Genocide on Trial: War Crimes Trials and the Formation of Holocaust History and Memory

Genocide on Trial: War Crimes Trials and the Formation of Holocaust History and Memory

Genocide on Trial: War Crimes Trials and the Formation of Holocaust History and Memory

Genocide on Trial: War Crimes Trials and the Formation of Holocaust History and Memory


When the Allies tried German war criminals at the end of World War II they were attempting not only to punish the guilty but also to set down a history of Nazism and of what had happened in Europe. Yet as Donald Bloxham shows in this incisive account, the reality was that these proceedings failed. Not only did the guilty often escape punishment but the final solution was largely written out of history in the post-war era.


Knowing what we now do of Nazi atrocity in the Second World War, the heated debates of that era on the legitimacy of trying the perpetrators can appear rather unreal. Yet in the years around 1945 a variety of moral and political justifications were required to prevent, on the one hand, mass and summary executions of Germans and their accomplices and, on the other, the passage of the majority of the iniquitous back, unnoticed, into ordinary civilian life. The idea of legal redress for state crimes was novel and contentious, and there was no certainty as to whom to try, or the precise crimes with which to charge them. The arguments employed in favour of trials in 1945 can be divided into two general categories: punishment/deterrent and education. The first of these is at the heart of most of the critiques of the postwar punishment programmes, which centre upon the legal bases and legacies of the various ‘war crimes trials’ and often feature the extensive re-creation of the events of the courtroom. The second is more complex. It encompasses the didactic aims of illustrating to the conquered peoples the benefits of due legal process, whilst simultaneously creating a historical record for the edification of victors, vanquished, and posterity alike. That second function is the concern of this book.

By opting for legal action, the Allied nations succeeded in establishing a record of Nazi criminality and aggression. Unwittingly, however, in the conduct of the trials they also laid bare much about their own attitudes to what had transpired in Europe. There is an important connection between these two areas, and one which has not been brought out in the historiography of either the trials or Nazi atrocity; that connection concerns how the practices of those who conducted the trial affected the portrayal of the acts of the tried through the medium of the courtroom.

The trials were not disinterested conduits of that which they were instituted to consider. They were not blank pages onto which the history of the Nazi years was inscribed in an ‘objective’ fashion. At the most basic level, considerations such as the rules of courtroom procedure, the role of judicial precedent, and the difference between legal and historical evidence meant that trials had the potential to re-shape their subject matter. Overtly political influences were another matter again, and must be considered in relation to each polity that played a part in the trials.

In order to explain the development of representations of Nazi crime through the trial medium, it is necessary to understand the approaches that the Allied and formerly occupied nations employed in dealing with suspected ‘war criminals’. In other words, we need to see precisely what the prosecuting powers were attempting to achieve by trial, and how they went about achieving it. This . . .

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