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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 May 2013

Humboldt University, Berlin
Department of History, Humboldt University, Unter den Linden 6,


This article reviews recent historical investigations of transitional trials held after the Second World War. It identifies three main strands of historiography. One group of studies has been dominated by the trials' participants who have shaped the perception of the trials' scope, their achievements, and their shortcomings, and pursued political, legal, or biographical agendas. A second group has treated the trials as a mere epilogue to the history of the deceased regimes. A third, more profound approach has conceptualized the trials as places where collective memory was assembled, configured, and shaped. This notion opens the debate to an analysis of how law and history on the one hand, jurisdiction, jurisprudence, and historiography on the other interact and how they impact on one another. The article compares and evaluates the benefits drawn from this research. It finds that historical analyses which take seriously the epistemological premises of the law as well as the courtroom's performativity manage to bypass well-trodden paths of interpretation which either deplore the limited, inadequate punishment meted out, or celebrate the triumphant march from Nuremberg to The Hague. The article concludes that such interdisciplinary readings help to avoid widespread disillusionment with the results of transitional trials.

Historiographical Reviews
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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I have greatly benefited from many insightful discussions with Daniela Helbig, Alexa Stiller, and Charles Maier (who kindly allowed me to paraphrase his own ‘Consigning the twentieth century to history’) and from the helpful comments on an earlier draft by two anonymous referees of the Historical Journal.


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40 John Mendelsohn, ‘Trial by document: the use of seized records in the United States proceedings at Nuernberg’ (D.Phil. thesis., College Park, 1974).

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67 Conze, Eckart et al. , Das Amt und die Vergangenheit: deutsche Diplomaten im Dritten Reich und in der Bundesrepublik (Munich, 2010), pp. 413–14Google Scholar.

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71 Heller, Nuremberg, p. 181. Cf. Jung, Susanne, Die Rechtsprobleme der Nürnberg Prozesse, dargestellt am Verfahren gegen Friedrich Flick (Tübingen, 1992)Google Scholar.

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76 Minear, Richard H., Victors' justice: the Tokyo war crimes trial (Princeton, NJ, 1971)Google Scholar; Piccigallos, PhilipThe Japanese on trial: allied war crimes operations in the east, 1945–1951 (Austin, TX, 1979)Google Scholar, is weak on analysis due to the author's emulation of ‘historical objectivity in the Von Rankean tradition’ (p. xv). The IMTFE transcript was co-edited by R. J. Pritchard who also published several articles on US and British war crimes trials in East Asia; Pritchard, R. John and Zaide, Sonia M., eds., The Tokyo war crimes trial: the complete transcripts of the proceedings of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (22 vols., New York, NY, 1981)Google Scholar.

77 E.g. Kei, Ushimura, Beyond the ‘judgment of civilization’: the intellectual legacy of the Japanese war crimes trials, 1946–1949 (Tokyo, 2003)Google Scholar.

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80 Boister, Neil and Cryer, Robert, The Tokyo International Military Tribunal: a reappraisal (Oxford, 2008), p. 82CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Totani, Tokyo, pp. 32–42. Cf. their accompanying documentary volume The Tokyo International Military Tribunal: judgment and documents (Oxford, 2008).

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82 Boister and Cryer, Tokyo, pp. 136–7; cf. Futamura, War, pp. 32–5.

83 Totani, Tokyo, pp. 95–6, 226–8.

84 Boister and Cryer, Tokyo, p. 114.

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86 Cf. Reel, A. Frank, The case of General Yamashita (Chicago, IL, 1949)Google Scholar; Lael, Richard, The Yamashita precedent: war crimes and command responsibility (Wilmington, NC, 1982)Google Scholar; Prévost, Ann Marie, ‘Race and war crimes: the 1945 war crimes trial of General Tomoyuki Yamashita’, Human Rights Quarterly, 14 (1992), pp. 303–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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88 Cf. Ebbinghaus, Angelika, ‘Der Prozeß gegen Tesch und Stabenow: von der Schädlingsbekämpfung zum Holocaust’, 1999, 13 (1998), pp. 1671Google Scholar.

89 Cf. von Lingen, Kerstin, Kesselring's last battle: war crimes trials and Cold War politics, 1945–1960 (Lawrence, KS, 2009)Google Scholar; von Wrochem, Oliver, Erich von Manstein – Akteur und Symbol: Vernichtungskrieg und Geschichtspolitik (Paderborn, 2006)Google Scholar.

90 Weindling, Medicine, pp. 97–125.

91 Cramer, John, Belsen trial 1945: der Lüneburger Prozess gegen Wachpersonal der Konzentrationslager Auschwitz und Bergen-Belsen (Göttingen, 2011), pp. 117–18Google Scholar.

92 Jardim, Tomaz, The Mauthausen trial: American military justice in Germany (Cambridge, MA, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sigel, Robert, Im Interesse der Gerechtigkeit: die Dachauer Kriegsverbrecherprozesse (Frankfurt, 1992)Google Scholar; see also Lisa Yavnai's contributions to Heberer and Matthäus, eds., Atrocities, and Reginbogin and Safferling, eds., Nuremberg.

93 Wieviorka's, AnnetteThe era of the witness (Ithaca, NY, 2006)Google Scholar, traces the turn in the wake of the Eichmann trial.

94 Cramer, Belsen, p. 206.

95 Ibid., pp. 397–8.; Jardim, Mauthausen, p. 216. Building on Shklar, Legalism, Osiel, Mark, Mass atrocity, collective memory and the law (New Brunswick, NJ, 1997)Google Scholar, argues that the specific circumstances of transitional periods justify deviations from the rule of law, yet, the ‘liberal’ conduct of trials through due process remains a prerequisite for their social benefits to unfold.

96 Weinke, Annette, ‘The German–German rivalry and the prosecution of Nazi war criminals during the Cold War, 1958–1965’, in Stoltzfus, and Friedlander, , eds., Nazi crimes, pp. 151–72Google Scholar. See also Weinke, Annette, Eine Gesellschaft ermittelt gegen sich selbst: die Geschichte der Zentralen Stelle Ludwigsburg 1958–2008 (Darmstadt, 2008)Google Scholar.

97 See Eichmüller, Andreas, ‘Die strafrechtliche Verfolgung von NS-Verbrechen und die Öffentlichkeit in der frühen Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1949–1958’, in Osterloh, and Vollnhals, , eds., NS-Prozesse, pp. 5373Google Scholar.

98 Wojak, Irmtrud, Fritz Bauer, 1903–1968: eine Biographie (Munich, 2009)Google Scholar; for a more sceptical evaluation of Bauer's conceptual work: Renz, Werner, ‘Der 1. Frankfurter Auschwitz-Prozess, 1963–1965, und die deutsche Öffentlichkeit: Anmerkungen zur Entmythologisierung eines NSG-Verfahrens’, in Osterloh, and Vollnhals, , eds., NS-Prozesse, pp. 349–62Google Scholar.

99 The books validate each other as they exploit different sources, Wittmann the trial's audio recordings, Pendas exhaustive press coverage; Wittmann, Rebecca, Beyond justice: the Auschwitz trial (Cambridge, MA, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Pendas, Devin, The Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, 1963–1965: genocide, history, and the limits of the law (Cambridge, 2006)Google Scholar.

100 Cf. Bryant, Confronting, pp. 108–11.

101 Bryant, Michaelargues that the same tendency was discernible in the Dachau trials: ‘Punishing the excess: sadism, bureaucratized atrocity, and the U. S. army concentration camp trials, 1945–1947’, in Stoltzfus, and Friedlander, , eds., Nazi crimes, pp. 6385Google Scholar.

102 Wojak, Bauer, pp. 340–8.

103 Pendas, Frankfurt, p. 303.

104 Ibid., p. 302.

105 Yablonka, Hannah, The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann (New York, NY, 2004), p. 50Google Scholar.

106 Segev, Tom, The seventh million: the Israelis and the Holocaust (New York, NY, 1993), p. 351Google Scholar; cf. Osiel, Mass atrocity, pp. 14–15, and Minow, Vengeance, p. 133.

107 Kraus, Peter, ‘“Eichmann und wir”: die bundesdeutsche Öffentlichkeit und der Jerusalemer Eichmann-Prozess 1961’, in Osterloh, and Vollnhals, , eds., NS-Prozesse, pp. 283306Google Scholar; Kampe, Norbert, Nachama, Andreas, and Neumärker, Uwe, eds., Der Prozeß – Adolf Eichmann vor Gericht/Facing Justice – Adolf Eichmann on Trial (Berlin, 2011), pp. 216–47Google Scholar.

108 Mulisch, Harry, Criminal case 40/61, the trial of Adolf Eichmann: an eyewitness account (Philadelphia, PA, 2005), p. 4Google Scholar.

109 For Ben Gurion's influence see Yablonka, State, pp. 51–4. For the earlier Kastner libel suit cf. Bilsky, Leora, ‘Judging evil in the trial of Kastner’, Law and History Review, 19 (2001), pp. 117–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

110 Cf. Lipstadt, Deborah E., The Eichmann trial (New York, NY, 2011), p. 138Google Scholar.

111 Kampe, Nachama, and Neumärker, eds., Der Prozess; cf. Cesarani, David, Becoming Eichmann: rethinking the life, crimes, and trial of a ‘desk muderer’ (Cambridge, MA, 2006), pp. 282, 300–2, 313–14Google Scholar.

112 Arendt, Eichmann, pp. 119–24, 209–10.

113 Cesarani, Eichmann.

114 Yablonka, State, pp. 90, 244.

115 Lipstadt, Eichmann, pp. 152–80.

116 Lipstadt, Deborah E., History on trial: my day in court with David Irving (New York, NY, 2005)Google Scholar.

117 Cf. Douglas, Memory, pp. 212–56, and Browning, Christopher R., ‘Law, history, and Holocaust denial in the courtroom: the Zündel and Irving cases’, in Stoltzfus, and Friedlander, , eds., Nazi crimes, pp. 197215Google Scholar.

118 Mulisch, Criminal case, pp. 93, 11, 117, 119, 126.

119 Minerbi, Sergio I., The Eichmann trial diary (New York, NY, 2011), p. 144Google Scholar.

120 Ibid., p. 124.

121 A valuable anthology now tackles these problems, covering theoretical and methodological issues as well as pragmatic how-to questions: Finger, Keller, and Wirsching, eds., Recht.

122 Wefing, Heinrich, Der Fall Demjanjuk: der letzte große NS-Prozess (Munich, 2011)Google Scholar; cf. Douglas, Lawrence, ‘Ivan the Recumbent, or Demjanjuk in Munich’, Harper's Magazine (Mar. 2012), pp. 4552Google Scholar.

123 Wefing, Fall.

124 Benz, Angelika, Der Henkersknecht: der Prozess gegen John (Iwan) Demjanjuk (Berlin, 2011), pp. 234, 85Google Scholar.

125 Posner and Vermeule, ‘Transitional justice’, p. 765. However, they rightly caution against too strict a differentiation between ‘unstable’ transitional and supposedly straightforward ‘ordinary’ justice.

126 Teitel, Ruti, ‘Transitional jurisprudence: the role of law in political transformation’, Yale Law Journal, 106 (1997), pp. 2009–80, at p. 2080CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

127 Cf. Shaffer, Gregory and Ginsburg, Tom, ‘The empirical turn in international legal scholarship, American Journal of International Law, 106 (2012), pp. 146CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for an example see Richard Ashby Wilson's study of the present international tribunals, Writing history in international criminal trials (Cambridge, 2011).

128 See Teitel, ‘Transitional jurisprudence’, pp. 2021, 2039.

129 Maier, Charles, ‘Doing history, doing justice: the narrative of the historians and of the truth commissions’, in Rotberg, Robert I. and Thompson, Dennis, eds., Truth v. justice: the morality of truth commissions (Princeton, NJ, 2000), pp. 261–78, at p. 261Google Scholar.

130 Minow, Vengeance, p. 5.