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A Scrap of Paper
Breaking and Making International Law During the Great War
By Isabel Hull. 384 pages. Cornell University Press, 2014. $45.

Reviewed by Williamson Murray

Professor Isabel Hull of Cornell is one of those rare historians whose breadth of knowledge has allowed her to move from one specialized area of history to another without diminishing her insights. This new study of the impact of the First World War on international law is another impressive addition to her body of work.

In the period before the outbreak of war in 1914 the major powers, including the United States, attempted to place some legal boundaries around the conduct of war. In the arguments that swirled through various conferences, two divergent trends emerged: On one side, the majority of the powers supported the idea of limiting the use of military force in some important areas, particularly those having to do with the impact of military operations on civilians. On the other side stood the representatives of the German Reich, who contended that tactical and operational “military necessity” should be the driver of strategy and policy in all cases.

During the course of the war that was to come, all the powers, to one extent or another, fell back on “military necessity.” Yet as professor Hull points out, when the Allies did so, their major determinant revolved around the political, strategic, and legal framework of international law. The British blockade of the Central Powers, as an example, was not determined by the military but rather by political leaders. In the war’s aftermath, the Germans would make much of the blockade’s supposed inhumanity without mentioning the fact that the Reich’s failure to feed its population lay mostly at the feet of its own military, whose leaders had demanded and received all of Germany’s nitrate production, thus depriving the nation’s farmlands of fertilizer.

Virtually every strategic decision the Germans made during the course of the war rested on an extremely narrow definition of what their military determined to be a “necessity.” Disastrously, the German chancellor Theobold von Bethmann Hollweg denounced Britain, saying that based on “a scrap of paper,” they were coming to the aid of Belgium, which the Germans had ruthlessly attacked in spite of their solemn treaty obligations to protect its neutrality. It was no idle comment. Bethmann Hollweg’s comment represented widely held attitudes among Germany’s elite. Simply put, military necessity meant the need to beat the enemy in any war, and that overrode political and moral considerations and entirely ignored the edifice of international law. Germany killed thousands of innocent people, visited untold suffering on the civilians whose territories its soldiers occupied, shipped tens of thousands of Belgian and French workers off to the Reich to work in conditions that replicated those of slave labor, introduced gas warfare as an “experiment,” and sank merchant shipping and passenger liners without warning.

German disregard for the legal framework that the major powers had established before the war reaped its own grisly reward. The Combined Bomber Offensive in World War II that destroyed the Reich’s cities from one end to the other and killed hundreds of thousands of its civilians rested on the same dubious framework of “military necessity.” As Professor Hull points out, “It was not ‘total war’ that destroyed [international] law, but rather the destruction of law (which meant the destruction of the European order) that produced total, or near total war. Law, at once the product of the prewar community, the symbol of its order, and its guarantor, was the first victim of a revolutionary project to overthrow the European state system.”

Tragically, in the period after the war, Germany launched a massive disinformation campaign and seized control of the narrative. It bribed leading American scholars, distorted or suppressed key documents, and consistently misrepresented German actions before and during the conflict, thus erasing its clear violations of international law. “That erasure continues to this day in both academic writing and popular culture,” Hull writes. “It has robbed the war of meaning.”

With this new examination of the period, Hull hopes “to restore international law to its rightful place in the conflict, to recall the great stakes at issue in 1914–1918, as well as to explore the complexity of international law during belligerency.” She has indeed succeeded to an extraordinary degree, adding not only to our understanding of the First World War but to our understanding of the current challenges the United States confronts in its use of military force.

Williamson Murray has taught military history at Yale, Ohio State, and both the Military and Naval Academies. His most recent book is Successful Strategies: Triumphing in War and Peace from Antiquity to the Present (May 2014).