Th. Rothstein 1917

The Case For Indemnities

Source: The Call, 14 June 1917, p. 2 (Originally written under his pseudonym John Bryan)
Transcribed: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

International Socialism is opposed to indemnities. It is an attitude as novel in history as the opposition to annexations. Hitherto the exaction of a tribute by the victor from the vanquished has been a most natural conclusion of all wars. When Brennus threw his sword on the scales in face of the protests of the Romans he did what conquerors and victors had done before him and what generals and diplomats in similar situations have done ever since. The tribute has been both a means of humiliation for the vanquished and a means of enrichment for the victor. Only in times less sophisticated it was a tribute pure and simple, while in our own days it has become known as an “indemnity.” When Bismarck called upon the French in 1871 to pay him 200,000,000 he did not call it a tribute, such as Brennus or Cyrus or Nebuchadnezzar had levied before him. God forbid! He did not want to humiliate the French nation or to enrich the Prussian exchequer. He wanted merely restitution for damages done by the French to German property during the war, as well as the reimbursement of at least a portion of the military expenditure incurred by the German States in the war through no fault of theirs, since the aggressor had, of course, been France. And when Japan, in 1905, presented a similar demand to Russia during the peace negotiations at Portsmouth, U.S., it was also prompted by motives of bare justice: Japan wanted the money back which she had been compelled to expend in the war caused by Russia’s aggression. That she failed in her demand was not due to any flaw in her argument, but to the unforeseen circumstance that her British Ally had already conceived the plan of making up her old quarrels with Russia in view of the German “menace,” and left Japan financially in the lurch.

In the present war, too, both sides ascribe the responsibility for the war to the opponents in order to justify a demand for an indemnity. Both sides indignantly repudiate the idea of humiliating the opponents and only demand a simple restitution of damages. On this side we hear that Belgium has been grievously wronged, morally and materially, and must, therefore, be compensated. France declares that her northern provinces especially the country in front of the Somme, have been wilfully and most barbarously devastated and plundered by the enemy in the course of fighting and, still more so, during Hindenburg’s recent withdrawal. And England also demands that the value—and more—of the merchant vessels sunk by the German submarine pirates should be fully restored by way of an indemnity in kind or in money. All this, we hear, would be the barest justice. It would not be a tribute such as were exacted from the vanquished in barbarous times, but a mere reparation for damages such as any civil court might grant to wronged individuals.

A mere detail of all these details is that the damages are in each case claimed from the Germans. From whom else, indeed, should they be claimed than from the perpetrator of all the outrages? But, pray, has this side committed no acts of destruction and devastations? We seem to have heard of a rather drastic procedure by the Russians when they withdrew from East Prussia. The Germans state that 30,000 towns and villages and hamlets were destroyed by the Russians in those provinces, and the Russians themselves have admitted that they at that time cleared the country of all its live stock and of all metals, including copper and bronze from public monuments, church bells, door handles, etc. Is Russia to compensate Germany in her turn? Is Russia also to compensate Austria for the devastations caused by her in Galicia? And who is going to pay damages to Rumania, where a British military “mission” has destroyed the great naphtha wells, the main commercial asset of the country, so effectively that it will take many years to repair them? As a matter of fact, all these acts of barbarity are but necessary incidents in a modern war, and are committed with deliberation and the utmost thoroughness as part of the general conduct of the war, that is, as “military measures.” They are, indeed, much less avoidable and, from a military point of view, much more justifiable than was, for instance, the wholesale burning of the Boer farms in the South African war and the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882. They are, indeed, committed just as often by belligerents on their own as on the enemies’ territory precisely for the same reasons and as a matter of unavoidable incident. The Germans have bombarded the Rheims Cathedral. Have not the British bombarded the St. Quentin Cathedral? Or is one and the same act to be a piece of wilful vandalism in one and a regrettable accident in another case? The other day, in the account of the battle of the Messines Ridge, we read how by a vast explosion of mines a number of villages have been wiped out of existence. We also remember how the Belgians, at the beginning of the war, flooded a portion of their country in order to obstruct the advance of the invaders. Do we not all know how the Russians, when withdrawing before Hindenburg’s hosts in the summer of 1915, laid waste entire Poland and Courland, burning and annihilating even the corn in the fields and the fruit trees in the gardens, doing away or killing all cattle and destroying tens of thousands of homes of their own countrymen? Are the Germans the only party guilty of destruction and devastations, and are they to be the only party to pay damages? It is evident that if we take the common and traditional view of the question we shall soon have to exact an indemnity from ourselves. At best we can only present bills for damages to one another and talk only of the balance.

Of course, the case of Belgium stands somewhat apart. But so also stands that of Greece, whose neutrality has been outraged by the Allies, and who is being coerced by a blockade, from which people are dying in streets for hunger, into joining the war. Will the Allies agree to compensate Greece, so that Germany may compensate Belgium? No doubt Belgium has been an innocent victim of aggression, whereas Greece has wickedly refused to fulfil her obligations to Serbia. But if the Allies are such strict guardians of international morality, what punishment are they going to mete out to Italy and Rumania, who, in a still grosser manner, broke their long-standing treaty obligations to the Central Powers? Belgium’s case, therefore, is not an exception either: the outrage on her neutrality was just as much a “military necessity” for Germany as her own secret conversations with Great Britain in 1908 were for herself.

It is clear that the case for indemnities as commonly presented has not a leg to stand on. If indemnities are to be paid, they have to be paid by everybody in turn. As a matter of fact, all the destructions and damage have been caused by one party: International Imperialism and Militarism, and if we want to compensate Belgium and Greece, East Prussia and France, Poland and Galicia, we can only do so from an International Indemnities’ Fund made up by all the belligerents by means of a levy on the armaments makers and other war profiteers. That would be at once the fairest and most effective method of assisting the devastated territories and their suffering humanity.