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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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5 Justice as Purge: Marshal Pétain Faces his Accusers


Just over two years after the Riom trial collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions, the tables were turned. Allied troops landed in France on 6 June 1944, and by 25 August, Paris had been liberated. The old marshal had been warmly acclaimed by crowds when he visited the capital in April, but the public mood swung dramatically against him when the Gaullists took power. There were two million French people in Germany – forced labourers, deportees, or prisoners of war – and the huge emotions (especially the desire for revenge) which had been bottled up exploded when they returned. They had that peculiar venom which only civil conflicts generate. At the same time, there were also millions of ordinary French people for whom it was incredible that their wartime government had been composed of traitors. Many had believed that Pétain in Vichy and de Gaulle in London were both fighting the Germans, the one as the shield, the other as the sword. Thus began the mini civil war in France known as l’épuration, the purge in which between thirty and forty thousand people were summarily shot.1

Taken captive by the Germans (his German minder was the pro-European Nazi thinker and former plenipotentiary in Denmark, Cecile von Renthe-Fink2) and sent to Germany in August 1944, Pétain wrote to Hitler demanding that he be allowed to return to France. This eventually occurred in April 1945. He was greeted by crowds shouting for his death. The...

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