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14: "Victors' Justice"?: the war crimes' trials

The International Military Court of Justice that convened at Nuremberg (November 1945 - October 1946) was described by one British judge as 'the greatest trial in history.' Over the subsequent seventy years, historians have debated the form and content of the trial, its meaning and legacies. Where some regard it as the cornerstone of a new era of human rights-consciousness, enshrining the concept of 'genocide' in international law while admitting vivid Holocaust testimony and visual evidence into the court, others consider the Nuremberg trial as problematic in both its precepts and procedures. In this seminar, we will consider the conduct and ramifications of the trial through two optics: first, the perspective of one notable contemporary observer, Rebecca West, and second, the lens of historiography.

Seminar questions:

  • what variety of ends did the Allies hope the staging of a major trial of German war criminals would achieve?
  • what, according to both historians and Rebecca West, were the key flaws with the IMT's procedure? Are critics right to condemn the IMT as a manifestation of 'victors' justice'?
  • how do we explain the disjuncture between the historical momentousness of the IMT and the overwhelming boredom of the participants and observers West describes?
  • what light does 'Greenhouse with Cyclamens' shed on postwar Germany more generally?

Seminar slides.

Required Reading:

Primary source: Rebecca West, A Train of Powder (1955), "Greenhouse with Cyclamens," Parts I, II & III, e-book [part I only if pressed]

Francine Hirsch, 'The Soviets at Nuremberg: International Law, Propaganda, and the Making of the Postwar Order,' American Historical Review 113 (June 2008): 701-30

Kim Christian Priemel, 'Consigning Justice to History: Transitional Trials after the Second World War', Historical Journal 56, ii (2013): 553-81

Supplementary Reading:

Donald Bloxham, Genocide on Trial: War Crimes Trials and the Formation of Holocaust History and Memory (OUP, 2001), e-book

Elizabeth Borgwardt, 'A New Deal for the Nuremberg Trial: The Limits of Law in Generating Human Rights Norms', Law and History Review 26, iii (Fall 2008): 679-705

Tomaz Jardim, The Mauthausen Trial: American Military Justice in Germany (Harvard University Press, 2012)

Barak Kushner, Men to Devils, Devils to Men: Japanese War Crimes and Chinese Justice (Harvard University Press, 2015), e-book

Michael R. Marrus, The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, 1945-46: A Documentary History (Bedford/St Martins, 1997)

Richard H. Minear, Victors' Justice: The Tokyo War Crimes' Trial (Princeton UP, 1971)

Kim C. Priemel and Alexa Stiller (eds), Reassessing the Nuremberg Military Tribunals: Transitional Justice, Trial Narratives and Historiography (Berghahn Books, 2014)

Yuma Totani, The Tokyo War Crimes Trial: the Pursuit of Justice in the Wake of World War II (Harvard University Asia Center : 2008)

A.T. Williams, A Passing Fury: Searching for Justice at the End of World War II (Jonathan Cape, 2016)