What these ‘show trials’ are really showing us

The Times (London)
July 8, 2004, Thursday

What these ‘show trials’ are really showing us

Simon Sebag Montefiore

THIS IS the season of “show trials”, but the fallen tyrants,
arraigned before courts of law and tribunals of posterity, are not
performing as expected.

Saddam Hussein, arraigned in Baghdad, appeared appropriately
bewildered until he felt the restorative beams of centre stage and
swaggeringly challenged the jurisdiction of the court, accusing
President Bush of being the “real criminal”.

Slobodan Milosevic has gone one better -this week he claimed that his
blood pressure is so high that he is not fit to be tried at all.

Former dictators often turn out to be as manipulatively adept in
court as Marshall Hall and they can lead Western justice a merry
dance -for the very reason that our system tries desperately to give
the accused every chance to assert their innocence. These trials are
the judicial equivalent of the diplomatic confrontations between
democracies and dictatorships. In those tournaments of power,
dictatorships are well equipped to exploit the flawed qualities of
democracies whose decision-making is cumbersomely consensual and
whose public opinion eschews bloodshed. Hence it took years of brazen
Nazi aggression, of Serbian blood-letting, of Saddamist brinkmanship
before we intervened.

Yet as in democracy itself, it is the very flawed fairness of the
proceedings that makes them so worthwhile. Dictators can preen,
deliver sicknotes, and rant at the judges, but this sound and fury
merely raise the dignity of the court itself. The more they play up,
the more justice is seen to be done -and it must be seen to be done.

These trials are colloquially, and semi-ironically, called “show
trials”, but we should be more respectful of ourselves, and the
victims of these monsters. Words matter in times such as ours. These
trials are primarily to give justice to every victim, treating each
destroyed human life as cause for a trial in itself, and thus to
avoid colluding in Stalin’s macabre quip: “One death is a tragedy, a
million, a statistic.” But except for high-profile assassinations,
this is impossible with so many victims. Thus we enter the realm of
Stalinist insouciance accusing the tyrants of genocide, an indictment
of numbers so large that there is a danger that they become
meaningless or give refuge to deniers who ape Disraeli’s bon mot:
“There are lies, damn lies and statistics.”

Nevertheless we must also admit that there is much “show” in these
trials too: they must show justice to Serbia or Iraq, helping them to
rebuild and showing them the humiliation of these grotesques; they
must show other benighted places that their tyrants may be held to
account; and show us -Western electorates -that our war was just.
Justice must be seen to be done in more ways than is usual.

Despite this, they are not show trials. The original was developed in
the USSR in the late Twenties and reached its apogee with Stalin’s
three theatrical tribunals in 1936, 1937 and 1938. In these trials,
his opponents, Lenin’s celebrated lieutenants, Zinoviev and Bukharin,
admitted belonging to all-embracing criminal conspiracies. They were
sentenced to death and shot. There were plenty of credulous fools,
such as the US Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, but most Westerners
realised that these were really not trials at all but melodramatic
political passion plays.

The new Soviet archives show just how lovingly these theatricals were
supervised by their playwright-in-chief. I found notes by the
Prosecutor-General Andrei Vyshinsky showing how Stalin had dictated
his summings-up. Stalin constantly tinkered with the text, writing
that it required some “stylistic polishing”. The victims (or actors)
understood that these were plays in a new Aesopian language designed
to retell and sanctify the Bolshevik Revolution for the party and
posterity -hence Bukharin’s brilliant performance, though he wrote
pitifully to Stalin: “Koba, why do I have to die?”

Historically, we are not above holding show trials ourselves. The
trials of Charles I or of Henry VIII’s victims truly resemble
Stalinist show trials. The accusations against Anne Boleyn
-ridiculous conspiracies of witchcraft, incest, murder, treason
-exist only in the alternative universe of fatal theatre.

The crimes of Milosevic or Saddam are much too real, so it is
irritating that we cannot stop them relishing the limelight. It is
the nature of these demi messianic egomaniacs to believe that
everything they have ever done was part of their historic mission.
They cannot help playing to posterity.So they are hard criminals to
try. Not unlike a serial killer who has been found guilty in the
tabloids, we already believe, no we already know that Saddam and
Milosevic are as guilty as sin but the challenge is to prove that
they gave direct homicidal orders. Then there is the enduring fear
that they engendered and the cosa nostra-style command structures
which make guilt hard to stick.

But dictators are often self-righteously bureaucratic, seeing no
reason not to record their atrocities. Stalin’s archives contain his
(and his henchmen) signatures on orders to kill randomly hundreds of
thousands by quota; to torture individuals; even to execute 28,000
Polish officers in 1940. But he also gave orders to kill well-known
people using a special codeword which symbolised the highest secret
power: “The Instantsiya orders…” and this was passed down the line.
Had Stalin faced trial, this would have been hard to pin down. Hitler
knew much better that he was doing wrong because his signature
virtually never appears on orders for the Final Solution.

The danger is that such trials become stand-alone spectacles that
blame all crimes on one man and neither assign the guilt correctly
nor cleanse the culture. The true success of Nuremberg was not the
death sentences but that the trial was the centrepiece of German
de-Nazification and renaissance. In Russia, true responsibility for
mass murder (beyond Stalin and Beria) has never been faced, hence the
difficulty in creating civic society: no sin, no redemption.

There are limits to what we can do. We cannot capture all the tyrants
(blood-spattered Idi Amin or Ethiopia’s diabolical Mengistu never
faced trial) but we must do what we can. Should they be shot? Such
are their crimes that it seems that only death even approaches the
appropriate level for such malice and such misery. Stalin took a
minute interest in the conduct of his victims at the intimate moment
of execution: do we diminish ourselves by playing hangmen?

If these are not show trials, we need to coin a new word for them and
their special justice. Perhaps they are not only murder trials on a
colossal scale but also “exhibition trials” conveying “hyperjustice”
to the world of 24-hour news. We risk monsters being found innocent,
showing off like Saddam, claiming sickness like Milosevic, cheating
the hangman like Goering. But these are risks well worth taking.

Those who mock these trials should know that the dictators themselves
sensed the need for them. Hitler and Stalin feared that history would
notice their murders but decided that no one would care. “After all,
who today speaks of the massacre of the Armenians?” asked Hitler,
ordering the Final Solution. “Who’s going to remember all this
riff-raff in ten or twenty years?” asked Stalin, signing death lists.
“Who now remembers the boyars Ivan the Terrible killed? No one!”
Saddam surely hoped the same about Kuwaitis, Kurds, Shias, Marsh
Arabs -“dogs” all.

At the very least, these trials are acts of remembrance;
demonstrations that leaders are responsible for their crimes; and
exhibitions of true justice (in which we must take a sort of pride
even in the failures.) But at their best, they are both a healing
tonic and tolling lesson not from history but from today, delivering
repentance, redemption and renaissance. They must offer spectacle but
never show.

Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore, winner
of The Times history book of the year prize, is out in paperback