COLUMN

The trouble with war-crimes trials

BARBARA AMIEL June 11 1990
COLUMN

The trouble with war-crimes trials

BARBARA AMIEL June 11 1990

The trouble with war-crimes trials

COLUMN

BARBARA AMIEL

The verdict is in. Retired restaurateur and accused war criminal Imre Finta has been acquitted of charges of kidnapping, forcible confinement, robbery and manslaughter that arose out of events in Hungary in 1944. At the time, Finta, who now lives in Toronto, was a captain in the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie, the squad assigned to round up and organize the deportation of Jews from the city of Szeged. Now that he has been acquitted, I wondered about all those Canadian schoolchildren who watched the trial as part of their history courses. How will their teachers explain the reaction of the Canadian Jewish community to the decision of 12 jurors good and true? Will they be told the Jews made a mistake in calling Finta a horrid Nazi? Somehow, I don’t think so.

“It really makes us lose faith in the justice system of Canada,” said Helen Smolack, chairman of the Canadian Holocaust Remembrance Association, as she heard the verdict. The Canadian Jewish Congress described itself as “dejected.” Sol Littman of the Canadian branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre was “deeply disappointed” but “not deterred.” Howard English, director of communications for B’nai Brith, worried that the verdict might encourage anti-Semitic groups.

What is one to make of this response? I suppose we must all grit our teeth and remember that the people who make those sorts of remarks have suffered grievous personal losses at the hands of the Nazis. All the same, speaking as a Jew, I can’t help feeling a profound sense of shame at such comments. Are those Jewish leaders not content yet? Virtually single-handedly, they have created the awful situation we now face because this trial took place: Jews feel the acquittal is a personal slap in the face, while, at the same time, Canada’s teeny group of neo-Nazis are having a celebration. Tell me, who has gained? And who would have gained if the verdict had gone the other way and Imre Finta had been convicted on flimsy evidence of charges that should never

It makes no sense, 46 years later, for Canada to try a policeman from another part of the world for doing his police duties

have been laid? Would that have given Smolack “faith” in the Canadian justice system?

Imre Finta was charged as a criminal for performing his legal duties as a policeman in Hungary during the war. He was not charged with torture, murder or robbery for personal gain, nor for any other act that by common understanding is a criminal act whether performed by a policeman or a king. As for the manslaughter charges, they referred to people who were said to have died during the train journey to the concentration camp because of severe conditions in the cattle cars into which Finta’s gendarmerie had loaded them. Those charges should never have been brought.

Let me say right away that there is no question that without people like Finta neither communism nor nazism could have happened. Totalitarianism requires an infrastructure of people who obediently run the trains and act as policemen for the oppressors. But it makes no sense that 46 years later Canada should decide that a policeman acting under lawful authority in another part of the world should be charged as a criminal for performing his police duties. It is not a false analogy to say that the RCMP in Canada, who rounded up the Japanese in the same war and took away their property and

goods, did precisely the same thing—although the consequences and conditions were a million times more humane. Still, one cannot prosecute Finta and not prosecute all the RCMP officers without making a mockery of justice.

The point is that you cannot demand that individuals be much better than the social milieu in which they live. Most people do accept the shibboleths of their times, just as Finta did. Once upon a time, we understood that fundamental truth about the human condition. We understood that distances of geography and time produce different moral climates which make it distinctly unwise—and unfair— to judge from outside. The law in its wisdom was deemed not to have jurisdiction over crimes committed in far-flung geographical and moral spheres. We realized, for example, that it might be almost impossible in a Toronto courtroom in 1990 to truly understand the smell and texture of coercion in the Third Reich and to judge the mix of terror and the instinct to survive under such a regime during war.

That does not mean, incidentally, that you may not prosecute people who have committed great and awful crimes simply because they were long ago and far away. You can. I have no quarrel of principle in dragging a Josef Mengele, the notorious “Angel of Death” at Auschwitz, to court. His crimes supersede all degrees of time and place. In such a case, it is simply a question of whether the evidence is available. The problem with the Fintas of the world is that in order to prosecute them at all, the key elements in the charges simply cannot be produced. Where are the bodies of the manslaughter victims? Where is the property that was stolen? Who can be cross-examined? In order to convict a Finta, many of the basic principles we hold dear in our system of justice must be suspended.

That is what should be worrying B’nai Brith, not the notion that Finta’s acquittal will encourage anti-Semitism. Those people who still do not believe the awful bloodstained reality of the Holocaust will never accept it. If Finta had been convicted, they would simply have seen him as a martyr to the Jewish conspiracy. I’m sorry, of course, that neo-Nazis share my dislike of warcrimes trials, but I reserve the right to dislike such trials for my own sound moral and legal reasons, quite different from those of the extremists on the right.

The only way to prevent another Holocaust or Third Reich is to jealously guard and maintain the rule of law and never ever depart from certain fundamentals in exercising it, no matter how good the cause. Once society departs from those fundamentals—as it has with the war-crimes legislation—and introduces such things as retroactive legislation or tries to judge one situation by the standards of another, then we create precisely the sort of environment that permits the actions that lead to the world of deportations and death camps. Throughout the centuries, the rule of law has kept mankind from slipping into total barbarity, and no single group has understood that more profoundly than we Jews. It is a terrible irony that some Jews should be the leaders in eliminating our single most important protection.