Friday, 30 September 2016

James J. Sadkovich - The Use of Political Trials to Repress Croatian Dissent, 1929-1934 - JCS 28-29

Dr Vladimir Macek


A show trial is a political trial in which the accused "freely" confess their guilt and ask forgiveness of the state through the prosecutor and judge, whose roles are complementary rather than distinct. According to Milovan Djilas, a show trial is the "legal cloak to the political judgment on the 'hostile activity' of the accused". It is thus not enough to convict, but also necessary to defame — and in this sense the confession of the accused is crucial, since at least the "public opinion of the party", and ideally the "general public opinion" must be persuaded and assured by the proceedings of both the guilt of the accused and the power and authority of the regime.[1] Indeed, it would seem that both the general public and members of the ruling elite are automatically persuaded at least to consider the guilt of the accused as given, even in a political prosecution. As one of Alexander Werth's interlocutors noted, to be in a Soviet labor camp in the 1930s was to be assumed guilty of being a "vrag naroda", or enemy of the people, and to confess became routine for some Russians.[2] It is thus not surprising that Jirí Pelikán found himself doubting an acquaintance's innocence and blaming himself for being too foolish to see through the "spy's" disguise.[3] In short, it would seem that political trials have the effect desired of suppressing and discrediting an actual or imaginary opposition while preserving the legal forms and reaffirming the regime's monopoly of power merely by taking place.

But political trials can backfire. In the Chicago conspiracy trial the accused succeeded in using the opportunity to radicalize public opinion. Yet their success was not total, nor did it mark their trial as that different from all others: while in the Soviet purge trials of the 1930s and the Czech trials of the early 1950s confessions were the norm, in the Yugoslav trials of the 1930s the defendants also tried to turn the courtroom into a forum — as radicals in Russia and elsewhere had attempted before them.[4] Certainly the intent had not differed with regard to the authorities: Mayor Richard Daley clearly sought to vindicate the Chicago police and take revenge on those who had spoiled "his" convention, just as Stalin sought to affirm the power of the Soviet state in the 1930s and the Czechs the primacy of the party in the 1950s.[5] While not as closely tied to the political power (in the form of the state prosecutor) as the judiciaries of the Nazi or Soviet systems, the American judiciary also slipped into "political" judgements in the 1960s. But American judges were able to avoid total subjugation to the political branch of government, since it was anathema to consider the judge and state prosecutor collaborating elements of a single system whose aim was to repress all political opposition — an identification of interests that rested on the identification of the NSDAP and communist parties with the government and was symptomatic of the absolute control of the machinery of government by a single individual or party.[6]

Nonetheless, the function of the Chicago trial was to show that the United States (like Chicago) was beleaguered by "outside agitators" and subversives, and to demonstrate that the government was pursuing a "tough" policy with regard to such disruptive elements. Although the "foreign" threat was implicit in the American trials, rather than explicit as in the Soviet and Czech purges, it was present. Indeed, it appears that those involved to a large extent came to believe their own accusations against those on trial, as evidently happened in the Soviet Union in the 1930s [7]. And the intent of the Chicago trial, like the Soviet and Czech, was clearly to intimidate the more outspoken critics of the system, justify the repression of radical groups, and create a more docile citizenry.[8]

Show trials thus serve a number of functions besides discrediting and suppressing the opposition (potential or actual), and are clearly a symptom of a system that is under a high degree of central control and suffering a certain paranoia, i.e., a system similar to those described in the classic works by Orwell and Arendt.[9] The manifestations of this paranoia can be grotesque — as was the trial of 80,000 peasant "kulaks" in Romania in 1954[10] — but usually they are limited to the use of less obvious repressive measures, of which show trials are one. Show trials are exquisitely political, since the judiciary clearly serves a political rather than a judical function, and since criminality is confused with political heterogeneity. Because of this, certain "criminal" trials can be viewed as "show" or "political" trials, depending on one's point of view — e.g., the arrest and conviction of civil rights demonstrators in the United States in the 1950s. However, the sort of show trial that this article will deal with is not the accidental response of the system to a challenge to a specific law or set of laws, but the systemic response of the government to a general challenge to its legitimacy. Thus not only the police, but the courts and other institutions are mobilized in order to save the system of government actually in power. To the extent that the opposition can be tried and shown to be "criminal," the government achieves not only its goal of repressing the opposition, but also an ancillary goal of demonstrating the illegitimacy of its opponents, and thereby reaffirming both its own power and its own authority.

Complete article:

Journal of Croatian Studies, XXVIII-XXIX, 1987-88 Annual Review of the Croatian Academy of America, Inc. New York, N.Y., Electronic edition by Studia Croatica, by permission. All rights reserved by the Croatian Academy of America.

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