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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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7 Nuremberg: Making War Illegal


The Nuremberg trial is the central reference point for late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century political trials. It has been elevated by historical memory to the status of supreme paradigm of how the universal laws of humanity can and should prevail over the arbitrary commands of a tyrannical head of state. Indeed, Nuremberg is probably the most famous criminal trial in history. The moral Manichaeism which is never far below the surface in political trials erupts in all its sharpness in the case of Nuremberg, as the victorious Allies cemented their victory – and confirmed their moral superiority – with the trial and execution of the leading Nazis.

However, Nuremberg was in fact only the most famous of a whole swathe of trials of heads of state and government conducted in Europe and the Far East in the immediate aftermath of World War II. A large number of the chapters in this book is devoted to those trials, partly because the account is chronological and so many of the trials of heads of state in history did take place after World War II, but partly too because the historical account shows that Nuremberg cannot be dissociated from them. The context may force us to reassess that great trial. While Nuremberg’s reputation as a moral reference point persists, other trials in postwar Europe, especially those conducted almost simultaneously by the incoming Communists in Eastern Europe, were deeply intertwined with it. Yet even though those trials were conducted on the basis...

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