Show trial

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A show trial is a public political trial used for propaganda or vengeance purposes. The term first appeared in the 1930s in the Soviet Union. With such trials there is a strong connotation that the judicial authorities have already determined the guilt of the defendant and that the actual trial has as its only goal to present the accusation and the verdict to the public as an impressive example and as a warning. Show trials tend to be retributive rather than correctional justice.


Such trials, where the outcome is already decided before the trial starts, can exhibit scant regard for the niceties of jurisprudence and even for the letter of the law. Defendants have little real opportunity to justify themselves: they have often signed statements under duress and/or suffered torture prior to appearing in the court-room.

The purpose of the trial is often for it to be used as propaganda, often in order to try to convince the general public of the guilt of the accused. Other purposes may include revenge against the accused and/or for the public punishment to be a warning to others. Notorious examples include trials in Communist countries, such as the Moscow Trials during the Great Purge. Holocaust revisionists have argued that various Holocaust trials, such as the Nuremberg trials, were show trials.

One of the often outstanding features of a show trial is the line-up of "witnesses" who will gladly perjure themselves depending on the levels of hatred they hold for the defendant and/or to save themselves.

Related types of trials

Kangaroo trial

A "kangaroo trial" or a "kangaroo court" may be a show trial and/or a trial that lacks credible legal authority, or both. They are typically associated with groups that practice their own brand of virtually vigilante justice, which is outside of the formal judicial process. See also lynching.

Mock trial

A "mock trial" or a "moot court" is a simulated trial, not claiming to be legally valid, such as for practice by law students. Some may be considered to be show trials, not claiming to be legally valid, but still used for propaganda purposes, such as propaganda mock trials accusing disliked groups and countries of war crimes.

Moscow Trials

Show trials were a significant part of Joseph Stalin's regime. Stalin feared being overthrown or having a counter-revolution- He formed a secret police called the NKVD to remove threats. The Moscow Trials of the Great Purge period in the Soviet Union are characteristic. The authorities not only pre-determined the guilt of the defendants, but also orchestrated the whole trial processes. Massive campaigns in newspapers and at numerous meetings shaped the opinion of the public towards the cases.

The authorities staged the actual trials meticulously. If defendants refused to "cooperate", i.e., to admit guilt for their alleged and mostly fabricated crimes, they did not go on public trial, but suffered execution nonetheless. The first solid public evidence of what really happened during the Moscow Trials came to the West through the Dewey Commission. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, more information became available. This discredited Walter Duranty, who claimed that these trials were actually fair.

Nuremberg Trials

Among many others, British jurist Frederick John Partington Veale (1897-1976) stated in his book Advance to Barbarism, which also describes the criminal bombing of Germany during World War II, that the 1946 Nuremberg Trials of German leaders amounted to a form of show trial, as the judgments were not rendered by a disinterested party, which is a key element of independent judicial integrity.

Dr. August von Knieriem, in his book The Nuremberg Trials (published in German as Nurnberg in Stuttgart, and in English, Chicago, USA, in 1959) attacked them as obvious show trials and travesties of justice, particularly when it came to correct German judicial procedures. Dr. von Knieriem was an "outstanding lawyer" who was General Counsel for the industrial corporation I.G.Farbenindustrie, defendants in the Nuremberg Military Tribunals.

Trials in Communist countries

After the Second World War, Allied supported Bolshevik terror was imposed over Eastern European countries. Soviet and communist terrorists/partisans and subsequent puppet-states orchestrated show trials against citizens they assumed did not support them, or whom they labelled as collaborators, or both. The USA were notorious for handing over German citizens from Germany to the communist states where their fate was assured. Examples abound including Ludwig Fischer, the Administrative Governor of Warsaw during the wartime occupation and Rudolf Höss sometime Commandant of Auschwitz. Examples of actual Bolsheviks who were accused are Rajk László[1] in Hungary, and the Jewish Anna Pauker in Romania. The so-called 'democratic' Western Allies outrageously "extradited" citizens of the German State to these communist states knowing what their fate would be.

Trials of "Collaborationists"

In numerous countries show trials, often overtly hasty and with verdicts already agreed behind closed doors, were held against those who had collaborated with the Germans (often with the sincerest reasons in respect of their own nations) during World War II. In France where the broad Left took control in the wake of the Allied invasion and conquest of the second half of 1944, horrendous perfunctory show trials took place resulting in thousands of executions[2]. The worst show trials in France were those of Robert Brasillach, the Marquis de Brinon, Jean Luchaire, Pierre Laval (immediately executed), Marshal Philippe Pétain, and other leading figures in the 1939-1944 period.[3]

Post-war Germany

Trials against "Nazis"

Those who fought or held administrative roles in the Second World War in the Wehrmacht or Waffen SS or, say, Ministries, had to suffer show trials orchestrated with the use of "professional witnesses", mostly Jews and others with axes to grind, including those who were badly tortured beforehand (See: The Malmédy trials) and those who were promised leniency by the prosecutors if they signed false documents. Convictions were typically based on testimonies of these "witnesses". As late as 2009, German authorities orchestrated a show trial against John Demjanjuk, 89 years old, seriously ill, based on falsified documents.

The Ministries Trials, the Wilhelmstrasse Trials, or the United States of America vs. Baron Ernst von Weizsäcker, et al to given an example, were the twelve trials for alleged 'war crimes' of diplomats and other State officials of government ministries which the American authorities held in their occupation zone in (West) Germany following the end of World War II, for which they had no judicial authority. These twelve trials were all held before U.S.A. military courts, not before the equally fraudulent International Military Tribunal, but took place in the same rooms at the Nuremburg Palace of Justice. The twelve American trials are collectively known as the "Subsequent Nuremberg Trials" or, more formally, as the "Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals" (NMT). (The very title of this charade demonstrated that the defendants were already considered guilty until proven otherwise.)

Trials against "holocaust deniers"

In the 2000s in Germany, trials were held against Ernst Zündel, Rudolf Germar, Sylvia Stolz and Horst Mahler, whose only "crime" was to not believe in the "official" version of the so called "holocaust". All the defendants were convicted to several years prison; 72 years old Horst Mahler for example received 12 years.

See also


  • Pelikan, Jiri (editor), The Czechoslovak Political Trials 1950-1954, London, 1971.
  • Ziemssen, Dietrich, The Malmédy Trial, A Report Based on Documents, Merriam Press, Bennington, VT., U.S.A., 1988; 5th edition 2012. ISBN: 978-1478258414.
  • Dedina, Sidonia, Edvard Benes: The Liquidator, RFP pubs. California, 2001, ISBN: 0-96639968-4-7
  • Priemel, K.C., & Stiller, A., Reassessing the Nuremberg Military Tribunals, Berghahn, New York & Oxford U.K., 2012 & 2014. ISBN: 978-0-8575-530-7


  1. 15 people were executed and 78 others were sentenced to prison in relation to the Rajk case
  2. Werth, Alexander, France 1940-1955, Robert Hale, London, 1957, p.259 and notes.
  3. Venner, Dominique, History of the Collaboration (Histoire de la Collaboration), Éditions Pigmalion, Paris, 2000.