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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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6 Treachery on Trial: the Case of Vidkun Quisling


Marshal Pétain’s trial finished on 15 August 1945. Five days later, on 20 August 1945, in the Freemasons’ Hall in Oslo, the wartime leader of Norway, Vidkun Quisling, who had been minister-president of Norway from February 1942 to May 1945 and therefore, following the destitution of the king by the Nazis, de facto head of state, stood in the dock to face his own accusers on charges of treason.

Quisling’s surname has passed into many languages as a synonym for ‘traitor’. The coinage was invented by The Times within days of the German invasion of Norway and Quisling’s assumption of power on 9 April 1940, perhaps because he was the first Western European politician to propose governing in collaboration with the Nazis; France, the Netherlands, and Belgium were not to fall until a month after Norway. But Quisling’s life is more interesting than the simple concept to which he gave his name. An extremely talented mathematician, with many other intellectual skills including that of a formidable memory, Quisling was born in rural Norway, the son of a pastor. As a young man, he travelled to Russia with the great Norwegian explorer and philanthropist, Fridtjof Nansen, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his work in famine-stricken Russia where Quisling had been his adjutant. This was the beginning of a fascination with Russia which determined the course of Quisling’s life. He married a Russian woman (his enemies said he married two) but he came...

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