For its 2019 Student Essay Contest, The National WWII Museum asked middle and high school students for their thoughts on the nature of justice in World War II and in their world today.
On Sunday, November 21, 1945, American Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson delivered a speech to open one of the most important cases of the 20th century: the trial of defeated Nazi leaders at Nuremberg. The trial was the first of its kind and Jackson described the momentous occasion in his opening speech, stating:
“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. . . . We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. . . .”
Sitting before Jackson were Nazi leaders responsible for some of the most heinous crimes of World War II: waging aggressive war, the destruction of whole cities, the executions of civilians and prisoners of war, the millions of deaths in the Holocaust, and more. However, even when faced with the overwhelming evidence against the defeated Nazi defendants, Judge Jackson and his fellow prosecutors sought for justice to be done.
When asked what they felt was meant by the “grave responsibility of justice” referenced in his speech, more than 800 students from over 40 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico responded with thoughts and opinions speaking to the legacy of Justice Jackson’s words during World War II and connecting them to the ongoing need to fight for justice today.
First-place high school essayist Jacob Lang from Holt High School in Wentzville, Missouri, emphasized the magnitude and weight of Jackson’s statements:
“To me, Jackson was saying that although the actions committed by those being prosecuted were unequivocally diabolical a just society must rise to uphold true justice rather than exacting empty vengeance. They were going to judge justly and rightly, to make clear to future generations of humanity that everyone is subject to the universal codes of human morals that have held for centuries and that we in the future should remain mindful our own individual responsibility to justice.”
Second-place high school essayist Madeleine Kern from Rice Memorial High School in Morrisville, Vermont, believes that everyone deserves justice:
“World War II and the actions of the Nazis were horrific, and there is no question that the millions who died deserved justice. There was a question, however, in how we achieve this justice. Winston Churchill called for executions without a trial, Russia called for a “show trial”, yet the United States’ desire for a fair trial prevailed. Despite the already insurmountable evidence against the Nazi officials, the world decided that they too deserved a fair trial. Ultimately, all but three of the defendants were found guilty and justice was brought to the world.”
Finally, Iago Macknik-Conde, our winning seventh grade essayist from The Anderson School in New York, New York, argues that the fight for justice is always difficult, but also always necessary:
“This is why seeking and upholding justice, even when it feels unbearable to do so, is so important, and why people worldwide must participate in this relentless effort. Entire nations must be held subject to international law to prevent and punish crimes against humanity, and it is everyone’s duty to both uphold these rules and to defend them. Making amends for the Nazis’ war crimes is an impossible task, because the millions of lives lost cannot be restored, or the pain of the survivors diminished. Even so, striving for justice is necessary if we ever hope to achieve a future in which “crimes against the peace of the world” exist in history books only.”
Thank you to all of the students who participated in this year’s essay contest and who took the time to consider Justice Jackson’s words, as well as their own place in the world as young Americans. Please enjoy reading all of the winning essays in their entirety at the links below.