75 years ago, November 20, 1945 witnessed the beginning of the Nuremberg trials of the Third Reich leaders – one of the key events to sum up the most horrible war in the entire history of mankind. Its significance is of such a nature that the Yalta-Potsdam system of international relations might be easily called the Yalta-Potsdam-Nuremberg system.
The idea to internationally punish war criminals appeared during World War I among the leaders and diplomats of the Entente countries – the German elite led by Kaiser Wilhelm II himself along with the Ottoman Empire rulers were to be punished for unprecedented atrocities against their Christian subjects, primarily the Armenians. It was in the Anglo-French-Russian Declaration on the Armenian genocide that the phrase "crimes against peace and humanity" was first used.
But in real-world terms, almost none of the plans were implemented. Following Germany's defeat and his overthrow, the Kaiser went to Germany, and no one particularly demanded his extradition. Also, no one really tried to bring Reich military leaders Hindenburg and Ludendorff to justice. As for the middle and lower echelons of the German military-political machine, the Entente, engaged in dividing the spoils, was happy to pass the buck of legal proceedings to the Germans themselves, who arranged the so-called Leipzig trials, which turned into a slapstick. Most of the defendants... didn't simply show up. Many were acquitted, and only a few got short prison terms.
Only a little stricter was justice in case of the Ottoman Empire, which was living out its last days. Two minor executive governors were executed, who were later, under Kemal Ataturk, classed among "national martyrs". The key culprits quietly fled to other countries, and retribution had to be exercised in other ways: someone was killed by Armenian avengers as part of Operation Nemesis, while former war Minister Enver Pasha, who joined the Central Asian Basmachi, was killed in combat by Red Army commander Yakov Melkumov (also an ethnic Armenian, by the way).
World War II, which significantly surpassed the first one in scale and, most importantly, systematic crimes against humanity, could not have had an equally humane ending. Anti-Hitler coalition representatives had every confidence that their enemies should suffer severe punishment. The only question was which one and in what manner. English politicians, let's say, tended to be executed on the spot immediately after capture. The hardest-hit Soviet Union clung onto an international tribunal. This one was implemented, at the end of the day.
The international tribunal had to face a number of major challenges. Thus, the prosecution mechanism was a brand new effort, with not so much legal as political means, because previously there weren't any legal precedents of this kind. Take a simple example of the 1928 international treaty called the Kellog-Briand Pact, which provided for the inadmissibility of an invasive war. But there wasn't a word in the pact about how to deal with the statesmen who did resort to it nevertheless.
And still, the trial took place and was brought to its logical conclusion, which simultaneously marked the end of the chapter for eleven top Nazi generals (Goering poisoned himself the day before execution). For the Soviet people, this sentence, as well as the outcome of other, local trials of German and their allied military and civil functionaries became a no less, if not more, important outcome of the war than territorial and geopolitical acquisitions and reparations.
Unfortunately, the Nuremberg justice system (in a broad sense covering not only the "core" process, but also the entire complex time- and space-scattered epic with punishing the Nazis) failed to play its part to the fullest extent. Its mission both to punish the crimes already committed and to prevent their recurrence in the future found itself crumpled.
Amid the imminent Cold War, the Western powers were increasingly willing to grant amnesty or provide lenient penalties. As a result, by the early 1950s, many generals and officials were released who had previously been charged with horrible crimes. The generals formed the command backbone of the new West German army and became "celebrities" of the NATO headquarters into the bargain. Civilians were no worse off. Chief of Staff of the German Chancellery Hans Globke, who used to be one of the sponsors of the Nuremberg Laws, had never been hold accountable, as a formally non-NSDAP member.
There was also enough outright arbitrariness and voluntarism. For instance, for enforcing Field Marshal Kesselring's order to execute American saboteurs in Italy, German General Dostler was riddled with bullets, while Kesselring himself was spared due to the intercession of "stakeholders" from England and the United States; the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and in 1952 the Field Marshal was released, becoming military adviser to Adenauer. There are certain questions about the social camp countries either. Ferocious gauleiter of East Prussia, Reichskommissar of Ukraine and the RKO Eric Koch definitely deserved the scaffold no less than Ribbentrop, a diplomat but not an executioner. But Koch's judgment of death was not executed because of his "poor health". The morbid Koch died in a comfortable cell in 1986 at the age of 91. There is speculation that the mysterious mercy was brought about by the prisoner's awareness of the secrets of the Amber Room...
And finally, the truth is that Nuremberg was a trial of winners over losers. The Nazis were charged by judges whose countries dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and conventional but no less deadly ones on Dresden, arranged a pretty much Nazi-style segregation, like the United States did as applied to its black citizens, arranged carnages in mandated and colonial territories, refused to accept Jewish refugees from Europe both before and during the war.
There were even more problems with the extension of Nuremberg principles into the future. Since the tribunal, the world had witnessed half a century of bloody Western wars in the Middle East, Indochina, and Latin America, half a century of direct and indirect interventions, and active assistance to the most brutal and bloody regimes when it was not possible to ensure accountability for arranging these wars and interventions. Under a bipolar system and the most powerful global left-wing alternative, it would be possible to give the war crimes of the West at least a rough and partly weighted moral assessment (for instance, the so-called Russell Tribunal on the military intervention in Vietnam, which embraced first-magnitude public, cultural and scientific figures). After 1991, this possibility faded as well.
The Nuremberg concept became targeted by powerful and shameless speculation. Saddam Hussein was executed for crimes...that he mostly committed until 1990, when he was a nursling of the West. Back then, those crimes in London and Washington were of little concern to anyone. Even after Operation Desert Storm, the Iraqi dictator carried out massacres of Kurds and Shiites with the Americans' tacit consent. And Kampuchean dictator Pol Pot enjoyed support with the Americans even after his overthrow, when the world shuddered at the sight of crimes committed under him. Finally, the international tribunal on the former Yugoslavia and the trial of Slobodan Milosevic became the pinnacle of the nastiest "vae victis" exemplification. The Serbs were defeated, while the Kosovars, the Bosniaks and the Croats were always entitled to expect the highest possible demonstrative leniency. And even now, the trial of Kosovar leaders Veseli and Thaci is a consequence of Western political environment rather than of suddenly awakening conscience.
And what about the Latvia prosecution of Soviet partisan Vasily Kononov, whose sentence was first passed and then recognized as fair by the European Court of Human Rights' Grand Chamber, precisely starting out from the Nuremberg concept? A bigger challenge is scarcely conceivable.
I'm going to trust that our country, with its unique right to preserve the heritage and interpret the Nuremberg results, will make a difference, sooner or later. And we will see stern but fair sentences for those who really deserve it – the executioners in the Donbass, Odessa, Karabakh, South Ossetia and Serbia.