Book Review: A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law during the Great War, by Isabel V. Hull


By: Christopher Casey
On August 28, 1913, Andrew Carnegie attended the inauguration of the Peace Palace in The Hague. Carnegie had given the funds to provide a new home for the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an institution that those in attendance hoped would further the development of international law and encourage the peaceful resolution of international disputes. A little less than a year later, on August 4, 1914, and a little more than one hundred miles from the Palace, the German army marched into neutral Belgium in violation of international law and fired the first shots of the Great War.

Isabel V. Hull reminds us that the age of the Great War was also an age of international law. Many of international law’s greatest modern publicists—Bluntschli, Rolin-Jaequemyns, Asser, Root, Westlake—produced their most important work in the decades prior to the outbreak of the war. Nor was this advance purely an intellectual exercise. The foreign offices of the Great Powers all had legal advisors or departments. Moreover, several major conferences were held and treaties signed, most notably at The Hague in 1899 and 1907, to codify the laws of war.

By engaging in a comparative analysis of Britain, France, and Germany, Hull attempts to demonstrate two things. First, “that international law was central to how and why the Great War was fought”. Second, that Germany was unique among the Great Powers for its emphasis on the doctrine of military necessity as a rationale for breaking both the customary and treaty-based laws of war.

Hull begins with a prologue entitled: “What We Have Forgotten,” in which she posits that the erasure of international law from the historical memory of the Great War was the result of inter-war revisionism and Weimar’s apologists. The narrative then starts with the German march into Belgium and the horrific massacre of Belgian civilians. She then proceeds topically with an assessment of Germany’s conduct as an occupier (it was poor) and its use of the new and devastating weapons developed during the conflict—zeppelins, submarines, poison gas, and flamethrowers. In each case, Hull awards lower marks to German officials than to their entente counterparts for the consideration and seriousness with which they took international law. Hull does explore Britain’s naval blockade, an act that led to the deaths of thousands of German civilians, but she provides ample evidence that Britain’s civilian and military officials consciously tread carefully and were concerned about compliance with international law or norms.

Hull’s explanation for why Germany was so different from its fellow belligerents is the only unsatisfying part of her otherwise wonderful study. In sum, Germany paid less attention to international law because of Prussian militarism. While she does not use that phrase explicitly, Hull does contend that the German civilian leadership had “assimilated the military [legal] arguments, which [was] not surprising given the military’s high status institutionally and in public opinion and its thorough penetration into German legal writing.”

But the Great War was fought on two fronts. The western war was waged between states. The eastern war was waged between empires.  By confining the study to Germany, France, and Great Britain, Hull set her gaze squarely on the Western Front with its wholesale slaughters in clearly delineated trenches and the battles at sea. Absent from her analysis are the mass deportations, ethnic massacres, and conflicts of national liberation and survival that characterized the eastern front for Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany. In the East and West, Germany was the only power to occupy vast swathes of enemy territory for much of the war, a position that had the consequence of making it subject to the international laws of war more often than the other powers. When Germany abused the civilian Russian population living in Russian territory, it was an international crime. When Russia abused the same population, it was a domestic affair. Shifting her gaze eastward would have complicated and enriched her explanation for why Germany was far more willing to cry “military necessity” than its Western opponents.

Hull’s masterful book is useful for scholars of international law, political science, and history.  She engages effectively with scholarship in all three arenas, going so far as to claim that the realist critique of international law within political science is itself a product of interwar German apologias. This is a fantastically interesting and important book for revitalizing the historical study of applied international law. In a departure from many histories that engage with complex international legal questions lightly, Hull instead goes heavily into the specifics of the important legal texts and government documents to bring together the publicists and practitioners. In doing so, she has successfully brought the law back into the narrative of the Great War. Thus, Hull’s work has opened, rather than closed, the subject of the Great War’s relationship to the many international legalities in which it was waged. For that, scholars of history, political science, and international law should be grateful.

Buy A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law During the Great War, by Isabel V. Hull. (affiliate link)

Christopher Casey is a J.D. Candidate at the School of Law and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at the University of California, Berkeley.  He is a student contributor to Travaux.


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