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

By Patricia Heberer; Jürgen Matthäus | Go to book overview

Milestones and Mythologies
The Impact of Nuremberg

DONALD BLOXHAM

“Nuremberg” has experienced something of a revival in the last fifteen years. After the heavily politicized critiques of the trials of German war criminals— critiques popular in Germany in the postwar period—the decades from then to the end of the cold war were characterized by a steady but unspectacular flow of accounts about the trial of the major war criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT). These were penned mostly by historians or trial participants, and with the exception of stern assessments like that of Werner Maser, they tended to assess the IMT trial as a qualified success, as best encapsulated in Michael Biddiss's sensible conclusion that if “Nuremberg” were not to be awarded three cheers, then it very decidedly merited two.1 In the aftermath of the cold war, however, jurists and political commentators have added greatly to the array of published opinion on Nuremberg and its relevance.

The reasons for this pattern are easy enough to discern. Nuremberg mattered in the “postwar decade” and matters again in the post–cold war world in a way that it did not in the interim. At points during the cold war, all of the “Nuremberg principles” were disregarded as the major protagonists fought their ideological war on the territories of smaller, weaker third parties and committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the process. Insofar as those principles were invoked at all, it was to stigmatize the opposing ideological side for doing things that both sides were actually doing, and in a manner that disillusioned both former Nuremberg lawyers and historians of the trial.2 With the end of communism in Eastern Europe, it became possible to talk more realistically about a single world order with a single set of governing frameworks. Alongside the vanguard organizations of free market capitalism and the apostles of a range of parliamentary democracies, Western jurists could make their mark on shaping the norms of that order, and they were hurried into action by the ethnic cleansing and murder attendant on the dissolution of the former Yugo

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