Did anyone actually care about war crimes in the past?

Nov 2013
582
Kingdom of Sweden
#1
Throughout history (before the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907), were there any serious consequences for committing "war crimes"? Would countries not involved in a conflict care at all how brutal you were to your enemies before the Age of Enlightenment?

For example, after the Battle of Narva in the year 1700, Karl XII captured an astonishing 20,000-30,000 Russian soldiers, and allowed them to leave in peace. But what if he had executed them all in a huge massacre? Would that have had any international consequences?

What about mass enslavement of enemy civilians or prisoners of war? Organized mass rape? Or outright genocide?

Note that I don't consider loss of reputation to be a serous consequence. I mean political actions taken by other countries against you, such as trade embargoes, supplying your enemies or actively joining them in the conflict. I also assume that these "war crimes" are committed by and against European nations.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,288
Dispargum
#2
The Battle of Narva was not the last battle in the Great Northern War. If the Russians had won any future battles they could have masacred their Swedish prisoners.

'Do unto others as you would have others do unto you' is a fairly common principle in European military history which draws upon a tradition of chivalry. The fear of retaliation usually kept both sides pretty honest.

Popes sometimes criticized the way wars were being fought, but they were usually ignored. Off the top of my head I can't think of any wars prior to the 20th century where a neutral took serious action against the perpetrator of an attrocity. I'm sure there are a few examples.
 
Nov 2010
7,666
Cornwall
#3
No, it's a 20th century concept.

To be honest there aren't really any consequences now, despite the idiotic gravity which news reporters put on it.

"That might be a war crime" - well whoopee, tell us something we didn't know!!

You might get put in a cosy jail just before (or after) you die after 10 years on the run and 10 years on trial in the Hague, costing millions.
 
Mar 2014
6,640
Beneath a cold sun, a grey sun, a Heretic sun...
#4
No, it's a 20th century concept.
I want to agree, but I'm not so sure.

They didn't name it a crime as such in the past, but stepping outside the accepted rules of warfare - whatever they happen to be at any given time - has always invited condemnation and usually retaliation.

Attempting to deal with it judicially, that is certainly a 20th century concept.
 
Feb 2016
4,424
Japan
#6
Yes. And no.
There was no war crime concept.
There was however a code of conduct that applied, at least amongst white people, on how to conduct war/civilians/prisoners.

Breaking it would not result in criminsl charges though. Just a damadge reputation.
 
Nov 2011
8,887
The Dustbin, formerly, Garden of England
#7
Yes. And no.
There was no war crime concept.
There was however a code of conduct that applied, at least amongst white people, on how to conduct war/civilians/prisoners.

Breaking it would not result in criminsl charges though. Just a damadge reputation.
The normal response to a breach of the conventions of war was retaliation in kind--eg. The Americans burn York (Toronto) the British burn Washington.
If prisoners or surrendering troops were slaughtered by one side--there would be no quarter in the next engagement.
 

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
26,839
Italy, Lago Maggiore
#8
It happened that Romans were very brutal. Mass enslavements, deportations, massacres ... In their age the consequences were rebellion and vendetta. Other powers aided the rebellions only if there was an interest in doing this.

Anyway Romans were able and ready to erase an enemy [think to Carthage] so that they hadn't to mind about negative consequences ...
 

martin76

Ad Honorem
Dec 2014
6,624
Spain
#9
Yes. And no.
There was no war crime concept.
There was however a code of conduct that applied, at least amongst white people, on how to conduct war/civilians/prisoners.

Breaking it would not result in criminsl charges though. Just a damadge reputation.
Right. A set of non-written rules that in those days it was known as Code of Honour.
 

redcoat

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
7,782
Stockport Cheshire UK
#10
While certain acts were considered unacceptable in warfare for a long period beforehand, the legal concept of war crimes was only established in the mid to late 19th century when a series of international treaties were signed and ratified by the major powers on the subject. The first was the Paris Declaration of 1856 on maritime law in warfare, but the most important was the Hague Convention on land warfare of 1899 which formed the legal basis of what acts were considered war crimes throughout the 20th century.
 
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