AdolfWhen Radovan Karadzic received a forty-year sentence after being found guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague last week, the trial of the former Serbian politician, poet, fugitive and advocate of ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian War had taken six years to reach its conclusion. By contrast, the trial of Nazi War Criminal Adolf Eichmann in Israel half-a-century ago took just eight months between the opening of the prosecution case and Eichmann being sentenced to death. At the time of Eichmann’s capture in Argentina by Mossad agents in 1960, a mere fifteen years had passed since the end of the Second World War; when Karadzic was finally found ‘hiding in plain sight’ in Belgrade, twelve years separated the present day from the conflict in which Karadzic had earned his notoriety. His crimes were as fresh in the memory of those affected by them as Eichmann’s had been for death camp survivors in the early 60s. In many respects, they remained present tense.

Karadzic’s ability to evade arrest for over a decade was aided by his standing amongst many Serbs, who didn’t regard his actions as those of a criminal; neither did he; he privately expressed his conviction that a ruthless policy of ethnic apartheid in the former Yugoslavia was both morally and intellectually indisputable. Adolf Eichmann had said towards the end of WWII that he would ‘leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction’. Did he fulfil his promise when the noose was slipped round his neck in June 1962, I wonder? Neither man appears to have recognised or acknowledged that their warped judgement on their fellow-man was in any way flawed or repugnant, and any notion of remorse was conspicuous by its absence.

The need for justice to be seen to be done is understandable in the case of both Eichmann and Karadzic. Their respective decisions led to the deaths of thousands (in the case of Karadzic) and millions (in the case of Eichmann); the innocent lives lost as casualties of inhumane ideology resonated throughout families for generations and the natural human desire for somebody to be held accountable galvanised the searches, arrest, imprisonment and trials of both men. The gap between crimes and capture is fairly similar, though the difference in the length it took between the beginning and ending of their respective trials is considerable. In terms of speed, Eichmann’s trial was reminiscent of the Nuremberg Trials in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, where 23 leading members of the Third Reich were tried and sentenced in the space of twelve months. These were military tribunals, of course, with judges provided by Britain, France, the US and the USSR, and were carried out at a moment whilst much of Europe still stood in ruins, with the thirst for retribution at its height.

The most prominent Serb war criminal to stand trial at The Hague prior to Karadzic was ex-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006 before the trial was completed; at the time of his death, it was a mere five years into proceedings. The establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1993 and 1994 respectively both predate the official formation of the International Criminal Court, which didn’t come into being until as recent as 2002, one of the reasons why Milosevic refused to recognise the body that had begun his trial the year before. That it took decades for the ICC to be established after the initial proposal for such a concept was mooted as far back as 1919 is perhaps reflected in the unsatisfactory length of time it takes for a judgement to be reached. When one considers 23 Nazi military and political personnel were tried, sentenced and convicted in a year from 1945-46, it would seem the institution sitting at The Hague still has a lot to learn from historical precedents.

Although victims of Eichmann gave evidence at his trial in 1961, one of the ICC’s key provisions is that victims of whoever happens to be in the dock have a right to make their voices heard at a trial, which might perhaps explain why the process drags on for so long. There is also the factor of state participation in ICC indictments; an incumbent head of government cannot be forced to surrender to the body and many rulers accused of crimes against humanity, particularly in African countries, cling onto power as it continues to provide them with immunity. The difficulties in dragging a defendant to The Hague in the first place is then compounded by the tedious legal chess game that constitute the trial itself, fuelling the opinion in many quarters that the International Criminal Court is an insufficient means of dealing with the problem of war crimes.

One thing that can be said in the ICC’s favour is that the trials at The Hague tend to be held no more than a decade after the crimes of which the defendant is accused were allegedly committed. Justice rather than vengeance is the prime objective. When it comes to frail men in their 90s being wheeled into the dock and charged with something they are alleged to have done long before most of those present in court were even born, concepts of justice become more problematic.

If someone who regards an octogenarian as a young man is hauled before a court and charged with a crime committed when he was in his 20s, the paucity of witnesses to and survivors of his crime often suggests vengeance is the prime motivation for his presence there. After all, what kind of prison sentence is someone within a whisker of being one hundred-years-old really expected to serve? The fact that the vast cast of Nazi war criminals who evaded justice in the first few years after the end of the War have already died seems to be no impediment to the hunger for vengeance, and those intent on pursuing the few that are left has seen guards at concentration camps carry the can for the actions of their superiors. They were, as the cliché goes, ‘only obeying orders’. There has to be a cut-off point for a conflict that ended over 70 years ago now, just as there has to be in all cases of ‘historic crime’ of whatever nature. Vengeance is not the same as justice, though domestic courts in this country have yet to accept this. Just ask Wen Zhou Li.

© The Editor

10 thoughts on “CRIMINAL HISTORY

  1. The pursuit and trial of nonagenarian nonentities from WWII is nothing to do with justice, neither is it about mere vengence, rather it is part of the perpetuation policy which remains a key PR plank of the Israeli government across many facets of life. Same goes for many Hollywood productions and the sponsored, almost compulsory, school-visits to Auschwitz for malleable teenagers, the reviving of Anne Frank’s Diaries every few years etc. – it’s all about keeping the Holocaust fresh in the minds of succeeding generations to ensure on-going political support for modern-day Israel against its unfriendly neighbours. Just because the last survivor, either internee or captor, has died will not stop this process, it’s already too well embedded into the systems.
    The above is not Holocaust-denial, it happened, it was indefensible and no-one can honestly deny it, but it recognises how the Israeli state cynically uses that historic event to further its current and future policies: the opportunity to ‘try’ some low-level German conscript of decades past is not to be wasted, but is simply a calculated political act, nothing to do with justice, personal remembrance or vengence.

    On the wider point, something like the International Criminal Court needs to exist but it also needs to apply comprehensive justice, without compromise, swiftly and openly. So far it’s not managed that so, for the moment, the jury’s out.


  2. a) What’s wrong with vengeance? If someone murdered someone at 20, but didn’t get caught til they are 99, why should they die, having got away with it. Laughing all the way to the grave, as Eichmann would have it.

    b) Mudplugger – really? Holocaust memorial is about Israel? On Holocaust Memorial Day, I also think about gassed queers, gypsies, disabled people and trades unionists, not forgetting the slavic races who were only one step up from Jews in Nazi Untermenschen hierarchy.


    1. With all the understandable emotions surrounding the Holocaust, I still don’t really see how somebody in their 90s spending what little time they have left behind bars in any way heals what happened or how, were they low down in the chain of command, their brief imprisonment can be perceived as genuine justice when the real perpetrators of the crimes either committed suicide in 1945 or were found guilty at Nuremberg. The post-Apartheid reconciliation programme in South Africa would seem to be an admirable attempt at preventing vengeance polluting successive generations who weren’t even alive when such crimes were committed, but with a diminishing list of witnesses to something like the Holocaust, this seems unlikely now.


      1. Well, we differ on this one. South Africa does indeed set a good example. But millions of dead people have not had the chance to be reconciled by confronting their Nazi murderers – and “I was just following orders” doesn’t cut it.

        Also, on the ICC, if the USA were signed up to it, maybe the process would have more clout. I wonder why they refuse to participate (no, I don’t really).


    2. Windsock – you may indeed think about the queers, gypsies, disabled etc, all of whom suffered similarly brutal fates, but you and I are in a minority – because those queers, gypsies, disabled etc. don’t have the powerful PR machine of the Israeli state pumping out their own memorial message, though so many diverse channels at every opportunity, in perpetuity.
      My point was about that cynical exploitation of the Holocaust horror to further the one set of victims, the Jews – that’s why it’s in your face at every opportunity and why no-one else gives a thought to all the other victims of that terrible, inexcusable event.


      1. Mudplugger – again, I have to differ. If we didn’t remember the Jews, do you think we would remember any of the others? There is no hierarchy of victimhood in terms of inhumanity inflicted on others for the sake of not meeting an ideological state of being, but you have to admit, there is a hierarchy of scale that cannot be ignored.

        I don’t care if Israel uses it as propaganda. I am no supporter of Israel’s positions with regard to Palestinians or in other foreign affairs, but they have to be tackled on their own terms. To mitigate the Holocaust because it is used for purposes of which you don’t approve is to step onto a road which eventually relegates it to irrelevance. And it isn’t and it never will be irrelevant to our history or the way we shape the world today.


  3. Failing to prosecute those who took part in the abominable cruelties of the Holocaust, however old they are now, would surely make a nonsense of the law. Would English law allow a nonagenarian Fred West to escape the consequences of his vile deeds? Not likely I think.

    Besides, Europe owes the surviving victims, and bereaved families, reassurance that what was done by those aged criminals was depraved, is utterly condemned by civilised societies, and is not forgotten.


    1. I agree it shouldn’t be forgotten, but then it ought to be a given that this is the case. My point is that the true criminals behind the Final Solution are all dead and gone now; prosecuting those whose role was no more central to it than standing guard at the gates of a concentration camp to me is the same as chasing after aged DJs who once shared a stage with Jimmy Savile simply because they can’t get Savile.


  4. Without those thousands upon thousands of “ordinary Germans” the “true criminals” behind the Holocaust could never have carried it out. Has a single German ever been prosecuted for “standing guard at the gates of a concentration camp”?

    All the cases of elderly Germans put on trial for their wartime efforts were rather more culpable than guards on a gate, so far as I have read.


    1. I think there was certainly a collective culpability on the part of the German (non-Jewish) population as a whole, whether turning a blind eye or endorsing what was going on. The general point I was trying to make within the piece is that the imprisonment and trials of both Eichmann and Karadzic were examples of major players with blood on their hands facing the music when the odour of their crimes remained strong. I wasn’t really implying the passage of time heals all wounds, but I do think when more than half-a-century has elapsed the chances are all the major players have answered for their crimes and there often seems to be a deep desire to keep the process going when little more can be really achieved. The current thirst for hunting down anyone associated with Jimmy Savile seems to share similar elements to it for me, less to do with justice and more to do with vengeance. Then again, one doesn’t always get it right.


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