Leipzig War Crimes Trials

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The Leipzig War Crimes Trials were 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 as soon as their 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 for the arrest and trial of German officials defined as war criminals by the allied governments. Article 227 stipulated for a special tribunal to be established, presided by a judge from each one of the major allied powers - Great Britain, France, Italy, United States and Japan. It also defined the former Kaiser Wilhelm II as war criminal and demanded an extradition request to be addressed to the Dutch government, which had given him asylum in Holland since he abdicated in November 1918. Article 228 allowed the Allied governments to try in their military tribunals any German war criminal they deemed necessary, nothwithstanding any proceedings taken against the same persons in German courts. The German government was demanded 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 same 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 came the Dutch reply that any extradition of the former Kaiser would be a violation of Dutch neutrality.[1] Eventually the issue of trying the ex-Kaiser was dropped, and he remained in Holland until his death on 4 June 1941.

On 3 February 1920, the Allies submitted to the German government a list of 900 names of other individuals accused of committing alleged war crimes. However, the Germans refused to extradite any German citizens to Allied governments, and suggested instead trying them in the German justice system, i.e. 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 persons to be tried. Not all these people could be traced, and in many cases there was difficulty in finding credible evidence.[2][3] In the event only twelve individuals were brought to trial.

The trials[edit]

The trials were held before the Reichsgericht (comprising seven judges) in Leipzig from 23 May to 16 July 1921.

The cases tried were as follows:

Response to the trials[edit]

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.[4] Inside Germany, on the other hand, they were seen as excessively harsh for several reasons:

Following the Heynen case, the German Gazette commented:

"The first verdict in the series of Leipzig trials has agitated public opinion in two great countries, Germany and England, in apparently sharply contrasting ways. The degree of punishment has been criticised in England in a way that is in the highest degree wounding to German susceptibilities."[5]

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.[6] This was not done, and the trials were quietly abandoned.

Legacy of the trials[edit]

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.

Following the end of the Cold War, the same trend led to the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 1998.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Foreign Relations of the United States, 1919: Paris Peace Conference, vol. 13, pp. 374-375
  2. ^ The Leipzig Trials, 1921, p. 9
  3. ^ Yarnall 2011, pp. 184-5.
  4. ^ Yarnall 2011, pp. 194-5.
  5. ^ Quoted in Yarnall 2011, p. 194.
  6. ^ Yarnall 2011, pp. 195-6.

For further reading[edit]

External links[edit]