How the Soviet Union Helped Establish the Crime of Aggressive WarRoundup
tags: war crimes, USSR, World War 2, international law, Nuremberg Tribunal
Francine Hirsch is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Cornell, 2005). and Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg: A New History of the International Military Tribunal after World War II (Oxford, 2020).
Diplomats and lawyers have been talking in recent days about convening an international tribunal on the Nuremberg model or something akin to it to try Russian President Vladimir Putin and those in his inner circle for waging a war of aggression against Ukraine. And rightly so.
The world has been watching the brute-force invasion in real time and has been tracking the Russian military’s countless violations of international law, from dropping cluster bombs in densely populated areas to refusing to open a true humanitarian corridor for the evacuation of civilians. It has also heard Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov manipulate the language of international law to carry out a propaganda campaign at home.
Putin’s cynical use of the language of international law to defend illegal actions while threatening the sovereignty of other states is nothing new. We saw it with the 2014 invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, which Putin also described as a humanitarian intervention. In the wake of that move, the Russian State Duma passed a law upholding the supremacy of Russian law over the rulings of international courts. Western observers at the time noted that this was “another step for the Kremlin away from the system of international law and rules in place since World War II.”
What is not always acknowledged is the vital role that Russia, or more accurately the Soviet Union, played in establishing this postwar system of international law in the first place, including the crime of aggression in particular. When international lawyers and politicians now call for “another Nuremberg” (whether in the form of a UN-based, hybrid, or multinational tribunal), it may be helpful to reflect on the history of the first of the Nuremberg Trials. The International Military Tribunal (IMT) of November 1945-October 1946 is often discussed as a triumph of “Western ideals” or as an “American invention.” In fact, Nuremberg would not have happened at all had it not been for the insistence of the Soviet Union.
A call for a special international tribunal
The Soviets took up the question of Nazi criminality early in the war—prompted by the brutality of the Nazi assault and occupation in places such as Kharkov (Kharkiv) and Kiev (Kyiv). In April 1942 Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov published his “Third Note on German Atrocities,” citing evidence that the burning of villages and the massacre of civilians were part of a deliberate German plan. Six months later, in October 1942, Molotov publicly called for the convening of a “special international tribunal” and invited all interested governments to cooperate in bringing Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, and other Nazi leaders to justice.
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