View Full Version : When did war crimes start?

Rising Sun*
07-24-2009, 07:54 AM
Forgetting the Hague conventions etc but focusing on popular opinion, when did war crimes start?

While reading the following article today I wondered how different would be the reaction to this disclosure if it had occurred in a French village perpetrated by the Germans in 1944 (definite war crime); by the Japanese anywhere (definite war crime); against the Japanese by Allied troops (no record of such an event, so no war crime); by the Soviets against the Germans (what do you expect of communist barbarians, but they were entitled to be pissed off); Zionist guerrillas and forces in Palestine anywhere from the 1920s to the 1950s (never happened, and if it did the Arabs started it and got what they deserved); American forces in Vietnam (it didn't happen but if there was clear evidence and enough press pressure that it did happen then it would have to be dealt with); and American forces in Iraq (if there was clear evidence it happened and the press got a decent sniff of it then the offenders would be prosecuted).

So, what's changed in the past ninety years that allowed the following war crime to pass with no consequences and now we have troops engaged in firefights in Iraq or Afghanistan being not far off needing to get legal officers' clearance before calling in artillery or air support?

Slaughter stains the Light Horse legendTim ElliottJ

July 24, 2009

EARLY one night in December 1918, just after the end of World War I, about 200 Anzac troops, some from the famed Australian Light Horse brigades, surrounded the Bedouin village of Surafend, in what was then Palestine.

After expelling the women and children, the soldiers, armed with sticks and bayonets, descended on the inhabitants, murdering between 40 and 120 before torching their huts. The flames lit up the countryside for kilometres. The soldiers then moved on to a neighbouring nomad camp, which they also burned to the ground.

Though mentioned briefly in the official war history, the Surafend massacre, ostensibly carried out in retaliation for the murder, just days before, of a New Zealand soldier by a Bedouin, has sunk into oblivion, eclipsed by the legend of the Light Horse, whose historic cavalry charge at Beersheba in 1917 proved a turning point in the desert campaign. That charge, of 800 men and horses across six kilometres of open ground, made the Light Horse a byword for a particularly swashbuckling brand of Anzac bravery.

But a new book, called Beersheba, by journalist Paul Daley, confirms another, darker, side to the Light Horse. "It was always thought that New Zealanders were mainly responsible for the massacre," Daley says. "The Australians' participation was assumed but never really proven."

Then, one day last year while researching in the War Memorial, Daley found a tape recording of an old Light Horseman, Ted O'Brien, who described how he and his comrades had "had a good issue of rum" and "done their blocks" in Surafend, and then "went through [the village] with a bayonet".

The Bedouin, O'Brien says, were "wicked You'd shoot them on sight." Of the massacre at Surafend, he says "it was real bad thing It was ungodly".

No one was charged, but in 1921 Australia quietly paid compensation of 515 to the British, who then ruled Palestine, for the destruction of the village. (New Zealand paid 858; the British stumped up 686, on account of the small number of Scottish soldiers who had participated.) Nevertheless the massacre stained the previously unimpeachable reputation of the Light Horse. The British commander-in-chief, General Sir Edmund Allenby, is said to have accused them of being "cowards and murderers".

Daley points out that 20,000 Light Horsemen were deployed during World War I, only a fraction of whom took part in the massacre at Surafend. "This incident highlights war's moral complexity and how otherwise good men can do terrible things. The Anzacs were not the mono-dimensional heroes they have been made out to be, and they themselves would never have seen themselves like that. This doesn't detract from the amazing things that the Light Horse did, but if we want to embrace the heroics we need to accept the unpleasant truths, too." http://www.theage.com.au/national/slaughter-stains-the-light-horse-legend-20090723-duv1.html

Rising Sun*
07-24-2009, 08:18 AM
Here is the Australian Official History version, at pp.787 - 791

The opinions expressed there offend modern political correctness and reflect stereotypical opinions about various nations and their peoples in the British Imperial era, and are interesting in themselves just for that.

07-24-2009, 01:54 PM
A war crime or crimes would only be such after being identified and established as such by a government or a coalition of governments.

07-26-2009, 05:21 PM
It was committed by the Victors to a people nobody cared about back then, what do you expect?

Obviously it's a crime, but you could argue about whether it's a war crime or a general crime against humanity, as it was committed a good while after the war's end, wasn't it?

Rising Sun*
07-27-2009, 07:57 AM
It was committed by the Victors to a people nobody cared about back then, what do you expect?

That was part of my question about when public consciousness began about war crimes, or crimes against humanity associated with war which most people regard as war crimes, such as the common view that the Holocaust was a war crime.

Obviously it's a crime, but you could argue about whether it's a war crime or a general crime against humanity, as it was committed a good while after the war's end, wasn't it?

Fair point.

It's in that region where a war crime by military forces moves to crimes against humanity by military forces during an advance, occupation or retreat.

But what I was getting at was: When did people start thinking of such things as war crimes, or crimes against humanity, as distinct from just bad behaviour such as (I'm rusty here) after ?Culloden? or a related event when the British cleaned up the enemy and then engaged in the unsporting behaviour of charging on and cleaning up the spectators and ruining their picnics.

There's a shift in public opinion here, along the lines of rape in marriage becoming a crime rather than just the exercise of a male right in marriage.

The act is the same, but public opinion shifts from accepting it as part of the activity or state to categorising it as a crime deserving of condemnation and punishment.

It's quite clear that that shift had occurred among the Allies at least by the end of the WWII as far as war crimes trials were concerned, but did that reflect public opinion or did it create it? Much the same as driving with a modest blood alcohol content without doing anyone any harm on the road was of no significance fifty years ago but now quite modest amounts of alcohol in the blood are widely held (by people who don't have a clue about such things) to be equivalent to drunk driving. In the latter case public opinion followed the creation of the crime, being a crime which previously was common conduct which nobody condemned.

I'm inclined to think that it was post-WWII that the concept of war crimes entered the public mind.

There was appalling treatment of POWs in WWI but I don't think the same public opinion existed then.

If so, what caused the change in public attitudes?

07-27-2009, 09:22 AM
Well, you rarely ever hear about war crimes before WW1. However, at the end of WW1, you heard the first voices about charging soldiers (and/or their commanders) with war crime - see the 'Rape of Belgium'.

During WW1, the (alleged) commitment of War Crimes/Crimes against Humanity by the Germans was such an enormous part of the Western Allied Propaganda machine, that they had no choice but actually pursue and impeach Germans afterward, partially through Versailles, partially separately.

This of course was also because in the public opinion in England and France, people wanted the Germans to get punished harshly, in as many ways as possible. Because of that, British PM Lloyd George even wanted to see Kaiser Wilhelm II. hanged, but Holland declined to extradite

So I would say that the idea of (at least enemy) war crimes as a big part of the 'cleanup' after a war started with WW1 in Western Europe. The full cleanup of one's own war crimes has yet to start with many of the Victor's nations.

Rising Sun*
07-27-2009, 09:27 AM
The full cleanup of one's own war crimes has yet to start with many of the Victor's nations.

Don't hold your breath waiting for that to start. :evil:

(I assume that the 'm' in 'many' was a typo. ;) :evil: )

07-27-2009, 12:29 PM
That's not quite fair.

Almost every nation had to admit at least one or two war crimes (which they couldn't hide), I count that as a start. The majority of their war crimes will probably be revealed (though not prosecuted) once the archives are opened - in 100 years :(.

But when you look at countries like Poland, for example, they slowly, though admittedly very reluctantly and hesitantly, are working up their crimes, which mainly consist of acts of revenge against ethnic Germans during '39 and/or after their liberation. They always try to play them down, but still.

But then again, you might argue that Poland wasn't a Victor's nation, but rather a liberated one...

Lilly Von Blitz
07-27-2009, 06:34 PM
I have thought that war crimes started when governtments wantes fair treatment of there persons during war time (don't know what date this occurred) after ww2 in what hitler and germany achieved during those 6 years actually sparked up a thought to actually stop this for the furture!
The reason why UN/Nato was invented is to stop these horrific war crimes once and for all.

07-27-2009, 08:39 PM
You don't seem to have read the OP's very first paragraph.
He's not talking about when the international political institutions to pursue war criminals were introduced, but rather at what point the classification changed from 'brutality of war' to 'war crime', and how it varies depending on who committed said actions.

Rising Sun*
07-28-2009, 09:08 AM
But when you look at countries like Poland, for example, they slowly, though admittedly very reluctantly and hesitantly, are working up their crimes, which mainly consist of acts of revenge against ethnic Germans during '39 and/or after their liberation. They always try to play them down, but still.

Could you elaborate on that?

My knowledge is limited to the standard and well-known elements of the German invasion of Poland and what happened afterwards, and to the Soviets at Katyn, which doesn't extend to the aspects you've mentioned.

07-28-2009, 09:32 AM
What I'm referring to are not only the acts of revenge against ethnic Germans in Eastern Poland during the initial invasion, or the ethnic cleansing/expulsion of ethnic Germans out of Poland and all it's newly gained territories (Eastern Prussia, Silesia, Bohemia, German territories east of the Oder/Neisse line).

In some situations, Polish mobs even killed large numbers of ethnic Germans within their own cities/communities - not unlike the Germans (and Poles, Lithuanians, Czech) did with the Jews prior.

Many eastern European nations at the time were also very anti-Semitic, this includes the Poles, who nowadays rather like to see themselves as the 'Saviours of the European Jews'. There are reports of Jewish concentration camp fugitives trying to hide out with Poles, who rather beat them to death or reported them.

True, the Poles have the highest number of people who helped Jews, but the majority of them actually hated them, and it are things like these that the Poles are slowly starting to work up.

08-09-2009, 03:42 AM
Forgetting the Hague conventions etc but focusing on popular opinion, when did war crimes start?

I would suppose that war crimes began with the end of WW2 and the subsequent trials of 'War Criminals'.

As has been mentioned it has something to do with the victors, and the victors are 'usually' the ones that write the history - so much of what happened before was rarely reported. If we were to look at ancient history, what we regard as war crimes, was probably the 'Norm'. What became of the Athenians at Syracuse is a case in point.

Awareness, is another factor which has been mentioned, and in this age of mobile/cell phones with a photographic, video and satelite communication ability, it would be practically impossible to censor what was reported without confiscation. Add to that the hunger of the media for a story...

To underline my point:
We have argued, on this forum, regarding war crimes in the Malvinas, but there isn't much evidence to substantiate such claims - depending on one's pointof view. However, had there been the same availability of telecommunications to troops of both sides at the time, there would be little argument today. Either the irrevocable proof of crimes would be available unless, of course, there had been no crimes committed and, consequently, no argument.

If I recall correctly, the first pictures of Brittish troops in action in Afghanistan were taken by the troops themselves, on their mobiles cameras and sent home. Only after that were the press given more freedom to report on the situation. Now it appears that it is daily fare and good entertainment, with the inclusion of minor-celebrities accompanying the troops on patrol and being caught up in firefights.

I would suppose that the rest is about double-standards. Once the concept of war-crime trials was introduced, there was no going back. Particularly in this politicaly complex global society in which we now live.

Rising Sun*
08-09-2009, 06:22 AM
I would suppose that war crimes began with the end of WW2 and the subsequent trials of 'War Criminals'.

That's pretty much my impression.

There doesn't seem to have been the same attitude to the prosecution of war crimes after WWI, although some events such as the sinking of the Lusitania were described as war crimes at the time.

Perhaps there was a more robust acceptance of the realities of war by both sides in relation to battlefield conduct, such as here http://www.canada.com/victoriatimescolonist/news/canada/story.html?id=93a75181-0327-4d66-892a-4b450be95e11 , which isn't very different to what happened in many instances in WWII by both sides and especially in the war by and against Japan.

Rising Sun*
08-09-2009, 07:14 AM
The US might be the first place to have a post-war war crimes trial in a modern sense when Henry Wirz, the commandant of the Confederate's Andersonville POW camp holding Union soldiers, was tried and hanged after the Civil War for war crimes against his inmates. It seems likely that he did not commit any of the crimes alleged against him and that he was just a political scapegoat. At the very least he was the victim of a most unfair 'victor's justice' legal process. http://www.rebelgray.com/andersonville2.htm

There is also the curious British war crimes trial and execution of two Australian officers, Morant and Handcock, during the Boer War for killing Boer POWs http://www.awm.gov.au/wartime/18/article.asp . It's curious because they relied unsuccessfully in part upon the defence of superior orders, when it appears from the last link and the following and other sources that such orders may have been widely given from the highest level, which should have put Kitchener on trial if a WWII standard was applied.

John Dillon, an Irish nationalist Member of Parliament, spoke out against the British policy of shooting Boer prisoners of war. On February 26, 1901, he made public a letter by a British officer in the field:

The orders in this district from Lord Kitchener are to burn and destroy all provisions, forage, etc., and seize cattle, horses, and stock of all sorts wherever found, and to leave no food in the houses of the inhabitants. And the word has been passed round privately that no prisoners are to be taken. That is, all the men found fighting are to be shot. This order was given to me personally by a general, one of the highest in rank in South Africa. So there is no mistake about it. The instructions given to the columns closing round De Wet north of the Orange River are that all men are to be shot so that no tales may be told. Also, the troops are told to loot freely from every house, whether the men belonging to the house are fighting or not.

Dillon read from another letter by a soldier that had been published in the Liverpool Courier: "Lord Kitchener has issued orders that no man has to bring in any Boer prisoners. If he does, he has to give him half his rations for the prisoner's keep." Dillon quoted a third letter by a soldier serving with the Royal Welsh Regiment and published in the Wolverhampton Express and Star: "We take no prisoners now ... There happened to be a few wounded Boers left. We put them through the mill. Every one was killed."

On January 20, 1902, John Dillon once again expressed his outrage in the House of Commons against Britain's "wholesale violation of one of the best recognized usages of modern war, which forbids you to desolate or devastate the country of the enemy and destroy the food supply on such a scale as to reduce non-combatants to starvation." "What would have been said by civilized mankind," Dillon asked, "if Germany on her march on Paris [in 1870] had turned the whole country into a howling wilderness and concentrated the French women and children into camps where they died in thousands? All civilized Europe would have rushed in to the rescue." http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v18/v18n3p14_Weber.html

08-09-2009, 05:21 PM
What the Light Horse did in December 1918 wasn't a war crime because there was no war.
What the Light Horse did, should more correctly be called mass murder. They should have been prosecuted under normal criminal law.

08-10-2009, 03:25 AM
Perhaps this was the gretater crime in the Boer War?

Concentration Camps
Britain's internment centers in South Africa soon became known as concentration camps, a term adapted from the reconcentrado camps that Spanish authorities in Cuba had set up to hold insurgents.

A crusading 41-year-old English spinster, Emily Hobhouse, visited the South Africa camps and, armed with this first-hand knowledge, alerted the world to their horrors. She told of internees "... deprived of clothes ... the semi-starvation in the camps ... the fever-stricken children lying... upon the bare earth ... the appalling mortality." She also reported seeing open trucks full of women and children, exposed to the icy rain of the plains, sometimes left on railroad siding for days at a time, without food or shelter. "In some camps," Hobhouse told lecture audiences and newspaper readers back in England, "two and sometimes three different families live in one tent. Ten and even twelve persons are forced into a single tent." Most had to sleep on the ground. "These people will never ever forget what has happened," She also declared. "The children have been the hardest hit. They wither in the terrible heat and as a result of insufficient and improper nourishment ... To maintain this kind of camp means nothing less than murdering children.

08-10-2009, 03:51 AM
Armenian genocide WW1


Rising Sun*
08-10-2009, 08:30 AM
What the Light Horse did in December 1918 wasn't a war crime because there was no war.
What the Light Horse did, should more correctly be called mass murder. They should have been prosecuted under normal criminal law.

Quite correct on a technical basis.

However, if a body of troops does something after a war which constitutes a war crime during a war or, in the Light Horse case perhaps a crime against humanity on modern principles, why shouldn't it be dealt with on that basis rather than as murder?

The Charter which established the Nuremberg tribunals sought to include pre-war crimes against humanity by the Nazis

CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY: namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/imtconst.asp#art6

Why not include post-war actions, as with the Light Horse?

I think that 'post-war' (to the extent that it was a declared war rather than just local butchery) crimes in the former Yugoslavia were treated as war crimes for the purposes of the relevant tribunal.

If we limit it to a technical 'war' in the sense of a declared war that ignores significant conflicts such as Korea and Vietnam, while the 1949 Geneva Conventions include them in relation to POWs as

... the present Convention shall apply to all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, even if the state of war is not recognized by one of them. Part I, Article 2 http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/geneva03.asp

I realise that I'm jumping some decades and strict legal classifications of war crimes and crimes against humanity with my foregoing comments, but I'm not presenting them as relevant law at the material times but as ideas about war crimes etc in the modern era.

Should war crimes be limited to crimes by the military during a declared war or should they extend to crimes by the military associated with a war or war-like operations?

08-19-2009, 03:10 AM
From Nuremburg

Article II

1. Each of the following acts is recognized as a crime:

(a) Crimes against Peace. Initiation of invasions of other countries and
wars of aggression in violation of international laws and treaties,
including but not limited to planning, preparation, initiation or waging
a war of aggression, or a war of violation of international treaties,
agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or
conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing.

(b) War Crimes. Atrocities or offenses against persons or property
constituting violations of the laws or customs of war, including but not
limited to, murder, ill treatment or deportation to slave labour or for
any other purpose, of civilian population from occupied territory,
murder or ill treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas,
killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton
destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified
by military necessity.

The following quote is from the web site of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

"The goals of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) transcended verdict and punishment. The creators of the court were deliberately assembling a public record of the horrific crimes committed by Germans during World War II, including those of the Holocaust. American chief prosecutor Robert Jackson worried that "unless record was made future generations would not believe how horrible the truth was."

Jackson's closing speach


Palace of Justice


08-19-2009, 08:43 AM
Ironically, one of the nations in WWI that was used to coin the modern moralist take on Propaganda, Belgium, was involved in one of the most hideous genocides in history in the Congo River Basin and the "Rape of the Congo."



And the legacy of the orgy of violence continues today in the world's bloodiest post-WWII conflict:


Rising Sun*
08-26-2009, 08:13 AM
The 'no war crimes until after WWII' argument has been taken up in our courts.

The Perth man accused of a World War II war crime has appeared before the Full Bench of the Federal Court to argue against his extradition.

Hungary wants to extradite Charles Zentai to answer claims that he allegedly killed a Jewish man during the war.

Zentai was a soldier in the Hungarian Army when Peter Balazs was murdered in Budapest in 1944. Some witnesses have claimed that Charles Zentai killed him.

He's now 87 and he's been fighting against the extradition for four years.


Charles Zentai is arguing that there was no such thing as a war crime until after World War II and he shouldn't be sent to Hungary to face a charge that has retrospective effect.

The court has reserved its decision.


DAVID WEBER: [Radio interviewer] It seems that one of the central parts of the case is to challenge the very legal basis of the Nuremberg trials and all of the tenets of law that flowed after that regarding war crimes?

ERNIE STEINER: [Charles Zentai's son] That's right. The Nuremberg trials brought into the realm the idea of retrospective legislation which is again being questioned for my father's case.

And it's also relevant because it's in the terms of the treaty that it had to be a crime at the time.

DAVID WEBER: And a war crime wasn't.

ERNIE STEINER: A war crime wasn't, no, as opposed to a murder. But of course we are saying that my father is totally innocent so that is a very important point for our family and we all believe that. It's just that it's terrible that it's come this far. http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2008/s2666665.htm

08-26-2009, 05:17 PM
It would take one ballsy judge/jury to rule a sentence that pretty much discredits Nuremberg...

02-18-2011, 10:38 PM
The view that war crimes is a concept that only started about 70 years ago is incorrect.

Here is an article on The evolution of individual criminal responsibility under international law


Peter von Hagenbach was executed for war crimes in 1474 after the tribunal rejected his "superior orders" defence.


04-03-2011, 09:04 AM
When did war crimes start ? As soon as war was invented.