A Defense Of The Execution

By Dr. Alfred F. M. Zimmermann

[German Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs]

[The New York Times/Current History, December 1915]

Moved by foreign denunciations of the execution of Miss Edith Cavell, out of which he said Germany's enemies were making capital, Dr. Alfred F. M. Zimmermann, Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, on Oct. 24, 1915, made the authorized statement to the staff correspondent of THE NEW YORK TIMES in Berlin:

It was a pity 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 man and woman 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 to the great detriment of our armies. Countless Belgian, French, and English soldiers are again fighting in the rank of the Allies who owe their escape to the activities of 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. Were special consideration shown to women v.re should open the door wide to such activities on the part of women, who are often more clever in such matters than the cleverest male spy. The man who is in a position of responsibility must do that, but, unconcerned about the world's judgment, he must often follow the difficult path of duty.

If, despite these considerations, it is now being discussed whether mercy shall be shown the rest of those convicted, and if the life which they have forfeited under recognized law is given back to them, you can deduce from that how earnestly we are striving to bring our feelings of humanity in accord with the commandments of stern duty. If the others are pardoned it will be at the expense of the security of our armies, for it is to be feared that new attempts will be made to harm us when it is believed that offenders will go unpunished or suffer only a mild penalty. Only pity for the guilty can lead to such pardons; they will not be an admission that the suspended sentence was too stern.

Dr. Zimmermann said in conclusion that there was not a word of truth in the report that the soldiers at first refused to shoot Miss Cavell, and then aimed so badly that an officer was forced to give the coup de grace. He stated:

The weakness of our enemies' arguments is proved by the fact that they do not attempt to combat the justice of the sentence but try to influence public opinion against us by false reports of the execution. The official report before me shows that it was carried out according to the prescribed forms, and that death resulted instantly from the first volley, as certified by the physician present.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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