The question of Germany’s moral responsibility for the outbreak of the First World War was the subject of several of Binkley’s first professional publications. In 1926 he published an interpretation of the “responsibility” clause of the Treaty of Versailles, arguing that the German translation had missed the intent of the framers of the treaty by implying moral guilt for causing the war, where the sense of the original was simply legal liability for damages. He made headlines as far afield as the the Frankfurter Zeitung.1 His review article “Ten Years of Peace Conference History”2, published in December 1929, which included the same argument, made his reputation and led Western Reserve University to headhunt him away from Smith College the following spring. By 1930 he was known as a leading voice among young American revisionist historians. His friends in New York could mock him with an announcement of a forthcoming book:
War Gilt: Robert C. Binkley, Ph.D. (An Inner Sanctum Novel) Starkly realistic treatment of the subject. The Great War shorn of its glittering romance but enlivened in spots with amusing altercations between German sailors and American tourists.
In the spring of 1930, Binkley took it on himself to offer some advice to the ex-Kaiser Wilhelm II, living in exile in Doorn in Holland. The blame which the Treaty of Versailles laid on Germany was exploited by German nationalist groups through the 1920s, among which Hitler’s National Socialists were coming to the fore. Until the elections in September 1930, it was still possible to dismiss the Nazis as a dangerous fringe group, and to hope that the war guilt issue could be defused. Binkley enclosed a “monograph”, presumably a copy of “Ten Years of Peace Conference History”, and suggested that the Kaiser was the one man who could force a resolution of the war guilt question by demanding to be tried by the Allied powers under the terms of Article 227 of the treaty:
The Allied and Associated Powers publicly arraign William II of Hohenzollern, formerly German Emperor, for a supreme offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties.
A special tribunal will be constituted to try the accused, thereby assuring him the guarantees essential to the right of defence. It will be composed of five judges, one appointed by each of the following Powers: namely, the United States of America, Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan.
In its decision the tribunal will be guided by the highest motives of international policy, with a view to vindicating the solemn obligations of international undertakings and the validity of international morality. It will be its duty to fix the punishment which it considers should be imposed.
The Allied and Associated Powers will address a request to the Government of the Netherlands for the surrender to them of the ex- Emperor in order that he may be put on trial.
A trial at this late date would put the evidence which historians had gathered concerning the origins of the war on the public record and, following the Kaiser’s exoneration, force the Allies to remove the stain on German honour by acknowledging that German aggression was not the sole cause of the war.
From Doorn, acting Hofmarschall Alexander Freiherr von Senarclens-Grancy answered on the Kaiser’s behalf three weeks later. He dismissed the idea of a trial, holding that the evidence already before the public was ample, and that only the malice of the Allies kept the war guilt question alive.
Though the Kaiser dreamed of exoneration, a tribunal played no part in his vision. Five days after his response to Binkley, the Kaiser’s adjutant von Ilsemann wrote in his diary:
In the last while His Majesty has been interested in nothing else but Herr Nowak [an Austrian journalist who was visiting Doorn]. Grancy is very unhappy about it and said: “The Kaiser has been politically extraordinarily on edge in the last while. To hear him, you’d think that he reckons on being back on the throne in two weeks. At the moment he works daily on the Bülow book [the newly published memoirs of Bernhard von Bülow, Reichskanzler 1900-1909], which Eschenburg apparently presented to him. He makes marginal notes for Nowak on almost every report, and said to me recently: ‘Many of my reports to Bülow couldn’t have been done better by Bismarck or Frederick the Great!’ The terrible thing about the Kaiser is that he always believes that everything he did was right. Only what others did was wrong.”3
Update, February 2020
It turns out that the idea of demanding a trial did not vanish from Doorn with von Senarclens-Grancy’s letter to Binkley. Six weeks later, in mid-May 1930, the Kaiser received a visit from a friend of his youth, the American academic Poultney Bigelow. Bigelow apologized for harsh words he had written about Wilhelm during the war, and in a three-day visit he and Wilhelm reviewed documents in the Kaiser’s collection. Bigelow emerged convinced that his friend was innocent of the charge of starting the war.
On his arrival in New York on 30 June 1930, before debarking from the Minnewaska, Bigelow spoke to the press and made the startling claim that the Kaiser was eager to face a court martial. Reporters from the Associated Press, the United Press, the New York Times and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle were present. The UP story did not include the detail about the Kaiser’s willingness to face trial, but the other three led with it. The Daily Eagle quoted Bigelow directly:
“The court-martial would result just as the trial of Jefferson Davis resulted here after the Civil War,” Bigelow said vigorously. “The Kaiser has nothing to conceal. He is willing and anxious for such a trial. And he would be acquitted, beyond a shadow of doubt.”
(Jefferson Davis, of course, never faced trial. Bigelow’s point seems to be that the two hypothetical cases would have ended with the same result.) The Times added the detail that the Kaiser wished to be tried by an international court-martial at The Hague. The UP reporter missed the Kaiser’s wish for a trial, but caught the Jefferson Davis reference:
The eminent biographer – who in his writings termed Wilhelm II, a “Hun, a liar, a thief, and a murderer” – came back with the view that:
“He is as honest, as clean and as upright a man as Jefferson Davis.”
And Bigelow, it may be added, holds a very high opinion of the confederate leader as a citizen and a patriot.
The AP and UP stories were widely syndicated in American newspapers.
Binkley (then teaching at Stanford for the summer term) saw the AP story that evening, and immediately attempted to capitalize on it by offering to write an article for Current History reiterating the arguments he had made to the Kaiser. The offer was declined, on the grounds that “there are so many other questions of a more exigent nature now that we will pass up further articles on the War Guilt, at least for the present.”4
A few days later, an International News Service syndicated story reported the reaction of various politicians in Berlin to the idea of a trial. Most were not interested; only Gauleiter Josef Goebbels was enthusiastic.5 And that is where interest in the story ended. Later in the summer Bigelow published a series of newspaper articles about his visit to Doorn, and said nothing about the Kaiser’s interest in a trial.6
Did the Kaiser really tell Bigelow that he would welcome a trial? Did Bigelow tell the reporters on the Minnewaska that he had? Did Wilhelm perhaps mention to Bigelow the impudent letter on the subject which he had recently received from a young American historian? In his new certainty of Wilhelm’s innocence, it is possible that Bigelow tried to press the Kaiser into saying something of the sort, or that he jumbled his thoughts during the news conference sufficiently to turn a hypothetical into a definite statement. (It is also possible, though very unlikely, that the editor of von Ilsemann’s journal omitted a passage that describes Bigelow’s visit.)7
In any case, the episode shows that Binkley had ridden the war guilt question as far as it would take him. He had already transferred his research efforts to the Peace Conference, which would sustain him for the rest of his brief career.
With August C. Mahr of the Stanford German department, Binkley published a series of articles: “Eine Studie zur Kriegsschuldfrage”, Frankfurter Zeitung, 1926-02-28; “Urheber or Verursacher, that is the question”, San Francisco Chronicle, 1926-05-23; “A New Interpretation of the ‘Responsibility’ Clause in the Versailles Treaty”, Current History 24 (1926, June) 398-400. He summed up his argument in a solo publication in 1929: “The ‘Guilt’ Clause in the Versailles Treaty”, Current History 30 (1929, May) 294-300.↩︎
The Journal of Modern History vol. 1, no. 4 (December 1929): 607-629↩︎
Sigurd von Ilsemann, Der Kaiser in Holland. Aufzeichnungen des letzten Flügeladjutanten Kaiser Wilhelms II, ed. Harald von Königswald (Biederstein, 1968), vol. 2, pp. 138f.↩︎
Doc. 3642: RCB to George W. Ochs-Oakes, editor of Current History, 1930-07-01; Doc. 3013: Ochs-Oakes to RCB, 1930-07-07.↩︎
“Offer of Ex-Kaiser Met with Little Sympathy by Leaders”, The Daily Notes, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania (July 3, 1930), p.10.↩︎
“Ex-German Kaiser Finds His ‘Poverty’ Difficult to Bear”, The Philadelphia Inquirer (July 20, 1930), pp.1, 6; “Ex-Kaiser Called Brilliant Orator”, ibid. (July 27, 1930), p.6; “Wilhelm Bares Peace Plea to King Edward VII”, ibid. (August 3, 1930), pp.1, 24.↩︎
Von Königswald says in the introduction to the second volume that he will have to be more selective than in volume one, but will include everything connected with the Kaiser’s “political hopes and opinions” (von Ilsemann, vol. 2, p. 7).↩︎