This subject arouses all kinds of passions in men’s hearts. Historians are right when they say that subjecting leaders defeated in a war or wars to a tribunal accusing them of war crimes is likely to occur only to the winner. The vanquished are an easy target; in custody, defenceless, probably guilty – but no more so than the winners.
The best example of a War Crimes Commission held on a personal basis (as opposed to a purely economic one) is to be found at Nuremberg in 1945 – 1946. Here, conquered leaders of the Third Reich were judged by a Court entirely made up of lawyers from the winning countries – the Allies, though of course defence lawyers were permitted to put the case for their clients. History students know what happened. Two principals, Hitler and Goebbels, were already dead, but by their own hand. Goering was found guilty of war crimes but managed to cheat the hangman by swallowing cyanide pills (provenance was never proved). Hess was brought from imprisonment in the UK to face the tribunal and was shut away (with others leaders) in a military prison in Berlin for the rest of his life. But one general rightly claimed that he could not be a war criminal and a professional soldier fighting for his elected leader and his country. This was Keitel, who was hanged.
Following the end of the First World War, there was no trial at Nuremberg or anywhere else. But the Versailles Conference judged Germany to be the aggressor, and decided that Germany should be made to pay for the War. The Kaiser was not put on trial, dying in his bed in 1941, but the general opinion was that Kaiser Wilhelm II had forced Europe and the United States into the war. The conflict could hardly be laid at Bismarck’s door, because the Kaiser had demanded and got his resignation in 1891.
The main reason for the outbreak of the Second War was the paralysing economic pressure applied by the victorious Allies to an already crippled Germany, such a pressure that when the Austrian Hitler exploded onto the scene with hypnotic rhetoric, screeching revenge for Versailles, the German people applauded, and he became Chancellor, which led to the Second War six years later.
But what are War Crimes? They are certain activities in wartime that violate the rules governing the ‘established’ rules of warfare, as presented in the Hague and Geneva Conventions. In most societies, killing of prisoners, their torture or enslavement, the taking of hostages, and the forced deportation or killing of civilians are all war crimes. In which case all the winners of wars, let us say taking place in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are guilty of war crimes. That fact is unarguable.
Our modern attitudes towards war crimes have been influenced by the Trials at Nuremberg and Tokio in 1945/46. In these many days of proceedings, it was clarified that an individual must be held responsible for his (or her) actions even if obeying the orders of a higher authority. But this typical lawyer’s ploy does not take into account the soldier’s oath to obey orders. Punishment, including death, is the penalty for disobeying orders. Worse is conscience. Should Keitel, knowing as all military commanders knew, that cattle trucks were heading East full of Jews condemned to die, have stood up to his Fuehrer and said no? What about his oath?
During and after the Vietnam and Korean Wars American soldiers were indicted of killing civiliansGeorge Bush Senior’s war in Iraq led to tribunals accusing the Iraquis of hostage-taking and maltreatment of prisoners during the occupation of Kuwait. A Tribunal of the International Court of Justice (United Nations) convened in 1993 to try people accused of war crimes committed during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Argentina has been producing officers (now retired) every year since the armed rule of the generals, indictedof committing war crimes against Argentinian civilians, or sending amateur troops (national servicemen) to war with Britain in the Malvinas Conflict. But no-one has as yet brought any US leader into the dock to answer for the treatment of Muslims and others in the Guantanamo Camp (Cuba), where men are held without charge and almost certainly maltreated according to video’d evidence.
It is of general opinion these days that any War Crimes Tribunal should try leaders responsible for orchestrating and arranging for war just as much as those among the defeated who might have been responsible for war crimes. Guilt should be spread evenly. At this very moment, leaders of the vanquished socialist workers’ party of Spain, knowing they have no voice left in an elected Parliament, are vociferously encouraging the masses to go out into the streets and riot. If this happens, as it most certainly will, people will be badly hurt and property destroyed. Even if this cannot be described as a war crime, it is certainly treacherous, and probably could be proven as ill-meant.