From Fourth International, June 1946, Vol.7 No.6, pp.167-168.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.
The rulers of the past were not greatly concerned about assuming responsibility for the wars they waged. Not infrequently they boasted about it. They conducted military hostilities with relatively small professional armies or mercenary troops; the theater of war likewise remained restricted, with the population behind the lines left as a rule unaffected directly. But for the capitalist rulers the question of justifying their wars and disclaiming all war guilt is of first class importance. Modern wars are waged by entire countries and continents and the civilian population of city and countryside is engulfed. The havoc, suffering, sacrifices, victims as well as the equally fearful consequences of war engender almost automatically universal indignation and speculation concerning the causes of these holocausts and the means of abolishing them forever. Such thoughts are highly dangerous to rulers whose social system gives rise to war as organically as the liver secretes bile. The American imperialist bourgeoisie has been quite skillful and fertile in its efforts to divert attention from the true aims, origin and causes of its wars, and its own criminal complicity.
Among the elaborate devices serving this purpose of deception is the months-long Nuremberg trial of twenty-two top Nazi officials by the “International War Crimes Tribunal.” If the task of Wall Street’s diplomacy at the beginning of the war was to create the appearance that war had been forced upon this country by the “aggression” of the opposing side, then, at the conclusion of hostilities, the task of the legal chicanery at Nuremberg is to lay the entire war guilt at the door of the defeated rivals.
The idea of resorting to legalistic procedure, ‘international tribunals’ etc., originated in the course of the First World War. The plan at that time was to turn the German Kaiser into a scapegoat. The imperialist victors solemnly wrote into the Versailles Treaty (Article 227) that “The Allied and Associated Powers publicly arraign William II of Hohenzollern, formerly German Emperor, for a supreme offense against international morality and the sanctity of treaties.” They pledged to constitute a special tribunal, extradite the Kaiser from Holland and place him on trial. But they never did.
In all likelihood the step was never seriously contemplated. At all events, such a trial would have proved far more embarrassing to the hypocritical prosecutors and judges than to the lone defendant. Not that the Kaiser was innocent, any more than are the Nuremberg defendants. But in the first place, the Kaiser was in a position to expose Britain’s role in precipitating the first world conflict, in particular, the maneuvers whereby English diplomacy deliberately created the impression in Berlin that England would remain neutral, while spurring on Paris and Moscow by assurances of immediate entry into the war. Secondly, the European masses were then leading an intense political life. The proletarian revolution was triumphant in Russia under Lenin and Trotsky. The German revolution, which had overthrown the Kaiser, had not yet been shackled by the counter-revolution. Elsewhere in Europe the masses were seething. Into this white-hot atmosphere the Russian Bolsheviks flung their exposures of Allied war guilt through the publication of Czarist secret treaties with England, France and other countries. The trial of the Kaiser would have provided the powerful Communist movement of that day with an exceptional opportunity to unmask the war guilt of both sides. The victors of the war of 1914-18 remained content therefore with their “public arraignment” of the Kaiser and with inserting another clause into the Versailles Treaty which foisted the war guilt upon the people of Germany as a whole (Article 231).
Today the imperialist victors find a much more favorable situation so far as the staging of war-guilt trials is concerned. This is not because the present defendants are much more vulnerable from the standpoint of “international morality” than was the Kaiser, or for that matter, than those now sitting in judgment over them. They are all splotched with crimes. All their hands are drenched with the blood of countless millions.
Nor is it because the charge of “aggression” can be more readily proved against the Nazi butchers. As Lenin long ago explained, when two gangs of bandits arm themselves to their teeth against one another, it does not make a particle of difference which side strikes the first blow. Moreover, it is possible to play the role of aggressor and yet force an opponent into overt acts. This is precisely what Washington succeeded in doing with regard to Japan. Weeks before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt and his cabinet were unanimous in their decision to attack Japan. If they delayed it was only because “it was important, both from the point of view of unified support of our people as well as the record of history, that we should not be placed in the position of firing the first shot ...” These are the words of former Secretary of War Stimson who in the same document presented to the joint Congressional committee on the investigation of Pearl Harbor: “If there was to be war, moreover, we wanted the Japanese to commit the first overt act.” (New York Times, March 22.) Pearl Harbor was the price they gladly paid for exactly what they wanted.
The explanation for the favorable position of the “democratic” imperialists is to be found not in the composition of the defendants but in the fact that they have nothing to fear either from the side of the Kremlin or the mass parties under Stalinist or Social Democratic leadership. On the contrary, the Kremlin and all its agents abroad are participating and collaborating zealously in the mockery of justice that is being perpetrated in Nuremberg. The Stalinists cannot do otherwise. How can they indict the “democratic” imperialists for the latter’s war guilt without at the same time laying bare their own numberless crimes and betrayals of the world working class?
The only voice raised against the “democratic” and fascist war-makers alike was and is the voice of the intransigent revolutionary minority, the Trotskyist. This is why the Socialist Workers Party was so savagely persecuted during the war and 18 of its leaders were jailed by Roosevelt. This is why the Stalinists so vilely slandered the press that put forward the views of the SWP, while the postal authorities sought to suppress it. Among the post office exhibits produced to justify the cancellation of The Militant’s second-class mailing privileges in 1943 was an indictment of all the war criminals. On October 24, 1942, The Militant printed an editorial: YES, PUNISH THE WAR CRIMINALS. The postal authorities deleted the paragraphs in this editorial which branded the “war criminals in Germany, the German ruling capitalist class,” and then adduced the following quotation:
... The English imperialists are not waging a war to destroy fascism. In order to preserve their smallest colony they would readily destroy every democratic right at home. They are sending the masses into the slaughter only in order to preserve their empire. America’s Sixty Families pursue aims no less predatory, reactionary and imperialist than do the Krupps, the Kirdorfs and Boersigs of Germany.
They all bear the real responsibility for the war. They are all equally guilty. They, together with their political representatives, are the war criminals.
We are wholeheartedly in agreement with the idea of bringing all these criminals and their respective Hesses to trial without delay. When the workers of all countries have said their final say, this is precisely what they will do ...
In 1940, before Stalin murdered him, Leon Trotsky wrote:
The butchers of the second imperialist war will not succeed in transforming Hitler into a scapegoat for their own sins. Before the judgment bar of the proletariat all the present rulers will answer. Hitler will do no more than occupy first place among the criminals in the dock.
The war-criminals who have staged Nuremberg and who now sit in the judgment seat will not cheat history. The world proletariat will yet put them in their proper place before the proper tribunal of revolutionary justice.
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Last updated on 9.2.2009