Outrage and condemnations aside, Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, featuring attacks on unarmed civilians, violates the very laws of war Russia helped adopt and enforce 77 years ago in the war-crimes trials at Nuremberg.
Add to the enigma Soviet Russia’s experience in World War II. Beginning in June 1941, she struggled against Adolf Hitler’s massive invasion. The four-year effort to expel an enemy, whose legions drove all the way to Stalingrad on the Volga River, cost Mother Russia 27 million casualties — civilian and military — as well as destruction of property estimated in the trillions of dollars.
If any leader in the civilized world should abhor and avoid an armed assault of its peaceful neighbor, it is Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
A year before Germany’s defeat in World War II, as news of unparalleled crimes filtered into Allied hands, President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of Defense Henry Stimson, in collaboration with a talented group of influential New York Lawyers, reached an agreement: The responsible Nazis must be prosecuted and punished. From the Kremlin, Joseph Stalin pledged approval and assistance, as did France, Britain and liberated Italy.
Secretary Stimson believed a traditional military court-martial used for the trial of military crimes would prove inadequate. He proposed proceedings before an international tribunal. His idea was adopted. Thus, at War’s end, the Allies formed the International Military Tribunal (IMT) with trials to be conducted in the Palace of Justice at Nuremberg, Germany, an ancient medieval city, site of massive Nazi party rallies during the 1930s. The IMT would hold history’s first-ever prosecution for genocide and crimes against humanity.
The trials began on 21 November 1945 and lasted until adjournment on 1 September 1946. From start to finish, the Russians were vigorous participants. Their counselors bore such Russian names as Pokrovsky, Rudenko and Raginsky. Among them was notorious, Andrei Vishinsky, who had served as Stalin’s principal prosecutor in the Moscow purges and show trials of the 1930s. On the panel of judges were Russian jurists, Lt. Col. A.F. Valchkov and J.T. Nikitchen.
The individual defendants were among the surviving political, military, judicial and economic leadership of Nazi Germany. In what has become known as the highly-publicized “war crimes trials,” the reading public (there was no TV) learned a lot about Hitler, Goering, Ribbentrop, Hess, Keitel, Schracht, Jodi, and others, and their criminal conduct, so monstrous it defied belief.
In the indictment, the Allies charged the defendants with Crimes Against Peace: namely planning, preparation, initiating or waging a war of aggregation. Other charges included War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, which specified inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war. In particular, the IMT focused on “the crime of aggression as the supreme international crime because it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
During the defendants’ cross-examination, Russian counsel drew repeated admissions that Germany’s invasions of Czechoslovkia, Poland and the Soviet Union lacked any provocations.
The IMT’ s final verdict left no doubt. Of the 22 defendants, 12 were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Ten were promptly executed. One was tried in absentia. Reich Marshal Goering, then a shell of his former self, committed suicide.
The Nuremberg trials had their dissenters and opponents. Across the decades, however, they have come to stand as a high point in Western Civilization and the rule of law. They have served as models for The Genocide Convention of 1948, The Geneva Convention on the Laws and Customs of War, and The Nuremberg Principles of 1950.
It is the world’s misfortune Russia’s head of state chose to ignore them.
•Retired attorney Jim Thomas lives in Atlanta. He is a former Pierce County resident and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.