What is a political trial? Is it a trial for a political offence, such as holding the wrong opinions? A trial initiated, perhaps for an ordinary criminal offence, but for political motives? A trial in which the judges are subject to political manipulation? John Laughland’s definition has all of these elements, but something else besides. This is a history of a particular kind of political trial: a trial which follows a political revolution, and is designed by the new regime to mark the passing of the old. Laughland is probably right to say that the type was inaugurated by the tribunals which condemned Charles I of England and Louis XVI of France. But these were mere prototypes. The great age of the political trial was the twentieth century, the era of Nuremberg, Pétain, Ceauşescu, Honecker, Milošević, and the many obscurer figures who perished on the orders of improvised tribunals in the aftermath of the wars, coups and revolutions of that dismal age.
These occasions had some notable features in common. The defendant was the deposed head of state or at least a senior political figure of the fallen regime. He was almost invariably tried before a special tribunal, rather than an ordinary criminal court. The acts with which he was charged had