What to do with the Kaiser?
- The Trial of the Kaiser by William A. Schabas
Oxford, 432 pp, £24.99, October, ISBN 978 0 19 883385 7
The title of the book is of course ironic: in spite of the clamour at the end of the Great War, the Kaiser was never tried, much less hanged. As Germany prepared to capitulate, Wilhelm II of Hohenzollern with his staff and family quietly crossed into neutral Holland, from where the Dutch politely but resolutely declined to extradite or expel him. Wilhelm lived on in exile for long enough to witness the outbreak of another world war and to blame the Jews for causing it, having already blamed them for his country’s defeat in the previous war.
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Vol. 40 No. 20 · 25 October 2018
Stephen Sedley takes issue with a ‘concocted’ Daily Mail story claiming that the Kaiser would be ‘held in the Tower pending a trial at which he would be prosecuted by the solicitor-general’, ‘the bombastic’ Sir Gordon Hewart (LRB, 11 October). In fact, the Daily Mail wasn’t entirely wrong; plans for a trial involving Hewart were being drawn up. The British couldn’t predict for certain what the Dutch would do with the ex-Kaiser once the Treaty of Versailles entered into force, or indeed whether he would stay put or flee to another country. Hewart, by now attorney-general, began to lay the groundwork for Wilhelm’s prosecution just in case he did fall into the Entente’s hands. The procurator-general, Sir John Mellor; a departmental lawyer, R.W. Woods; and two silks, George Branson and Frederick Pollock, set to work on a trial plan.
Pollock, envisaging the proceedings, asked: ‘What would I do if I were William’s counsel?’
I should advise him to follow Charles I’s example – protest against the jurisdiction and the Court, and say nothing more. But if he decided to plead, then
1. Admit nothing, claim all the rights of a prisoner in an English criminal court, require strict proof of all material facts[.]
2. Make all possible dilatory objections.
3. Rely on the usual German arguments only as a last resource.
After the Dutch refused to hand over the ex-Kaiser, Hewart pulled the plug on the British prosecution plan. The ill-starred Woods was given a new project to work on: the trials of Wilhelm’s subordinates at Leipzig for war crimes.
Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, London WC1
Vol. 40 No. 24 · 20 December 2018
Stephen Sedley overlooks an entertaining episode of farce when he writes that ‘after Waterloo, nobody had even mooted a trial of Napoleon, save possibly by a French court for treason’ (LRB, 11 October). In fact, Napoleon himself was keen to be tried in a British court and wrote to the Prince Regent: ‘I come, like Themistocles, to throw myself on the hospitality of the British people. I put myself under the protection of their laws; which I claim from Your Royal Highness, as the most powerful, the most constant, and the most generous of my enemies.’ If treated as a prisoner of war, it would have been difficult to make a case for keeping Napoleon in captivity once a declaration of peace was signed, so to prevent such an appeal he was kept afloat, in Plymouth Harbour, where he was an object of public fascination.
In a contemporary case, Admiral Alexander Cochrane sued a journalist, recorded as ‘McKenrot’, for a defamatory article that accused Cochrane of cowardice. McKenrot had named both Napoleon and his brother Jerome as witnesses and travelled to Plymouth with the Napoleon sympathiser Capel Lofft to serve a subpoena requiring the brothers to attend court, which would have the force of law once delivered to the captain. They rowed out to the ship but as they approached on one side, the captain climbed down a rope ladder on the other, into another rowing boat. McKenrot and Lofft gave chase but were not able to deliver the writ that might have forestalled Napoleon’s exile to St Helena.