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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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10 People’s Justice in Liberated Hungary


Hungary after World War I was a kingdom without a king ruled by an admiral without a fleet: Miklos Horthy had reigned as regent over the now landlocked country since it lost its Habsburg monarch and its coastline at the end of the war. Hungary entered World War II against the Allies although its only real quarrel was with its neighbours, Romania and Slovakia, which were its allies. Horthy had presided over a national-conservative alliance between the aristocracy, the land and industry. In opposition to this, there grew up a radical anti-establishment fascist movement, the Arrow Cross, based on the lower middle classes, minor officials, and others whose fortunes had waned in the 1930s, creating thereby a ‘new right’ in opposition to the ‘old right’ in power, rather as in Romania. Meanwhile, the Communists were strong too, in opposition to both.

All sides of the political spectrum, including many on the Left, burned with resentment at the huge territorial losses suffered by Hungary at Versailles. Hungarians therefore shared with Hitler and the Germans a desire to see the injustices of the postwar settlement overturned. But although this caused Hungary to side with Nazi Germany from the beginning of the war, and although Admiral Horthy’s governments were undoubtedly anti-Semitic, the ‘old right’ under Horthy resisted most of the Germans’ demands, for instance on deportations of Jews, especially in the two years from 1942 to 1944 when the government was led by that epitome of the country gentry,...

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