Atrocities on Trial: Historical Perspectives on the Politics of Prosecuting War Crimes

By Patricia Heberer; Jürgen Matthäus | Go to book overview

Introduction
War Crimes Trials and the Historian

PATRICIA HEBERER AND JÜRGEN MATTHÄUS

Confronted with new genocides and new issues of adjudicating state-sponsored crime across the globe, the international community looks to the past in its quest for a safer and more humane future. The specter of German atrocities committed during the Second World War appears both haunting and revealing. Much has been written on the history of trials against perpetrators of atrocities since 1945. The best-known chapter in this story is the effort of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg to punish the top National Socialist leaders for waging aggressive war and perpetrating war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the implementation of what later became known as the Holocaust. Yet, in its historical and current implications, the issue transcends the Nuremberg case.

Despite the widespread desire to derive lessons from history, key questions relating to the origins and adjudication of extreme violence remain unanswered and have become the subject of considerable debate, both in our understanding of past trials of Nazi offenders and in our efforts to apply the principles of those prosecutions to present cases. What was originally perceived as a “war crime,” an “act of atrocity,” and a “crime against humanity,” and how have these concepts and their application changed over time? How do the victors and the vanquished deal with mass violence and its universal, transnational, as well as societal, ramifications? In which contexts do investigations and trials take place, and how do these contexts influence their outcome? What is the relationship between historical reality, public perception, and their judicial treatment? Who are the perpetrators and what image—as a group as well as individuals—is portrayed of them in the course of the judicial process? How do historians, with the benefit of hindsight, judge the efforts by prosecutors and courts?

This book offers less clear-cut answers to these questions than it does evidence for the diversity and multifaceted nature of the subject matter in its his

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