Infamy on Trial
What happened to toppled leaders and war criminals of the past?
Asked about the fate of Saddam Hussein this week, President Bush said, "We want the world to say . . . he got a fair trial. I've got my own personal views of how he ought to be treated, but . . . my personal views aren't important." Heads of state haven't always been so discreet. In 1943, Joseph Stalin proclaimed that "50,000 and perhaps 100,000 of the German commanding staff must be physically liquidated," for their roles in World War II. Franklin Roosevelt jokingly replied that 49,000 executions would suffice.
While codes regulating wartime conduct date to Greco-Roman times, when tactics like the poisoning of wells were prohibited, it was only at the dawn of the 20th century that such rules were codified in international law. Indeed, the expectation for dictators like Saddam Hussein to stand trial is a relatively recent phenomenon.
As recently as 1815, the British government simply exiled Napoleon--who'd pillaged much of Europe--to the remote island of St. Helena, rather than heed calls from the masses for harsher punishment. But by the close of World War I, the victorious Allies couldn't ignore public demands for justice against the Germans. Invoking the first war-crimes conventions of 1899 and 1907, an international tribunal was established by the Treaty of Versailles. The United States vigorously opposed the tribunal, fearing its implications for American sovereignty. So the Allies resorted to trying suspected war criminals at Germany's high court in Leipzig.
"Flop." With no international oversight, Leipzig won a reputation for acquittals and light sentences. "Many in Germany were saying, `Why are our guys getting hauled off and not the Allies' guys?' while the Allies wound up feeling impotent," says Gary J. Bass, author of Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals. "It was an all-around flop." The Turks, meanwhile, opened a tribunal for the perpetrators of the 1915 Armenian genocide, which left a million dead. The trials ended when Kemal Ataturk, future founder of modern Turkey, kidnapped a handful of British soldiers and demanded the release of their Turkish prisoners. A string of assassinations claimed three suspected Turkish perpetrators soon after.
At the end of World War II, Roosevelt, his own mind changed, persuaded Churchill to abandon summary justice and try Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, in a truly international tribunal. This time, the judges were selected by the victors: the United States, Britain, Russia, and France. The Allies "wanted to send a signal to the publics of Axis states that this was going to be the last war of its kind," says University of Texas School of Law Prof. Steven Ratner. "By holding leaders accountable, they'd prevent future wars." In less than a year, the court tried 22 accused Nazis, sentencing a dozen to death. Unlike the WWI tribunals, Nuremberg didn't accept the "just following orders" defense. Says Ratner: "Nuremberg was the starting point of individual accountability."
The trials were also the first to allege crimes against humanity, like enslavement and extermination. With full access to Nazi records, the Allies followed Nuremberg with hundreds of lower-level trials in occupied Germany. In Italy, Mussolini was shot by Italian partisans and strung up in April 1945. But in Tokyo, an 11-nation tribunal began trying 28 alleged Japanese war criminals in 1946, resulting in the execution of Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.