German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial.
This book is enough to give you nightmares.
With a thoroughness reminiscent of Fritz Fischer’s Germany’s Aims in the First World War, the authors of this scholarly work approach the evidence from every possible angle to determine the nature of German army conduct during the first month of the war.
The verdict: Yes, the German army committed atrocities against Belgian and French civilians, although a few of the claims made by traumatized refugees may have been exaggerated. Both the perpetrators and the victims of the atrocities are found to have suffered from different varieties and degrees of delusion, with the franc-tireur myth that motivated the German soldiers to react hysterically and barbarically being the one most deeply entrenched, both in the collective psyche of the German military (men, officers, and the higher command) and German civilians (in government and on the home front).
My personal assessment is that the upper echelons of the German command were more likely to endorse spontaneous harsh action by the lower level of the Imperial army against a perceived levee en masse or “People’s War,” because the last of the wars of German unification under Prussian rule were still a matter of living memory: the new German Empire could be seen as vulnerable to breakup should the other German kingdoms and principalities decide to rise against Prussian hegemony.
Moreover, many individuals among the troops who violated Belgian neutrality and invaded France certainly would have harbored some degree of guilty conscience over the campaign, despite the Emperor’s and the government’s loud and continual insistence that they were waging a “defensive” war. This feeling of guilt would have contributed to their edginess and propensity to overreact to any perceived threat, however spurious, while they were on foreign soil. Rationalization in defense of a guilty conscience knows no bounds.
In addition, some of the mutilations attributed to personally inflicted, malicious injury of civilians may be attributable to a personalized reinterpretation of the maiming sustained by those who were wounded by shrapnel or the flying remnants of high-explosive shells during the bombardment of cities and villages. Unprovoked, undeserved invasion conducted with artillery fire that caused physical harm and mental mayhem on a scale approaching that of a weapon of mass destruction would certainly be taken personally by the afflicted civilians, especially where women and children were concerned.
While most losses of hands or mutilation of breasts could reasonably be blamed on shellfire, the intentional severing of women’s hands by German soldiers could have occasionally occurred, motivated by pillage (the thieving of jewelry), although any such instances probably happened after the victim was already dead. Severing the hands of living children would have served no purpose (not even for intimidation), because the victims would have bled to death within minutes, and could not have been the refugees with bandaged stumps that were reported to have been seen.
The research includes a detailed examination of German obfuscation, counter-charges and cover-ups undertaken during the interwar period, in an effort to get out of paying reparations and accepting war guilt: the tactics of a strategy which eventually achieved temporary success, as postwar pacifism propounded its theories of futility, collective guilt, and appeasement – which ultimately backfired twenty years later. (NB: Although Hitler had repudiated payment of the reparations, payments were resumed sometime after the Second World War, and Germany finally paid off its punitive debt for the First World War in 2010.)
The book is illustrated with period artwork from newspapers, books and magazines. It concludes with appendices of raw data (with an extensive explanatory note), selected sections from the Hague Convention (IV) of 1907 and the Treaty of Versailles, and details from allied demands for extradition. The copious end notes include a table of abbreviations, and are followed by a bibliography and an adequate index, although both of the latter are printed in an extremely small font that requires the use of a magnifying glass.
The detail of the research can make a daunting read, but its psychological slant is thought-provoking and well worth the effort.
NB: See also my review of German Posters in Belgium.