Why Ukraine and Russia Both Look to the Nuremberg Trials
Itn the three months since Russia invaded Ukraine, the conflict has left little doubt of the power of disinformation—about the past as well as the present. Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified his “special military operation” with a distorted version of Ukrainian history and with false claims that Ukraine’s present-day leaders are “Nazis.” Now, with the West aware of how Russian aggression has played out in places like Irpin and Bucha, we are also watching a struggle unfold over the legacy of the Nuremberg Trials. Ukrainian leaders look to Nuremberg for an in-depth investigation into Russian war crimes. Russian leaders invoke Nuremberg in their defense of Ukraine’s invasion, reminding us how history can be altered to suit almost any purpose.
On November 15, 1945, Great Britain (USA), France (France) and the Soviet Union created the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg to trial 22 Nazi leaders. The tribunal was set up by Great Britain, France and the United States. Those in the dock included the members of Hitler’s inner circle as well as Germany’s military leaders, government ministers, and propagandists; the vast majority of those tried were convicted.
An American and Soviet desire to have Nazi leaders held responsible for starting an aggressive war led to the decision to create an international tribunal. It was the Soviets who first proposed such a tribunal, and a Soviet lawyer, Aron Trainin, who coined the term “crimes against peace.” Lawyers from the U.S. War Department’s Special Projects Branch such as Murray Bernays embraced the idea—as did U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson. The victory was quickly followed by the U.S. president Harry S. Truman, and the British and French leaders.
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Nuremberg faced its critics right from the beginning. Even before the verdicts were in, some lawyers and journalists dismissed the tribunal as “high politics masking as law.” After the trials, the French judge Henri Donnedieu de Vabres revealed that he had keenly felt the criticism of the Nuremberg judgment for having been decided only by representatives of the victors. De Vabres claimed that such a situation could be rectified in the future through the establishment of an international permanent criminal court.
The Cold War halted plans to establish this international criminal court. Nuremberg, instead, became the linchpin for competing national mythologies of World War II justice and postwar justice. United States: The victory of Western leadership was a triumph for liberal values. Nuremberg is also recalled as the American war. Nuremberg, in the Soviet Union was the symbol for the Soviet victory against Nazism and the establishment of the USSR’s global dominance.
We now have the International Criminal Court, ending the Cold War. But the court has failed to become all that de Vabres had envisioned, largely because key states like the United States and Russia refuse to accept the court’s jurisdiction. The idea of Nuremberg, meanwhile, lives on—and has taken on fresh meaning for two successor states of the Soviet Union: Russia and Ukraine.
For Ukraine, Nuremberg means hope—the possibility of bringing Russia’s leaders to justice for waging an illegal war of aggression. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been calling for a new Nuremberg since April 5. International lawyers and policymakers from Ukraine, Lithuania, Great Britain, the United States, and many other countries have joined him—and have put forward resolutions, proposals, and model indictments for such a tribunal. They have reminded the world that the Nuremberg judgment deemed aggressive war “the supreme international crime.”
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Practical considerations influenced the decision to look at Nuremberg. Ukrainian courts can try Russian soldiers for war crimes—and in fact, the first war-crimes sentencing of a Russian soldier took place on Monday in Kyiv. International Criminal Court is able to try Russian leaders on charges of genocide, war crime, or crimes against humanity. It cannot, however, try Russian leaders who launched an aggressive war because Russia isn’t a party to the Rome Statute of 1998. Nuremberg is necessary for Ukraine.
Nuremberg is also symbolically significant for Ukraine. The country was brutally occupied by Nazi Germany in the Second World War. Some of the same towns and cities that were bombed and terrorized by Nazi occupiers in the 1940s—including Mariupol, Kyiv, and Kharkiv—are once again the site of devastation and mass atrocities.
Putin invoked Nuremberg in order to mobilize the Russian people against the Ukrainians. He has promulgated the lie that Ukraine is being run by Nazis—and has repeatedly made a false connection between Ukrainian nationalist organizations that collaborated with the Germans during World War II and Ukraine’s leaders today. Since the invasion on Feb. 24, he has defined his goal as Ukraine’s “de-Nazification.”
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Russian leaders and propagandists have put forward proposals for Ukraine’s “de-Nazification” that include trials of Ukrainian leaders and soldiers. One such plan, published by the state news agency RIA-Novosti in April, proclaimed that by convening a public tribunal, Russia would “act as the guardian of the [legacy of the] Nuremberg Trials.” On May 10, Russian State Duma member Andrei Krasov called for a “Nuremberg 2.0” to try Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders, whom he falsely smears as “neo-Nazi killers.” Last week Russian officials denounced the Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered at Azovstal as “Nazi war criminals” and called for a public tribunal in Donetsk to provide “a lesson for everyone who has forgotten the lessons of Nuremberg.”
What are these “lessons of Nuremberg” that Russian leaders and propagandists want to linger on? The obvious lesson is that Nazism was evil. But there are other “lessons” that are based on a patriotic-nationalistic history of World War II. This narrative portrays the Russians as the major victims and saviors in Europe. They can’t be Nazists or perpetrators. These labels belong to the Nazi invaders. This narrative of World War II is protected by a 2021 Russian memory law that bans public discussion about Soviet collaboration with Nazi Germany or about Soviet war crimes during World War II—a memory law that purports to be based on “the Nuremberg verdict.”
Putin looks at the Nuremberg verdict, because the Soviet Union as one of those victors was not brought to trial for its own war crimes. It was not held accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity. No Allied crimes were tried at Nuremberg; the tribunal’s jurisdiction was limited to the crimes of the European Axis powers. But Putin is using the tribunal’s restricted scope to manipulate the past: for Putin, the fact that Soviet crimes were not judged at Nuremberg means that they never happened.
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Putin’s lies about the past and lies about the present go hand in hand. Present-day Russia is mired in disinformation about Ukraine, about the war, and about the perpetration of war crimes; Russian atrocities in Mariupol, Bucha, and other towns and cities are dismissed as “fakes” or falsely blamed on Ukrainians. This is one of the reasons that Ukraine’s call for a Nuremberg-like tribunal to hold Russia’s leaders accountable is so compelling. This tribunal would be based on the gathering and review incontrovertible proof and could help bring Putin and others to his justice. It also might set the record straight regarding the war.
Ukraine and its supporters can draw important lessons from Nuremberg’s achievements as well as from its flaws. A new international tribunal to try Russia’s leaders must affirm the illegality of aggressive war and reveal the connections between crimes against peace and other war crimes. Any tribunal that is established by Ukraine or its allies should not be politicized in the pursuit of war criminals. This tribunal must establish an exhaustive historical record. It is essential for its legitimacy as well as for future generations. Above all, such a tribunal must remind the world that there are universal principles—and that those who violate them will be punished.
None of these things are inevitable. It is always the winner who organizes postwar tribunals, as history has shown. To bring Putin and his circle of thugs to justice in Ukraine, the country must win war. A dark alternative exists: Russia could hold a Nuremberg tribunal to hear the testimony of Ukrainian leaders. This would inevitably be a Soviet-style show trial—a kangaroo court that would degrade international law and could taint the meaning of Nuremberg forever.
Francine Hirsch, Vilas-Distinguished Achievement Professor at University of Wisconsin Madison, is the author of Soviet Judgment in Nuremberg: An Update on the International Military Tribunal’s History after World War II(Oxford, 2020).
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