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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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15 A State on Trial: Erich Honecker in Moabit


Erich Honecker was born in the Saarland in 1912, the son of a miner. He became a member of a Communist youth group at the age of ten: his only career other than politics was when he became a roofer’s apprentice for two years. By 1930 he was attending a Party school in Moscow. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1935 and spent ten years in Moabit prison in Berlin for treason, before being released by the Soviets in 1945. He founded the Free German Youth in 1946 and was one of the leaders of the Socialist Unity Party (the Communist Party of East Germany based on the forced fusion between the Communist Party of Germany and the Social Democratic Party). He became a member of its Central Committee and of the People’s Chamber, the national parliament. When Walter Ulbricht, the East German Communist leader, eventually fell from power in 1971, Honecker became Party boss, president of the National Defence Council, and president of the State Council, i.e. head of state. Honecker was Willy Brandt’s opposite number, and the two Germanies signed a Basic Treaty in 1972. Following the arrival to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow, the upheavals of 1989, and a putsch against him in the Central Committee, he fell from power on 18 October 1989 after seventeen years in office.

An arrest warrant was issued for Honecker and other East German leaders within a month of the reunification of Germany. In March...

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