70th Anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials

The defendants in the dock.
The defendants in the dock.

Article Contributed by
Robert H. Jackson Center

On November 21, 2015, seventy years will have passed since the world stopped to listen to the opening statement of the trial against major Nazi war criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at the Palace of Justice in the city of Nuremberg, Germany. The Opening Address was masterfully delivered by Justice Robert H. Jackson as Chief U.S. Prosecutor. Assembled in the courtroom that day were four teams of prosecutors, an international group of judges representing the Allied nations (United States, Great Britain, France and Russia), twenty-one German defendants, and dozens of officials and media representatives from across the globe. The trial began on November 20, 1945 and ended on October 1, 1946. The IMT was tasked to try twenty-three of the most important political and military leaders of the Third Reich; although defendant Martin Bormann was tried in absentia, and defendant Robert Ley committed suicide within a week of the trial’s commencement.
Months before Jackson entered the courtroom of the trial at Nuremberg, he had worked through the rough draft of the opening statement to clearly articulate his acute sense of responsibility as a prosecutor and to exercise just the right tone of restraint. It was his primary objective to hold Nazi leaders, accused of the devastating crime of “aggressive war-making,” accountable within the reckonable framework of the law. To do so, it was his decision that the trial be based on documentary evidence rather than eyewitness testimony. While the decision would rely less on potentially dramatic witness testimony, it provided an irrefutable record of the Nazi’s calculated plan to annihilate all Jewish individuals from the face of the earth.
So, as Jackson stood at the podium in the courtroom of this historic trial, he formally acknowledged the bench, and then recognized “[t]he privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world …”. Jackson then brilliantly captured both the honor and the grave responsibility he felt in this single, remarkable phrase: “That four great nations flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.” The full text of the speech is available through this link to the Jackson Center’s website: https://www.roberthjackson.org/speech-and-writing/opening-statement-before-the-international-military-tribunal
Described as “the greatest trial in history” by Sir Norman Birkett, one of the British judges who presided over it, the trial against major war criminals before the IMT set a precedent for the structure of international criminal law. The formation of the IMT has influenced the world with subsequent trials from Sierra Leone to the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, The Hague, and Rwanda. International prosecutors who have attended the Jackson Center’s annual International Humanitarian Law Dialogs at Chautauqua Institution each August readily attest to the important role Jackson’s Nuremberg legacy has played in their own work to apply the rule of law to perpetrators of war crimes.
In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the trial, the Memorium Nuremberg Trials in the City of Nuremberg invited some of the last eyewitnesses of the trial to the historic Court Room 600 on November 20, 2015. The witnesses, Dr. Yves Beigbeder, former assistant of the French judge, Henri Donnedieu de Vabres, Father Moritz Fuchs, former body guard of Justice Jackson and Dr. George Sakheim, former interpreter, will talk about their experiences in the years 1945 and 1946. The panel discussion was introduced and moderated by Elizabeth S. Lenna Fellow Professor John Q. Barrett of St. John’s School of Law in New York, NY.
In addition to the event in Nuremberg, the Jackson Center is recognizing the 70th anniversary of the trial in many exciting ways. On Thursday evening, November 19, 2015, Jackson Center co-founder and Board member Gregory L. Peterson spoke at the Warren County Courthouse on Robert H. Jackson: Opening Greatest Criminal Trial in 20th Century. In December, the Center will offer a preview of its new exhibit, Justice Matters: the Road to Nuremberg, with a grand opening in January 2016. The exhibit focuses on Justice Jackson’s pretrial work; in particular, the drafting of the London Agreement and Charter in August 1945.
On Wednesday, December 22, 2015, WNED Buffalo/Toronto will air, for the first time on PBS, the documentary film Liberty Under Law: The Robert H. Jackson Story at 10:00 PM EST. This inaugural airing will be followed by several additional screenings of the documentary on other PBS affiliates across the country in 2016.
Beginning in December 2015, through October 2016, the Jackson Center will provide a monthly series of articles in the Post Journal relying on Justice Jackson’s personal oral history and diary during that period of time. Readers will also be provided a link to view companion video footage to deepen their engagement with Jackson’s diary reflections. Additionally, the Center’s website will feature video clips on relevant days in history when a particular event occurred, so visitors can experience the trial over the course of the year as it mimics the unfolding of the event itself. Additional video, interviews, highlights of Jackson Center events, will be available on the Center’s YouTube channel.
In 2016, the Center will partner with local businesses and attractions to feature a number of different initiatives centered on From Jamestown to Nuremberg, which would include a showcase of what life was like during the period of the trial in Jamestown from 1945 – 1946. In October 2016, the Jackson Center and the Reg Lenna Theater will partner to bring the world-renowned L.A. Theater Works’ production of Judgement at Nuremberg to the Reg Lenna stage. Additional films and lectures will be provided to underscore the significance of Justice Jackson’s work in Nuremberg and how his framework of justice addresses international conflicts today.
Finally, the 10th Annual International Humanitarian Dialogs will be held in Nuremberg, Germany on September 30, 2016 – October 3, 2016. The trip is open to all Friends of the Jackson Center and a Master Class will also be offered by Professor John Q. Barrett during the tour. Please contact the Jackson Center for details regarding the cost of the trip, which will be available in the near future.
On the 70th Anniversary of the greatest trial in history, it is the hope of the Jackson Center that the commemoration will mark the beginning of collaborative dialogue to address current and future conflicts, driven by the profound wisdom of Justice Jackson. In his Opening Statement, Justice Jackson chose the following words to characterize the meaning of the trial and the importance of extinguishing what helped foster the creation of the Nazis.
What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust. We will show them to be living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power. They are symbols of fierce nationalisms and of militarism, of intrigue and war-making which have embroiled Europe generation after generation, crushing its manhood, destroying its homes, and impoverishing its life…. Civilization can afford no compromise with the social forces which would gain renewed strength if we deal ambiguously or indecisively with the men in whom those forces now precariously survive.
Robert H. Jackson, Chief Counsel for the United States Prosecution of Nazi War Criminals (1945).
The Robert H. Jackson Center’s mission is to advance public awareness and appreciation of the principles of liberty under the rule of law as embodied in the achievements and legacy of Robert H. Jackson, U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Chief U.S. Prosecutor at Nuremberg. The Center is located at 305 East Fourth Street, Jamestown, NY. Tours are available from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., Monday – Friday and from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Saturdays. E-mail us at info@roberthjackson.org or visit us online at www.roberthjackson.org. For additional information, contact the Robert H. Jackson Center at (716) 483-6646. The Center can also be found on Facebook (“Robert H. Jackson Center”).