Justice at Nuremberg

Aims & Purpose

11.8. WORLD WAR II (1935-1945): The participation of the United States in World War II was a transformative event for the nation and its role in the world.
11.8c. In response to World War II and the Holocaust, the United States played a major role in efforts to prevent such human suffering in the future.
-Students will examine the contributions of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson and his arguments made as Chief Prosecutor for the United States at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials.
*Taken from: New York State K-12 Social Studies Framework for Grades 9-12 (New York State Education Department, 2014), pp. 40-41.

Students will examine:
-The nature and goals of the war crimes trials.
-The complexities of determining responsibility for the crimes against humanity.
-The important role played by Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson as Chief United States Prosecutor for the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.
-The outcomes of the Nuremberg Trials and the important messages expressed in the statements and arguments made by Justice Jackson.


Civil and human rights
Due Process of Law


Gathering, Using, and Interpreting Evidence
Develop and frame questions about events and the world in which we live, form hypotheses as potential answers to these questions, use evidence to answer these questions, and consider and analyze counter-hypotheses.
Identify, describe, and evaluate evidence about events from diverse sources.
Describe, analyze, and evaluate arguments of others.

Chronological Reasoning and Causation
Identify causes and effects using examples from different time periods and courses of study across several grade levels.

Civic Participation
Work to influence those in positions of power to strive for extensions of freedom, social justice, and human rights.
*Taken from: New York State K-12 Social Studies Framework (New York State Education Department, 2014), pp. 14-16, 21.

Setting the Stage

40 minutes - Introduction & Background

These lessons focus on the unique and complex challenges faced by the victorious allies following World War II.  “Judgment was demanded for the perpetrators whose crimes had not yet been defined, and justice sought for those people who emerged from the camps and from their hiding places.”

(Taken from:  Teaching About the Holocaust and Genocide, The Human Rights Series, Volume II, New York State Education Department, 1985, p. 293.)

Provide students with copies of the following handout, “What was the Holocaust?” (Robert H. Jackson Center)

What was the Holocaust? *Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party came to power in Germany in 1933 and were vanquished in 1945 – just 12 years. By the end of the Hitler regime, the world had been plunged into a global world war.  Europe was in shambles, and millions had died.  Among those lost were six million Jews – men, women and children – who were singled out because of their ethnicity and their religion.

The event has come to be called THE HOLOCAUST or the destruction and martyrdom of the European Jews under Nazi occupation.  The word “holocaust” literally means “massive destruction by fire.”  Millions of people died under the Nazi regime, including political opponents, Poles, other Slavic groups, Gypsies, the mentally ill, homosexuals, and other “undesirables.”

*Taken from: “What was the Holocaust?” (Robert H. Jackson Center)

Students can also research the history of the Nazi Holocaust by reading background articles from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum at: https://www.ushmm.org. For teachers, an introductory lesson on the Nazi Holocaust, “Lesson 1-Studying the Holocaust” can be found at: www.echoesandreflections.org/the-lessons/lesson-1-index/lesson-1-about/

Have students address the following questions as they research the historical background of the Nazi Holocaust:

  • What does the word “holocaust” mean?
  • What was the Nazi Holocaust?
  • Who were the victims of the Nazi Holocaust?
  • What was meant by the term “the Final Solution”?
  • Why were the Jews and others targeted for extermination by the Nazis?
  • What were the roots of anti-Semitism in Europe?

What actions did the Nazis take to bring about “the Final Solution”?

Judgement at Nuremberg

40 minutes

Have students view the section of the DVD, Liberty Under Law:  The Robert H. Jackson Story that describes Robert Jackson’s role at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. See beginning at 49:00 of the DVD.  After viewing the DVD, ask different student groups to address the following questions:

  • Why did Robert H. Jackson accept President Truman’s invitation to serve as Chief United States Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials?
  • What were the challenges facing Justice Jackson as Chief Prosecutor?
  • Why was Nuremberg chosen as the site for the International Military Tribunal (IMT)?
  • What was the significance of Nuremberg to the German people?
  • Who were the Nazi defendants at Nuremberg?
  • What was the most important judicial principle established by the IMT at Nuremberg?
  • How was the rule of law applied during the Nuremberg Trials?
  • Why was Justice Jackson’s opening statement so important?
  • What evidence was used to prosecute the Nazi defendants during the trial?
  • What did the evidence show happened during the Nazi Holocaust?
  • How did the IMT at Nuremberg establish a precedent for later war crimes trials?
  • What judicial principle did Justice Jackson invoke in his closing argument?
  • What were the verdicts of the IMT at Nuremberg?

Student groups may need to view this portion of the DVD again in order to address all of the questions.

Students can view parts of Justice Jackson’s opening statement at https://www.ushmm.org.  Search:  Nuremberg and go to #7, “International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.”  Go to:  “Historical Film Footage” and find, “US Prosecutor Jackson” video.

Excerpts from:  Robert H. Jackson’s Opening Statement before the International Military Tribunal.  Nuremberg, Germany, 1945

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….


In the prisoners’ dock sit twenty-odd broken men.  Reproached by the humiliation of those they have led almost as bitterly as by the desolation of those they have attacked, their personal capacity for evil is forever past.  It is hard now to perceive in these men as captives the power by which as Nazi leaders they once dominated much of the world and terrified most of it.  Merely as individuals their fate is of little consequence to the world.

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 nationalism 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…

After reading and viewing Justice Jackson’s Opening Statement, ask students to discuss the following questions:

  • Why did Justice Jackson say that the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg “imposes a grave responsibility” on the victorious nations?
  • Why was the decision by the Allies to try the Nazi defendants at Nuremberg “one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason?”
  • How did Justice Jackson describe the “twenty-odd broken men” as defendants at Nuremberg?

In Justice Jackson’s opinion, why was the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg a significant world event?  What did Justice Jackson believe were the lessons to be learned from the Nuremberg trials?

The Verdicts and Legacy of Nuremberg

80 minutes

During the summer of 1946, Justice Jackson delivered his summation at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg and called for the conviction of all 22 Nazi defendants as “conspirators to wage aggressive war.”  Jackson argued that “Adolf Hitler’s acts are their acts.  His guilt is the guilt of the whole dock and every man in it.” (Taken from:  “Jackson Demands 22 Nazis Found Guilty,” Robert H. Jackson at Nuremberg:  Through the Pages of his Hometown News, 1945-1946, Robert H. Jackson Center, p. 57.)


Ask students to read the following excerpts taken from Justice Robert H. Jackson’s summation at the IMT at Nuremberg*:

Jackson told the tribunal that “the pillars which uphold the conspiracy charge may be found in five groups of overt acts:”

1.Seizure of power and subjugation of Germany to a police state in which “the party was the state, the state was the party, and terror by day and by night were the policy of both.”

  1. Preparation for and actual waging of wars of aggression, for which the Nazis made “feverish but stealthy efforts in defiance of the Versailles Treaty” from the moment they came to power.
  2. Warfare in disregard of international law, including the “starving, beating, murdering, freezing, and mass extermination admittedly used against the eastern soldiery.” and the shooting of British and American airmen.
  3. Enslavement and plunder of populations in occupied countries.
  4. Persecution and extermination of Jews and Christians, which resulted in the killing of an estimated 6,000,000 Jews in “the most far-flung and terrible racial persecution of all time.”

“The central crime in this pattern of crime, the kingpin, which holds them all together, is the plot for aggressive war.”  Jackson continued…

“All over Germany today, in every zone of occupation, little men who carried out these criminal policies under orders are being convicted and punished.  It would present a vast and unfortunate caricature of justice if the men who planned these policies and directed those little men should escape all penalty.”

(*Taken from:  “Jackson Demands 22 Nazis Found Guilty,” Robert H. Jackson at Nuremberg:  Through the Pages of his Hometown News, 1945-1946, Robert H. Jackson Center, p. 57.)

On October 1, 1946, the International Military Tribunal judges sentenced twelve defendants to death, sentenced seven to prison terms, and three were acquitted.  Students can also read from Justice Robert Jackson’s final “Report to the President (Truman)” delivered on October 7, 1946 and found at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/jack63.asp.

Ask students to discuss the following questions related to the results of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg:

  • What crimes did Justice Jackson list that supported the charges against the Nazi defendants?
  • Why was it important to follow the principles of the rule of law at the Nuremberg trials?
  • Why was Justice Jackson’s role as Chief United States Prosecutor so important to securing justice at Nuremberg?
  • How did the legal precedents established at Nuremberg assert the importance of enforcing the rule of law in future war crimes trials?

In 2007, a conference that focused on international war crimes was held at the Chautauqua Institution and co-sponsored by the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, New York.  At this conference, Mr. David Crane from the Special Court for Sierra Leone said:  “No one is above the law.  The law is fair, and the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun.”

Have students discuss how Mr. Crane’s statement applies to examples of human rights violations throughout the world today.  For examples, students can visit the United Nations website at www.un.org, Amnesty International at www.amnestyusa.org, or the Human Rights Resource Center at the University of Minnesota at www.hrusa.org.

Have students discuss how Justice Robert Jackson would respond to these human rights violations today. Based on the writings and opinions of Justice Jackson, how should the international community deal with those who violate the human rights of others?

As a culminating activity, have students visit the United Nations website and read from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN on December 10, 1948.  They can find the Declaration at the UN site at www.un.org/en/documents/udhr.

Ask students to select two or three “rights” and summarize what they mean and how these “rights” advance individual human rights.  Have students compare the Universal Declaration to the United States Bill of Rights.  How are they similar?  How do they differ and why?  Discuss with students how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights resulted from the events of World War II.  Students can also research Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


  • "The Nuremberg Trials," American Experience

    Web site for the PBS program that provides timeline, photographs, and lists of World War II sources and websites.

    After viewing this program, students can discuss the following questions related to Robert Jackson’s role at the IMT at Nuremberg:

    • Why did Robert Jackson fear that the Nuremberg trial might reignite Nazism in Germany?
    • Why did Justice Jackson feel that the very existence of civilized society was on trial at Nuremberg?
    • What is meant by totalitarianism?
    • Why did Justice Jackson want to ensure a “just judgment” at Nuremberg?
    • Why did Justice Jackson select Nuremberg as the site for the trials?
    • How did Americans learn about the Nuremberg Trials?
    • What was meant by the charges, “crimes against humanity” and “crimes against peace”?
    • What was meant by the “final solution” to the Jewish problem?
    • What did Justice Jackson mean when he said in his summation: “If you were to say these men that they are not guilty then it would be as true to say that there has been no war, that there are no slain, that there has been no crime.”
    • What were the final judgments at Nuremberg for the defendants?

    What was the important precedent Justice Jackson established by the Nuremberg trials?

  • Avalon Project at Yale Law School

    Contains the complete transcript of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg

  • Military Legal Resources: The Library of Congress

    Official proceedings of the major war crimes trials, documentary evidence and guide materials, the official condensed record of the subsequent trials, and a final report on all the war crimes trials in Nuremberg, Germany, from 1945 to 1949.

  • Untied States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C.

    Features extensive information about the Holocaust, including student learning activities and lists of additional resources.

  • American Bar Association Journal.

    “An Allied tribunal brings Nazi leaders to account at Nuremberg,” Lori B. Andrews, November 1, 2013

  • American Bar Association Journal

    “1985-1994:  The legacy of Nuremberg,” James Podgers, January 1, 2015

  • Facing History and Ourselves

    Organization provides print resources about the Nazi Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and other human rights violations

  • Genocide Education Project

    “The mission of The Genocide Education Project is to assist educators, students, and educational organizations with teaching about genocide and other human rights violations…” (Social Education, Sara Cohan, “Essential Books for Teaching about Armenian Culture and the Armenian Genocide,” September 2015, pp. 213-216.)

  • Teaching About the Holocaust and Genocide:  The Human Rights Series, Three Volumes

    Teaching About the Holocaust and Genocide:  The Human Rights Series, Three Volumes, New York State Education Department, Bureau of Curriculum Development, 1985-1986.

    Teacher resource guide including student handout materials, activities, primary and secondary source materials, and suggested further readings.  Includes information and materials about the Armenians, Nazi Holocaust, Forced Famine in Ukraine, and Human Rights violations in Cambodia.