Julia Koch


For all of its advancements in international law, including delivering justice to the war criminals of the Second World War, the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg has long been tainted with accusations of victors’ justice and criticized for violating the principle of nullem crimen sine lege. Such is the case for crimes against humanity, a crime that did not exist in positive international law until the 1945-46 legal proceedings in Nuremberg. But the historiography of the First World War—an era where punishment for war crimes is generally viewed as a wholesale failure—provides an additional, indeed novel, basis for understanding the Tribunal’s 1946 convictions for crimes against humanity as legitimate and not marred by accusations of victors’ justice. In particular, the 1915 declaration issued by the Allied powers in response to the Armenian genocide and the 1919 peace process, including the post-war report on war crimes, reveal that the convictions in Nuremberg for crimes against humanity were not the hollow farce that some suggest they were. Although the manner in which war crimes were dealt with following World War I is most commonly viewed as a failed effort, “crimes against humanity” was first coined as a term in international law during this period, and this essential linguistic thread not only connects the world wars but provides critical support for the International Military Tribunal’s later convictions.