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THE AMERICAN-GERMAN CONFERENCE ON PRISONERS
BERNE, SWITZERLAND, SEPTEMBER 24 TO NOVEMBER 11, 1918. WHEN, in 1914, the Great War broke upon an astonished world, we rather took comfort to ourselves in the thought that no matter how swiftly and vigorously military operations might be prosecuted, the Conventions of Geneva and of The Hague would insure humane care and chivalrous treatment to the prisoners of war of both sides. Perhaps unconsciously we based our feeling of assurance in this regard upon two assumptions. The first of these was that the terms of those conventions were of themselves legally binding upon the parties to the great conflict; and the second that in this day and generation of high development in the elements of morality and humanity the belligerents would feel themselves morally if not technically constrained to abide by the principles, and to follow, in practice, the honorable provisions of the conventions.
There are two particular conventions falling under consideration in this connection. These are, the Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, generally referred to as Hague IV of 1907; and the Convention for the Adaptation to Maritime War of the Principles of the Geneva Convention of 1906, commonly known as Hague X of 1907. Each of these agreements contains a provisional article, practically identical in the two instances, worded substantially as follows:
The provisions contained ... in the present convention do not apply except between contracting parties, and only if all the belligerents are parties to the convention.
Had our assumptions in this respect been securely founded, there would perhaps have been no occasion for any of the belligerent par
1 The author of this article, Commander Raymond Stone, U. S. Navy, was Assistant Commissioner on the Special Diplomatic Mission of the United States to the Conference.
ties to enter into or even to desire conferences on the subject of the care and treatment of prisoners of war; but in actuality the conventions were not operative for the reason that some of the belligerents were nonsignatory and, also, both the provisions of these conventions and the principles underlying them were ignored and flouted by sevcral of the belligerents, notably by the Central Powers. It should be noted also that the magnitude of the forces engaged in this war and the large number of prisoners taken at the outset of the conflict by both sides were such that adequate preparations for the reception, housing, feeding, and administration, of the prisoners of war were sadly deficient on both sides. Neither side seems to have foreseen with any degree of accuracy the vast responsibility that would devolve upon captor states by reason of the numbers of prisoners of war that might be taken. In addition to this fact, the policy of the Central Powers, particularly that of Germany, a policy sometimes avowed and sometimes very apparent without avowal, which dictated harsh and even inhumane treatment of prisoners of war with the aim and intention of carrying to the enemy population ideas of terror and frightfulness which might deter the population from prompting or encouraging enlistment in the fighting forces of their countries, seemed to render it very necessary that the belligerent countries should enter into some definite agreements prescribing reciprocal and binding rules and regulations covering the general subject of prisoners of war. At least two British-German and two French-German conferences on this subject were held in neutral cities within the first three years of the war.
Upon the entry of the United States into the war, our Government deemed it expedient to utter a pronouncement to the effect that while the Government of the United States, for good and sufficient reasons, did not consider that the actual provisions of the several Conventions of Geneva and of The Hague were operative in this war, it did consider that the principles underlying the provisions were of force and that they would be followed by the United States as a general guide in the circumstances.
From time to time during the earlier stages of our participation in the war efforts were made through diplomatic channels to arrive at some mutually acceptable modus vivendi under which the care, handling, treatment, and pay, of prisoners of war of each country held by the other might be assured and guaranteed. Whether due to the unwillingness of Germany, then in military ascendancy, to really come to an agreement, or to the inherent difficulties of presenting and discussing opposing views through the instrumentality of neutral protecting Powers, negotiations by this means proved disappointingly unsatisfactory. In the meantime, frequent and persistent reports, some of which were well authenticated, concerning the unfavorable, not to say harsh and brutal, treatment by the Germans of prisoners of war belonging to the Entente Allies and to the United States, made increasingly evident the necessity for an actual face-to-face conference of fully accredited representatives of both governments in order to discuss and arrive at some definite accord with guarantees of fulfillment.
During the spring and summer of 1918 the proposal for an American-German conference in some neutral country was made by our Government and eventually agreed to by the Imperial German Government. After some delay, the date of the convening of this conference, at first suggested for the early part of August, was finally decided upon as the 23rd of September, and the place of meeting as Berne, the capital of the Swiss Confederation. It was believed at the time that Germany was much more interested in discussing the situation of German civilians in the United States than in treating the subject of prisoners of war, and that the German Government had assented to a conference largely in order that the civilian question might be taken up. At this stage of the war there were not many German prisoners of war in our hands, nor Americans in the hands of the Germans; there were, however, a large number of German civilians in the United State liable to detention under the Espionage Act and other statutes, and a few actually intered in detention camps or under criminal charges before the civil courts. The Government decided to send to Berne a Special Diplomatic Mission composed of delegates representing the State Department, the Navy Department, the War Department, the Department of Justice, and the American Red Cross. The membership of the commission as finally ordered was as follows:
Honorable John W. Garrett, U. S. Minister to the Netherlands, Chairman of the Commission.
Honorable John W. Davis, Solicitor-General of the United
These four were full commissioners clothed with full powers. There were also a number of assistant commissioners and attachés.
The American Commission first met in full membership at Paris on the 10th of September; and from that date until the 19th of the same month was occupied in the preliminary work of formulating and preparing a proposal in form to be presented to the German Commission when assembled in conference. Our Commission arrived at Berne on the afternoon of the 20th of September, and the members were distributed to several different hotels, it being quite impracticable in the congested condition of hotel accommodations to concentrate them all in one place.
Word was received that because of the recent death of General Friederichs, the head of the German Commission, that commission would not be ready for the assembling in conference until the 24th. The intervening days were spent by the American Commission in putting into final shape the proposal to be submitted by us.
On the afternoon of the 24th the members of our Commission were received in audience by the President of the Swiss Federation, M. Felix Calonder, who immediately afterwards received the German Commissioners, Fuerst zu Hohenlohe Langenburg, Count Montgelas, Colonel von Fransecky, Prussian Ministry of War, Secret Counselor von Keller, Captain Wilke, Imperial German Navy, and Major Draudt, Prussian Ministry of War, along with numerous attachés and assistants.
The Swiss Parliament, or Conseil Fédéral, being in session at this time in the parliament building, the inaugural meeting of the conference was held in the directors' room of the Swiss National Bank on
the Bundesplatz. The Conference was formally opened by President Calonder with a short address of welcome, good wishes, and assurances of hearty co-operation on his part and that of his coadjutors in the administration of the Swiss Government. Brief replies to this address were made by the chairman of the German Commission, Prince zu Hohenlohe Langenburg, and by Minister Garrett.
President Calonder thanked the chairmen of the two delegations for their appreciative words, and expressed the hope that the task before them would be solved satisfactorily. He then introduced M. Paul Dinichert, Minister of the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs, who assumed the neutral presidency of the Conference and announced the constitution of his Secretariat, to which were appointed Dr. Logoz, professor of Geneva University; Secretary of Legation Borsinger; and Dr. Peter, of the Political Department. 11. Dinichert prayed the delegations to help him in his labors, assuring those present that nething would be omitted on his part to attain the desires of all concerned.
The two delegations agreed that a short but precise report of each plenary meeting should be kept in both English and German, and further agreed that the negotiations should be confidential in character, the seal of confidence as to the proceedings not to be lifted until the conclusion of an agreement and the final adjournment of the Conference sine die.
Prince Hohenlohe submitted to M. Dinichert the text of the German proposal to be discussed in the Conference, and Minister Garrett submitted the text of the American proposal.
After the exchange of these projets, Colonel von Fransecki and Legationsrat von Keller of the German delegation addressed the Conference, the former in behalf of military prisoners of war and the latter in the interest of interned civilians or civil prisoners. To these addresses there were no rejoinders from the American side of the council table.
It is interesting to note at this stage why in this and in all subsequent proceedings of the Conference the German delegates had chronological precedence. Diplomatic priority is based upon the alphabet. Whether we use the English language, or the German, or the universally accepted diplomatic French, Germany alphabetically