Source: United Nations War Crimes Commission. Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals. Volume VIII, 1949

CASE No. 47




Part III

Part I  Part II  Part III  Part IV  Part V  Part VI

The Judgment of the Tribunal

The Ex Post Facto Principle Regarded as Inapplicable in the Present Instance

The Status of Yugoslavia, Greece and Norway, and of the Partisan Groups Operating Therein, at the Relevant Time

The Irrelevance to the Present Discussion of the Illegality of Aggressive War

The Question of Hostages and Reprisals raised by the Tribunal and its Field of Enquiry Delimited

The Tribunal's Opinion on the Question of Hostages

The Tribunal's Opinion Regarding the Taking and Killing of "Reprisal Prisoners."


(iii) The Ex Post Facto Principle Regarded as Inapplicable in the Present Instance

The following paragraphs set out the attitude of the Tribunal to the plea that Control Council Law No. 10 violated-the ex post facto principle: (Footnote 1: The Tribunal’s treatment of this point may be regarded as complementary to that of the Tribunal before which the Justice Trial was held. See Vol. VI, pp. 41-5. See also the notes to the Flick Trial in Vol. IX.

“ It is urged that Control Council Law No. 10 is an ex post facto act and retroactive in nature as to the crime charged in the indictment.  The act was adopted on 20th December, 1945, a date subsequent to the dates of the Acts charged to be crimes. It is a fundamental principle of criminal jurisprudence that one may not be charged with crime for the doing of an act which was not a crime at the time of its commission.  We think it could be said with justification that Article 23 (h) of the Hague Regulations of 1907 operates as a bar to retroactive action in criminal matters. In any event, we are of the opinion that a victorious nation may not lawfully enact legislation defining a new crime and make it effective as to acts previously occurring which were not at the time unlawful. It therefore becomes the duty of a Tribunal trying a case charging a crime under the provisions of Control Council Law No. 10, to determine if the acts charged were crimes at the time of their commission and that Control Council Law No. 10 is in fact declaratory of then existing International Law.

“ This very question was passed upon by the International Military Tribunal in the case of the United States v. Herman Wilhelm Goering


in its judgment entered on 1st October, 1946. Similar provisions appearing in the Charter creating the International Military Tribunal and defining the crimes over which it had jurisdiction were held to be devoid of retroactive features in the following language : ‘ The Charter is not an arbitrary exercise of power on the part of the victorious nations, but in view of the Tribunal, as will be shown, it is the expression of International Law existing at the time of its creation ; and to that extent is itself a contribution to International Law.’ We adopt this conclusion.  Any doubts in our mind concerning the rule this announced go to its application rather than to the correctness of its statement. The crimes defined in Control Council Law No. 10 which we have quoted herein, were crimes under pre-existing rules of International Law-some by conventional law and some by customary law. It seems clear to us that the conventional law such as that exemplified by the Hague Regulations of 1907 clearly make the War Crimes herein quoted, crimes under the proceedings of that convention. In any event, the practices and usages of war which gradually ripened into recognised customs with which belligerents were bound to comply, recognised the crimes specified herein as crimes subject to punishment. It is not essential that a crime be specifically defined and charged in accordance with a particular ordinance, statute or treaty if it is made a crime by international convention, recognised customs and usages of war, or the general principles of criminal justice common to civilised nations generally. If the acts charged were in fact crimes under International Law when committed, they cannot be said to be ex post facto acts or retroactive pronouncements.

“ The crimes specified in the London Charter and defined in Control Council Law No. 10 which have heretofore been set forth and with which these defendants are charged, merely restate the rules declared by the Hague Regulations of 1907 in Articles 43, 46, 47, 50 and 23 (h) of the regulations annexed thereto. . . .

“ We conclude that pre-existing International Law has declared the acts constituting the crimes herein charged and included in Control Council Law No. 10 to be unlawful, both under the conventional law and the practices and usages of land warfare that had ripened into recognised customs which belligerents were bound to obey. Anything in excess of existing International Law therein contained is a utilisation of power and not of law. It is true, of course, that courts authorised to hear such cases were not established nor the penalties to be imposed for violations set forth. But this is not fatal to their validity. The acts prohibited are without deterrent effect unless they are punishable as crimes. This subject was dealt with in the International Military Trial in the following language : ‘ But it is argued that the pact does not expressly enact that such (aggressive) wars are crimes, or set up courts to try those who make such wars. To that extent the same is true with regard to the laws of war contained in the Hague Convention. The Hague Convention of 1907 prohibited resort to certain methods of waging war. These included the inhumane treatment of prisoners, the employment of poisoned weapons, the improper use of flags of  


truce and similar matters. Many of these prohibitions had been enforced long before the date of the Convention ; but since 1907 they have certainly been crimes ; punishable as offences against the laws of war ; yet the Hague Convention nowhere designates such practices as criminal, nor is any sentence prescribed, nor any mention made of a court to try and punish offenders. For many years past, however, military tribunals have tried and punished individuals guilty of violating the rules of land warfare laid down by this Convention. . . .  The law of war is to be found not only in treaties, but in the customs and practices of states which gradually obtained universal recognition, and from the general principles of justice applied by jurists and practiced by military courts. This law is not static, but by continual adaptation follows the needs of a changing world. Indeed, in many cases treaties do no more than express and define for more accurate reference the principles of law already existing.’

“ It is true, of course, that customary International Law is not static.  It must be elastic enough to meet the new conditions that natural progress brings to the world. It might be argued that this requires a certain amount of retroactive application of new rules and that by conceding the existence of a customary International Law, one thereby concedes the legality of retroactive pronouncements. To a limited extent the argument is sound, but when it comes in conflict with a rule of fundamental right and justice, the latter must prevail. The rule that one may not be charged with crime for committing an act which was not a crime at the time of its commission is such a right. The fact that it might be found in a constitution or bill or rights does not detract from its status as a fundamental principle of justice. It cannot properly be changed by retroactive action to the prejudice of one charged with a violation of the laws of war.

“ An international crime is such an act universally recognised as criminal, which is considered a grave matter of international concern and for some valid reason cannot be left within the exclusive jurisdiction of the state that would have control over it under ordinary circumstances.  The inherent nature of a war crime is ordinarily itself sufficient justification for jurisdiction to attach in the courts of the belligerent into whose hands the alleged criminal has fallen.

“ Some war crimes, such as spying, are not common law crimes at all ; they being pure war crimes punishable as such during the war and, in this particular case, only if the offender is captured before he rejoins his army. But some other crimes, such as mass murder, are punishable during and after the war. But such crimes are also war crimes because they were committed under the authority or orders of the belligerent who, in ordering or permitting them, violated the rules of warfare. Such crimes are punishable by the country where the crime was committed or by the belligerent into whose hands the criminals have fallen, the jurisdiction being concurrent. There are many reasons why this must be so, not the least of which is that war is usually followed by political repercussions and upheavals which at


times place persons in power who are not, for one reason or another, inclined to punish the offenders. The captor belligerent is not required to surrender the alleged war criminal when such surrender is equivalent to a passport to freedom. The only adequate remedy is the concurrent jurisdictional principle to which we have heretofore adverted. The captor belligerent may therefore surrender the alleged criminal to the state where the offense was committed, or, on the other hand, it may retain the alleged criminal for trial under its own legal processes.

“ It cannot be doubted that the occupying powers have the right to set up special courts to try those charged with the commission of War Crimes as they are defined by International Law. Ex Parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1, in re Yamashita, 327 U.S. 1. Nor can it be said that the crimes herein charged are invalid as retroactive pronouncements-they being nothing more than restatements of the conventional and customary law of nations governing the rules of land warfare, restricted by charter provisions limiting the jurisdiction of the Tribunal by designating the class of cases it is authorised to hear. The elements of an ex post facto act or a retroactive pronouncement are not present in so far as the crimes charged in the instant case are concerned.” 

The Tribunal then proceeded to reject a defence argument that the former had no jurisdiction to hear the case which could  “ only be properly tried in accordance with the international principles laid down in Article 63 of the Geneva Convention of 1929 relative to the treatment of prisoners of war.” It was pointed out that the Convention “ applies only to crimes and offences committed while occupying the status of a prisoner of war and confers no jurisdiction over a violation of International Law committed prior to the time of becoming such,” and the opinion of the United States Supreme Court in the Yamashita Trial was cited in support of this ruling. (Footnote 1:See Vol.IV of this series, p. 78.)

(iv)   The Status of Yugoslavia, Greece and Norway, and of the Partisan Groups Operating Therein, at the Relevant Time

The Judgment continued :

“ It is essential to a proper understanding of the issues involved in the present case, that the status ,of Yugoslavia, Greece and Norway be determined during the periods that the alleged criminal acts of these defendants were committed. The question of criminality in many cases may well hinge on whether an invasion was in progress or an occupation accomplished. Whether an invasion has developed into an occupation is a question of fact. The term invasion implies a military operation while an occupation indicates the exercise of governmental authority to the exclusion of the established government. This presupposes the destruction of organised resistance and the 


establishment of an administration to preserve law and order. To the extent that the occupant’s control is maintained and that of the civil government eliminated, the area will be said to be occupied.  

“ The evidence shows that the invasion of Yugoslavia was commenced on 6th April, 1941. Nine days later the Yugoslav government capitulated and on 16th April, 1941, large scale military operations had come to an end. The powers of government passed into the hands . of the German Armed Forces and Yugoslavia became an occupied country. The invasion of Yugoslavia followed through into Greece.  On 22nd April, 1941, the Greek Armed Forces in the north were forced to surrender, and on 28th April, 1941, Athens fell to the invader. On and after that date Greece became an occupied country within the meaning of existing International Law.

“ The evidence shows that the population remained peaceful during the spring of 1941. In the early summer following, a resistance movement began to manifest itself. It increased progressively in intensity until it assumed the appearance of a military campaign. Partisan bands, composed of members of the population, roamed the territory, doing much damage to transportation and communication lines. German soldiers were the victims of surprise attacks by an enemy which they could not engage in open combat. After a surprise attack, the bands would hastily retreat or conceal their arms and mingle with the population with the appearance of being harmless members thereof.  Ambushing of German troops was a common practice. Captured German soldiers were often tortured and killed. The terrain was favourable to this type of warfare and the inhabitants most adept in carrying it on.

“ It is clear that the German Armed Forces were able to maintain control of Greece and Yugoslavia until they evacuated them in the fall of 1944. While it is true that the partisans were able to control sections of these countries at various times, it is established that the Germans could at any time they desired assume physical control of any part of the country. The control of the resistance forces was temporary only and not such as would deprive the German Armed Forces of its status of an occupant.

“ These findings are consistent with Article 42 of the Hague Regulations of 1907 which provide : ‘ Territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army. The occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised.’

“ It is the contention of the defendants that after the respective capitulations a lawful belligerency never did exist in Yugoslavia or Greece during the period here involved. The Prosecution contends just as emphatically that it did. The evidence on the subject is fragmentary and consists primarily of admissions contained in the reports, orders, and diaries of the German Army units involved. There is convincing evidence in the record that certain band units in both Yugo-


slavia and Greece complied with the requirements of International Law entitling them to the status of a lawful belligerent. But the greater portion of the partisan bands failed to comply with the rules of war entitling them to be accorded the rights of a lawful belligerent. The evidence fails to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the incidents involved in the present case concern partisan troops having the status of lawful belligerents.

“ The evidence shows that the bands were sometimes designated as units common to military organization. They, however, had no common uniform. They generally wore civilian clothes although parts of German, Italian and Serbian uniforms were used to the extent they could be obtained. The Soviet Star was generally worn as insignia.  The evidence will not sustain a finding that it was such that it could be seen at a distance. Neither did they carry their arms openly except when it was to their advantage to do so. There is some evidence that various groups of the resistance forces were commanded by a centralised command, such as the partisans of Marshal Tito, the Chetniks of Draja Mihailovitch and the Edes of General Zervas. It is evidence also that a few partisan bands met the requirements of lawful belligerency.  The bands, however, with which we are dealing in this case were not shown by satisfactory evidence to have met the requirements. This means, of course, that captured members of these unlawful groups were not entitled to be treated as prisoners of war. No crime can be properly charged against the defendants for the killing of such captured members of the resistance forces, they being franc-tireurs.

“ The status of an occupant of the territory of the enemy having been achieved, International Law places the responsibility upon the commanding general of preserving order, punishing crime and protecting lives and property within the occupied territory. His power in accomplishing these ends is as great as his responsibility. But he is definitely limited by recognised rules of International Law, particularly the Hague Regulations of 1907. Article 43 thereof imposes a duty upon the occupant to respect the laws in force in the country. Article 46 protects family honour and rights, the lives of individuals and their private property as well as their religious convictions and the right of public worship. Article 47 prohibits pillage. Article 50 prohibits collective penalties. Article 51 regulates the appropriation of properties belonging to the state or private individuals which may be useful in military operations. There are other restrictive provisions not necessary to mention here. It is the alleged violation of these rights of the inhabitants thus protected that furnish the basis of the case against the defendants.“ The evidence is clear that during the period of occupation in Yugoslavia and Greece, guerrilla warfare was carried on against the occupying power. Guerrilla warfare is said to exist where, after the capitulation of the main part of the armed forces, the surrender of the government and the occupation of its territory, the remnant of the defeated army or the inhabitants themselves continue hostilities 


by harassing the enemy with unorganised forces ordinarily not strong enough to meet the enemy in pitched battle. They are placed much in the same position as a spy. By the law of war it is lawful to use spies. Nevertheless, a spy when captured, may be shot because the . belligerent has the right, by means of an effective deterrent punishment, to defend against the grave dangers of enemy spying. The principle therein involved applies to guerrillas who are not lawful belligerents.  Just as the spy may act lawfully for his country and at the same time be a war criminal to the enemy, so guerrillas may render great service to their country and, in the event of success, become heroes even, still they remain war criminals in the eyes of the enemy and may be treated as such. In no other way can an army guard and protect itself from the gadfly tactics of such armed resistance. And, on the other hand, members of such resistance forces must accept the increased risks involved in this mode of fighting. Such forces are technically not lawful belligerents and are not entitled to protection as prisoners of war when captured. The rule is based on the theory that the forces of two states are no longer in the field and that a contention between organised. armed forces no longer exists. This implies that a resistance not supported by an organised government is criminal and deprives participants of belligerent status, an implication not justified since the adoption of Chapter I, Article 1, of the Hague Regulations of 1907. In determining the guilt or innocence of any army commander when charged with a failure or refusal to accord a belligerent status to captured members of the resistance forces, the situation as it appeared to him must be given the first consideration. Such commander will not be permitted to ignore obvious facts in arriving at a conclusion. One trained in military science will ordinarily have no difficulty in arriving at a correct decision and if he wilfully refrains from so doing for any reason, he will be held criminally responsible for wrongs committed against those entitled to the rights of a belligerent.  Where room exists for an honest error in judgment, such army commander is entitled to the benefit thereof by virtue of the presumption of his innocence.

“ We think the rule is established that a civilian who aids, abets or participates in the fighting is liable to punishment as a war criminal under the laws of war. Fighting is legitimate only for the combatant personnel of a country. It is only this group that is entitled to treatment as prisoners of war and incurs no liability beyond detention after capture or surrender. 

“ It is contended by the prosecution that the so-called guerrillas were in fact irregular troops. A preliminary discussion of the subject is essential to a proper determination of the applicable law. Members of militia or a volunteer corps, even though they are not a part of the regular army, are lawful combatants if (a) they are commanded by a responsible person, (b) if they possess some distinctive insignia which can be observed at a distance, (c) if they carry arms openly, and (d) if they observe the laws and customs of war. See Chapter I, Article I, Hague Regulations of 1907. In considering the evidence adduced on 


this subject, the foregoing rules will be applied. The question whether a captured fighter is a guerrilla or an irregular is sometimes a close one that can be determined only by a careful evaluation of the evidence before the Court. 

“ The question of the right of the population of an invaded and occupied country to resist has been the subject of many conventional debates. (Brussels Conference of 1874; Hague Peace Conference of 1899). A review of the positions assumed by the various nations can serve no useful purpose here for the simple reason that a compromise (Hague Regulations, 1907) was reached which has remained the con-trolling authority in the fixing of a legal belligerency. If the requirements of the Hague Regulation, 1907, are met, a lawful belligerency exists; if they are not met, it is an unlawful one.” 

(v) The Irrelevance to the Present Discussion of the Illegality of Aggressive War 

The Judgment states :  

“ The Prosecution advances the contention that since Germany’s wars against Yugoslavia and Greece were aggressive wars, the German occupation troops were there unlawfully and gained no rights whatever as an occupant. It is further asserted as a corollary, that the duties owed by the populace to an occupying power which are normally imposed under the rules of International Law, never became effective in the present case because of the criminal character of the invasion and occupation.

“ For the purposes of this discussion, we accept the statement as true that the wars against Yugoslavia and Greece were in direct violation of the Kellogg-Briand Pact and were therefore criminal in character.  But it does not follow that every act by the German occupation forces against person or property is a crime or that any and every act undertaken by the population of the occupied country against the German occupation forces thereby became legitimate defence: The Prosecution attempts to simplify the issue by posing it in the following words : ‘ The sole issue here is whether German forces can with impunity violate law by initiating and waging wars of aggression and at the same time demand meticulous observance by the victims of these crimes of duties and obligations owed only to a lawful occupant.’

“ At the outset, we desire to point out that International Law makes no distinction between a lawful and an unlawful occupant in dealing with the respective duties of occupant and population in occupied territory. There is no reciprocal connection between the manner of the military occupation of territory and the rights and duties of the occupant and population to each other after the relationship has in fact been established. Whether the invasion was lawful or criminal is not an important factor in the consideration of this subject.  

“ It must not be overlooked that International Law is prohibitive law. Where the nations have affirmatively acted, as in the case of the Hague Regulations, 1907, it prohibits conduct contradictory thereto. Its


specific provisions control over general theories, however reasonable they may seem. We concur in the views expressed in the following text on the subject : ‘ Whatever may be the cause of a war that has broken out, and whether or no the cause be a so-called just cause, the same rules of International Law are valid as to what must not be done, and must be done by the belligerents themselves in making war against each other; and as between the belligerents and neutral States. This is so, even if the declaration of war is ipso facto a violation of International Law, as when a belligerent declares war upon a neutral State for refusing passage to its troops, or when a State goes to war in patent violation of its obligations under the Covenant of the League or of the General Treaty for the Renunciation of War. To say that, because such a declaration of war is ipso facto a violation of International Law, it is ‘ inoperative in law and without any judicial significance,’ is erroneous. The rules of International Law apply to war from whatever cause it originates. Oppenheim’s International Law, II Lauterpacht, p.174.”

(vi)    The Question of Hostages and Reprisals raised by the Tribunal and its Field of Enquiry Delimited 

The Judgment continued : 

“ The major issues involved in the present case gravitate around the claimed right of the German Armed Forces to take hostages from the innocent civilian population to guarantee the peaceful conduct of the whole of the civilian population and its claimed right to execute hostages, members of the civil population, and captured members of the resistance forces in reprisal for armed attacks by resistance forces, acts of sabotage and injuries committed by unknown persons.”

The Tribunal delimited its field of enquiry as follows :

“ We wholly exclude from the following discussions of the subject of hostages the right of one nation to take them, to compel the armed forces of another nation to comply with the rules of war or the right to execute them if the enemy ignores the warning. We limit our discussion to the right to take hostages from the innocent civilian population of occupied territory as a guarantee against attacks by unlawful resistance forces, acts of sabotage and the unlawful acts of unknown persons and the further right to execute them if the unilateral guarantee is violated.

“ Neither the Hague Convention of 1907, nor any other conventional law for that matter, says a word about hostages in the sense that we are to use the term in the following discussion. But certain rules of customary law and certain inferences legitimately to be drawn from existing conventional law lay down the rules applicable to the subject of hostages. In former times prominent persons were accepted as hostages as a means of insuring observance of treaties, armistices and other agreements, the performance of which depended on good faith.  This practice is now obsolete. Hostages under the alleged modern practice of nations are taken (a) to protect individuals held by the enemy, (b) to force the payment of requisitions, contributions, and the


like, and (c) to insure against unlawful acts by enemy forces or people.  We are concerned here only with the last provision. That hostages may be taken for this purpose cannot be denied.

“ The question of hostages is closely integrated with that of reprisals.  A reprisal is a response to an enemy’s violation of the laws of war which would otherwise be a violation on one’s own side. It is a fundamental rule that a reprisal may not exceed the degree of the criminal act it is designed to correct. Where an excess is knowingly indulged, it in turn is criminal and may be punished. Where innocent individuals are seized and punished for a violation of the laws of war which has already occurred, no question of hostages is involved. It is nothing more than the infliction of a reprisal. Throughout the evidence in the present case, we find the term hostage applied where a reprisal only was involved.

“ Under the ancient practice of taking hostages they were held responsible for the good faith of the persons who delivered them, even at the price of their lives. This barbarous practice was wholly abandoned by a more enlightened civilization. The idea that an innocent person may be killed for the criminal act of another is abhorrent to every natural law. We condemn the injustice of any such rule as a barbarous relic of ancient times. But it is not our province to write International Law as we would have it-we must apply it as we find it.  

“ For the purposes of this opinion the term ‘ hostages ’ will be considered as those persons of the civilian population who are taken into custody for the purpose of guaranteeing with their lives the future good conduct of the population of the community from which they were taken. The term ‘ reprisal prisoners ’ will be considered as those .  individuals who are taken from the civilian population to be killed in retaliation for offences committed by unknown persons within the occupied area.”

(vii)  The Tribunal’s Opinion on the Question of Hostages

The Judgment then expressed the following opinion :

“ An examination of the available evidence on the subject convinces us that hostages may be taken in order to guarantee the peaceful conduct of the populations of occupied territories and, when certain conditions exist and the necessary preliminaries have been taken, they may, as a last resort, be shot. The taking of hostages is based fundamentally on a theory of collective responsibility. The effect of an occupation is to confer upon the invading force the right of control for the period of the occupation within the limitations and prohibitions of International Law. The inhabitants owe a duty to carry on their ordinary peaceful pursuits and to refrain from all injurious acts toward the troops or in respect to their military operations. The occupant may properly insist upon compliance with regulations necessary to the security of the occupying forces and for the maintenance of law and order. In the accomplishment of this objective, the occupant may, only as a last resort, take and execute hostages.

“ Hostages may not be taken or executed as a matter of military.  expediency. The occupant is required to use every available method.


to secure order and tranquility before resort may be had to the taking and execution of hostages. Regulations of all kinds must be imposed to secure peace and tranquility before the shooting of hostages may be indulged. These regulations may include one or more of the following measures : (1) the registration of the inhabitants, (2) the possession of passes or identification certificates, (3) the establishment of restricted areas, (4) limitations of movement, (5) the adoption of curfew regulations, (6) the prohibition of assembly, (7) the detention of suspected persons, (8) restrictions on communication, (9) the imposition of restrictions on food supplies, (10) the evacuation of troublesome areas, (11) the levying of monetary contributions, (12) compulsory labour to repair damage from sabotage, (13) the destruction of property in proximity to the place of the crime, and any other regulation not prohibited by International Law that would in all likelihood contribute to the desired result.

“ If attacks upon troops and military installations occur regardless of the foregoing precautionary measures and the perpetrators cannot be apprehended, hostages may be taken from the population to deter similar acts in the future provided it can be shown that the population generally is a party to the offence, either actively or passively. Nationality or geographic proximity may under certain circumstances afford a basis for hostage selection, depending upon the circumstances of the situation. This arbitrary basis of selection may be deplored but it cannot be condemned as a violation of International Law, but there must be some connection between the population from whom the hostages are taken and the crime committed. If the act was committed by isolated persons or bands from distant localities without the knowledge or approval of the population or public authorities, and which, therefore, neither the authorities nor the population could have prevented, the basis for the taking of hostages, or the shooting of hostages already taken, does not exist.

“ It is essential to a lawful taking of hostages under customary law that proclamation be made, giving the names and addresses of hostages taken, notifying the population that upon the recurrence of stated acts of war treason that the hostages will be shot. The number of hostages shot. must not exceed in severity the offences the shooting is designed to deter. Unless the foregoing requirements are met, the shooting of hostages is in contravention of International Law and is a war crime in itself. Whether such fundamental requirements have been met is a question determinable by court martial proceedings. A military commander may not arbitrarily determine such facts. An order of a military commander for the killing of hostages must be bottomed upon the finding of a competent court martial that necessary conditions exist and all preliminary steps have been taken which are essential to the issuance of a valid order. The taking of the lives of innocent persons arrested as hostages is a very serious step. The right to kill hostages may be lawfully exercised only after a meticulous compliance with the foregoing safeguards against vindictive or whimsical orders of military commanders.”


(viii) The Tribunal’s Opinion Regarding the Taking and Killing of  "Reprisal Prisoners”

The Tribunal continued as follows :

“ We are also concerned with the subject of reprisals and the detention of members of the civilian population for the purpose of using them as the victims of subsequent reprisal measures. The most common reason for holding them is for the general purpose of securing the good behaviour and obedience of the civil population in occupied territory. The taking of reprisals against the civilian population by killing members thereof in retaliation for hostile acts against the armed forces or military operations of the occupant seems to have been originated by Germany in modern times. It has been invoked by Germany in the France-Prussian War, World War I and in World War II. No other nation has resorted to the killing of members of the civilian population to secure peace and order in so far as our investigation has revealed. The evidence offered in this case on that point will be considered later in the opinion. While American, British and French manuals for armies in the field seem to permit the taking of such reprisals as a last resort, the provisions do not appear to have been given effect. The American manual provides in part : ‘ The offending forces or populations generally may lawfully be subjected to appropriate reprisals. Hostages taken and held for the declared purpose of insuring against unlawful acts by the enemy forces or people may be punished or put to death if the unlawful acts are nevertheless committed.’ FM 27-10, Rules of Land Warfare, 1940, Sec.358d. The British field manual provides in part : ‘ Although collective punishment of the population is forbidden for the acts of individuals for which it cannot be regarded as collectively responsible, it may be necessary to resort to reprisals against a locality or community, (Footnote l: The words “ for some act committed by its inhabitants ” which here appear in the text of para. 458 of Chapter XIV of the British Manual of Military Law, should be inserted in the above quotation.) or members who cannot be identified.’ British Military Hand Book, Article 458.

“ In two major wars within the last thirty years, Germany has made extensive use of the practice of killing innocent members of the population as a deterrent to attacks upon its troops and acts of sabotage against installations essential to its military operations. The right to so do has been recognised by many nations including the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. There has been complete failure on the part of the nations of the world to limit or mitigate the practice by conventional rule. This requires us to apply customary law. That international agreement is badly needed in this field is self-evident.

“ International law is prohibitive law and no conventional prohibitions have been invoked to outlaw this barbarous practice. The extent to which the practice has been employed by the Germans exceeds the most elementary notions of humanity and justice. They invoke the plea of military necessity, a term which they confuse with convenience and strategical interests. Where legality and expediency


have coincided, no fault can be found in so far as International Law is concerned. But where legality of action is absent, the shooting of innocent members of the population as a measure of reprisal is not only criminal but it has the effect of destroying the basic relationship between the occupant and the population. Such a condition can progressively degenerate into a reign of terror. Unlawful reprisals may bring on counter reprisals and create an endless cycle productive of chaos and crime. To prevent a distortion of the right into a barbarous method of repression, International Law provides a protective mantle against the abuse of the right.

“ Generally it can be said that the taking of reprisal prisoners, as well as the taking of hostages, for the purpose of controlling the population involves a previous proclamation that if a certain type of act is committed, a certain number of reprisal prisoners will be shot if the perpetrators cannot be found. If the perpetrators are apprehended, there is no right to kill either hostages or reprisal prisoners.

“ As in the case of the taking of hostages, reprisal prisoners may not be shot unless it can be shown that the population, as a whole is a party to the offence, either actively or passively. In other words, members of the population of one community cannot properly be shot in reprisal for an act against the occupation forces committed at some other place. To permit such a practice would conflict with the basic theory that sustains the practice in that there would be no deterrent effect upon the community where the offence was committed. Neither may the shooting of innocent members of the population as a reprisal measure exceed in severity the unlawful acts it is designed to correct.  Excessive reprisals are in themselves criminal and guilt attaches to the persons responsible for their commission.

“ It is a fundamental rule of justice that the lives of persons may not be arbitrarily taken. A fair trial before a judicial body affords the surest protection against arbitrary, vindictive or whimsical application of the right to shoot human beings in reprisal. It is a rule of International Law, based on these fundamental concepts of justice and the rights of individuals, that the lives of persons may not be taken in reprisal in the absence of a judicial finding that the necessary conditions exist and the essential steps have been taken to give validity to such action. The possibility is great, of course, that such judicial proceedings may become ritualistic and superficial when conducted in wartime but it appears to be the best available safeguard against cruelty and injustice. Judicial responsibility ordinarily restrains impetuous action and permits principles of justice and right to assert their humanitarian qualities. We have no hesitancy in holding that the killing of members of the population in reprisal without judicial sanction is itself unlawful.  The only exception to this rule is where it appears that the necessity for the reprisal requires immediate reprisal action to accomplish the desired purpose and which would be otherwise defeated by the invocation of judicial inquiry. Unless the necessity for immediate action is affirmatively shown, the execution of hostages or reprisal prisoners.


 without a judicial hearing is unlawful. The judicial proceeding not only affords a measure of protection to innocent members of the population, but it offers, if fairly and impartially conducted, a measure of protection to the military commander, charged with making the final decision.

“ It cannot be denied that the shooting of hostages or reprisal prisoners may under certain circumstances be justified as a last resort in procuring peace and tranquility in occupied territory and has the effect of strengthening the position of a law abiding occupant. The fact that the practice has been tortured beyond recognition by illegal and inhuman application cannot justify its prohibition by judicial fiat.” 

The following remarks on the Keitel Order of 16th September, 1941,(Footnote 1: See p.39) and its outcome will serve to illustrate the attitude taken by the Tribunal to the specific instances of reprisals which came before it :

“ It is urged that the order was worded in such a way that literal compliance was not required. We do not deem it material whether the order was mandatory or directory. In either event, it authorised the killing of hostages and reprisal prisoners to an extent not permitted by International Law. An order to take reprisals at an arbitrarily fixed ratio under any and all circumstances constitutes a violation of International Law. Such an order appears to have been made more for purposes of revenge than as a deterrent to future illegal acts which would vary in degree in each particular instance. An order, directory or mandatory, which fixes a ratio for the killing of hostages or reprisal prisoners, or requires the killing of hostages or reprisal prisoners for every act committed against the occupation forces is unlawful. International Law places no such unrestrained and unlimited power in the hands of the commanding general of occupied territory. The reprisals taken under the authority of this order were clearly excessive. The shooting of 100 innocent persons for each German soldier killed at Topola, for instance, cannot be justified on any theory by the record. There is no evidence that the population of Topola were in any manner responsible for the act. In fact, the record shows that the responsible persons were an armed and officered band of partisans. There is nothing to infer that the population of Topola supported or shielded the guilty persons. Neither does the record show that the population had previously conducted themselves in such a manner as to have been subjected to previous reprisal actions. An order to shoot 100 persons for each German soldier killed under such circumstances is not only excessive but wholly unwarranted. We conclude that the reprisal measure taken for the ambushing and killing of 22 German soldiers at Topola were excessive and therefore criminal. It is urged that only 449 persons were actually shot in reprisal for the Topola incident. The evidence does not conclusively establish the shooting of more than 449 persons although it indicates the killing of a much greater number. But the killing of 20 reprisal prisoners for each German soldier killed was not warranted under the circumstances


shown, Whether the number of innocent persons killed was 2,200 or 449, the killing was wholly unjustified and unlawful.

“ The reprisal measures taken for the Topola incident were unlawful for another reason. The reprisal prisoners killed were not taken from the community where the attack on the German soldiers occurred.  The record shows that 805 Jews and Gypsies were taken from the collection camp at Sabac and the rest from the Jewish transit camp at Belgrade to be shot in reprisal for the Topola incident. There is no evidence of any connection whatever, geographical, racial or otherwise, between the persons shot and the attack at Topola. Nor does the record disclose that judicial proceedings were held. The order for the killing in reprisal appears to have been arbitrarily issued and under the circumstances shown is nothing less than plain murder.”

Part I  Part II  Part III  Part IV  Part V  Part VI
Last Updated 10/09/01 09:51:01
S D Stein
Faculty of Economics and Social Science