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In his opening statement at the International Military Tribunal trials at Nuremberg in November of 1945, Chief Prosecutor Justice Robert H Jackson immediately established the historic nature of the proceedings thusly:

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"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 ever has paid to Reason."1

Jackson therefore depicts these trials—and the wrongs that they seek to punish—as part of a greater injustice inflicted on the world. He reinforces this view in his concluding statement:

"The real complaining party at your bar is Civilization. In all our countries it is still a struggle and imperfect thing. It does not plead that the United States, or any other country, has been blameless of the conditions which made the German people easy victims to the blandishments and intimidations of the Nazi conspirators […] Civilization asks whether law is so laggard as to be utterly helpless to deal with crimes of this magnitude by criminals of this order of importance. It does not expect that you can make war impossible. It does expect that your juridical actions will put the forces of International Law, its precepts, its prohibitions and, most of all, its sanctions, on the side of peace, so that men and women of good will in all countries may have “ ‘leave to live by no man’s leave, underneath the law.’”2

Jackson’s somewhat hyperbolic language mirrors the methodology behind the trials themselves: an effort to define and prosecute mass “crimes against humanity.” Specific crimes against the Jewish people—or indeed any mention of Jews as a group slated for extermination apart from other ethnicities or nationalities—are not mentioned.3

The perspective of those Jews who testified at the trial was somewhat different. In his diary dated February 17, 1946, Jewish poet and Vilna partisan fighter Avraham Sutzkever described his reasons for testifying at the trial, which he hoped to do in Yiddish:

"I will go to Nuremberg […] I feel the crushing responsibility that I bear on this journey. I pray that the vanished souls of the martyrs will manifest themselves through my words. I want to speak in Yiddish, any other language is out of the question. I spoke about this with Ehrenbourg, prosecutor Smirnov, and all the others. I wish to speak in the language of the people whom the accused attempted to exterminate. I wish to speak our mameloshn.4 May it ring out and may Alfred Rosenberg crumble. May my language triumph at Nuremberg as a symbol of perdurance."5

Ultimately, Sutzkever’s wish was not granted; he testified in Russian, and was identified at the trial as a Soviet citizen—a designation that was consistent with Soviet policy to flatten rather than highlight Jewish specificity with regard to wartime tragedies. These differing perspectives ask us to consider the nature and definition of postwar justice: for whom was it meted out, and to what end? Moreover, was justice to be found in the courtroom alone, or were there other avenues through which reparations, restitution, and individual or community reckoning could be pursued?

Postwar justice continued in various forms well beyond 1946. It assumed many different forms, from postwar reparations, to Jewish trials in Displaced Persons' camps, to the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. Some of these trials were local, while others, like Eichmann, assumed international importance and provided a world stage for survivors’ voices. Considering the meaning and perspective of justice served and justice denied raises many questions: is justice on the world stage compatible with or in competition to that which would serve the Jewish survivors of the most calculated genocidal effort in the twentieth century? These items can only begin to explore such complex questions. In the end, what these items demonstrate is the fluid nature of the very definition of “postwar justice” for various groups and individuals—both inside and outside of the Jewish community—and the diversity of perspectives that existed during this early period.



Robert Houghwout Jackson, The case against the Nazi War criminals: Opening statement for the United States of America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), 3.


Robert Houghwout Jackson, The case against the Nazi War criminals: Opening statement for the United States of America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), 90-91.


An extensive scholarly literature exists about the proceedings and impact of the Nuremberg Trials, much of which focuses on perpetrator documents and perspectives. Hilary Earl offers an analysis of the SS-Einsatzgruppen trials in her book, The Nuremberg SS-Einsatzgruppen trial, 1945-1958: Atrocity, Law, and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Similarly, Valerie Hebert's monograph, Hitler's Generals on Trial: the Last War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010), examines the role of the German army in the genocidal process. Tomaz Jardim's book, The Mauthausen Trial: American Military Justice in Germany (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), explores the ways in which the American military trial was, in many ways, an unprecedented effort that posed unprecedented challenges. Finally, Patricia Heberer and Jürgen Matthäus' edited collection, Atrocities on Trial: Historical Perspectives on the Politics of Prosecuting War Crimes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008), places the Nuremberg Trials in a larger context of post-war trials that reach beyond 1945.


Yiddish for “mother tongue.”


Annette Wieviorka, The Era of the Witness, trans. Jared Stark (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), 31.

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