If you were to say of these men that they are not guilty, it would be as true to say that there has been no war, there are no slain, there has been no crime.
-- United States Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson
When Robert Jackson, a 53-year-old Supreme Court justice from New York, appeared before the Nuremberg tribunal on November 20, 1945, he was the chief prosecutor in the first-ever trial to put an entire national government in the dock. While governments and armies had been waging wars for centuries -- an action not punishable according to international law -- the actions of the Nazi party during World War II were regarded as so abhorrent that the Allied victors chose to prosecute the Nazi regime as a carefully planned and brutally implemented conspiracy.
American Experience presents The Nuremberg Trials, the dramatic story of the tribunal that pitted Jackson against Hermann Göring, former head of the Nazi air force, and twenty-one other Nazi defendants. For Jackson, this trial would make a statement that crimes against humanity would never again go unpunished. "This trial set a new precedent for what humanity will and will not tolerate," says producer Michael Kloft. "It was a necessary departure from the norms of international law as a response to the most hideous crimes the world had seen."
At the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, twenty-one representatives of the Nazi elite stood before an international military tribunal; they were charged with the systematic murder of millions of people. Adolf Hitler and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had committed suicide, making Göring the most prominent surviving member of the Third Reich. The irony of these men taking the stand in Nuremberg, formerly the site of many of most spectacular Nazi rallies, was not lost on the prosecutors, defendants or the world that was watching.
The tribunal consisted of four prosecutors, led by Jackson; eight judges from four nations, and five hundred hand-picked spectators who would bear witness to the condemnation of crimes against humanity. Of the volumes of evidence, Jackson and his team focused on the most incriminating. The darkest examples of the crimes committed by the defendants were presented point by point. The reading of the charges took more than a day. One by one, the defendants pled not guilty.
The ensuing trial lasted nearly a year. Jackson's passion and that of the other prosecutors for seeing these men brought to justice was not lost on the judges. Göring was sentenced to death, as were many of those found guilty -- but he would never face his sentence. Like so many other members of the Third Reich, he committed suicide before he could be executed.
"The story of the Nuremberg Trials is part of our collective world history," says American Experience executive producer Mark Samels. "It's an episode from our not-so-distant past that reminds us that we've long lived in a global society and that crimes against humanity affect us all."