By Prof. Lyndsey Stonebridge, professor of literature and critical theory, School of Literature and Creative Writing. See Lyndsey’s profile and publications here. The Judicial Imagination: Writing after Nuremberg is published this month with Edinburgh University Press.
When Rebecca West saw Herman Goering in the dock at Nuremberg, she thought he looked liked the madam of a Marseille brothel, vulgar, with the reddened skin of someone who has used too much make-up, and the deep wrinkles of years of substance abuse. He was not the only one. All Nuremberg’s Nazis seemed to carry with them the air of being in some tawdry gothic melodrama; the clearly mad Hess gibbering to himself, the Youth leader, von Schirach, squirming like some mousy governess whose dark desires have suddenly been exposed to the world. Neither was West the only writer fascinated by the grotesque appearance of the men on trial. Both Janet Flanner and Martha Gellhorn also found themselves drawn to the tableaux of evil that composed itself on the defendants’ benches.
Watching Ratko Mladic’s performance in the Hague earlier this month, one wonders what Rebecca West might have made of this latest addition to the legal theatre of the grotesque that is now the stock-in-trade of the war crime trial. In the late 1930s, West developed a passion for Serbian nationalism so one can imagine, or hope, that her first reaction to witnessing Mladic respond to the court with theatrical shrugs, eye rolling and thumbs ups to his mates in the gallery, as though he were some pathetically under-loved kid brashing it out in youth court, would be disappointment.
As pressing, however, is the question of what kind of justice we think we’re experiencing with this intense focus on the perpetrators of genocidal violence. It was a question that haunted Nuremberg. While the trial was the first to prosecute crimes against humanity, in the end Nuremberg could not bring itself to put the genocide on trial. Nuremberg, West complained, was an ‘event that did not become an experience’. It failed to resonate with the very people it was supposed to impress. The ICTY might be courting a similar failure. Not only do Mladic’s antics do little to pierce the culture of denial in Serbia, as seriously, they distract from the reality experienced by his victims.
Victim testimony against Mladic will of course come later. In its attention and care of survivor witnesses the ICTY corrects Nuremberg’s most scandalous omission – testimony from Jewish victims which was deliberately excluded in favour of ‘impartial’ and hard documentary evidence. The prosecution’s decision to put survivor testimony at the centre of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, 50 years ago this summer, began a revolution in juridical process that moved the victim from the margin to centre of war crime and genocide trials. Whether that shift is enough for us to register the unique cruelty of genocide beneath the pantomime theatrics of its perpetrators is another matter.
Genocide is not simply the crime that keeps on hurting, it has the particular trick of making people disappear not only from the planet, but also from consciousness itself. So it was at Nuremberg that the Jewish people were largely excluded from the trial of their own massacre. So it was earlier this month, when the 8000 Muslim victims of the Srebencia genocide were cast under the shadow of Mladic’s vaudeville petulance. You must, Judge Alphons Orie instructed him firmly, desist from ‘silently communicating’ with the public gallery. He was referring to the smirking and throat cutting that distinguished his last appearance. A silent mime with invisible witnesses is an appropriate way of describing the spectacle of justice on show in The Hague.
It was telling, and moving, that the moment that one caught a glimpse of those victims occurred only after an exasperated Judge Orie had ordered Mladic’s removal from the courtroom. He then read out the 11 counts of the indictment: two counts of genocide, persecution on political, racial and religious grounds, extermination, two counts of murder, deportation, other inhuman acts, acts of violence, unlawful acts, the taking of hostages. Without the distracting banality of their perpetrator, the something of the magnitude of the crime quietly crept into view. Goering, West wrote in dismay, came close to ruining Nuremberg’s moral purpose when he committed suicide the night before his execution in one final melodramatic act. With his sweaty forehead, coquettish pursing of disbelieving lips, and hysterical self-regard, Ratko Mladic must not be permitted to make his victims disappear – again.