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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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2 The Trial of Louis XVI and the Terror


The role of theology in politics, indeed, is often overlooked. This is in spite of the fact that all political systems draw their legitimacy from a claim to uphold certain absolute values. In modern societies, these are typically expressed in written constitutions; in pre-modern societies, those values were more overtly theological. The contemporary move towards the creation of international tribunals for prosecuting extreme acts which shock the very moral conscience of mankind is also an example of how new political regimes are founded on such appeals to universal values. The controversial German jurist Carl Schmitt wrote that all modern political concepts are in fact secularized theological ones,1 and even that distinctly un-theological novelist, Albert Camus – who is widely associated with the atheistic view that human life is meaningless – emphasized the religious significance of the French Revolution in his writings. ‘The condemnation of the King is at the crux of our contemporary history,’ he wrote in his great political tract, The Rebel. ‘It symbolizes the secularization of our history and the disincarnation of the Christian God.’2 That great opponent of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, also stressed the religious aspect of the French Revolution, referring to it specifically as a sacrilegious event.3

Europe may have shuddered when Louis XVI was led to the guillotine but in fact the French revolutionaries were only imitating what their English neighbours had done a century and a half previously. Indeed, it was precisely in England and France that the...

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