10. Germany's Cynical Defence
Germany speedily found it wise to attempt to justify the execution of Miss Cavell in order to moderate the storm of indignation that had been aroused in neutral countries. To that end Dr. Zimmermann, Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, set forth the German defence in an interview granted to a United States correspondent in Berlin.
'It was a pity,' said Dr. Zimmermann, 'that Miss Cavell had to be executed, but it was necessary. She was judged justly. We hope it will not be necessary to have any more executions.
'I see from the English and American press that the shooting of an Englishwoman and the condemnation of several other women in Brussels for treason has caused a sensation, and capital against us is being made out of the fact. It is undoubtedly a terrible thing that the woman has been executed; but consider what would happen to a State, particularly in war, if it left crimes aimed at the safety of its armies to go unpunished because committed by women. No criminal code in the world--least of all the laws of war--makes such a distinction; and the feminine sex has but one preference, according to legal usages, namely, that women in a delicate condition may not be executed. Otherwise men and women are equal before the law, and only the degree of guilt makes a difference in the sentence for the crime and its consequences.
'I have before me the court's verdict in the Cavell case, and can assure you that it was gone into with the utmost thoroughness, and was investigated and cleared up to the smallest details. The result was so convincing, and the circumstances were so clear, that no war court in the world could have given any other verdict, for it was not concerned with a single emotional deed of one person, but a well-thought-out plot, with many far-reaching ramifications, which for nine months succeeded in doing valuable service to our enemies and great detriment to our armies. Countless Belgian, French, and English soldiers are again fighting in the ranks of the Allies who owe their escape to the band now found guilty, whose head was the Cavell woman. Only the utmost sternness could do away with such activities under the very nose of our authorities, and a Government which in such case does not resort to the sternest measures sins against its most elementary duties toward the safety of its own army.
'All those convicted were thoroughly aware of the nature of their acts. The court particularly weighed this point with care, letting off several of the accused because they were in doubt as to whether they knew that their actions were punishable. Those condemned knew what they were doing, for numerous public proclamations had pointed out the fact that aiding enemies' armies was punishable with death.
'I know that the motives of the condemned were not base; that they acted from patriotism; but in war one must be prepared to seal one's patriotism with blood, whether one faces the enemy in battle, or otherwise in the interest of one's cause does deeds which justly bring after them the death penalty. Among our Russian prisoners are several young girls who fought against us in soldiers' uniforms. Had one of these girls fallen, no one would have accused us of barbarity against women. Why now, when another woman has met the death to which she knowingly exposed herself, as did her comrades in battle?
'There are moments in the life of nations where consideration for the existence of the individual is a crime against all. Such a moment was here. It was necessary once for all to put an end to the activity of our enemies, regardless of their motives; therefore the death penalty was executed so as to frighten off all those who, counting on preferential treatment for their sex, take part in undertakings punishable by death.
'It was proved after a long trial of the sentenced persons that they for some months past had been engaged in assisting Belgians of military age to enlist in hostile armies, and in enabling French and English deserters to escape the country. They had many helpers, and had organized branches.
'The Governor-General had repeatedly issued warnings against such activity, pointing out that severe punishment for such action was unavoidable.
'The guilty persons were sentenced in a public sitting according to the law based on the provisions of the imperial penal code and the military penal code for war treason and espionage. No special law exists for Belgium, and no so-called "usage of war" influenced the verdict of the court.'
Dr. Zimmermann maintained that the execution was carried out in accordance with the established regulations, death occurring immediately after the first volley, as attested by the physician who was present.
The greater part of Dr. Zimmermann's futile reasoning is not worth discussion in detail. The one outstanding fact is the common belief that no military authorities in Europe, other than German, would have executed Miss Cavell for an offence actuated by purest motives of patriotism, and in which there was not the faintest suspicion of espionage. It may be remarked, too, that in America Judge Lynch never executed a woman. The attempt to draw a parallel case between Nurse Cavell and Russian women who have fought as soldiers is puerile in the extreme. In the case of the Russian, she is dressed in male uniform, and the German who shoots her in action does so in ignorance of her sex; Miss Cavell was a Red Cross nurse whose services to German wounded alone should have struck a spark of compassion.
Later, an inspired telegram was issued from Berlin to counteract the 'incorrect and exaggerated' discussions in the foreign press. It was stated that Miss Cavell was sentenced in a public sitting, although it is an incontrovertible fact that the American Legation could not get permission to be represented. It is laid to Miss Cavell's charge that she 'nursed only rich people for heavy fees.' Even if it were true, it would not palliate the German offence of hurried and clandestine murder; but we know, and the Germans know, that her whole life was spent in doing good for others. Finally is repeated the old statement that cruelties were committed by Lord Kitchener during the Boer War on women and children. This oft-repeated libel needs no refutation of ours, because it was demolished years ago by the German official history of the Boer War.
The next step in German impudence was an attempt to make believe that in the documents exchanged between the American Legation in Brussels and the German authorities as published by the British Government, some circumstances of the utmost importance are inaccurately reported by the Belgian lawyer who acts as legal adviser to the Legation. To this Sir Edward Grey informed the press that the papers relating to the case of Miss Cavell were published exactly as they were received from the American Embassy and with the American Embassy's consent.
On November 20, however, nearly a month later, the British Foreign Office did make public one correction:
'The letter addressed by the United States Minister at Brussels to the Ambassador in London, under date October 14, to the effect that the German prosecutor had asked for a sentence of death against Miss Edith Cavell and eight other persons implicated by her testimony was due to erroneous information furnished to the United States Legation, and, so far as it has been possible to discover, no other person has been directly implicated by any testimony on the part of Miss Cavell.'
The acknowledgement of this mistake, however, could have afforded the Germans but little satisfaction, because its only effect was the removal of a slur on the loyalty of Miss Cavell to her friends.
In the clumsy attempt to justify their savagery the Germans have done nothing to prevent judgement going by default in the heart of all civilized nations. They omit all reference to their inhuman haste and calculated trickery, and their venomous refusal to allow exhumation and proper burial. No laws of war permit such outrages, no military necessities can excuse and no pedantic partisan can vindicate them.