The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 2/Civilized War Codes-Scraps of Paper

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3433452The Bohemian Review, volume 2, no. 8 — Civilized War Codes–Scraps of Paper1918Emil F. Prantner

Civilized War Codes—Scraps of Paper.

By E. F . Prantner.

The Czechoslovak soldiers, recently captured by the Hungarians in the last Austrian drive, went to their death “willingly and smilingly”. They evidently were comforted by the words of Huss, spoken at the moment when he was tied to the stake in Constance, “Joyfully do I seal with my blood those divine truths which I have spread by my lips and by my writings.”

About the time that these brave men were executed, Germany made another bid for peace through Dr. Kuehlman, then her foreign minister, and insisted that “a certain degree of mutual confidence in each other’s honesty and chivalry” be granted to the nations which will have to consider terms of peace.

“So soon as a man is armed by a sovereign government and takes the soldier’s oath of fidelity he is a belligerent.” (57) “All soldiers . . . all men who belong to the rising en masse of the hostile country” when captured, shall be regarded as prisoners of war. (49) “A prisoner of war is a public enemy armed or attached to the hostile army for active aid.” (49)[1]

Austria-Hungary recently signed a treaty with the Kaiser by the terms of which it is reduced to a mere vassal state of Germany. Her continued existence depends upon German toleration, pleasure or whim; so long as Austria responds to and obeys German orders, she will not be absorbed or dismembered. For centuries the peoples inhabiting the lands of the ancient kingdom of Bohemia, the Czechoslovaks, have sought to obtain for themselves from the Austrian crown civil rights equal to those granted to other inhabitants of the monarchy. The successive rulers, to whom the appeals were made, supported by the nobles, the hierarchy, the bureaucracy and the vested interests, refused to listen to the pleas presented by these peoples. Generally the answer was increased taxation, for these lands, the gems of the Austrian crown, must support the other economically weak territories of the empire.

When war was declared, the world rocked and trembled to its very foundations. The Czechoslovaks then realized that the purposes for which this war was waged by the Germans and the Austria-Hungarians, were the conquest of territory and the Kulturing of the conquered peoples. From the day of the declaration of hostilities they opposed the war, but they were forced to shoulder arms against brother Slavs, the Serbians and the Russians, and against the French, their devoted friends for many years.

They deserted from Austrian armies, they surrendered whenever an opportunity offered, not because they were cowards or afraid to fight, but because they would not fight against brother Slavs and friends, and further because they did not believe in the purposes of the war for the reasons advanced by the German, Austrian and Hungarian autocrats.

Immediately after the declaration of war, the realization was brought home to the Czechoslovaks that the continued existence of their lands and language depended upon their independence; that they must be freed from Austrian rule, be independent of that grand German super-dream, Mittel-Europa, and that thus and only thus they will avoid being Kultured. Their men were forced into the Austria-Hungarian armies, but determined to desert, to surrender, so that they might give battle to the oppressors of their ancestors, of themselves and of their children. Now they fight for freedom, liberty and democracy and are in the war to the last man.

In the days of Huss the Bohemians were noted for their “indomitable strength, such scorn of death, such passionate faith in their holy cause, that every obstacle must needs fall before them.” The traditions of those days are being nobly and religiously upheld by the brave men now fighting for Bohemia.

The Czechoslovaks revolted against the Austria rule. If there ever was any doubt on this point it was removed when the Constituent Assembly adopted, in Prague on January 6th, 1918, the declaration that they (the Czechs) demand a “union with our Slovak brothers and independent economic and cultural life.”

The French republic recognized the National Council for Czech and Slovak lands as a body politic by a decree issued by its President, Poincare, on December 16, 1917. This decree also permitted the Czechoslovaks to organize an army to be recruited from among the Czechoslovaks. The Entente Powers regard the Czechoslovaks as their allies.

The Council immediately proceeded to recruit and organize a Czechoslovak army. Each recruit was required to take an oath of allegiance to the National Council, the oath of fidelity of a soldier; they were uniformed by the Council and placed under responsible commanders. Thus they fulfilled every requirement necessary to attain the status of soldiers of a recognized government under the rules of war of civilized nations, and to be regarded as soldiers belonging to a belligerent country, in times of war.[2]

The German Kriegsbrauch (War Code) declares that war is not to be regarded as a contest between armed forces, but that its purpose is to destroy the spiritual and material power of the enemy country. That the laws and customs of war must yield to the law of military necessity, whenever the observance of the law would prevent or hinder the attainments of the objects of the war. That persons not clothed in a uniform, not under the command of responsible leaders, may be summarily shot as francstireurs (guerilla). When the presence of prisoners of war is a danger to their captors, they may be put to death.[3]

The Hague Convention provides, that “They (prisoners of war) must be treated humanely.” It is significant that both Germany and Austria-Hungary are parties thereto. Webster, when Secretary of State, held that “The law of war forbids the wounding, killing, impressment into troops of the country, or the enslaving or otherwise mistreating of prisoners of war, unless they are guilty of some grave crime.”[4]

Thus we are led to the following conclusions: that a de facto government, recognized by the Entente Powers as such, for the Czech and Slovak Lands exists, that it has an army, that the soldiers comprising that army complied with all the prerequisites of the civilized war code to be regarded as soldiers of a belligerent country and that the soldiers, if captured by the German or Austrian armies, could expect to be regarded and treated as prisoners of war.

It is interesting to note that the Hague Convention further provides that “Prisoners of war are in the power of the hostile government, but not in that of the individuals or the corps that captured them.”

The soldiers of the Czechoslovak army captured on the Italian front were shot in the same manner as deserters or as spies. This is the attitude assumed by the Austria-Hungarian government, for unless the corps commander committed deliberate murder, the government itself must assume responsibility for the execution of these brave men. They received “humane treatment” in accordance with the Hague Convention, modified by the German Kriegsbrauch, that "when the presence of prisoners of war is a danger to their captors, they may be put to death.” Germany, through Austria, her Kultur-ally, interpreted the Hague Convention, overrode all civilized rules of war so as not to be prevented or hindered in the attainments of the objects of the war she is waging.

From the facts herein noted it is useless to point to similar situations in history, but it is rather interesting, by way of comparison, to contrast the brutality with which the Hun treats the captured Czechoslovak soldiers with the treatment accorded to captured soldiers or rebels during rebellions in other civilized countries.

During the American Revolution, many of the Colonials fell into the hands of the British, not only on land but on the seas as well. They were, nearly all, placed in prison camps in England. Many of the prisoners had been soldiers or officers in the British Army previous to their shouldering arms for the cause of the Colonists. Great Britain did not regard them as deserters, she did not place them before the firing squad, but treated them as prisoners of war. While the care and physical treatment they received was not all that could be desired, as we are told by Abell in his book, “Prisoners of War in Britain”, they invariably were regarded and treated as soldiers belonging to a belligerent country.

Approximately 220,000 Confederate soldiers were taken prisoners by the Union Armies during the Civil War. The South’s leading military men were graduates of West Point, and when hostilities commenced they held commissions as officers of the United States Army. Some resigned, others simply went over to the Confederacy and received commissions as officers in the rebel army. The foremost military leader of the South, Lee, is an example, while Jackson, Beauregard, Johnston, Longstreet and Pickett are others.

What was the treatment accorded to the captured Southerners? Jefferson Davis, a graduate of West Point, was the head and front of the secessionists. When he was taken prisoner he was handcuffed. How did the North treat him? As a prisoner of war, though he never was in actual confinement. When Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Grant did not treat or consider Lee a deserter, but on the contrary regarded him as a prisoner of war.

Instances of similar character could be cited without number, but the inevitable conclusion that must be reached in each case is, that all the Confederates captured by or surrendered to the Union Army were at all times regarded and treated as prisoners of war. The North demanded such treatment for these men and they received it. The United States war code of this period sheds much light on the subject, and the point emphasized is, that captured Southerners should be treated as prisoners of war.[5] War codes, as understood by the present civilized world, are the results of experiences in the treatment of adverseries by various nations heretofore engaged in wars. Most of them are unwritten, but others are written. The Hague Convention is a written war code and the signatory powers thereto are presumed to be bound by it. On the other hand an unwritten code is constituted of the accepted usages during a war between civilized nations which have been handed down from one generation to another. They form the fundamental law of the world, sort of a “common law”.

Based on the rules and usages of civilized warfare the Huns are convicted of the basest breaches of faith; judged by the rules of international law they stand guilty of gross violations thereof. The pledged word of their governments is not worth the “scrap of paper” on which it is written, and judged by the Hague Convention the Bodies are convicted of unusual and cruel barbarities and wilful breaches of faith.

In his Independence Day speech at Mt. Vernon President Wilson says, that the Central Powers are “Governments clothed with the strange trappings and the primitive authority of an age that is altogether alien and hostile to our own. The Past and the Present are in deadly grapple, and the peoples of the world are being done to death between them. . . . . It is our inestimable privilege to concert with men out of every nation who shall make not only the liberties of America secure, but the liberties of every other people as well.”

Thus again the old fact is illustrated, and sadly in this instance, that the Germans desire the extermination of the Slavs, so that the lands of the Slavs might be incorporated into Mittel-Europa. But they will not attain their objectives. The Czechoslovaks will battle to the very last man to gain their cherished object, freedom for Bohemia and its inhabitants. When going to battle against the Huns, they sing that ancient hymn composed in times of former wars against the Teouton:

To arms now, my brothers,
Strike hard at the foe,
Shout: ‘God is our Father’!
Spread havoc and woe.”

  1. John Bassett Moore, International Law, No. 1127. Also, Holland, Laws of War on Land, Sec. 4.
  2. Holland, Laws of War on Land, Sec. 4.
  3. The German War Code, Committee Public Information.
  4. Webster’s Works, VI, 427, 437.
  5. U. S . Army, Gen’l Order No. 100.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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