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A Scrap of Paper

Breaking and Making International Law during the Great War

A century after the outbreak of the Great War, we have forgotten the central role that international law and the dramatically different interpretations of it played in the conflict's origins and conduct. In A Scrap of Paper, Isabel V. Hull compares wartime decision-making in Germany, Great Britain, and France, weighing the impact of legal considerations in each. Throughout, she emphasizes the profound tension between international law and military necessity in time of war, and demonstrates how differences in state structures and legal traditions shaped the way in which each of the three belligerents fought the war. Hull focuses on seven cases in which each government’s response was shaped by its understanding of and respect for the law: Belgian neutrality, the land war in the west, the occupation of enemy territory, the blockade, unrestricted submarine warfare, the introduction of new weaponry (including poison gas and the zeppelin), and reprisals. Drawing on voluminous research in German, British, and French archives, the author reconstructs the debates over military decision making and clarifies the role played by law—where it constrained action, where it was manipulated to serve military need, where it was simply ignored, and how it developed in the crucible of combat. She concludes that Germany did not speak the same legal language as the two liberal democracies, with disastrous and far-reaching consequences. The first book on international law and the Great War published since 1920, A Scrap of Paper is a passionate defense of the role that the law must play to govern interstate relations in both peace and war.

Author Information

HullIsabel V.:

Isabel V. Hull is John Stambaugh Professor of History at Cornell University. She is the author of Absolute Destruction and Sexuality, State and Civil Society in Germany, 1700–1815, both from Cornell.


Peter Price:

"This book should not get lost in the rather large volume of new studies published as we mark the centennial of the First World War. It makes a distinct contribution not only to the bast hisoriography of the war, but also to the developing body of literature on the intersection of law and international conflict."

David G. Morgan-Owen, King's College:

"Hull's book is an extremely valuable one. As regulating the conduct of war at sea played a vital role in the evolution of international law, it is fitting that naval and maritime issues play a prominent part in her narrative.... Her work is comparative and displays research in British, French and German archives, but her analysis does remain focused on those nations—with a particular strength on Imperial Germany."

David Luhrssen:

"Cornell University history professor Isabel V. Hull gives a thorough and thoughtful investigation into one of the war's trigger points, the legal issues surrounding Germany’s invasion of Belgium. The assault widened the war by drawing in Britain, committed by treaty to protecting Belgian neutrality. Germany was a signatory to that same treaty, but its army command believed that military necessity trumped international agreements and, as Hull finds, Germany’s military seldom coordinated its planning with the country’s civilian leaders. A Scrap of Paper is a luminous account of war and international law with implications for recent and ongoing world conflicts."

Rosalyn Higgins:

"[A Scrap of Paper]is an impressive analysis, by a remarkable historian, of specific international laws (both customary and treaty-based) that were historically regarded as important by the protagonists at the outset of World War I, the Great War of 1914 –18. The book's author, Isabel Hull, a professor of history at Cornell University, contends that breaches of these rules were at the heart of the perceived need to have recourse to war....This splendid publication does not in any general sense determine where responsibility lay for World War I; many books have recently addressed this topic. But that is not the author’s intention. Rather she intends—and totally succeeds—to show that World War I cannot be understood without an appreciation of where the Great Powers stood on the momentous international law issues of the day. Thus she reveals through prodigious scholarship, eschewing the broad sweep and examining in this fashion every relevant international law controversy before and during the war. And through this indirect means (ideally with the help of recently written important histories of World War I), the reader will also have a better sense of Germany’s relentless advance towards hegemony. And the reader whose field is international law will have seen deployed in these pages an understanding of various possible interpretations of critical elements of law. Ideas relating to military necessity, self-defense, neutrality, reprisals, 'new weapons,' and constraints in submarine warfare are unfolded here as never before because the historical context in which they were formulated and invoked is so marvelously explained. A Scrap of Paper is an outstanding book and a work of exceptional scholarship."

Michael H. Hoffman:

"This book will be of interest to serious students of World War I. It explores important, long-forgotten decision making that influenced some of the best known and far-reaching operations in military history. A Scrap of Paper is also a source of unusual case studies for practitioners who need to understand how diplomacy, operational design, and strategic communications shape, and are shaped, by international law. This book illuminates challenges facing practitioners today as much as those facing their predecessors a century ago."

Samuel Moyn:

"A Scrap of Paper is a strong demonstration of the worth of international law and the laws of war in particular, and vindicates Ms. Hull's standing as one of our greatest historians of modern European politics."

Martti Koskenniemi, Academy Professor, University of Helsinki, author of The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law 1870–1960:

"Isabel V. Hull's passionate narrative of the role of international law in the decision-making processes in Berlin and London during the First World War opens a strikingly original perspective on the consciousness of the wartime actors. This was a war waged also by legal arguments. In the end, the inability and unwillingness of Imperial Germany to defend its case in legal terms crucially undermined its war effort. This is not only superb history, but also the most powerful defense of the role of law in international crisis that I have read, and as such is of obvious contemporary relevance."

Sir Hew Strachan, All Souls College, University of Oxford, author of The First World War: To Arms:

"Over the last decade, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the laws of armed conflict have become matters of popular and public interest. Despite the growth of international humanitarian law, much of the law with which we still operate dates from the fifteen years just before the First World War and was applied within it. A Scrap of Paper is the first book to pay sustained attention to the subject of international law in the First World War since 1920. It is not only a timely book, it is an overdue one, and its impact on the study of the war will be important and game-changing. Isabel V. Hull has the linguistic range and scholarly tools to tackle the subject in the truly comparative fashion that its complexity demands."

Audience: General/trade;