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The Historian Who Sold Out

With historians heavily involved in either defending or damning the war in Iraq, it might be good time to ponder the case of Viscount James Bryce, the historian who sold out.

From the start of World War I, stories of German atrocities filled British and American newspapers. Most emanated from the German march through Belgium to outflank French defenses in their drive on Paris. Eyewitnesses described infantrymen spearing Belgian babies on their bayonets as they marched along, singing war songs. Accounts of Belgian boys with amputated hands (supposedly to prevent them from using guns) abounded. Tales of women with amputated breasts multiplied even faster.

At the top of the atrocity hit parade were rape stories. One eyewitness claimed the Germans dragged twenty young women out of their houses in a captured Belgian town and stretched them on tables in the village square, where each was violated by at least twelve "Huns" while the rest of the division watched and cheered. At British expense, a group of Belgians toured the United States telling these stories. President Woodrow Wilson solemnly received them in the White House.

The Germans angrily denied these stories. So did American reporters with the German army. Early in 1915, the British government asked Viscount Bryce to head a royal commission to investigate the atrocity reports. Bryce was one of the best known historians of the era; he had written widely praised books on the American government and on Irish history, sympathetically portraying the Gaels hard lot under British rule. In 1907, he had collaborated with an Anglo-Irish diplomat, Roger Casement, to expose horrendous exploitation of Indian peoples on the Amazon by a British rubber company. From 1907-1913, he had served as British ambassador in Washington, where he became a popular, even beloved figure. It would have been hard to find a more admired scholar.

Bryce and his six fellow commissioners, an amalgam of distinguished lawyers, historians and jurists, "analyzed" 1,200 depositions of eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen atrocious German behavior. Almost all the testimony came from Belgians who had fled to England as refugees; some were statements from Belgian and British soldiers, collected in France. The commissioners never interrogated one of these eyewitnesses; that task was left to "gentlemen of legal knowledge and experience" -- lawyers. Since the asserted crimes took place in what continued to be a war zone, there was no on site investigation of any report.

Not a single witness was identified by name; the commissioners said this was justified in the case of Belgians by the fear that there might be German reprisals against family members. But British soldier witnesses remained equally anonymous, for no apparent reason. Nevertheless in his introduction, Bryce said he and his fellow commissioners had tested the evidence "severely."

The Bryce Report was released on May 13, 1915. British propaganda headquarters in Wellington House, near Buckingham Palace, made sure it went to virtually every newspaper in America. The impact was stupendous, as the headline and subheads in the New York Times make clear.


Not Only Individual Crimes, but
Premeditated Slaughter
in Belgium


Women Attacked, Children Bru-
tally Slain, Arson and
Pillage Systematic


Wanton Firing on Red Cross and
White Flag: Prisoners and
Wounded Shot


On May 27, 1915, Wellington House operatives in America reported to London: "Even in papers hostile to the Allies, there is not the slightest attempt to impugn the correctness of the facts alleged. Lord Bryce's prestige in America put skepticism out of the question." Charles Masterman, the head of Wellington House, told Bryce: "Your report has swept America."

Among the few critics of the Bryce Report was Sir Roger Casement. "It is only necessary to turn to James Bryce, the historian, to convict Lord Bryce, the partisan," Casement wrote in a furious essay, "The Far Extended Baleful Power of the Lie." By this time Casement had become an advocate of Irish independence. Few people paid any attention to his dissent, which was dismissed as biased. Clarence Darrow, the famously iconoclastic American lawyer, who specialized in winning acquittals for seemingly guilty clients, was another skeptic. He went to France later in 1915 and searched in vain for a single eyewitness who could confirm even one of the Bryce stories. Increasingly dubious, Darrow announced he would pay $1,000, a very large sum in 1915 -- more than $17,000 in 21st Century money -- to anyone who could produce a Belgian or French boy whose hands had been amputated by a German soldier. There were no takers.

After the war, historians who sought to examine the documentation for Bryce's stories were told that the files had mysteriously disappeared. This blatant evasion prompted most historians to dismiss 99 percent of Bryce's atrocities as fabrications. One called the report "in itself one of the worst atrocities of the war."
More recent scholarship has scaled down the percentage of the Bryce Report's fabrications; several thousand Belgian civilians, including some women and children, were apparently shot by the Germans in the summer of 1914 and Bryce more or less accurately summarized some of the worst excesses, such as the executions in the town of Dinant. But even these latter day scholars admit Bryce's report was seriously "contaminated" by the rapes, amputations and speared babies. They blamed this lapse on hysteria and war rage. This amounts to giving Bryce a free pass.

Correspondence between the members of the Bryce committee survived the destruction of the documents; it reveals severe doubts about the tales of mutilation and rape. One of the committee's secretaries admitted that he had been given numerous English addresses of Belgian women supposedly made pregnant by German rapes but could not locate a single case. Even the story of a member of Parliament sheltering two pregnant women turned out to be fraudulent. Bryce apparently brushed aside this negative evidence.

Lord Bryce the scholar should have known -- and almost certainly did know - -that tales of spearing babies and cutting off the breasts of murdered women were standard "hate-this-enemy" fables hundreds of years old, So were mass rapes in fields and public squares. He should have rejected such fabrications out of hand. Instead, he lumped them all into a general condemnation of the German army and people.

Why didn't Bryce dismiss the fabrications and concentrate on the German executions of civilians? Because that opened a very sticky subject. A high percentage of the Belgian Army were "home guards" who wore no uniforms except for an insignia pinned to their shirts or hats. The Germans, desperately trying to win in the West before the invading Russian Army smashed through their lightly held lines in the East, were infuriated by these seemingly civilian combatants, and showed them no mercy. They were entitled to do so by the rules of war in 1914. Some German field commanders obviously lost their heads and retaliated excessively against whole towns, such as Dinant. But a defense of sorts could be mounted, even for these men. The ensuing debate would have produced yawns in newspaper readers. They wanted what Bryce gave them -- blood and lust and horror.

The Bryce Report unquestionably helped England win the war. It convinced millions of Americans and other neutrals -- it was translated into 27 languages -- that the Germans were beasts in human form. No one except a few outsiders such as Casement ever reproached Lord Bryce for these vicious lies. He went to his grave loaded with royal and academic honors.

From a perspective of a hundred years, we ought to take a harsher view. The Bryce Report has obvious connections to the British decision to maintain the blockade of Germany for seven months after the armistice in 1918, causing the starvation deaths of an estimated 600,000 elderly and very young Germans. This was far and away the greatest atrocity of World war I and it made every German man and woman hunger for revenge. By creating blind hatred of Germany, Bryce sowed the dragons teeth of World War II.