1919 and the birth of a new war crimes tribunal process

Dr. Larry Hannant

Four sections of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles spelled out a remarkable new process – trials for war crimes. They stipulated that German Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had abdicated and fled to Holland in November 1918, would be arraigned before a special tribunal that would try him for the German military’s conduct during the war. Never before had a head of state been indicted for his role in a war. But Wilhelm was spared a trial, as Holland refused to extradite him. And the subsequent trials of hundreds of German military officers in French, Belgian and German courts – also spelled out in the Treaty of Versailles – produced few results. Still, the war crimes tribunals launched in 1919 would transform the notion of international law and human rights standards. They set the stage for the more prominent tribunals that followed World War Two and continued into the 21st century.