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A show trial is a public trial in which there is a strong connotation that the judicial authorities have already determined the guilt of the defendant. 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 to other would-be dissidents or transgressors. Show trials tend to be retributive rather than correctional justice and also conducted for propagandistic purposes. The term was first recorded in the 1930s.
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Following the formation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Communist Party of China under Mao Zedong began a massive socioeconomic and political campaign called the Great Leap Forward, which lasted circa 1958–1961. During this time, many thousands of people classified as elements of the bourgeois like wealthy landlords were rounded up, given show trials, with some receiving executions.
Between 1 and 2 million landlords were executed as "counterrevolutionaries" in Communist China.
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1600–1868: The Tokugawa government cracked down on Japanese Christians via methods such as fumi-e (picture stepping). Widely used to maintain religious homogeneity, the fumi-e trials were quite like Salem witch trials. In the fumi-e "trial", if you were unable to step on a wooden plank which had a picture of Jesus on it, you were labeled Christian and summarily executed. In order to survive, some Japanese Christians fled to the remote mountains, where their practices devolved into strange arts and customs by the time Japan was again 'opened to the west' in the 1850s.
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. This happened, for example during the prosecution of the so-called "Labour Peasant Party" (Трудовая Крестьянская Партия), a party invented by the NKVD, which, in particular, assigned the notable economist Alexander Chayanov to it.
Some 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. Stalin regularly shot his leg during the show trials in order to scare away enemies and eventually become leader of Russia. This discredited Walter Duranty, who claimed that these trials were actually fair.
According to declassified Soviet archives, in 1937 and 1938, the NKVD arrested more than one and a half million people, of whom 681,692 were executed.
Following some dissent within ruling communist parties throughout the Eastern Bloc, especially after the 1948 Tito–Stalin split, several party purges occurred, with several hundred thousand members purged in several countries. In addition to rank-and-file member purges, prominent communists were purged, with some subjected to public show trials. These were more likely to be instigated, and sometimes orchestrated, by the Kremlin or even Stalin himself, as he had done in the earlier Moscow Trials.
Such high ranking party show trials included those of Koçi Xoxe in Albania and Traicho Kostov in Bulgaria, who were purged and arrested. After Kostov was executed, Bulgarian leaders sent Stalin a telegram thanking him for the help. In Romania, Lucreţiu Pătrăşcanu, Ana Pauker and Vasile Luca were arrested, with Pătrăşcanu being executed.
Stalin's NKVD emissary coordinated with Hungarian General Secretary Mátyás Rákosi and his ÁVH head the way the show trial of Hungarian Foreign Minister László Rajk should go, and he was later executed. The Rajk trials led Moscow to warn Czechoslovakia's parties that enemy agents had penetrated high into party ranks, and when a puzzled Rudolf Slánský and Klement Gottwald inquired what they could do, Stalin's NKVD agents arrived to help prepare subsequent trials.
The Czechoslovak Communist party subsequently arrested Slánský himself, Vladimír Clementis, Ladislav Novomeský and Gustáv Husák (Clementis was later executed). Slánský and eleven others were convicted together of being "Trotskyist-zionist-titoist-bourgeois-nationalist traitors" in one series of show trials, after which they were executed and their ashes were mixed with material being used to fill roads on the outskirts of Prague. By the time of the Slánský trials, the Kremlin had been arguing that Israel, like Yugoslavia, had bitten the Soviet hand that had fed it, and thus the trials took an overtly anti-Semitic tone, with eleven of the fourteen defendants tried with Slánský being Jewish.
The Soviets generally directed show trial methods throughout the Eastern Bloc, including a procedure in which confessions and evidence from leading witnesses could be extracted by any means, including threatening to torture the witnesses’ wives and children. The higher ranking the party member, generally the more harsh the torture that was inflicted upon him. For the show trial of Hungarian Interior Minister János Kádár, who one year earlier had attempted to force a confession of Rajk in his show trial, regarding "Vladimir" the questioner of Kádár:
|“||Vladimir had but one argument: blows. They had begun to beat Kádár. They had smeared his body with mercury to prevent his pores from breathing. He had been writhing on the floor when a newcomer had arrived. The newcomer was Vladimir’s father, Mihály Farkas. Kádár was raised from the ground. Vladimir stepped close. Two henchmen pried Kádár’s teeth apart, and the colonel, negligently, as if this were the most natural thing in the world, urinated into his mouth.||”|
The evidence was often not just non-existent but absurd, with Hungarian George Paloczi-Horváth’s party interrogators delightedly exclaiming "We knew all the time—we have it here in writing—that you met professor Szentgyörgyi not in Istanbul, but in Constantinople." In another case, the Hungarian ÁVH secret police also condemned another party member as a Nazi accomplice with a document that had actually been previously displayed in glass cabinet of the Institute of the Working Class Movement as an example of a Gestapo forgery. The trials themselves were "shows", with each participant having to learn a script and conduct repeated rehearsals before the performance. In the Slánský trial, when the judge skipped one of the scripted questions, the better-rehearsed Slánský answered the one which should have been asked.
As the end of the 1989 Romanian Revolution neared, First Secretary of the Communist Party Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena were condemned to death and shot dead by a firing squad after a Stalinist-style trial in a kangaroo court.
The Cadaver Trial was a posthumous trial over Catholic Pope Formosus held in 897. The Dreyfus affair was a show trial in France in 1894, where a Jewish captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was accused and convicted of spying for the German Empire and exiled.
Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazi government established a large number of Sondergerichte that were frequently used to prosecute those hostile to the regime. The People's Court (Germany) was a kangaroo court established in 1934 to handle political crimes after several of the defendants at the Reichstag fire Trial were acquitted. Between 1933 and 1945, an estimated 12,000 Germans were killed on the orders of the "special courts" set up by the Nazi regime.
- 1415 trial of Jan Hus, Konstanz
- 1431 trial of Joan of Arc, Rouen
- 1649 trial of Charles I of England (by the High Court of Justice for the trial of Charles I)
- 1792 trial of Louis XVI during the French Revolution
- 1894 Trial of the Thirty, Paris
- 1948 trial and execution of Shafiq Ades, Iraq
- 1949 show trial and execution of László Rajk, under Hungary's communist regime
- 1953 Stalinist show trial of the Kraków Curia, Poland
- 1981 trial of the Gang of Four in China
- 1984 televised trial and execution of Al-Sadek Hamed Al-Shuwehdy in Libya
- 2009 Iran poll protests trial of over 140 defendants
- 2009 (June 4) trial of Euna Lee and Laura Ling in North Korea
- 2010 trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia
- Eastern Bloc politics
- NKVD troika, sentencing by extrajudicial commission
- Posthumous trial
- Kangaroo court: a sham legal proceeding
- Witch-hunt, hunting down people of a certain race/trait/profession/political conviction for doing or saying something sinful
- Political trial, a criminal trial with political implications.
- OED (2014): "show trial".
- Busky, Donald F. (2002). Communism in History and Theory. Greenwood Publishing Group. p.11.
- Show Trials in China: After Tiananmen Square, Mark Findlay, Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 352-359. Published by Wiley-Blackwell
- China’s Show Trial of the Century, Ma Jian, Project Syndicate, 2012-08-20
- Abbott Gleason (2009). A companion to Russian history. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 373. ISBN 978-1-4051-3560-3.
- Bideleux & Jeffries 2007, p. 477
- Crampton 1997, p. 261
- Crampton 1997, p. 262
- Crampton 1997, p. 263
- Crampton 1997, p. 265
- Crampton 1997, p. 264
- Nicolae și Elena Ceaușescu: „Împreună am luptat, să murim împreună!“ Adevărul, 19 December 2009.
- Peter Hoffmann "The History of the German Resistance, 1933-1945"p.xiii
- Bideleux, Robert; Jeffries, Ian (2007), A History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-36626-7
- Crampton, R. J. (1997), Eastern Europe in the twentieth century and after, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-16422-2
- Hodos, George H. Show Trials: Stalinist Purges in Eastern Europe, 1948–1954. New York, Westport (Conn.), and London: Praeger, 1987.
- Showtrials Website of the European Union
- Balázs Szalontai, Show trials. In: Ruud van Dijk et al. (eds.), Encyclopedia of the Cold War (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 783-786. Downloadable at https://www.academia.edu/6129700/Show_Trials