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Partisan execution by the German Wehrmacht in Serbia, 1941

Under Reprisal (from medieval Latin reprensalia , the self-back-and-take of something Weggenommenem, later press ajar) means a coercive measure that a state takes against another state to make this mission a law violation to move and return to the international law, behavior . Reprisals are themselves measures contrary to international law, which are only permissible when there is no other possibility of countering the injustice of another. Because reprisals always have the character of a violation of the law, the principle of proportionality must be observed with them . A similarity of the reprisals with the previous violation of the law is not the yardstick. Reprisals help the state to help itself to enforce international law where other instruments have failed or are not effective. Only under these conditions does reprisals not constitute a violation of the law. Counter-reprisals are not permitted. However, exceeding the limit of permissible reprisals, the “excess of reprisals”, is itself a crime under international law, against which in turn reprisals can be taken.

Together with the retorsions , reprisals are called countermeasures .

One of the aims of the creation of an international legal system, which has been carried out since the middle of the 20th century, is to limit the supposed need for self-help. Since the necessity also ceases to be admissible, this leads to a decrease in the importance of reprisals in favor of sanctions by international organizations, in particular the United Nations Security Council .

Peace reprisals

The use or threat of violence is not a permitted reprisal because the general prohibition of violence in international law makes no exceptions. Only non-violent reprisals are allowed to enforce international law. Typical reprisal measures are e.g. B. punitive tariffs and the refusal of payments or other obligations, a boycott or an embargo , the freezing of credit balances or the interference in contractual relationships. Own obligations, which are binding according to international treaty law, are suspended. ( see also economic sanction ).

War reprisals

In international humanitarian law , a number of Repressal bans were codified. The cause was the practice of making prisoners of war and the civilian population in occupied territory the target of reprisals.

Based on the experiences in World War I , the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War of 1929 expressly forbade reprisals against prisoners of war.

As early as the First World War, a further reprisal measure was practiced in addition to the hostage-taking. The arrest of hostages and the threat of killing them were intended to enforce the good behavior of the population. “Atonement prisoners”, on the other hand, were only arrested and killed after an act of resistance by the population, in order to deter the population from further acts of resistance.

The Nazi regime ignored both the Hague and the Geneva Accords and regularly drilled drastic atonement measures, often without considering the real perpetrators and with the guilt being reversed. Examples of reprisals by the Nazi regime: After the assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich in May 1942, the two Czech villages Lidice and Ležáky were razed to the ground and the population shot or deported to concentration camps. As a result, there were over 3000 death sentences against Czech citizens. On September 16, 1941, General Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel issued an instruction from the High Command of the Wehrmacht to combat partisans in Yugoslavia, the so-called Atonement Order :

"The Fuehrer has now ordered that the sharpest means must be used everywhere in order to suppress the movement in the shortest possible time [...] As atonement for a German soldier's life, in these cases the death penalty for 50 to 100 communists must generally be considered appropriate. The type of enforcement must increase the deterrent effect. "

When there were not enough communists in the custody of the Nazi regime, the interned Jewish refugees of the Kladovo transport were shot in order to keep the prescribed number of executions .

The protection of the civilian population, which was already partially regulated in the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, was enshrined in the 1949 Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilians in Time of War . The decisive factor was the excessive use of violent measures against the civilian population in the German-occupied areas of Europe, in particular the taking and killing of hostages . The first Geneva Convention of 1949 forbids all reprisals against the wounded, sick, medical personnel and associated buildings and materials. The second Geneva Convention of 1949 repeats this prohibition for naval warfare. The 1977 Additional Protocols reinforced this prohibition.

Legal history of war reprisals

Until 1860, reprisals played a major role in wartime behavior. The warring parties hoped that by threatening reprisals they could deter the other side from violating wartime customs and international law. With the national codification of martial law and the criminal prosecution of war crimes and international agreements such as the Hague Land Warfare Regulations and the Geneva Conventions , the need for reprisals has gradually decreased.

The occupation of foreign national territory such as B. the occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 was previously a permissible reprisal measure.

In 1928, an international court of arbitration in the Naulila case , in which the German approach to the attack on Cuangar in the neutral Portuguese colony Angola (also Portuguese West Africa) in 1914, determined the requirements for reprisals: a) Previous violation of the punished state , b) after negotiations, the compensation claims remain unfulfilled and c) the reprisals must not be disproportionate to the previous breach of law.


  • Johannes Hebenstreit: reprisals in humanitarian international law (= international law and foreign policy. Vol. 64). Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, Baden-Baden 2004, ISBN 3-8329-0655-X (also: Salzburg, University, dissertation, 2003).
  • Andreas Toppe: Military and international law. Legal norms, specialist discourse and war practice in Germany 1899–1940 , Munich 2007, ISBN 978-3-486-58206-2

Web links

Wiktionary: reprisal  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Hans-Jürgen Schlochauer (Hrsg.): Dictionary of international law. Volume 3: Rapallo Treaty to Cyprus. = R - Z. 2nd, completely revised edition. de Gruyter, Berlin 1962.
  2. Quoted from Gerd R. Ueberschär, p. 147.
  3. Anthony D´Amato: National Prosecution for International Crimes , published in International Criminal Law , Vol. 3, Ed. M. Cherif Bassiouni, Nijhoff Publishers, 2008, ISBN 978-90-04-16533-5 , p. 294
  4. ^ Boleslaw Adam Boczek: International Law: A Dictionary , Scarecrow Press, 2005, ISBN 0-8108-5078-8 , p. 112