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The term show trial is a pejorative description of a type of highly public trial. The term was first recorded in the 1930s. There is a strong connotation that the judicial authorities have already determined the guilt of the defendant and that the actual trial has as its only goal to present the accusation and the verdict to the public as an impressive example and as a warning. Show trials tend to be retributive rather than correctional justice.

Such trials can exhibit scant regard for the niceties of jurisprudence and even for the letter of the law. Defendants have little real opportunity to justify themselves: they have often signed statements under duress and/or suffered torture prior to appearing in the court-room.

Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc show trials

Moscow Trials

Show trials were a significant part of Joseph Stalin's regime. The Moscow Trials of the Great Purge period in the Soviet Unionmarker are characteristic.

The authorities staged the actual trials meticulously. If defendants refused to "cooperate", i.e., to admit guilt for their alleged and mostly fabricated crimes, they did not go on public trial, but suffered execution nonetheless. This happened, for example during the prosecution of the so-called "Labour Peasant Party" (Трудовая Крестьянская Партия), a party invented by NKVD, which, in particular, assigned the notable economist Alexander Chayanov to it.

The first solid public evidence of what really happened during the Moscow Trials came to the West through the Dewey Commission. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, more information became available. This discredited Walter Duranty, who claimed that these trials were actually fair.

Eastern Bloc party show trials



Following some dissent within ruling communist parties throughout the Eastern Bloc, especially after the 1948 Tito-Stalin split, several party purges occurred, with several hundred thousand members purged in several countries. In addition to rank-and-file member purges, prominent communists were purged, with some subjected to public show trials. These were more likely to be instigated, and sometimes orchestrated, by the Kremlin or even Stalin himself, as he had done in the earlier Moscow Trials.

Such high ranking party show trials included those of Koçi Xoxe in Albania and Traicho Kostov in Bulgaria, who were purged and arrested. After Kostov was executed, Bulgarian leaders sent Stalin a telegram thanking him for the help. In Romania, Lucreţiu Pătrăşcanu, Ana Pauker and Vasile Luca were arrested, with Pătrăşcanu being executed. Stalin's NKVD emissary coordinated with Hungarian General Secretary Mátyás Rákosi and his ÁVH head the way the show trial of Hungarian Foreign Minister László Rajk should go, and he was later executed. The Rajk trials led Moscow to warn Czechoslovakia's parties that enemy agents had penetrated high into party ranks, and when a puzzled Rudolf Slánský and Klement Gottwald inquired what they could do, Stalin's NKVD agents arrived to help prepare subsequent trials. The Czechoslovakian party subsequently arrested Slánský himself, Vladimír Clementis, Ladislav Novomeský and Gustáv Husák (Clementis was later executed). Slánský and eleven others were convicted together of being "Trotskyist-zionist-titoist-bourgeois-nationalist traitors" in one series of show trials, after which they were executed and their ashes were mixed with material being used to fill roads on the outskirts of Prague. By the time of the Slánský trials, the Kremlin had been arguing that Israel, like Yugoslavia, had bitten the Soviet hand that had fed it, and thus the trials took an overtly anti-Semitic tone, with eleven of the fourteen defendants tried with Slánský being Jewish.

The Soviets generally directed show trial methods throughout the Eastern Bloc, including a procedure in which confessions and evidence from leading witnesses could be extracted by any means, including threatening to torture the witnesses’ wives and children. The higher ranking the party member, generally the more harsh the torture that was inflicted upon him. For the show trial of Hungarian Interior Minister János Kádár, who one year earlier had attempted to force a confession of Rajk in his show trial, regarding "Vladimir" the questioner of Kádár:

The evidence was often not just non-existent but absurd, with Hungarian George Paloczi-Horváth’s party interrogators delightedly exclaiming "We knew all the time—we have it here in writing—that you met professor Szentgyörgyi not in Istanbulmarker, but in Constantinoplemarker." In another case, the Hungarian ÁVH secret police also condemned another party member as a Nazi accomplice with a document that had actually been previously displayed in glass cabinet of the Institute of the Working Class Movement as an example of a Gestapo forgery. The trials themselves were "shows", with each participant having to learn a script and conduct repeated rehearsals before the performance. In the Slánský trial, when the judge skipped one of the scripted questions, the better-rehearsed Slánský answered the one which should have been asked.

Nuremberg Trials

British jurist F.J.P. Veale implied , in his book "Advance to Barbarism" that the 1946 Nuremberg Trialsmarker of Nazi leaders amounted to a form of show trial, as the judgments were not rendered by a disinterested party, which is a key element of independent judicial integrity. Others have disputed this characterization , noting that the forms of due process were observed, the trials were open to the public, and that some of the Nuremberg defendants were acquitted or were convicted of lesser charges than sought by the prosecution.

In 1949 Leo Szilard, the Physicist who drafted the letter Einstein signed to Franklin Roosevelt suggesting the USA start developing the military uses of nuclear power, wrote a short story entitled My Trial as a War Criminal. In his story the USA surrenders to the Soviet Unionmarker, and Szilard stands trial as a war criminal, in an international tribunal modeled after the Nuremberg tribunals, as do President Harry Truman, and Secretary of War Henry Stimson.

See also



Notes

  1. OED


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