The Case Of Edith Cavell

By James M. Beck

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

Late Assistant Attorney General of the United States. Mr. Beck's fame as an analyst of the issues of this war is international. We present below his conclusions regarding the case from an article originally appearing in THE NEW YORK TIMES.

Will the American people or the people of any nation hesitate to accept the clear, positive, and circumstantial statements of Minister Whitlock, Secretary Gibson, and Counselor de Leval, at least two of whom are wholly disinterested in the matter, as against the self-exculpatory, general, and anonymous denials of a "semi-official" press bureau, especially when it is recalled that, from the beginning of the great war, the German Foreign Office, with whom military honor is supposed to be almost a religion, has stooped to the most shameful and barefaced mendacity?

When the world recalls how Austrian Ambassadors in Paris, London, and Petrograd made the most emphatic statements that the forthcoming ultimatum to Serbia would be "pacific and conciliatory," and assured the Russian Ambassador that he could therefore safely leave Vienna on his vacation on the very eve of the ultimatum, and when the German Ambassadors in the same capitals gave the most solemn and unequivocal assurances that

"the German Government had no knowledge of the text of the American note before it was handed in and had not exercised any influence on its contents,"

and later admitted, when the he had served its purpose by lulling the world into a sense of false security, that it had been fully consulted by its ally before the ultimatum was prepared and had given it a carte blanche to proceed, when these notable examples of Prussian Machiavellism are recalled, little attention will be given to these futile attempts to wash from the shield of German honor the blood of Edith Cavell.

One can to some extent understand the Berserker fury which caused a von Bissing to say in effect to this gentle-faced English nurse, "You are in our way. You menace our security. You must die, as countless thousands have already died, to secure the results of our seizure of Belgium;" but can we understand or in any way palliate the attempt to hide the stains of blood on that prison floor of Brussels with a cobweb of self-evident falsehoods?

These stains can never be washed out to the eye of imagination.

"Let none these marks efface,
For they appeal from tyranny to God."

In the last interview between our representative and Baron von der Lancken, which took place a few hours before the execution, our representative reminded these Prussian officials

"of our untiring efforts on behalf of German subjects at the outbreak of the war and during the siege of Antwerp. I pointed out that, while our services had been gladly rendered and without any thought of future favors, they should certainly entitle you to some consideration for the only request of this sort you [the American Minister] had made since the beginning of the war."

Even our Minister's appeal to gratitude and to one of the most ordinary and natural courtesies of diplomatic life proved unavailing, and at midnight the Secretary of the American Legation and the Spanish Minister, who was acting with him, left in despair. At 2 o'clock that morning Miss Cavell was secretly executed.

Even the ordinary courtesy accorded to the vilest criminal, of being permitted before dying to have a clergyman of her own selection, was denied her until a few hours before her death, for the legal counselor of the American Legation on Oct. 10 applied in behalf of this country for permission for an English clergyman to see Miss Cavell, and this, too, was refused, as her jailers preferred to assign her the prison chaplains as well as her counsel. Even the final appeal of our Minister for the surrender of her mutilated body was denied, on the ground that only the Minister of War in Berlin could grant it.

Apart from the brutality of the whole incident there is one circumstance that makes it of peculiar interest to the American people and which gives to it the character of rank ingratitude. Our representative, as above stated, did advise the German officials that a little delay was asked by our Legation as a slight return for the innumerable acts of kindness which our Legation had done for German soldiers and interned prisoners in the earlier days of the war before the German invasion had swept over the land. The charge of ingratitude may rest soundly upon far greater and broader grounds.

This great nation had contributed in money and merchandise a sum estimated at many millions for the relief of the people in Belgium. In so doing it did to the German Nation an inestimable service, for when Germany conquered Belgium the duty and burden rested upon it to support its population to the extent that it might become necessary. The burden of supporting 8,000,000 civilians was no light one, especially as there existed in Germany a scarcity of food. As bread tickets were then being issued in Germany to its people, the supplies would have been substantially less if a portion of its food products had been required for the civilian population of Belgium, for obviously the German Nation could not permit a people, whom it had so ruthlessly trampled under foot, to starve to death. Every dollar that was raised in America for the Belgian people, therefore, operated to relieve Germany from a heavy burden.

Moreover, when the war broke out, Germany needed some friendly nation to take over the care of* its nationals in the hostile countries, and in England, France, Belgium, and Russia the interests of German citizens were assumed by the American Government as a courtesy to Germany, and no one can question how faithfully in the last fourteen months Page in London, Sharp in Paris, and Whitlock in Brussels have labored to alleviate the inevitable suffering to German prisoners or interned civilians.

In view of these services, it surely was not much for the American Minister to ask that a little delay should be granted to a woman whose error, if any, had arisen from impulses of humanity and from considerations of patriotism. To spare her life a little longer could not have done the German cause any possible harm, for she was in their custody and beyond the power of rendering any help to her compatriots. To condemn any human being, even if he were the vilest criminal, at 5 o'clock in the afternoon and execute him at 2 A. M. was an act of barbarism for which no possible condemnation is adequate.

Under these circumstances, it would be incredible, if the facts were not beyond dispute, that the request of the United States for a little delay was not only brutally refused, but that our Legation was deliberately misled and deceived until the death sentence had been inflicted.

This makes the fate of Miss Cavell our affair as much as that of the Lusitania. And yet we have the already familiar semi-official assurance from Washington that while our officials "unofficially deplore the act, officially they can do nothing." Concurrently we are told in the President's Thanksgiving proclamation that we should be thankful because we have "been able to assert our rights and the rights of mankind," and that this "has been a year of special blessing for us," for, so the proclamation adds, "we have prospered while other nations were at war."

I venture to say in all reverence that the God of nations will be better pleased on the coming Thanksgiving Day which also should be one of penitence and humiliation if we do a little more in fact as well as in words to safeguard the rights of humanity. Our initial blunder was in turning away the Belgian Commissioners, when they first presented the wrongs of their crucified nation, with icy phrases as to a mysterious day of reckoning in the indefinite future. An act of justice now will be worth a thousand future "accountings" after the long agony of the world is over. "Now is the accepted time, this the day of salvation."

Let our nation begin with the case of Edith Cavell, and demand of Germany the dismissal of the officers who flouted, deceived, and mocked the representative of the United States. That concerns our honor as a nation.

And you, women of America! Will you not honor the memory of this martyr of your sex, who for all time will be mourned as was the noblest Greek maiden, Antigone, who also gave her life that her brother might have the rites of sepulture? Will you not carry on in her name and for her memory those sacred ministrations of mercy which were her lifework?

Make her cause—the cause of mercy—your own!

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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