- War Crimes Trials in the Wake of Decolonization and Cold War in Asia, 1945–1956: Justice in Time of Turmoil ed. by Kerstin von Lingen
This volume, the product of a 2014 conference at Heidelberg University, seeks to explain the Allied military tribunals in Asia and the Pacific at the end of World War II. It is an ambitious undertaking, seeing as proceedings occurred in more than fifty locations from Rangoon to Rabaul and Khabarovsk to Kwajalein; some 5,700 Japanese men were prosecuted, and a few more than 900 were executed. The topic requires deep knowledge of local histories and facility in multiple languages, making it a near-perfect theme for an edited volume.
In the introductory essay, Kerstin von Lingen and Robert Cribb place the trials in the context of three major historical phenomena of the twentieth century: the development of international humanitarian law, Cold War confrontation, and decolonization. They argue that the war crimes trials constituted a watershed moment. “Political and ideological considerations emanating from decolonization and the Cold War [End Page 131] shaped, and were shaped by, the structure and outcome of the trials as a new post-imperial world gradually began to emerge” (p. 3).
The book adds to a reexamination that began with Yuma Totani’s The Tokyo War Crimes Trial (Harvard University Asia Center, 2009). Where Totani examines the better-known International Tribunal for the Far East, the volume under review focuses on the trials elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific. It is part of an emerging body of work, including Barak Kushner’s prizewinning Men to Devils, Devils to Men (Harvard University Press, 2015) and the definitive Japanese War Criminals by Sandra Wilson, Robert Cribb, Beatrice Trefalt, and Dean Aszkielowicz (Columbia University Press, 2017), that completely upends the way we think about these trials. As von Lingen and Cribb argue, the “trial process was driven above all by a determination to do justice, rather than out of overt political considerations” (p. 6). We can no longer dismiss the trials as mere “victor’s justice.”
One important contribution of this volume is that it puts each trial in its regional and local context. Thus Wolfgang Form’s essay on the Philippines highlights its colonial relationship with the United States, and Cribb’s essay on Burma treats not only the specific context of the British in Southeast Asia but also local Burmese politics.
The geographical reach of the collection is impressive: three essays deal with China, two with France and French Indochina, and one each with the Netherlands and the Netherlands East Indies, India, Burma, the Philippines, the Soviet Union, and Australia. The eleven contributions, which range from outstanding to very good, take up the main arguments of the introduction to varying extents. Questions addressed include extraterritoriality and its legacy, trial strategy by the French and Soviets, and the trials on the ground in Burma, the Philippines, Khabarovsk, and Indochina.
In addition to the introduction, four essays are particularly notable for their highlighting of hitherto rarely discussed yet very important aspects of this history. Neil Boister takes up the opium question in chapter 2, pointing out that the Tokyo War Crimes trial was the first and possibly only international military tribunal “to take jurisdiction over the illicit traffic in drugs” (p. 25). He argues that in condemning Japanese policy on opium, the Tokyo Tribunal may have stopped one kind of imperial exploitation only to replace it with the moral imperialism of US prohibitionism. Whereas most people study the war crimes trials from the standpoint of political and legal history, Milinda Banerjee, the author of chapter 5, approaches the topic through intellectual history. His theoretically sophisticated and clearly written discussion examines why twentieth-century anticolonial actors retained “the framework of modern state sovereignty,” put in place by Europeans, despite its obvious “violence and exclusion” (p. 70).
The remaining two chapters out of the four do a fine job of explaining how international and regional...