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A History of Political Trials

From Charles I to Charles Taylor

John Laughland

The modern use of international tribunals to try heads of state for genocide and crimes against humanity is often considered a positive development. Many people think that the establishment of special courts to prosecute notorious dictators represents a triumph of law over impunity. In A History of Political Trials, John Laughland takes a very different and controversial view. He shows that trials of heads of state are in fact not new, and that previous trials throughout history have themselves violated the law and due process. It is the historical account which carries the argument. By examining trials of heads of state and government throughout history – figures as different as Charles I, Louis XVI, Erich Honecker, Saddam Hussein and Charles Taylor – Laughland shows that modern trials of heads of state have ugly historical precedents. In their different ways, all the trials he describes were marked by arbitrariness and injustice, and many were gross exercises in hypocrisy. Political trials, he finds, are only the continuation of war by other means. With short and easy chapters, but the fruit of formidable erudition and wide reading, this book will force the general reader to re-examine prevailing opinions on this subject.

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4 Defeat in the Dock: the Riom Trial

Extract

The trial of political leaders for leading a country into national disaster was to be repeated twenty years after the Trial of the Six in Greece. The fame of the great Nuremberg trials has obscured historical memory of what was, in fact, the first major war crimes trial of World War II: the Riom trial of the leaders of the democratic Third Republic in France. Edouard Daladier and Léon Blum, both former prime ministers, General Gamelin, the former chief of staff, Guy La Chambre, the former minister of air, and Robert Jacomet, the former controller-general for the administration of the armed forces, were put on trial by Vichy France in 1942 for leading France into war and then losing it. The regime known as Vichy France was born out of the ruins of France’s staggering defeat in May to June 1940, and it blamed the leaders of the Third Republic for that catastrophe. Like the Revolutionary Committee in Athens, Vichy needed a trial to bolster the legitimacy of its own ‘national revolution’ proclaimed by Marshal Pétain, a programme of national renewal based on the conservative and authoritarian principles of ‘work, family, country’ (tra- vail, famille, patrie). The defeat had inflicted a terrible psychological blow on France, and an urgent need was felt for the re-establishment of solid reaction- ary principles after the parliamentary chaos of the inter-war years. Stunned by the suddenness of the Germans’ victory and the huge cost in lives – which had followed repeated reassurances given...

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