leipzig, as part of the penalties imposed on the German government under the Treaty of Versailles.
During the First World War, the Allied leaders came up with a new concept, that once victory was achieved, defeated enemy leaders should face criminal charges for international law violations made during the war. On 25 January 1919, during the Paris Peace Conference, the Allied governments established the Commission of Responsibilities to make recommendations to that effect. As a result, articles 227–230 of the Treaty of Versailles stipulated the arrest and trial of German officials defined as war criminals by the Allied governments. Article 227 made provision for the establishment of a special tribunal, presided over by a judge from each one of the major Allied powers – Britain, France, Italy, United States and Japan. It identified the former Kaiser Wilhelm II as a war criminal, and demanded that an extradition request be addressed to the Dutch government, which had given him asylum in the Netherlands since his abdication in November 1918. Article 228 allowed the Allied governments to try German war criminals in their military tribunals, nothwithstanding any proceedings taken against the same persons in German courts. The German government was required to comply with any extradition order issued by the Allied powers to that effect.
Following the conclusion of the treaty, the Allied government began their legal and diplomatic efforts to arrest the former Kaiser. On 28 June 1919, the day the treaty was signed, the President of the Paris Peace Conference addressed a diplomatic note to the Dutch government requesting the extradition of the ex-Kaiser. On 7 July the Dutch replied that any extradition of the Kaiser would be a violation of Dutch neutrality. Eventually the issue of bringing the ex-Kaiser to trial was dropped, and he remained in the Netherlands until his death on 4 June 1941.
On 3 February 1920, the Allies submitted a further list of 900 names of individuals accused of committing alleged war crimes to the German government. However, the Germans refused to extradite any German citizens to Allied governments, and suggested instead trying them within the German justice system, i.e. at the Reichsgericht in Leipzig. This proposal was accepted by the Allied leaders, and in May 1920 they handed the German government a reduced list of 45 accused persons. Not all these people could be traced, and in other cases there was difficulty in finding credible evidence. In the event only twelve individuals were brought to trial.
The trials were held before the Reichsgericht (comprising seven judges) in Leipzig from 23 May to 16 July 1921.
The cases tried were:
Outside Germany, the trials were seen as something of a travesty because of the small number of cases tried and the perceived leniency of the court. Inside Germany, on the other hand, they were seen as excessively harsh for several reasons:
Following the Heynen case, the German Gazette commented:
On 15 January 1922, a commission of Allied jurists, appointed to inquire into the trials, concluded that it was useless to proceed with them any further and recommended that the remaining accused should be handed over to the Allies for trial. This was not done, and the trials were quietly abandoned.
Although largely regarded as a failure at the time, the Leipzig trials were the first attempt to devise a comprehensive system for prosecution of violations of international law. This trend was renewed during the Second World War, as Allied governments decided to try, after the war, defeated Axis leaders for war crimes committed during the war, notably the Nuremberg Trials and International Military Tribunal for the Far East.