At least we worried

Susan Pedersen

  • A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law during the Great War by Isabel Hull
    Cornell, 384 pp, £29.50, April 2014, ISBN 978 0 8014 5273 4

In the explosion of recent books about the First World War – many of them excellent, almost all packed with narrative excitement, but not all breaking new ground – Isabel Hull’s stands out. There is no human interest, no lice and dysentery, but it is as gripping and important as any. It is concerned not with the experience of war but with legal arguments over its prosecution, and it began as a modest research project aimed at understanding the uses made of the doctrine of military necessity. In Absolute Destruction (2005), Hull showed that Germany’s war against the Herero people in its South-West African colony in 1904 prefigured its military practices later in the 20th century: the extreme latitude allowed to colonial authorities helped set the script for the behaviour of the German army in the Great War. In her new book, too, she is struck by imperial Germany’s ‘latitudinarian’ interpretation of the doctrine of military necessity, especially compared to the doctrine’s much more restrictive and reluctant deployment by the other powers involved. She wants to know how these differences of interpretation can be explained and what effect they had on wartime practice. Questions of this kind drive her to examine the use made of international law by all the major belligerents. Her analysis confirms her first impressions: Germany was indeed an ‘outlier’ in the degree to which it was willing to ignore or repudiate international law. Equally important, however, is her claim about the centrality of law to the prewar international order in general.

The world before 1914 was not, Hull insists, a Hobbesian world of autonomous states driven by self-interest alone but a specific legal order, bound by treaty and not simply alliances, and constrained by an evolving and expanding corpus of international law. Painstakingly negotiated agreements governed many aspects of international relations; the doctrine of pacta sunt servanda dictated that those agreements be obeyed. If they were not, international law recognised the legitimacy of such extra-legal action as reprisals, but only if they were proportionate to the offence and designed to bring the offender back within the limits of the law. Even before 1914 imperial Germany had played the role of ‘objector’ during negotiations over conventions. Worryingly – and in contrast to Britain and France – Germany also made no effort to incorporate international law into its military manuals. Yet the framework of law existed.

The outbreak of the war, Hull argues, can’t be understood without attention to this context. The 1839 Treaty of London guaranteeing Belgian neutrality was not, in the German chancellor Bethman Hollweg’s famous phrase, just ‘a scrap of paper’. It was a ‘strong treaty’, to which every major European power was a signatory. It established the rights of small states to independent existence and its violation genuinely shocked world opinion. Hull departs from other scholars in her insistence that, for Britain especially, the invasion was indeed a major reason – and not simply a convenient justification – for entry into the war. Germany’s attempt to justify its pre-emptive action by the doctrine of necessity or self-defence was a sign of its outlier status. Few outside Germany found such arguments persuasive.

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