Churchill on War Crimes Trials

Churchill on War Crimes Trials

Yesterday’s NYTimes ran this piece about the recently released minutes of Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet meetings. Here are the notes about Churchill’s reluctance to try Nazi war criminals and his preference for execution without trial:

As early as July 6, 1942, Churchill was clear about what to do with Hitler.

If Hitler falls into our hands we shall certainly put him to death. Not a sovereign who could be said to be in hands of ministers, like Kaiser. This man is the mainspring of evil. Instrument – electric chair, for gangsters no doubt available on Lease Lend.

On April 12, 1945, as the war drew to a close, Churchill rejected the idea of a war crimes trial.

Agree the trial will be a farce. Indictment: facilities for counsel. All sorts of complications ensue as soon as you admit a fair trial. I would take no responsibility for a trial – even though U.S. wants to do it. Execute the principal criminals as outlaws – if no Ally wants them.

After the Nuremberg trials were underway, Churchill’s view of the power of prosecution altered. The Claremont Institute blog posted a memo on this subject by Larry Arnn. This is how he portrays Churchill’s later views, which can be summed up as a kind of Churchillian relief at “victor’s justice”:

July 30, 1946: “He said he had had, during the War, no idea that the German atrocities had been on the scale that the Nuremberg evidence had shown them to be. And although he had had misgivings about that trial at the beginning, he now felt it was well justified. This was largely because of the groveling attitude of the defendants. If he had been in the dock (as indeed he certainly would have been if the war had gone the other way), the line that he would have taken was–‘we do not recognize the competency of your court. We will await the verdict of the German people, whom we served, in twenty or thirty years’ time. You won the war; take your vengeance on us in whatever way you like. We do not recognize any authority above the rights of the German State.’ But undoubtedly the enormity of the crimes had come as a surprise to the defendants themselves.” The source for this is notes taken during a luncheon by Allen Campbell-Johnson.

In November 1946 in a speech in the House of Commons he treated the Nuremberg Trials as a purgative. He portrayed it as a substitute for the persecution or prosecution of ordinary Germans.

Also in 1946, probably sometime in November, Lord Ismay was with Churchill when he heard the results of the Nuremberg War Trials. Ismay was close to Churchill, senior military man during the War, and later the first military head of NATO. He said: “I happened to be with him at Chartwell when the results of the Nuremberg Trials of the Nazi war criminals were published ‘it shows’ he remarked, ‘that if you get into a war, it is supremely important to win it. You and I would be in a pretty pickle if we had lost.'”

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