(Jamestown, N.Y.) Following the end of World War II, the United States, Great Britain, France and Russia pulled together a coalition of top-notch prosecutors from each of their countries for a trial to end all trials. Most students who do not attend law school don’t learn about the Nuremberg trials in today’s classrooms, but it was a turning point to show the world and some deniers that the Holocaust happened and must never happen again.
There were eight judges, two from each country, who served as the jury on the International Military Tribunal (IMT). Twenty-two Nazis went on trial facing four charges: crimes of aggression, a crime against peace, a crime against humanity, or conspiracy.
There were several trials but only one that included all four countries. The lead prosecutor for the trials was Robert Jackson, a United States Supreme Court justice who hailed from Jamestown, N.Y., located in the southwestern part of the state. A collection of his works and memorabilia from the mid-1940s are tastefully displayed at the Jackson Center, the oldest brick home in Jamestown, built in the 1860s.
After serving in several high-level capacities in the Franklin Roosevelt administration, including being appointed U.S. Attorney General, Jackson was nominated as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court to fill the vacancy created when Harlan Fiske Stone replaced Charles Evans Hughes (a former New York governor) as chief justice. Jackson was confirmed by the United States Senate on July 7, 1941, and took the judicial oath of office on July 11, 1941. He is the only person to have held the three high-profile positions of associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, United States solicitor general, and United States attorney general.
Kristan McMahon, the executive director of The Jackson Center, spoke to The Jewish Press about the time after Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945. “President Truman and Justice Jackson had some conversations and their mindsets on this really aligned,” she said. “Truman was also very much in favor of justice, not a vengeance mindset. There was nobody else who could do this. In President Truman’s mind, Justice Jackson also had a trifecta of experience that made him perfect to carry out this undertaking. One, he had the vision and he had been talking about it and writing about it for a long time. Two, since he had previously served as a member of FDR’s administration in a number of cabinet positions, he had that diplomatic experience, the ability to negotiate, and third, he was one of the highest stature people in the United States. For Truman, appointing a justice from the United States Supreme Court hopefully encouraged the other allies to respond by appointing someone of a similar stature, which it did.”
Truman appointed Jackson to represent the United States as chief of counsel for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. He helped draft the London Charter of the IMT, which created the legal basis for the Nuremberg Trials. He then served in Nuremberg, Germany, as U.S. chief prosecutor at the IMT. Working in consort with the other three countries, Jackson took a leave of absence from the Supreme Court and began working on creating an entire tribunal from scratch beginning in June of 1945.
“For Justice Jackson, what was important for him was that it was justice, not vengeance,” McMahon said. “It was a way for the world to understand what had happened by creating this very public record; both through the documents and the trial itself. It was a way to hold accountable those who have perpetrated these crimes. If those who give the orders are able to avoid prosecution because they didn’t actually commit the acts and those who committed the acts are able to avoid prosecution because they aren’t the ones who ordered the acts, then no one is ever held responsible for such things. This was a way to hopefully stop mass exterminations from ever happening again.
“One of the crimes Jackson was not successful in getting into the definition of crimes was making war itself illegal. That was his ultimate goal. If we could just stop countries from going to war. Jackson was really trying to figure out how do we get the world to solve its problems by not engaging in war,” McMahon concluded.
The trial began on November 20, 1945 – 76 years ago.
Jackson was known for pursuing his prosecutorial role vigorously. His opening and closing arguments before the Nuremberg court were widely celebrated. In the words of defendant Albert Speer, the Nazi minister of armaments and war production: The trial began with the grand, devastating opening address by the Chief American Prosecutor, Justice Robert Jackson. But I took comfort from one sentence in it which accused the defendants of guilt for the regime’s crimes, but not the German people.
“We take for granted that the trials were always going to happen because they did happen,” McMahon said. “[But] in the time of the negotiations from June to November in 1945, there were many times it almost fell apart. Whether it was the definition of what a crime should be – at the initial outset not everyone thought there should even be a trial and it was really the United States driving that. Russia was okay with there being a trial but they assumed it would be a show trial similar to those happening in the Soviet Union at the same time. For Great Britain and France, they really just wanted to take the defendants out and shoot them and be done with it in sort of a swift justice. Jackson once described it as one of the hardest things he ever had to do because not only did he have to create the court basically from the ground up and define all the processes and the crimes but he had to actually convince people that a trial should occur.
“Truman had given Justice Jackson complete control, complete autonomous decision-making on behalf of the United States. There were communications between the two of them where Truman writes, ‘if you think the United States needs to go it alone because that’s the only way, we’re going to get it done, then you are completely empowered to take this on for the United States,’” according to McMahon.
The trial started with 24 indictments. One of the accused committed suicide before the trial began and one was declared incompetent. Jackson went to trial with 22 accused Nazis. One of the accused was tried in absentia, Martin Bormann. It was believed he died on May 2, 1945.
Lacking evidence confirming Bormann’s death, the IMT tried him in absentia, charged with three counts: conspiracy to wage a war of aggression, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The prosecution stated that Bormann participated in planning and co-signed virtually all of the antisemitic legislation put forward by the regime. Bormann was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was acquitted of conspiracy to wage a war of aggression. On October 15, 1946, he was sentenced to death by hanging, with the provision that if he were later found alive, any new facts brought to light at that time could be taken into consideration to reduce the sentence or overturn it.
Bormann’s remains could not be found for another 28 years. The West German government declared Bormann dead in 1973 after finding skeletal remains near Lehrter station in West Berlin. An autopsy found fragments of glass in the jaws of the skeleton, suggesting that Bormann had committed suicide by biting cyanide capsules to avoid capture. The family was not permitted to cremate the body, in case further forensic examination later proved necessary.
The remains were conclusively identified as Bormann’s in 1998 when German authorities ordered genetic testing on fragments of the skull. Tests using DNA from one of his relatives identified the skull as that of Bormann. His remains were cremated and his ashes were scattered over the Baltic Sea on August 16, 1999.
“Each one of the accused was defended by a German attorney. Franz von Papen, the former vice-chancellor of Germany, had his son as his attorney. In some instances, their lawyers did not think their clients did anything wrong. Most of the defendants didn’t think they did anything wrong and were adamant about that. In some instances, the attorneys were shunned after their representation,” McMahon, an antitrust attorney, said.
Eleven of the defendants were sentenced to death. Twelve of them were sentenced to be hanged, including Hermann Goering, who “committed suicide a couple of hours before the verdict was read because he didn’t think hanging was a fitting means of death for someone of his stature. None of the defendants were killed in the gas chambers where so many others had perished,” said McMahon.
“Three of the accused were acquitted by the IMT but were convicted in subsequent trials in Germany.
The verdicts were read on October 1, 1946. Justice Jackson was in attendance for the reading of the judgments. He rushed back to the United States for the start of the next Supreme Court session beginning on Monday, October 7.
“Jackson did not love the idea that anybody had been acquitted but, in his mind, it also validated the system that he set up, that it was a real trial. The first Nuremberg trial was the only one that was international. There were 13 trials in Nuremberg all told. The United States took the lead on the other 12 and they were commonly known as the doctors’ trial and the lawyers’ trial at the Palace of Justice at Nuremberg,” McMahon concluded.
At the Jackson Center’s Perpetrators Exhibit, visitors will see lithographs of the convicted Nazis as a remembrance of the faces of evil. The artwork was created by prominent artist Sid Chafetz, z”l.
“He wanted to do something that commemorated the victims of the Holocaust but he thought there had already been a lot of art created about the victims and their pain and suffering,” McMahon recalled. “He took a very different tactic and created these lithographs of those who committed the crimes. For the most part, these are the defendants that would have been on trial at the IMT. There are a couple of outliers such as Joseph Goebbels who committed suicide before the trial. Each one of the lithographs has an historic note on it as the artist understood it. There are some historical inaccuracies.”
Nuremberg was universally known as the trial of the century and with all the intrigue and drama, Hollywood had to put its version of a dramatized account of the war crime trials on the small and big screens. In 2000, actors Alec Baldwin, Jill Hennessey and Christopher Plummer starred in a miniseries simply titled Nuremberg. It won two Emmy Awards: Brian Cox won for portraying Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie. A second Emmy went to behind-the-scenes expertise for Outstanding Single Camera Sound Mixing for a Miniseries or a Movie.
In 1961, the landmark movie Judgment at Nuremberg had a cavalcade of stars from that era including Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Widmark, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, William Shatner and Werner Klemperer. The movie cost $3 million but only grossed $12,000 worldwide, according to the IMDB website.
The movie won several awards including two Oscars: Maximilian Schell for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Abby Mann for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. The movie also won two Golden Globes: Stanley Kramer for Best Director and Maximilian Schell for Best Actor in a Drama.
These movies are available online.