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In a comment on this answer the google ngram for "victor's justice" was shown, as a demonstration that the phrase was first used in reference to the Nuremberg trials. This appears true, as it was zero prior to 1943 and reached a significant rate of use by 1950 (3.2 x 10^-8%). It stayed at about this level until 1971 (3.7 x 10^-8%), when it had a second phase of growth in use rising to 1.5 x 10^-7 in 1983, about a five fold increase in 12 years. There is a third phase of growth from 1991 (1.7 x 10^-7%) to 2008 (1.6 x 10^-6%), about a ten fold increase in 17 years.

I assume these are particular political/legal events that we critically termed victor's justice in these years. What events are they? Is there another explanation for this pattern of use?

Google ngram result for victor's justice

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  • Had a look at the ngram and first of all you probably want to turn off the smoothing and turn on the case-insensitive of the graph to avoid smearing over of peaks or missing changes in orthography, so for example the first occurrence without smoothing is in 1946 not 1943 which makes more sense with regards to the Nuremberg trial narrative, that being said the actual first occurrence of the term was already in 1906.
    – haxor789
    Sep 11, 2023 at 12:56
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    Pure speculation, but in the US the early 1970s was the impeachment of Nixon, and the early 1990s was the rise of the Right-wing 'talk radio' grievance culture. These were watershed moments where far-Right conservatives developed the idea that progressives had (unjustly) taken over the country and were busy attacking and erasing tradition and conservatism. It's all tied up with 'rights' politics (remember that Nixon ran on the Southern Strategy, and that people like Rush Limbaugh made their careers grinding their teeth over the loss of white male entitlements). Sep 11, 2023 at 14:14
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    But I don't know how useful ngrams are. it shows us what words were used, but doesn't tell us who was using them, or why. And I'm not certain this is a proper question for this site anyway, so I'm going to vote to close. Sep 11, 2023 at 14:18
  • What's frustrating is that the comments seem to focus on the idea that a victor might punish their opponent after winning a conflict is inherently tied up with the Nazis instead of just something that we've seen on many occasions over the last few thousand years
    – Valorum
    Sep 11, 2023 at 21:07
  • @Valorum My best guess is that it's a narrative that the Nazi's used extensively during the Nuremberg trials to deflect from their crimes against humanity as "just being unlucky to have lost the war". Though it's still kinda problematic if that's the part that stuck...
    – haxor789
    Sep 12, 2023 at 10:53

3 Answers 3

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If you go through Google Books for the 1990ies, you quickly can see a common pattern. These texts mostly use the term "victor's justice" as a reference to the post-WWII tribunals, especially the Nuremberg Trials, and contrast them with contemporary efforts to prosecute war crimes.

The 1990ies were a time when a large number of efforts were made to hold states and regimes accountable. Some of them were made by former communist states to hold their former leaders accountable, but many were of a more international nature, either with a direct involvement of the United Nations, or in citing International Law as a basis for indictments:

Another prominent national effort was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (1996–2000) which explicitly was set up as a counter-model to the Nuremberg Trials.

You could probably say the 1990ies were a decade when public discussions how to prosecute International Law independently of a "victor's justice" culminated, and the concept of an International Criminal Law as a way to hold actors accountable where national justice failed, gained a lot of recognition.

Pars pro toto, here is one argument brought forth in Timothy L. H. MacCormack, ‎Gerry J. Simpson: The Law of War Crimes: National and International Approaches, Springer 1997:

Finally, even in the area of international criminal law where Nuremberg is thought to serve as an exemplar, the victor's justice model is unhelpful and inaccurate. The three major initiatives [Yugoslavia, Rwanda, ICC] in this area since Nuremberg each involve the creation of tribunals designed to try war criminals generally rather than defeated war criminals...The proposed international criminal court makes no distinction between war's winners and losers and is designed to be operative during times of peace when such distinctions become meaningless.

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At least in terms of the 1971 onet of that term, the Wikipedia article of Victor's Justice mentions this:

The English term "victors' justice" was first used by Richard Minear in his 1971 account of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, and is typically (but not always) applied to the aftermath of warfare

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If you turn off the smoothing, you can tell that the term peaks sharply rather than enjoying a continuous increase in prevalence. To expand the answer of @ccprog from the 1990s to the 2000s, most references to "victor's justice" were still about the post-WWII trials. The others were about the tribunals of the 1990s and other contemporaneous conflict resolutions (South Africa, Cambodia, Latin America), the peak in 2007 follows Saddam's trial and execution at the end of 2006, criticism of these international tribunals as US imperialism, and connections to older conflicts (English Civil War, Boxer rebellion, colonial India).

As it gets into the 2010s, the term seems to have become more bound with Western countries' foreign policy and international justice following conflict in general, whether internal or not, rather than specifically about WWII or the older tribunals. However, there aren't as many results returned for the years in the 2013-2015 peak as in previous years so it's hard to tell if there's an underlying reason for a peak then.

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