My dissertation examines how violent atrocities committed during World War I impacted the process of conducting peace and undermined attempts to normalize postwar relations between Germany and its former cobelligerents. I use the failed 1921 Leipzig War Crimes Trials to scrutinize how the issue of war crimes became an early and integral feature of political culture in the Weimar Republic and was a crucial ingredient for the political activation of ethnic, völkisch nationalism between the 1919/20 and 1924 German electoral cycles, a period which witnessed a retreat from liberal politics and the emergence of grass-roots radical nationalism as a potent force in Germany’s fledgling democracy. At the same time that the “war crimes question” sparked a hostile, xenophobic nationalist discourse in Germany, I assert that the issue became an insurmountable obstacle in international diplomacy, failing to foster consensus and continually driving a wedge between the officials and publics of the concerned European states. At a time when real advances were made by the former belligerents to revise certain aspects of the Versailles Peace Treaty, war crimes proved a sticking point over which little revision and reconciliation could be made.
In my dissertation, I ask how public memory and social discourse interact with high politics and international diplomacy. The war crimes issue was decisive in shaping how Germans and other Europeans remembered and understood their respective nations’ experience during wartime. While the Allied countries in the western theater of war had long since established narratives of victimhood to mobilize their populations for total war, in the postwar period the question of what to do with accused war criminals and the fear of “victor’s justice” facilitated the creation and reformulation of victimhood narratives in Germany. Through this dynamic the war crimes discourse and the concrete process of rendering judgment became an existential battleground where mutually exclusive legacies of war competed for legitimacy. I examine how war crimes were understood and defined as a legal and political concept as well as how war crimes functioned in popular discourses. Following World War I, war crimes trials had the potential to render definitive judgment on the violent excesses of war and to establish a new international judicial order that promoted peaceful negotiation and collaboration. Instead, the Leipzig trials failed to establish consensus in any form regarding wartime atrocities, and the issue of atrocity remained an open dispute throughout the interwar period. Ultimately, the legacy and meaning of German atrocities proved an explosive source of conflict and an effective means of mobilizing popular agitation and antagonism. My project brings a new perspective to the historical study of war crimes and conflict resolution that emphasizes difficulty and obstacles to crafting lasting peace and which highlights the mutual impact of international diplomacy and popular discourse and experience.