In his new book Human Rights after Hitler, Dan Plesch makes a case for rewriting the history of human rights and international criminal law using the declassified archives of the United Nations War Crimes Commission (UNWCC). In view of 36,000 indictments against Nazi and Japanese war criminals facilitated by the UNWCC, he argues that the Allied nations’ response to the Holocaust was more committed than most accounts – focussing on the International Military Tribunals at Nuremberg and Tokyo – acknowledge. His study thus carries on his own already extensive work on the UNWCC and complements publications on the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials, such as Reassessing the Nuremberg Military Tribunals: Transitional Justice, Trial Narratives, and Historiography by Kim Priemel and Alexa Stiller.
In nine chapters (see http://www.unwcc.org/chapters/ for short summaries), Plesch seeks to fish the UNWCC “out of the Orwellian ‘memory hole’ into which its contemporary detractors cast it”. He outlines its establishment and the commission’s work, underlining that not only the Nazi leadership was brought to justice, but many more who were responsible for the Holocaust in occupied countries. He also highlights that the UNWCC, in responding to Nazi atrocities, was an important forum for innovations in international law with regard to aggressive war, the defense of superior orders, prosecution of sexual violence etc., and that these innovations were the result of the contributions of non-Western intellectuals and officials as well as the exile governments in London. He strongly criticizes scholarship that overlooks the “international, grassroots-driven campaign to formalize and enforce global norms” (p. 193) and that denies the liberal and global origins of human rights in the 1940s (e.g. Samual Moyn).
The UNWCC’s effectiveness, he puts forward, should be proof that war crimes should and can be prosecuted effectively. Plesch is convinced that there are “moral and practical lessons we can learn from the heroes of this unsung political movement for international justice.” (p. 2) He agrees with Carsten Stahn that we are in need of a “UNWCC 2.0” that enables complementary prosecution of war crimes by national courts while applying international criminal legal standards. Instead of betting on “large-scale, expensive, drawn-out trials of leaders conducted by international (overwhelmingly Western) lawyers and officials”, the UNWCC is an example for effective prosecution of war crimes on a national level “through existing judicial systems.” (p. 204)
Plesch justifies his object of study with the usefulness and applicability of UNWCC practices and norms, e.g. for prosecuting Syrian war criminals. This should be kept in mind when reading his book. Understanding the “past as prelude” always risks downplaying developments that do not fit our narrative in favor of a teleological explanation of the historical past. However, this is a well-researched and well-argued book with a strong appeal for more studies on the UNWCC.
Listen to an interview with Dan Plesch on NPR (4:24 min)
Moyn, Samuel. The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Plesch, Dan. Human Rights after Hitler: The Lost History of Prosecuting Axis War Crimes. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2017.
Priemel, Kim C., and Alexa Stiller. Reassessing the Nuremberg Military Tribunals: Transitional Justice, Trial Narratives, and Historiography. New York: Berghahn Books, 2012.
Stahn, Carsten. “Complementary and Cooperative Justice ahead of Their Time? The United Nations War Crimes Commission, Fact-Finding and Evidence.” Criminal Law Forum 25 (2014): 223–260.
GRR Legal History Research group: Our next meeting will discuss “Contracts” on Friday, 12th May 2017, with short presentations by Thomas Pierson (Gießen), Robert Kindler (HU Berlin) and Arvid Schors (Freiburg/Br.).
Recently, the Wiener Library in London has opened the United Nations War Crimes Commissions Archives to the public. The opening has attracted publicity well beyond the academic community (as for example in this article published in the guardian where the now accessible documents have been considered to “rewrite chapters of history”. The documents prove the impact of “smaller” nations on the definitions of post-war justice, thus displaying how collaboration within the London Moment worked: governments-in-exile and exiled experts of international law were highly influential in laying the ground for the work of UNWCC.
When the Nazis conquered the continent in 1939/1940, political elites from all over Europe fled to Great Britain, last remaining safe haven of the Allies in reachable distance. Most European governments whose territory was now being occupied by Nazi Germany moved to London. Representatives of France, Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Norway and Greece inhabited flats and houses in the British capital, all around Hyde Park and close to the British authorities. A significant number of them had arrived as individual refugees, but once in London, they revived their former contacts to set up the mechanics of national committees and governments-in-exile, but also to continue political collaboration on an international level. The British government and King offered symbolical and political, but also substantial technical and financial support. European cooperation was expected to strengthen the allied cause. Needless to say, this collaboration also entailed conflicts. But, for the time of the war, the European political exiles and their British counterparts were stuck with each other – and most intended to make the best of this unusual geographical proximity and collaborate closely to defeat Nazism and plan a post-war world. Thus, just as Berlin became the capital of fascist Europe, London became the capital of free Europe, the seat of almost all European governments.
This blog engages with the history of collaboration between the European governments-in-exile in London during the Second World War and between them and their host country, Great Britain. It discusses questions of international relations using the local urban study of central London during the war. A special interest is given to aspects of legal history: The legal position of governments-in-exile, the activities of international lawyers in their circles, and the discussions leading to a new international law and international juridicial system.