Why Victoria's grandson had to pay for war crimes after WW I

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EACTLY 88 YEARS ago today, the victorious allied powers were faced with a quandary that has stark parallels with today. Should they put Wilhelm II of Germany on trial or let him rot in Holland? For at the 11th hour on November 11, 1918, as the guns fell silent and the mourners stood still, the former Kaiser was on the move, the imperial train rumbling on between Venlo and Nijmegen, conveying him into Dutch country-house exile.

There was, just as there was with Saddam Hussein, a compelling case for trying him. His army had launched an unprovoked assault on a neutral country. It had deployed unusually vile forms of killing — chlorine gas attacks, Zeppelin bombing raids against urban civilian targets and unrestricted submarine warfare that included torpedoing cruise liners.

But was he personally responsible? Could a trial lead to counter allegations about Allied war crimes? Might trying a deposed head of state create an unfortunate precedent? Was this any way to treat Queen Victoria’s grandson? If German democracy collapsed, might it be necessary to restore the monarch? A trial could prove inconvenient.

F. E. Smith, the Attorney-General, however, assured the Imperial War Cabinet that it was inequitable to put U-boat captains on trial for war crimes but not their Supreme Warlord. He cited Edmund Burke’s reasoning in the trial of Warren Hastings: “You strike at the whole corps if you strike at the head.” Furthermore: “If this man escapes, common people will say everywhere that he has escaped because he is an emperor,” Smith explained. “They will say that august influence has been exerted to save him.”

A new world order was being created, based around the UN’s forerunner, the League of Nations. Trying this discredited old world relic would be a fitting start. The Cabinet agreed, as did the French.

Woodrow Wilson was less sure. “King Charles I was a contemptible character and the greatest liar in history”, the US President alleged, yet “he was celebrated by poetry and transformed into a martyr by his execution.” Nonetheless, Wilson went along with his allies and Article 227 of the Treaty of Versailles demanded that the ex-Kaiser stand trial before a special tribunal composed of five judges from each of the victorious powers....

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