"On July 21, 1757, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be tom from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur." Such was the fate of Damiens the regicide, as described by Foucault in his renown book Discipline and Punish. The atrocity spectacle, according to historians and sociologists, was the principal forum through which the law channelled its deterrent message into collective consciousness in pre-modern Europe. This atrocity spectacle would seem to share with modern mass atrocity prosecutions some of the dramatic imagery of taboo and purification: the génocidaire is brought before an international institution for the world to appreciate the profound horrors political violence can engender. Weeks and months of trial meticulously unfold the corruption, suffering and hatred associated with the defendant against norms intended to reflect humanity’s bond of universal conscience.

Much of the legal scholarship on international criminal sentencing views mass atrocity prosecutions as primarily justified by their ability to express the norms upheld by punishment. This paper argues that the ritualistic nature of criminal prosecutions can play a central role in communicating the law’s message. Criminal prosecutions traditionally channel their message through ritual means, conveying through symbolic action emotions otherwise difficult to articulate. Against the chaos of crime, criminal justice projects a dramatized narrative embedded in society’s vernaculars of authority. The ritual process, in other terms, amplifies the message through cogent symbolic action. The prosecution ritual also helps to deal with the disturbing reality of crime by putting it into a coherent framework. Ritual enactment turns society’s gaze to the perennial force of values and beliefs uniting society, asserting the triumph of moral structure over chaos. Reaffirming social identity and its attendant ideals indeed has a soothing effect.

This paper will highlight the twin properties of the criminal prosecution ritual that are symbolic message amplification and collective identity affirmation through the historic evolution of atrocity spectacles. The first section will commence this evolution by discussing some of the more explicit facets characterizing the atrocity spectacle in 18th century Europe. From Daminens the regicide in Paris to the passage of the King’s Bench in Leeds, in passing by the marches to the scaffold in Hamburg, the criminal process powerfully reflected the vernaculars of authority in force among the population at the time. The second section will discuss the Nazi trials held in Germany in the 1960s, with a focus on the 1965 Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial – a prosecution held by Germany for the horrors committed by camp guards at Auschwitz. Noting the strong impact these domestic mass atrocity prosecutions have had on the nation’s collective identity in the aftermath of the Second World War, this section will depict the transition of the ritual’s dramatic narrative from the court room to its sensationalist depiction in the media. The symbolic significance of the event, it will be shown, plays an important role in the transition away from mentalities favoring violence and intolerance.