On June 14, 1940, the Nazis opened a concentration camp at Auschwitz in German-occupied Poland. This camp would become the most infamous of the concentration camps that the Nazis created during World War II, in which millions of Jews and other minorities were murdered. Following the war, many of the remaining Nazi leaders were prosecuted for war crimes at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunals. On May 2, 1945, President Harry S. Truman named Robert H. Jackson the U.S. chief of counsel for the trials. Jackson gave his opening statement on November 21, 1945.
Jackson’s statement is an expression of the necessity of the conjoined development of civilization and international law. It is, he says, civilization itself that is the plaintiff in the case against Nazi aggression and horrors and civilization itself that would be existentially threatened by a resurgence of the same hatreds and nationalisms that gave rise to the Nazi movement. Can civilization, he wonders, long be protected unless the law develops the mechanisms by which to deal with crimes of this magnitude? The victorious Allied nations have paid their due to reason, Jackson says, by staying the hand of vengeance and dealing with the defeated fairly, rationally, and in courts of law, rather than by ignoring the crimes against peace and humanity committed by the Nazis and reacting in hot blood. It is the responsibility of the tribunal, Jackson says, to put into place mechanisms whereby the powerful can be held to account for their actions, thereby initiating a process that will work against future wars of aggression and future tyrannies. Jackson’s statement is a remarkably humble declaration of the justice and wisdom of the trials.
Read our full coverage of Robert H. Jackson’s opening statement at the Nuremberg trials, including analysis and commentary by the historian Anthony Santoro of the Heidelberg Center of American Studies.