Admired for his trial work by Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Jackson was approached by President Truman to take a leave from the Supreme Court to serve as chief U.S. Counsel to prosecute the 23 Nazi leaders—21 at the trial after Hitler and then Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels committed suicide—in an international court in Nuremberg. Jackson accepted, eager to explore new areas of international law and bring the integrity of justice to war crimes.
Many in the United States and around the world called for executing the Nazi leaders, as photos of piles of dead bodies and other news emerged to show the realities of concentration camps. As the demand for revenge increased, Jackson stayed focused on designing a system for applying justice—not retribution.
“We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow,” Jackson said during his three-hour long opening remarks. "To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our lips as well.”
Jackson worked with the British, French and Soviet teams to secure basic principles—the trial court should have real independence and key elements of a fair trial. The rules and structure of the Nuremberg trials set the stage for the war-crime trials that followed around the world over the decades.
Nuremberg is a city in southern Germany, at the time damaged from British bombing, but with a prison intact and a courtroom large enough to hold 600 people—400 of them reporters.
To build his case, Jackson’s team of 23 lawyers reviewed tens of thousands of documents—including letters—thousands of feet of motion picture film and thousands of photographs, which served as some of the strongest evidence against the defendants.
Jackson rejected any deals from defendants who offered to testify against other defendants. He gave his closing address on July 26, 1946, noting that the defendants received “the kind of a trial which they never gave to any man.”
The final verdict was delivered Oct., 1, 1946, nearly a year after Jackson's opening statement. Nineteen of the 21 Nazi defendants were found guilty, 12 sentenced to hang.
The now famous Nuremberg Trials remain a model for international war crimes today.
Image Courtesy of The Robert H. Jackson Center.