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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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9 Ethnic Cleansing and National Cleansing in Czechoslovakia, 1945–1947


The Antonescu trial and the subsequent trial of the National Peasant leaders showed how the judicial system was an instrument for enforcing Moscow’s rule over Eastern Europe, as of course it had been a tool of political repression in the Soviet Union itself before the war. But Stalin’s penchant for political trials had supporters in the West. When the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme published its Rosenmark report on the Moscow trials in October 1936, it expressed approval for them and opined that the defendants were probably guilty as charged. In any case, Stalin was an ally. At the London Conference which drew up the Nuremberg Charter, there were differences between the Soviet and American delegations but the American secretary of state, James Byrnes, told Prosecutor Jackson to put his scruples about the Soviets aside because it was ‘a matter of national policy’ to have them on board.1

Czechoslovakia had played a central role in the outbreak of war. Hitler had agitated for the cession of the Sudetenland, and the West capitulated to his demands at Munich on 30 September 1938. The Czech lands were occupied in March 1939, where a Protectorate was established with a Czech government under German tutelage, and Slovakia was made an independent state (although in reality also a puppet) under the presidency of a Catholic priest, Monsignor Jozef Tiso. As the war came to an end, talks on the reunification of the country and the creation of the new Czechoslovak government...

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