Robert Cribb and other recipients of NSW Premier literary prize

Robert Cribb and other recipients of NSW Premier literary prize

Putting history on trial

31 October 2017

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Nearly 6000 Japanese military personnel were tried for war crimes at the end of the Second World War.

Professor Robert Cribb points out there is a Wikipedia entry for the famous Tokyo Trials but no such entry for the other 2200 trials, spanning war crimes from New Guinea to Indochina.

“Which is a sign of how much they’ve been neglected,” Professor Cribb said.

“It was a huge exercise in trying to bring to justice people who had committed atrocities against prisoners of war and against civilians during the Second World War.”

Distilling that exercise into an award-winning book took four researchers five years. They travelled to the archives of 14 different countries and pooled their linguistic talents.

Professor Cribb contributed Dutch, Indonesian and enough Japanese to order coffee – “technically it’s a smattering,” he said.

They called their book Japanese War Criminals: The Politics of Justice after the Second World War.

In September, it won the prestigious General History Prize in the NSW Premier’s History Awards established by Bob Carr.

“A very serious follower of history,” Professor Cribb said of the former NSW premier.

For Professor Cribb, the war crime trials make for a very long story, of which criminal investigation forms only one half.

“The politics of dealing with people who’ve already been convicted is another,” he said.

“There’s a question of proportionality, of even-handedness.”

Politics showed itself in the selectivity of justice. Questions of Allied war crimes, mistreatment of prisoners, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fell by the wayside.

“It ended being only the Japanese in Asia, the Germans and Italians in Europe who were brought to justice,” Professor Cribb said.

The process, too, was hasty.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has been going for more than two decades and indicted only 161 people.

“That’s just a drop in the bucket, for millions and millions of dollars,” Professor Cribb said.

The Japanese war trials cut corners. There were wrong convictions and unreasonably heavy penalties.

“These were done quickly. It was quick and dirty.”

As Professor Cribb and one of his colleagues return to examine the war crimes themselves for a future book, there remains just one point to make.

“Justice is entwined with politics,” he said. “They are not separate.”

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