In This Review

German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial
German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial
By John Horne and Alan Kramer
Yale University Press, 2002, 608 pp

This colossal study delves into the facts and myths surrounding the reports of German war atrocities in Belgium and France in 1914. The authors argue that the contradictory reports of Germans and Allies on what happened resulted from divergent views of the Germans' collective reprisals against civilians. These acts were war crimes under international law, but "the German army considered the real atrocity to be mass civilian resistance." The Belgian and French accounts of atrocities tended to be more accurate than the German charges about collective civilian resistance. On the other hand, the occupiers were disoriented and fearful, fed by memories of the Franco-Prussian War, by harsh German policy toward irregular warfare, and by militant nationalism. As a result, "violence could be started by almost anything," and it provoked reprisals that "appeared to be anything but accidental." Tragically, this issue survived in the "war culture" of the belligerent countries in the 1920s and 1930s. Allies were divided over how to handle German war crimes (a skeptical United States resisted the idea of an international court), and Weimar Germany refused to accept responsibility. Meanwhile, growing numbers of pacifists, especially in the United States, believed that the reports of German atrocities were simply an "Allied invention." Few history books can claim to be definitive -- but this one should be accepted as such.