National Offices Conference

The National Offices Conference was one of the key events in the history of the UNWCC – a summit bringing together representatives of all sixteen national offices that worked with the Commission in the Royal Courts of Justice, in May/June 1945, with the aim of coordinating and giving impetus to the unprecedented set of war crimes trials planned.

Indian and Chinese officials proposing path-breaking models for military justice tribunals rubbed elbows with US Navy officers describing their practical systems for mapping alleged war crimes (down to the colours of pins they used), as well seminal figures in the history of human rights like René Cassin.

Below, we present footage from the Conference – sadly without sound – showing this momentous event.


The Last Nazi Hunters

Dr Dan Plesch’s research cited in The Guardian once again – The author of a new history on the UN War Crimes Commission, concluded, “Right now, you see a German chancellor and public who are ironically more alive to the dangers, more willing to share the past, than some of the countries that fought them.”

Read the full story at:


Human Rights After Hitler – in the news!

Following the release of Human Rights After Hitler, we’ve been delighted at the extensive positive press coverage – including an interview NPR, and articles in Chicago Tribune, The Guardian, the Independent, the Deutsche Welle, CBS, Radio News ABC Australia, PassBlue and a whole host of other media outlets. For more details, check out Georgetown University Press’ media and review page here!

The story of the UNWCC’s work is extremely important, both for reasons of historical record, and for its relevance today. For nearly 70 years, it was an untold (and suppressed) story, but it is an honour to discuss and recognise – at last – its work in trying to bring Nazi war criminals to justice.


Hitler in the charge files of the UNWCC

Of the many surprising documents in the UNWCC’s archive, one of the most striking would be the indictment for Adolf Hitler.

The idea that ‘ordinary foot soldiers’ were accused in detailed, secret, well-documented files is one thing; seeing the preparatory trial documents for infamous high-ranking Nazis (many of whom never stood trial) is quite another. With this in mind, here’s some of the sample indictment documents for Adolf Hitler:

The five pages of indices for charges against Hitler. Most of this is self-explanatory; the ‘File No.’ refers to the UNWCC’s own charge number, then an abbreviation for the accusing country, then an abbreviation for the defendant’s country, then that country’s charge number. Click for more detail!

As might be expected, Hitler was listed as a defendant for a great many Nazi crimes – most accused war criminals only have one or two entries – but it’s striking that Hitler’s actions were addressed in the same regularised legal system.

Let’s take a closer look at one (or at least, its front page).

The front page for just one of the many charges against Hitler, this one levelled by noted Czech jurist Bohuslav Ecer in December 1944. Click for more detail!

Like with the index above, a few thinks are striking about this page. It is an extremely ambitious case – addressing several leading Nazis, for a wide range of crimes – but it is also a very ‘normal’ one by the standards of the UNWCC. Hitler’s crimes – great as they were – were recognised to be prosecutable within the framework of complementary international/domestic law, even while the war in Europe was still raging.


US book launch: Human Rights after Hitler – April 19th 2017, Mott House

Dan Plesch will present Human Rights after Hitler at a US book launch hosted by the Centre for International Policy and Georgetown University Press on Wednesday April 19th, 6pm-8pm, at Mott House, Washington DC.

This book reveals thousands of forgotten US and Allied war crimes prosecutions against Hitler and other Axis war criminals based on a popular movement for justice that stretched from Poland to the Pacific. The cases described within – described in archives that have not been opened for over half a century – provide a great foundation for twenty-first-century human rights, and provide a valuable complement to the achievements of the Nuremberg trials and postwar conventions. This history also brings long overdue credit to the United Nations War Crimes Commission (UNWCC), which operated during and after World War II.

For more details, and to register, please click here.


Presentation by Dan Plesch at the US State Department

Dan Plesch will be giving a talk on Human Rights After Hitler, in the Ralph Bunche Library of the US State Department (invitation only) on April 18th.


UK book launch: Human Rights after Hitler – May 4 2017, Wiener Library

The launch of Dan Plesch’s book – Human Rights After Hitler – The Lost History of Prosecuting Axis War Crimes (Georgetown University Press) – will be hosted at the Wiener Library on May 4th 2017.

Human Rights After Hitler reveals the work of the United Nations War Crimes Commission – the forgotten Allied prosecutions of thousands of Axis war criminals (high and low), the indictments of Holocaust perpetrators made while the death camps were still operating (at a time that conventional wisdom says there was no official Allied response to these mass killings), and the first proposals to prosecute crimes against humanity before an international criminal court. It also details the US response to this; how growing Cold War tensions undermined and eventually prematurely halted these efforts.

It expands on the material already on this website, shedding light on a vast archive of material that has languished in a sealed UN archive for nearly 70 years to weave together a largely untold story of the origins of modern-day international criminal justice.

For more information, and to book tickets, click here.


Archival research: Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, and France

The UNWCC was active in coordinating war crimes prosecutions across Europe and beyond, but much of this history has gone unremembered. This post gathers together research on the UNWCC’s actions across France, the Netherlands, and Yugoslavia, unearthing intriguing insights on early charges for mass killings of Jews and for sexual assault, domestic war crimes law, and the surprising scale and geographic distribution of prosecutions.

We’ve put together brief ‘taster’ dossiers of key issues of interest to the study of international criminal law, detailing UNWCC activities in the Netherlands and Yugoslavia. Originally prepared by former project assistant, Leah Owen (Oxford) for a presentation by Dan Plesch at the Hague Institute for Global Justice, these two dossiers compile basic information about the UNWCC in each country, as well as selections from the UNWCC archives on a wide range of topics including Holocaust-related charges, criminal and command responsibility, and the role played by national legal codes.

We also have the raw data for the previous post, by former project intern Christelle Meda (Panthéon-Assas). In this spreadsheet, Christelle delves into the 242 UNWCC cases prosecuted in French courts, examining their defendants, charges, sentences, issues of note, and more.


Justice before Nuremberg: findings from the French trial reports

Ed: The charges levelled through the UNWCC led to nearly two thousand trials from among member states. What follows is an analysis of UNWCC cases prosecuted after the end of the war by French courts, conducted by Christelle Meda, former project intern with the UNWCC research project. In it, she finds that these cases addressed many highly important aspects of international criminal law, often predating the tribunals in Nuremberg and Tokyo. These show the surprisingly advanced legal structures and reasoning associated with this postwar justice project. You can read more on the judgements and cases Christelle refers to in our online archive, here.

‘I commend this important meeting and welcome your efforts to delve more deeply into the origins of the United Nations. That pre-history was a period in which states and peoples responded to grave threats with remarkable vision and resolve… Let us learn what more there is to know.’

— Ban Ki-moon

In France, master students in international criminal law are taught that the origin of the International Criminal Court is to be found in the Nuremberg and Tokyo military tribunal jurisprudence. What we are not taught is that there was a previous organisation to those tribunals the United Nations War Crimes Commission. I was then surprised to find out at a presentation of D. Plesch at the International Bar Association Conference last year, that there was a Commission prior to those tribunals which was organising the adjudication of international crimes where they were committed, with no regard to the position of the defandant in the hierarchy and whose aim was also to keep a record of those decisions to be used as materials in future endeavor of international criminal law. Those records are massive they concern at the last counting 1993 known affairs on 31178 accusation sheet approved by the Commission and 36529 defendants. They are also interesting because they come from all over the world not only the most powerful State: among them was the French free government, the clandestine government of Poland, China, Yugoslavia and the Raj or India. The presence of so many “little state” was also a reason of its downfall as the powerful State were afraid of the “little States” activism in the interpretation of International Criminal Law. The United States were an important member of this Commission which foreshadowed their role in the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals..

Many decisions were not communicated to the Commission once judged and then stayed in their original language. Concerning French decisions it was the case for 243 of them that can be found on the Legal Tool Database. This number shows that a load of accusations were admitted by the Commission from France which benefited from a large International support. I had the task to make an index out of them to simplify research, to analyse what I thought was interesting from a legal point of view and compare them with the act of accusations kept at the Commission. The range of crimes I encountered was broad from theft of curtains[1] to mass murder in working or concentration camps.

Even if those decisions are ancients they are striking by their modernity on some points which make them interesting today as persuasive precedents as they have no legal authority now. This is a list of the points I found interesting.

The superior’s order defense was admitted

The superior’s order defense was in debate before the French courts at that time. It was admitted in some instances[2] rejected in others based on unquoted French precedents[3]. The order in question do not have to be from a direct superior it could be “an order from the Furher[4]”. It was considered an absolute defense[5]. This defense would not apply if the act constituted a manifest illegality[6].

Victims perpetrators

In multiple cases the tribunal took into account the fact that some perpetrators were also victims and were minor when they committed their crimes. In the Natzweiler Concentration Camp trial, the defendant Markus was a Jewish Kapo and only 15 when he was deported, it was considered a mitigating circumstances but he was still sentenced to life penal servitude. A parallel can be made with the Ongwen case in front of the ICC in which an ex child soldier have been considered victim perpetrator. No minority defense was admitted for a defendant who was enrolled by force in the SS when he was 15 and under 18 when he committed murder[7].In another case, for a Belgian, to be enrolled by force in the army was taken into account as mitigating circumstances not an absolute defense[8].

No defense of minority over 16

Minority was an absolute defense under 16 and not a defense over 16[9].

Foreign civilians were judged by French military tribunals

The military tribunal judged foreigners who were not in the military and some French who collaborated with the Germans[10]. This adjudication of foreigners could be seen as a form of precursor of universal jurisdiction.

Judgment by default

While judgments by default are a time old practice in the Roman Law System, it is to be noted that it was applied to foreigners in humanitarian law cases. When the defendant was caught if he asked for a re-judgment the judge would consider the necessity of it and sometimes allowed it[11]. It is interesting if we compare it with the practice in international criminal tribunals, only the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has this practice and it is criticised.

Rape as a war crime :

A soldier who committed rape was sentenced to a military dishonorable discharge and the charge of rape was characterised as a war crime[12].

Commander responsibility :

A commander’s responsibility was retained for an abstention[13].

Waterboarding is torture :

Waterboarding was considered a torture[14] which is interesting as there was a United States memo putting this qualification in doubt and the presidential candidate Donald Trump relaunched the debate when he said he would authorise it as a technic of interrogatory if he was elected.

Pleading guilty possibilities :

There was pleading guilty possibilities before the Rastatt tribunal in the French administered German zone while it is not a practice in Roman Law System[15].

Large discretionary powers of the judge :

The judges had discretionary powers to allow an unplanned witness to appear[16] or to add subsidiary charges[17].

A law of amnesty :

An amnesty law was passed the 16/08/1947 for battery, the problem being that some pretty serious crime which would be considered torture or voluntary wounding were considered battery at that time. If this amnesty was to remove the less serious case to discharge the court one has to wonder why common theft were not amnestied as well.

[1]   N°105 annual order and N°2548 general series.

[2]   Montpellier military tribunal n°225 annual order and 343 general series; n°329 annual order and n°6367 general series (arson).

[3]   N°144 annual order and n°449 general series.

[4]   N°724 annual order and 766 general series.

[5]   Ibid

[6]   N°617 annual order and n°1769 general series.

[7]    N°333 annual order and n° 1485 general Series

[8]   N°30 annual order and N°2006 general series

[9]    N°132 annual order and N°2575 general series

[10]  N°587 annual order and N°3030 general series

[11]  N°983 annual order and N°3426 general series and N°986 annual order and N°3429 general series

[12]  N°497 annual order and 538 general Series

[13]   N°87 annual order And 5506 general Series

[14]  N°372 annual order N°5791 general series and 7068/FR/G/2160

[15]   judgment n°51

[16]  N°55 annual order and n°961 general series

[17] N°997 annual order and N°2974 general series


Oskar Groening – ‘the accountant of Auschwitz’ – in the UNWCC’s archives

In what is likely to be one of the last trials for involvement in the Holocaust, Oskar Groening – a guard at the Auschwitz death camp – was recently jailed for his role in the killings of over 300,000 Hungarian Jews.

Research by Dr Dan Plesch into the UNWCC’s archives has shown that legal charges against him are not new, however. In 1947, the Polish government charged Groening and several hundred other camp personnel at Auschwitz for a range of crimes including ‘common design’ (participation in the overall running of the death camp), as reported here in the Guardian.

The Commission, after assessing his case, categorised him as a ‘war crimes suspect’ for his involvement in the running of the camp in March 1947. These charges never came to anything, however – postwar Cold War tensions and the uncomfortable questions raised surrounding the prosecution of ex-Nazis (many of whom were in West Germany) meant that the Commission closed down a year later. The records survived, however – and following their declassification last year, research on them has unearthed these early attempts to prosecute Auschwitz staff ranging from camp commandants to individual prison guards.

To read the original files listing Groening’s charging by the Commission, see below: