Justice Robert Jackson’s Opening Statement

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 International Military Tribunal (IMT) which is now known more widely as the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, opened on the 20th November 1945, just over 6 months after VE day. Here are excerpts from the opening speech of Justice Robert Jackson, Chief Prosecutor for the American delegation. As he emphasises to the Court, the uniqueness of the Trials lie not only in holding war criminals to account for the first time, but in bringing together the Allies to arrange evidence and create a case in such a short space of time. 

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. 

This Tribunal, while it is novel and experimental, is not the product of abstract speculations nor is it created to vindicate legalistic theories. This inquest represents the practical effort of four of the most mighty of nations, with the support of seventeen more, to utilize international law to meet the greatest menace of our times – aggressive war. It is a cause of that magnitude that the United Nations will lay before Your Honors. 

In the prisoner’s dock sit twenty-odd broken men… It is hard now to perceive these men as captives, the power by which as Nazi leaders they once dominated much of the world and terrified most of it… 

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 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… 

What these men stand for we will patiently and temperately disclose. We will give you undeniable proofs of incredible events. The catalog of crimes will omit nothing that could be conceived by a pathological pride, cruelty and lust for power. These men created in Germany… a National Socialist despotism… They took from the German people all those dignities and freedoms that we hold natural and inalienable rights in every human being. Against their opponents, including Jews, Catholics, free labor, the Nazis directed such a campaign of arrogance, brutality and annihilation as the world has not witnessed since the pre-Christian ages… the struggles has left Europe a liberated yet prostrate land where a demoralized society struggles to survive. These are the fruits of the sinister forces that sit with these defendants in the prisoner’s dock. 

In justice to the nations and the men associated in this prosecution, I must remind you of certain difficulties which may leave their mark on this case. Never before in legal history has an effort been made to bring within the scope of a single litigation the developments of a decade, covering a whole continent, and involving a score of nations, countless individuals and innumerable events. Despite the magnitude of the task, the world has demanded immediate action. This demand has had to be met, though perhaps at the cost of finished craftsmanship. 

To my country, established courts, following familiar procedures, applying well-thumbed precedents, and dealing with the legal consequences of local and limited events, seldom commence a trial within a year of the event in litigation. Yet less than 8 months ago today the courtroom in which you sit was an enemy fortress in the hands of German SS troops. Less than 8 months ago nearly all our witnesses and documents were in enemy hands. I should be the last to deny that the case may well suffer from incomplete researches and quite likely will not be the example of professional work which any of the prosecuting nations would normally wish to sponsor. It is, however, a completely adequate case to the judgement we shall ask you to render, and its full development we shall be obliged to leave to historians. 

Full transcript of the opening statement is published online as part of the record of the proceedings before the IMT, through the Avalon Project at Yale Law School – https://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/11-21-45.asp 

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