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.

May it please Your Honors: The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated. 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.
"Well Stocked with Reading Matter"
Credit: Edmund Duffy, The Baltimore Sun, December 7, 1945

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.”

Opening Statement before the International Military Tribunal

On November 21, 1945, in the Palace of Justice at Nuremberg, Germany, Justice Robert H. Jackson, Chief of Counsel for the United States, made his opening statement to 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.


Justice Jackson Delivering the Opening Statement at Nuremberg
Credit: United States Army Signal Corps. Katherine Fite Lincoln Papers, Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.

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.