From Tokyo to Khabarovsk: Soviet War Crimes Trials in Asia as Cold War Battlefields
The Soviet Union’s approach to war crimes prosecution in Asia differed from their approach in Europe. The Japanese war crimes trials, on the other hand, were a means of projecting Soviet influence in the Pacific Rim despite the late entrance of the Red Army into the war against Japan. Even after a less than positive experience at the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in Nuremberg and being shut out of the creation of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), the Soviets still willingly participated in the prosecution of the Japanese political and military leaders in Tokyo. The Soviets considered the IMTFE—with its lukewarm finding of ‘crimes against peace’ against the Soviet Union, and its failure to address Japan’s biological weapons program—inadequate. In order to correct this ‘failure’ and to address the crimes not properly considered at Tokyo, the socalled Khabarovsk Trial was held in the Soviet Far East in December 1949. The Japanese defendants were charged with aggressively ‘manufacturing and employing bacteriological weapons’ against the Soviet Union and China. While earlier Soviet military courts in Europe were seen as an extension of the Nuremberg Tribunal, the Khabarovsk Trial was conceived as a corrective to the Tokyo Tribunal.
With the Khabarovsk Trial, Soviet and more generally communist propaganda discovered a useful tool: the specter of bacteriological warfare proved to be a powerful propaganda weapon that was successfully used later during the Korean War (1950–53). In the long run, the Soviet war crimes trials in Asia during the early Cold War were thus a combination of geopolitics and propaganda that were aimed at supporting the diplomatic efforts of the new Soviet superpower. They were meant to secure Soviet interests in the region while deterring the encroachment of the new archenemy—the USA.
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