(W)Archives: Soviet Views on Crimes against Peace
This is the latest installment in our (W)ARCHIVES series, which presents something from the past – a declassified report, military document, memo, article, or photo – and considers it in the context of important contemporary issues.
In 1944, the Soviet government published an important manifesto entitled “The Criminal Responsibility of the Hitlerites.” The main author of this document was Aron Trainin, a brilliant international lawyer at Moscow State University. His “editor” was Andrey Vyshinsky, then a deputy foreign minister. During the 1930s Vyshinsky had been a prosecutor in the infamous show trials of Stalin’s Great Terror. In 1949 he would become foreign minister. In translation, the Trainin/Vyshinsky document made the rounds of the State Department and War Department in late 1944 and it strongly influenced the Nuremberg Charter that came to govern the work of the war crimes tribunals. A copy of a partial translation of this Soviet document is available in a collection in the Combined Arms Research Library at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.
It is interesting to read this document in the light of present-day events in Ukraine. As everyone knows, Vladimir Putin’s Russian government has justified its deep concern about events in the Ukraine with references to roaming bands of “bandits and hooligans and fascists,” people wearing “armbands with swastikas,” and the “the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces.” Accordingly, it seemed a good time to examine what Putin’s predecessors found so troublesome about the original Nazis.
What made Trainin and Vyshinsky’s work novel was that they did not merely argue for the prosecution of Germans who had committed atrocities and war crimes in the course of military operations. They proposed going further. The Germans should be held accountable, they argued, for launching a war of aggression. This implied, then, that attempts “to stir up the flame of war and prepare an aggression” should also be crimes. Of what would these “attempts” and “preparations” consist? Trainin argued that “violation of treaties which serve the cause of peace, provocation of international conflicts by all possible means, [and] propaganda of aggression” should all be included. So, too, should “terrorism,” the “organization of armed bands,” the “permission to organize military or military-like organizations for the combat of other countries,” and the support of “fifth columns.”
All this might seem to suggest that Trainin and Vyshinsky would find Russia’s behavior toward Ukraine and the Crimea today reminiscent of Nazi war crimes. Of course, were they alive today, Trainin and Vyshinsky would come to no such conclusion. They were Soviets, after all. Rather, Vyshinsky might have dusted off one of his lines from the time of the Great Terror: “One should remember the instruction of Comrade Stalin, that there are such periods, such times in the life of society and our individual lives, when laws turn out to be obsolete and we have to put them aside.”
Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.