Peter Maguire: The Myth of Nuremberg Is Warping the Debate About Saddam's Trial

Roundup: Historians' Take

Peter Maguire, who has taught the laws of war at Columbia University and Bard College, is author of Law and War; writing in Newsday (Dec. 28, 2003):

The captured Iraqi leader is the most significant single war-crimes defendant since Herman Goering took the stand at Nuremberg in 1946. Compared to Hussein's use of poison gas against Iranians and his own people, Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial in the Hague , is a relative small fry.

How ironic that the president who singlehandedly rolled back most of the international legal gains of the 1990s is now calling for a trial that will bear "international scrutiny." While a legitimate trial for Hussein could firmly establish his guilt in the eyes of his countrymen, any trial designed to "educate" the Iraqi people could quickly turn to farce as trials cannot be asked to teach historical lessons. Trials, at best, can only establish legal guilt or innocence.

The idea that war-crimes trials can "re-educate" societies is based upon the assumption that the Nuremberg trials did more than punish the guilty and exonerate the innocent - that they also transformed Nazis into law-abiding democrats. Neither assumption stands up to the analysis of a new generation of scholars. German historian J"rg Friedrich contends that the Nuremberg trials caused many to embrace their fallen leaders: "Yet although their guilt was proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the public simply chose not to believe it. The wedge of criminal guilt that was meant to be a wedge between the public and the defendants turned out to form a link between them."

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