In the three months since Russia invaded Ukraine, the conflict has left no doubt about the power of disinformation, both past and present. Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified his “special military operation” with a distorted version of Ukrainian history and false claims that Ukraine’s current leaders are “Nazis”. Now that the West is aware of how Russian aggression unfolded in places like Irpin and Bucha, we are also witnessing a struggle unfolding around the legacy of the Nuremberg trials. Ukrainian leaders look to Nuremberg to demand a full investigation into Russian war crimes. At the same time, Russian leaders invoked Nuremberg to justify their invasion of Ukraine, a reminder of how history and law can be manipulated to serve almost any end.
In November 1945, the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union convened the International Military Tribunal at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, to try 22 former Nazi leaders for conspiracy, crimes against peace , war crimes and crimes. against humanity. Those in the dock included members of Hitler’s inner circle as well as military leaders, government ministers, and German propagandists; the vast majority of those tried were convicted.
The decision to organize an international tribunal after World War II was motivated by the desire of the Soviets as well as the Americans to hold the Nazi leaders criminally responsible for starting a war of aggression. It was the Soviets who first proposed such a tribunal, and a Soviet lawyer, Aron Trainin, who coined the term “crimes against peace”. Lawyers in the US War Department’s Special Projects branch, such as Murray Bernays, embraced the idea, as did US Secretary of War Henry Stimson. After the victory, new U.S. President Harry S. Truman quickly boarded; British and French leaders soon followed.
Read more: How the meaning of ‘war crimes’ has changed and why it will be difficult to prosecute Russia for them
Nuremberg had its detractors from the start. Even before the verdicts were handed down, some lawyers and journalists called the court “high politics disguised as law.” After the trials, French judge Henri Donnedieu de Vabres revealed that he had strongly resented the criticism of the Nuremberg judgment for having been decided only by representatives of the victors. De Vabres argued that this could be resolved in the future with the creation of a permanent international criminal court.
Plans to create this international criminal court were blocked during the Cold War. Instead, Nuremberg became the linchpin of competing national mythologies about World War II and post-war justice. In the United States, the war and Nuremberg are remembered as triumphs of Western leadership and liberal values. In the Soviet Union, Nuremberg symbolized the Soviet victory over German fascism and the emergence of the USSR as a world power.
The Cold War is over and we now have an International Criminal Court. But the tribunal failed to become all that de Vabres envisioned, largely because key states like the United States and Russia refuse to accept the tribunal’s jurisdiction. The idea of Nuremberg, meanwhile, lives on and has taken on new meaning for two successor states of the Soviet Union: Russia and Ukraine.
For Ukraine, Nuremberg means hope – the possibility of bringing Russian leaders to justice for waging an unlawful war of aggression. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been calling for a new Nuremberg since April 5. International lawyers and policymakers from Ukraine, Lithuania, Britain, the United States and many other countries joined and presented resolutions, proposals and model indictments. for such a tribunal. They reminded the world that the judgment of Nuremberg considered the war of aggression as “the supreme international crime”.
Read more: How Ukraine Crowdsources War Crimes Digital Evidence
This reliance on Nuremberg as a model and inspiration was partly motivated by practical considerations. Ukrainian courts can try Russian soldiers for war crimes – and in fact, the first war crimes conviction of a Russian soldier took place in kyiv on Monday. The International Criminal Court can try Russian leaders for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine. But he cannot judge the Russian leadership for launching a war of aggression, because Russia is not a state party to the 1998 Rome Statute. For that, Ukraine needs Nuremberg.
Nuremberg also has great symbolic meaning for Ukraine, which suffered a brutal occupation by Nazi Germany during World War II. 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.
Meanwhile, Putin invokes Nuremberg to rally the Russian people to war against Ukraine. He promulgated the lie that Ukraine is ruled by the Nazis and repeatedly made a false connection between Ukrainian nationalist organizations that collaborated with the Germans in World War II and Ukraine’s leaders today. Since the February 24 invasion, it has defined its goal as the “denazification” of Ukraine.
Read more: Historians on what Putin is wrong about ‘denazification’ in Ukraine
Russian leaders and propagandists have advanced proposals for the “denazification” of Ukraine 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 guardian of the [legacy of the] Nuremberg Trials. On May 10, Andrei Krasov, a member of Russia’s State Duma, called for a “Nuremberg 2.0” to try Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders, whom he wrongly calls “neo-Nazi killers.” Russian officials last week denounced Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered in Azovstal as “Nazi war criminals” and called for a public tribunal in Donetsk to teach “a lesson to all those who have forgotten the lessons of Nuremberg “.
What are these “lessons of Nuremberg” that Russian leaders and propagandists want to dwell on? There is the obvious lesson that Nazism is evil. But there are other “lessons” that are based on a patriotic-nationalist history of World War II. In this story, the Russians are the saviors of Europe and the main victims of the Nazi genocide. They cannot be authors or fascists: these labels are reserved for Nazi invaders and their accomplices. This WWII account is protected by a 2021 Russian Memory Law that prohibits any public discussion of Soviet collaboration with Nazi Germany or Soviet war crimes during WWII – a memory law which claims to be based on “the Nuremberg verdict”.
Putin looks to the Nuremberg verdict because the Soviet Union, as one of the victors, was not tried at Nuremberg for its own crimes against peace. Nor has she been held responsible for war crimes or crimes against humanity. No Allied crimes were tried at Nuremberg; the court’s jurisdiction was limited to crimes of the European Axis powers. But Putin is using the court’s narrow scope to manipulate the past: for Putin, the fact that Soviet crimes were not tried at Nuremberg means they never happened.
Read more: A visit to the scene of the crime Russian troops left behind at a summer camp in Bucha
Putin’s lies about the past and lies about the present go hand in hand. Russia today is mired in misinformation about Ukraine, about the war, and about the commission of war crimes; Russian atrocities in Mariupol, Bucha and other cities are dismissed as “fakes” or wrongly blamed on Ukrainians. This is one of the reasons Ukraine’s call for a Nuremberg-like tribunal to hold Russian leaders accountable is so compelling. Such a tribunal, based on the collection and examination of irrefutable evidence, could bring Putin and those around him to justice and also set the story of the war straight.
Ukraine and its supporters can learn important lessons from the achievements of Nuremberg as well as its shortcomings. A new international tribunal to try Russian leaders must affirm the illegality of the war of aggression and reveal the links between crimes against peace and other war crimes. At the same time, any tribunal established by Ukraine and its allies must avoid politicizing the prosecution of war criminals. He must work to establish a complete historical record; this is necessary for its own legitimacy and for the benefit of future generations. Above all, such a court must remind the world that there are universal principles and that those who violate them will be punished.
Of course, none of this is inevitable. History shows that it is the victor who organizes the post-war tribunals. For Ukraine to bring Putin and his entourage to justice, it will first have to win the war. There is also a dark alternative: a Nuremberg-like tribunal of Ukrainian leaders held by Russia. It would inevitably be a Soviet-style show trial – a puppet court that would degrade international law and could forever taint the meaning of Nuremberg.
Francine Hirsch, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg: A New History of the International Military Tribunal after World War II(Oxford, 2020).
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