The question of Germany’s moral responsibility for the outbreak of the First World War was the subject of several of RCB’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, RCB 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. RCB 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 reponse to RCB, 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
- With August C. Mahr of the Stanford German department, RCB 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. [↩]