Propaganda and History in International Criminal Trials

Journal of International Criminal Justice, (2016)

30 Pages Posted: 2 Nov 2016

See all articles by Richard Ashby Wilson

Richard Ashby Wilson

University of Connecticut School of Law; Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut

Date Written: March 31, 2016


In the course of prosecuting crimes against humanity, international criminal tribunals from the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg to the International Criminal Court (ICC) have provided accounts of the origins and causes of mass atrocities. Their historical narratives exhibit a common feature that has not been remarked upon, and that is the central role they assign to political propaganda in explaining popular participation in mass crimes. Judges have invoked propaganda to answer one of the most vexing questions at international criminal tribunals: why neighbor turned against neighbor and committed extreme acts of collective violence in contexts characterized by long periods of co-existence. This article evaluates the evidence for claims regarding the role of propaganda and concludes that eyewitness evidence for the causal role of propaganda is often slender and unconvincing. Insiders and material perpetrators more often than not repudiate their original testimony amid allegations of intimidation and bribery. At times, judges have balked at expert evidence on propaganda and refused to recognize it as germane to a criminal trial. Given the relative paucity of evidence for a directly causal role, why has propaganda become one of the overarching narratives that international courts employ to explain atrocities during armed conflicts? How does the model of causation customarily used in criminal law shape the kind of histories that international courts write? In answering these questions, the article refers to the unique model of causation used in criminal law, the apolitical nature of propaganda as an historical explanation, and the moral expressivist function of criminal courts.

Keywords: International criminal tribunals, international criminal law, law and history, propaganda

Suggested Citation

Wilson, Richard Ashby, Propaganda and History in International Criminal Trials (March 31, 2016). Journal of International Criminal Justice, (2016), Available at SSRN:

Richard Ashby Wilson (Contact Author)

University of Connecticut School of Law ( email )

65 Elizabeth Street
Hartford, CT 06105
United States


Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut ( email )

354 Mansfield Road
Storrs, CT 06269-1176
United States


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