People's Court trial of Adolf Reichwein, Nazi Germany, 1944[1]

A show trial is a public trial in which the guilt or innocence of the defendant has already been determined. The purpose of holding a show trial is to present both accusation and verdict to the public, serving as an example and a warning to other would-be dissidents or transgressors.[2]

Show trials tend to be retributive rather than corrective, and they are also conducted for propagandistic purposes.[3] When aimed at individuals on the basis of protected classes or characteristics, show trials are examples of political persecution. The term was first recorded in 1928.[4]

A similar concept is "kangaroo court".


After the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, show trials were given to "rioters and counter-revolutionaries" involved in the protests and the subsequent military massacre.[5]

Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo was given a show trial in 2009.[6] Chinese writer and dissident Ma Jian argued that Gu Kailai, the wife of purged Communist Chinese leader Bo Xilai, was given a show trial in 2012.[7][better source needed]

Soviet Union

Main article: Moscow trials

Prosecutor General Andrey Vyshinsky (centre) reading the 1937 indictment against Karl Radek during the 2nd Moscow trial

As early as 1922, Lenin advocated staging several "model trials" ("показательный процесс", literally "demonstrative trial", "a process showing an example") in Soviet Russia and Soviet Ukraine.[8]

Show trials became common during Joseph Stalin's political repressions,[citation needed] such as the Moscow Trials of the Great Purge period (1937–38). Such trials paralleled the institution of self-criticism within Communist Party cadres and Soviet society.[9]

Known show trials in Soviet Ukraine include "Union for the Liberation of Ukraine" trial (1930), "People's Revolutionary Socialist Party" trial [uk] (1930),[10] "Ukrainian National Center [uk]" trial (1931).[11]

Eastern Europe

Captain Witold Pilecki, former prisoner at Auschwitz during a show trial conducted by communist authorities in Poland in 1948

See also: Eastern Bloc politics

Following some dissent within ruling communist parties throughout the Eastern Bloc, especially after the 1948 Tito–Stalin split,[12][13] several party purges occurred, with several hundred thousand members purged in several countries.[12][14] In addition to rank-and-file member purges, prominent communists were purged, with some subjected to public show trials.[14] 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.[15]

Such high-ranking party show trials included those of Koçi Xoxe in Albania and Traicho Kostov in Bulgaria, who were purged and arrested.[13] After Kostov was executed, Bulgarian leaders sent Stalin a telegram thanking him for the help.[15] In Romania, Lucrețiu Pătrășcanu, Ana Pauker and Vasile Luca were arrested, with Pătrășcanu being executed.[14] 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.[16] The higher-ranking the party member, generally the more harsh the torture that was inflicted upon him.[16] 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:[16]

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, such as Hungarian George Paloczi-Horváth's party interrogators claiming "We knew all the time—we have it here in writing—that you met professor Szentgyörgyi not in Istanbul, but in Constantinople."[17] In another case, the Hungarian ÁVH secret police also condemned another party member as a Nazi accomplice with a document that had been previously displayed in a glass cabinet at the Institute of the Working Class Movement as an example of a Gestapo forgery.[17] The trials themselves were "shows", with each participant having to learn a script and conduct repeated rehearsals before the performance.[17] In the Slánský trial in Czechoslovakia, when the judge skipped one of the scripted questions, the better-rehearsed Slánský answered the one which should have been asked.[17]


In 1946, Draža Mihailović and a number of other prominent figures of the Chetnik movement during World War II were tried for high treason and war crimes committed during WWII. The trial opened in the presence of about 60 foreign journalists. Mihailović and ten others (two in absentia) were sentenced to death by a firing squad; the others were convicted of penalties ranging from 18 months to 20 years in prison. In 2015, a Serbian court invalidated Mihailović's conviction. The court held that it had been a Communist political show trial that was controlled by the government. The court concluded that Mihailović had not received a fair trial. Mihailović was, therefore, fully rehabilitated.[18][19][20]

During 1946–1949, several well-publicized show trials were held in the People's Republic of Slovenia. First was the Nagode Trial in which 32 non-communist intellectuals were tried as spies, three of them sentenced to death. Second was a series of so-called Dachau trials in which 37 members of the Communist Party were sentenced, 15 of them to death.


Stalin's NKVD emissary coordinated with Hungarian General Secretary Mátyás Rákosi and his ÁVH head the way the show trial of Hungarian Minister of Interior László Rajk should go, and he was later executed.[15]


The Rajk trials in Hungary led Moscow to warn Czechoslovakia's parties that enemy agents had penetrated even 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.

First, these trials focused on people outside the Czechoslovak Communist party. General Heliodor Píka was arrested without a warrant in early May 1948 and accused of espionage and high treason,[21] damaging the interests of the Czechoslovak Republic and the Soviet Union, and undermining the ability of the state to defend itself, Píka was not allowed to present a defence, and no witnesses were called. He was sentenced to death and hanged. During the Prague Spring of 1968, Píka's case was reopened at the request of Milan Píka (son of Heliodor) and the elder Píka's lawyer, and a military tribunal declared Heliodor Píka innocent of all charges.[22]

Milada Horáková, a Czech politician focused on social issues and women's rights, who was jailed during the German occupation for her political activity,[23] was accused of leading a conspiracy to commit treason and espionage at the behest of the United States, Great Britain, France and Yugoslavia. Evidence of the alleged conspiracy included Horáková's presence at a meeting of political figures from the National Socialist, Social Democrat and People's parties, in September 1948, held to discuss their response to the new political situation in Czechoslovakia. She was also accused of maintaining contacts with Czechoslovak political figures in exile in the West. The trial of Horáková and twelve of her colleagues began on 31 May 1950[24] and the State's prosecutors were led by Dr. Josef Urválek and included Ludmila Brožová-Polednová. The trial proceedings were carefully orchestrated with confessions of guilt secured from the accused, though a recording of the event, discovered in 2005, revealed Horáková's defence of her political ideals.[25] Horáková was sentenced to death, along with three co-defendants (Jan Buchal, Oldřich Pecl, and Záviš Kalandra), on 8 June 1950. Many prominent figures in the West, notably Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill and Eleanor Roosevelt, petitioned for her life, but the sentences were confirmed. She was executed by hanging in Prague's Pankrác Prison on 27 June 1950.

The trials then turned to the communist party itself (Slánský trial). In November 1952 Rudolf Slánský and 13 other high-ranking Communist bureaucrats (Bedřich Geminder, Ludvík Frejka, Josef Frank, Vladimír Clementis, Bedřich Reicin, Karel Šváb, Rudolf Margolius, Otto Šling, André Simone, Artur London, Vavro Hajdů and Evžen Löbl), 10 of whom were Jews, were arrested and charged with being Titoists and Zionists, official USSR rhetoric having turned against Zionism. Party rhetoric asserted that Slánský was spying as part of an international western capitalist conspiracy to undermine socialism and that punishing him would avenge the Nazi murders of Czech communists Jan Šverma and Julius Fučík during World War II. The trial of the 14 national leaders began on 20 November 1952, in the Senate of the State Court, with the prosecutor being Josef Urválek. It lasted eight days. It was notable for its strong anti-Semitic overtones.[citation needed] All were found guilty, with three being sentenced to life imprisonment while the rest were sentenced to death. Slánský was hanged at Pankrác Prison on 3 December 1952. His body was cremated and the ashes were scattered on an icy road outside of Prague.

Western Europe

Nazi Germany

Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany established a large number of Sondergerichte that were frequently used to prosecute those hostile to the regime. The People's Court 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.[26]


In the Iranian regime there are no juries in Islamic Revolutionary Courts - trial by peers only exists in some special courts - with verdicts set before the trial; have been several occasions of trials being labeled show for their proceeding.[27][28][29][30]

See also


  1. ^ "German Resistance Memorial Center – Biographie". Retrieved 30 August 2020.
  2. ^ OED (2014): "show trial".
  3. ^ "SHOW TRIAL | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary". Retrieved 19 June 2019.
  4. ^ "Definition of SHOW TRIAL". Retrieved 19 June 2019.
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ "Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo jailed for subversion". BBC News. 25 December 2009.
  7. ^ China's Show Trial of the Century, Ma Jian, Project Syndicate, 20 August 2012
  8. ^ Chase, William (2005). "12: Stalin as producer: the Moscow show trials and the construction of mortal threats". In Davies, Sarah; Harris, James (eds.). Stalin: A New History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 226–227. ISBN 9781139446631. Retrieved 25 September 2018. Lenin appreciated the power of show trials and was keen to use them [...]. [...] In a February 1922 letter [...] Lenin recommended 'staging a series of model trials' that would administer 'quick and forceful repression' in 'Moscow, Piter [Petrograd], Kharkov and several other important centres'.
  9. ^ Priestland, David (February 2007). Stalinism and the Politics of Mobilization: Ideas, Power, and Terror in Inter-war Russia. Oxford: Oxford University Press (published 2007). p. 167. ISBN 9780199245130. Retrieved 4 April 2021. The characters who embodied these sins then confessed in a 'self-criticism' session. This type of political theatre obviously had a great deal in common with the political show trial and with rituals of 'self-criticism' in the party .
  10. ^ Shapoval, Yurii. "Народної революційної соціалістичної партії Справа" [Case of "People's Revolutionary Socialist Party"]. Енциклопедія Сучасної України (in Ukrainian). Retrieved 2 June 2024.
  11. ^ Prystajko, Volodymyr I.; Šapoval, Jurij I. (1999). Mychajlo Hruševs'kyj: sprava "UNC" i ostanni roky (1931-1934) = Paralleltit. Mykhailo Hrushevsky. Kyïv: Krytyka. ISBN 978-966-7679-08-8.
  12. ^ a b Bideleux & Jeffries 2007, p. 477
  13. ^ a b Crampton 1997, p. 261
  14. ^ a b c Crampton 1997, p. 262
  15. ^ a b c Crampton 1997, p. 263
  16. ^ a b c Crampton 1997, p. 264
  17. ^ a b c d Crampton 1997, p. 265
  18. ^ "Court rehabilitates WW2-era Chetnik leader Draza Mihailovic - English - on". 14 May 2015. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  19. ^ "Serbia Rehabilitates WWII Chetnik Leader Mihailovic". 14 May 2015. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  20. ^ ""Draza Mihailovic rehabilitated", May 14, 2015, InSerbia". 18 May 2015.
  21. ^ Hauner, Milan (Winter 2001–2002) (20 July 2011). "Crime and Punishment in Prague: The Strange Case of Karel Vaš and Gen. Heliodor Píka" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 20 July 2011. Retrieved 25 June 2020.((cite web)): CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  22. ^ "Remembering General Heliodor Píka, first victim of the communist show trials". Radio Prague International. 19 June 2009. Retrieved 25 June 2020.
  23. ^ "Milada Horáková – Radio Praha". Archived from the original on 27 June 2020. Retrieved 25 June 2020.
  24. ^ "Dr. Horáková Milada a spol. – Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů". Retrieved 25 June 2020.
  25. ^ "Young director to bring story of Milada Horakova to silver screen". Radio Prague International. 6 April 2007. Retrieved 25 June 2020.
  26. ^ Peter Hoffmann "The History of the German Resistance, 1933–1945"p.xiii
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^


  • Bideleux, Robert; Jeffries, Ian (2007), A History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change, Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-36626-7
  • 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 Archived 18 November 2018 at the Wayback Machine 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

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