Primary Documents - Arthur Zimmermann on the Execution of Edith Cavell, 12 October 1915

Arthur Zimmermann Reproduced below is the account given by German Secretary for Foreign Affairs Arthur Zimmermann to the German press of Germany's view of the execution of English nurse Edith Cavell.  Zimmermann's view was essentially that Cavell's death was regrettable but necessary and just.

Cavell was convicted by the German authorities in occupied Belgium of assisting up to 200 Allied prisoners to escape to Holland and Britain from the hospital where she worked in contravention of German wartime law.

In spite of widespread international protest over the sentence Cavell was duly executed by firing squad on the night of 12 October 1915.

Zimmermann went on to gain widespread notoriety of his own in relating to the so-called Zimmermann Telegram which was instrumental in drawing the U.S. into the war.

Click the links below to read contemporary letters and reports on Cavell's sentence and death by Brand Whitlock; Maitre G. de Leval; Hugh Gibson; and Reverend H. Stirling Gahan.

Arthur Zimmermann on the Execution of Edith Cavell

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 ranks 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 we 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.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. III, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

The financial cost of the war is said to have amounted to almost $38 billion for Germany alone; Britain spent $35 billion, France $24 billion, Russia $22 billion, USA $22 billion and Austria-Hungary $20 billion.  In total the war cost the Allies around $125 billion; the Central Powers $60 billion.

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