Human Rights after Hitler

The Lost History of Prosecuting Axis War Crimes

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Dan Plesch
  • Washington, DC: 
    Georgetown University Press
    , March
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The saga of Dan Plesch’s struggle to access the records that inform his 2018 book, Human Rights After Hitler, is nearly as dramatic and compelling as the story he tells of the United Nations War Crimes Commission (UNWCC). For over a half century after they were created, the copious records of the Commission lay virtually untouched by researchers. Those who wished to access them needed to obtain permission from both the United Nations (UN) secretary general and their own national government before they were allowed even restricted access. Plesch describes a research trip in which he was not allowed to take notes or to dictate to assistants, and was only able to record his recollections of the documents later, from a coffee shop down the street. Thanks to his persistent efforts, the records of the Commission were made available to the public by Ambassador Samantha Power in 2014. Plesch draws out narrative threads from these eight thousand cases that are equal parts exciting in their forward-thinking jurisprudence and frustrating in their decades-long absence from the legal and historical record.

The UNWCC was created in 1942, in the midst of World War II, through an agreement between seventeen of the Allied nations; it represented the first multinational agreement that sought a means to deal with international war crimes. Although it has been overshadowed by the more public and dramatic Nuremberg trials in most discussions of post-war international justice, the UNWCC did crucially important work to define and apply international law, ultimately charging over thirty-six thousand individuals with war crimes over its short existence. Human Rights After Hitler reconstructs the complex web of actors and organizations working alongside local courts to devise charges, gather evidence, and prosecute war criminals, both during and after the war. The UNWCC, Plesch argues, laid the groundwork that should inform our modern system of international law, pioneering “international criminal justice practices concerning sexual violence, head of state immunity, conspiracy, and many other issues of relevance in the twenty-first century” (1).

Plesch seeks to highlight the precedents that could have been useful in more recent war crimes trials, and offers suggestions for how the lost history of the UNWCC might be assimilated into current international law. The book combines strands of history with discussions of the modern-day prosecution of human rights violations. At times, the strands diverge widely, making certain chapters much more interesting for the legal theorist or human rights activist than for the historian, and spreading historical arguments haphazardly throughout the chapters. Nonetheless, Plesch provides several key interventions in Holocaust history, offering clear evidence that both the United States and the United Kingdom were aware of the Nazi genocide, its location, and its methods by the middle of the war.

However, Plesch’s greatest contribution may well be to the much-debated history of 20th-century human rights. The UNWCC archive allows him to focus the story of the modern human rights movement around the popular effort to define, record, and prosecute war crimes in every theater of World War II. He takes earlier historians to task for dismissing UN human rights efforts as one-sided or stillborn (199), and ultimately makes it difficult to dismiss the immediate postwar attempts to establish real, effective human rights norms. Continuing the work of historians who seek to decenter the West in the narrative of the creation of human rights norms, Plesch highlights the contributions of Chinese, Ethiopian, and Indian representatives and jurists.

As a counterpoint to discussions of torture, rape, and mass murder, Plesch points out the successes of governments in exile and civilian resisters in gathering and preserving evidence (97). These descriptions turn the story of the UN War Crimes Commission into a strangely hopeful reminder of just how much humans can endure without giving up on the possibility of survival, renewal, and justice. He notes that the story of the UNWCC should remind us that the Allies had the objective of “pursuing justice as well as victory” (3) from the war’s mid-point. His focus on examples that he has uncovered of the Commission’s possible lessons and legal precedents within the newly-opened archive provide a foundation for reinvigorating this pursuit in the modern day, when it is sorely needed once again.

Despite the optimism with which Plesch portrays the UNWCC’s advances, the book’s narrative becomes one of lost possibilities; the story of the UNWCC and its abrupt disintegration reveal the ways that Western politicians deliberately smothered a potentially viable system. While Plesch notes the damage caused by the State Department’s obstructionist tactics, he ultimately blames President Truman and Congressional anti-Communists for prioritizing anti-Communism over denazification. Rather than continuing the work of the Commission and seeking justice for all victims of the war, the US worked to shut down the UNWCC before its work was complete, and ultimately to bury the records of the proceedings, including German crimes and American wartime knowledge thereof, so deeply that the true story of the Commission could only come to light with significant effort some seventy years later.  

If for only for this reason, it is hard to overstate the value of Plesch’s work to open the UNWCC, which will no doubt be a boon to historians and jurists alike. These records will drive future inquiries into the history of human rights, post-war European reconstruction, and the development of international law. Human Rights After Hitler represents a mere opening volley in the project to rethink the past and future of international war crime law, offering new precedents and a valuable model of international cooperation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rachel Feinmark is a historian of 20th century US labor, religion, and human rights.

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dan Plesch is Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London. He is the author of America, Hitler and the UN, coeditor of Wartime Origins and the Future United Nations, and has been a frequent contributor to the Guardian and other media.


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