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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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3 War Guilt after World War I


The empire which grew out of the French Revolution ended in defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. But the universalist principles it enunciated lived on and European politics were never the same again. Throughout the nineteenth century, as European states extended their empires overseas, a universalist concept of law gained ground according to which law was not the prudential balance between competing claims of citizens within a given and clearly delineated territory, as it had previously been understood to be, but instead the application in civil life of absolute moral principles.1 The worldwide reach of empires encouraged the development of the worldwide reach of the law. The French Revolution had destroyed for ever the principle that the king embodied the rule of God on earth – rule restricted to a particular territory – and so the future now seemed to belong to disembodied and abstract universal moral principles instead. In keeping with this universalist spirit, there was a growth in international law. New international laws of war, supposedly valid at all times and in all places, were formulated in Geneva, the city of Calvin and Rousseau – the philosophers of the English and French revolutions respectively. The founding conference of the Red Cross was held in 1863 and laws of war were to be promulgated there in 1864, 1906, 1929, 1949, and 1977. Geneva was also the city in which the ephemeral League of Nations was to be situated in the inter-war years.

But neither these laws, nor the...

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