A more civilized era, depicted in The Surrender of Breda by Valasquez  

From Advance to Barbarism

Introduction to the Trials

The following pages are from the last, 1968 edition. They do not appear in earlier editions of the book.

Civilized warfare: The Surrender of Breda by Valasquez

The mass-trial of the leading German politicians and service chiefs at Nuremberg was the natural outcome of a war in which one side had adopted terror bombing and the other genocide as part of their war effort. No other outcome was to be expected. It was just one stage in the chain reaction which included not only the equally significant mass-trial of the Japanese leaders at Tokyo, but many thousand war-crimes trials of prisoners of war which took place in widely separated places in Europe and Asia and continued for a period of half a dozen years. The Nuremberg War-crimes Trial overshadows all other war-crimes trials held after 1945 because, when it started , all the manifold resources of the science of modern propaganda were concentrated upon it in order to implant in the public mind the conviction that the disposal of the leaders of a defeated and discredited political party was an event of unique significance for all mankind. In itself of course it mattered nothing whether these ill-fated men died on a scaffold or were allowed to die a natural death in their beds, but the promoters of the trial had determined to represent their disposal as a symbolic act which could be made the subject for worldwide jollification. Consequently no pains were spared to give the proceedings the widest publicity. While at first the reaction of the public was all that could have been desired, the arrangements made were so clumsy and elaborate that the proceedings dragged on for nearly a year and the public became bored with so protracted a performance. One cannot remain in a state of joyful ecstasy for eleven months! Nevertheless the conviction was successfully planted in the public mind that the Nuremberg War-crimes Trial was of unique importance.

No comparable attempt was made to give publicity to any of the other war-crimes trials which took place from 1945 onwards. Not one of these war-crimes trials, not even the great Tokyo War-crimes Trial, was reported in any detail in the British Press. Every few days over a period of half a dozen years the execution of some prisoner of war was announced unobtrusively as an item of news on the back pages of the newspapers but the victim was merely described as a war-criminal and rarely was any mention made of his alleged offence. The vast majority of war-crimes trials were never reported at all. (pp. 271-272)

In a photograph described as “the last of the Nuremberg trials” which opened on February 5th 1948, published in the Illustrated London News of March 6th 1948, it was noted with surprise that all the thirteen occupants of the dock, three Field Marshals, nine Generals and one Admiral, were attired in civilian clothes. This was an essential feature of the proceedings in accordance with the theory that a soldier ceases to be a soldier and loses all his rights as a soldier if he be stripped of his uniform. By the same reasoning, of course, a king must be deemed to abdicate every time he retires for the night unless he takes the precaution of wearing his crown in bed as a nightcap. (Note p. 284)

The obligations imposed at Geneva and the Hague were summarily set aside. It was pointed out that a prisoner of war was a captured enemy soldier and therefore if he ceased to be a soldier he would lose the unassailable rights of a prisoner of war. All that the captors of a prisoner of war had to do was to declare that he had become a civilian by announcing that he had been ‘demobilised,’ a transformation which was carried out by formally depriving him of his uniform or by simply depriving him of his insignias of rank. Once he had become a civilian, his captors could treat him as they pleased. All the victims of war-crimes trials were tried and condemned as civilians.

It only remains to illustrate by examples how in practice a Routine War-crimes Trial was conducted. Five examples have been chosen, two British, one American, one Italian and one French. It cannot be claimed that any of these five trials can be regarded as representing the average Routine War-crimes Trial. In all of them the adjudicating military tribunal took its duties seriously and listened carefully to the evidence placed before it both by the prosecution and by the defence. In the American example chosen, the Trial of General Yamashita, the judgment of the military tribunal was reviewed by the Supreme Court of the United States. Although this trial resulted in what was perhaps the most flagrant miscarriage of justice of the five trials selected, it can at least be said that the accused was given a right of appeal from the military tribunal which condemned him to the highest civilian court of the country of his captors. None of the other victims of military courts enjoyed any such right of appeal. The details of this case are well known because, as in the case of Field Marshal von Manstein, defending counsel was moved to express his indignation with the verdict by writing a book describing the trial. A White Book has been published by the Italian Ministry of the Interior on the facts of the Italian example chosen, the trial of Major Walter Reder, while the French example, the trial of General Ramcke, has been brilliantly described in a book by the victim himself. Only the details of the trial of Field Marshal Kesselring remain obscure. None of the promoters of these war-crimes trials, nor counsel for the prosecution in any of them, have felt impelled to write books justifying what took place, no doubt feeling that the sooner the subject was buried in oblivion the better.

The average Routine War-crimes Trial was very different in practice, but not in theory, from the five celebrated trials described below. Except in the case of these five trials no details have been published and no records have been made public concerning any of these prosecutions before military tribunals. Most of the victims were obscure individuals whose fate was of no interest to anyone but their relations and friends. The verdicts carry no weight and would be promptly quashed by any court of appeal reviewing them judicially in accordance with established legal principles because in all these proceedings hearsay evidence had been freely admitted in reliance on the authority given in the London Agreement. Only if and when the records are made available for investigation will it be possible to form an opinion as to the proportion of these cases where it can be claimed that a sort of rough justice was probably done. (pp. 284-285)

F. J. P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism: The Development of Total Warfare From Serajevo to Hiroshima. Mitre Press (London) 1968.

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