Washington & Lee law professor Mark Drumbl traveled to Hong Kong to participate in a major conference on the Historical Origins of International Criminal Law. Part of the purpose of this gathering is to look beyond the ‘usual suspects’ — for example, Nuremberg and international institutions – when we think about the history of war crimes trials. Many national courts have played a crucial, although unheralded, role in the process of building the field and seeking justice in the aftermath of atrocity. The conference is hosted by the City University of Hong Kong.
Professor Drumbl will deliver a keynote lecture that looks at the work of the Supreme National Tribunal of Poland. Between 1946 and 1948, this institution prosecuted 49 individuals in seven cases. The Tribunal delivered the first conviction ever of a leading Nazi for waging aggressive war, was groundbreaking in denouncing the Holocaust as genocide before the international community recognized the crime, and was pivotal in setting out the details of the Auschwitz concentration camp and its functioning. It was the first institution to declare the concentration camps as criminal organizations. The Tribunal delivered its first two judgments before the Nuremberg Tribunal’s judgment was issued, and continued its work thereafter. Studying the work of the Polish Tribunal also opens a number of other doors. While the decrees that established the jurisdictional base of the Tribunal (to punish enemies of the state) helped bring justice for World War II crimes, these very same decrees also served to enable the post-War Communist government to prosecute, detain, and punish citizens who dissented from its orthodoxies who were also determined to be enemies of the state. This shows how criminal law passed to prosecute war criminals can come to serve repressive ends. Second, the Tribunal was geared to highlight Polish suffering in the War, and extended genocide to the context of Poles, Slavs along with European Jews. Poland pushed for representation at Nuremberg, but the Allies rebuffed this request. The Tribunal was a response thereto.
Professor Drumbl specifically discusses these issues through the lens of the Tribunal’s conviction and execution of Rudolf Hoess (the Kommandant of Auschwitz) and Amon Goeth (the Kommandant of forced labor camps in Krakow – who was played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s list). Hoess was the consummate bureaucrat, who murdered because that was what his job called for; he ironically disliked seeing people suffer and this was among the reasons for developing Zylkon B gas at the camp. Goeth was a sadist who lorded over grotesque displays of gratuitous violence; he routinely flouted SS guidelines about how to run a prison death camp and stole so many of the prisoners possessions for personal use (rather than for Reich use) that he was arrested by the SS in 1944. In this regard, the work of the Tribunal also helps our study of the different kinds of personal profiles that perpetrators of massive war crimes may share.
In addition to delivering a keynote, Professor Drumbl will speak on the closing plenary session.