Monday, March 7, 2011

Communism on Trial

One of the hallmarks of communist regimes, and the Soviet Union in particular, is its egregious disregard for justice, especially with respect to political opponents, schismatics, and dissidents. With this in mind, it's not surprising that so many legal tragedies are featured in the book Great World Trials: The 100 Most Significant Courtroom Battles of All Time, edited by Edward W. Kappman.

Which Russian communist or other communist trials made the list? It should be no surprise that the Moscow purge trials of 1936 to 1938 made the grade. Here, famously, Stalin explained the logic of the Great Terror to the world, inviting about 30 foreign guests and journalists to witness communist justice first-hand. In the first trial, which set the tone for the other two, a number of Old Bolsheviks with impeccable revolutionary credentials waived their "right" to defense attorneys and publicly confessed to coordinating (or in one case merely passively encouraging) a massive conspiracy to assassinate Kirov and Stalin, and overthrow the Soviet state. The other two trials saw the fruits of continued terror, intimidation, torture, and ideological persuasion, and other Soviet leaders publicly confessed that they bore direct responsibility for economic failures, Trotskyite plots, and foreign intrigue. Almost all of the accused were shot almost immediately following the trials, although a few perished in the gulag, as millions of less famous victims of Soviet justice did throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and, to a lesser extent, thereafter.

Other, less famous, trials were equally politicized and unrelated to credible evidence. In Hungary, the editor thought that Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty's trial deserves to be remembered, since this Catholic anti-communist was arrested in 1948, tortured, forced to publicly confess to plotting to overthrow the government, and sentenced to a life in labor, although he was freed during the Hungarian revolt against communism in 1956 and remained at the U.S. legation for fifteen years before agreeing to move to Rome in 1971, where he died fourteen years later.

In Yugoslavia, Milovan Djilas' trial is of course noteworthy. Djilas, the former Yugoslavian Politburo member and one of Tito's closest collaborators World War II, had become increasingly vocal in his opposition to Soviet-style political rule, and was eventually and repeatedly tried and jailed for allegedly slandering his country in the foreign press.

In Cuba, Castro's 1959 revolutionary tribunals followed a similarly disturbing pattern, with Batista's officers receiving little if any legal due process. Indeed, after three officers were convicted and killed in a show trial atmosphere, a court acquitted 44 airmen for alleged "genocide", but Castro personally overturned the verdict and re-tried the men, despite a lack of evidence against them. Soon, Castro had eliminated any pretense to an independent judiciary. However, it should be noted that Batista's 1953 trial of Castro and his fellow rebels, was no model of legal normalcy either, insofar as many of Castro's fellow conspirators had been tortured after they had been captured by the military.

Communist legal philosophy, which privileged political or moral considerations and devalued putatively bourgeois notions of fairness and due process, was put into practice with disastrous results throughout large portions of the world. In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel was repeatedly tried and punished between 1977 and 1989 for allegedly undermining state interests through his advocacy of civil rights and freedom. And of course China's legal system was, and remains, deeply flawed, although Great World Trials only mentions the Gang of Four Trial, which thrust four notorious Chinese communist leaders into their own show trial in 1980. The verdict, which did not benefit from a legitimate legal process, nevertheless helped China to put an end to the worst aspects of Mao's disastrous political legacy, much as Robespierre's down's fall during the French Revolution, or Beria's arrest and summary execution following the death of Stalin, led to positive political changes notwithstanding the hypocrisy of the judgments. Not that the farcical Tianamen Square trial doesn't also garner a mention in Great World Trials.

In addition to the above-mentioned examples of a profoundly flawed approach to justice, communism has frequently been on trial, directly or indirectly, in many of the West's most famous trials of the twentieth century. Think of the trial of Rosa Luxenburg's murderers in Germany following World War I, the Nazi case against those accused of setting fire to the Reichstag, the Rosenberg trial in the United States, or Victor Kravchenko's case. Kravchenko, the author of a vehemently anti-Stalinist memoir, decided to defend the legitimacy of his opposition to Stalinism by suing a Paris journal, Les Lettres Francais, for defaming him. He won the suit but his libelers, freedom fighters during the era of Nazi occupation of France, emerged unscathed.

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