This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Mitchell lecture recalls Nuremberg speech

Published: September 1, 2011

The 2011 edition of the James McCormick Mitchell Lecture, the UB Law School’s highest-profile lecture series, revisits a significant historical moment for UB and the world—one that has been largely overlooked.

The lecture, to begin at 2 p.m. Oct. 4 in 106 O’Brian Hall, North Campus, will examine a major address by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson given at the University of Buffalo’s centennial celebration exactly 65 years ago. Jackson, who had taken a leave of absence from the high court to serve as the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trial in occupied Germany that followed the Nazis’ surrender in World War II, spoke at UB immediately after he returned from that historic trial in 1946.

His speech touched on timeless themes: how a “warlike spirit” can overcome a nation; the quest for nations to work cooperatively in the cause of peace; the interrelationship of war and dictatorship; and the supremacy of law over the lawless forces of war and persecution.

The 2011 Mitchell lecture will feature three legal scholars who will discuss aspects of Jackson’s 1946 address, placing the speech in historical context and discussing its enduring implications. Mitchell lecturers will be:

  • John Q. Barrett, professor of law at St. John’s University in New York City and a board member at the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y., who will discuss “Bringing Nuremberg Home: Justice Jackson’s Path Back to Buffalo, Oct. 4, 1946.” Barrett is writing a biography of Jackson.
  • Eric L. Muller, professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law and a legal historian with special interest in the Japanese internment cases during the World War II era, who will discuss “Nazis, Americans and the Law as a ‘Peace Profession.’”
  • Mary L. Dudziak, Judge Edward J. and Ruey L. Guirado Professor of Law, History and Political Science at the University of Southern California, who will speak on “Rumors of War.”

The event will mark another anniversary as well: the 60th year of the Mitchell lecture series, whose first installment in 1951 also featured Jackson speaking on “Wartime Security and Liberty Under Law.”

The series was endowed in 1950 by a gift from Lavinia A. Mitchell in memory of her husband, James McCormick Mitchell. An 1897 graduate of the Buffalo Law School, Mitchell later served as chairman of the council of the University of Buffalo, which was then a private university.

“This series historically has been an opportunity to bring to Buffalo leading scholarly voices who are examining important issues that go beyond the academic community,” says Kim Diana Connolly, who chaired this year’s Mitchell lecture committee. “In addition to scholarly interest, issues reflecting on the current relevance of the Nuremberg trials go further. They speak not only to those who follow such matters with an academic interest, but present issues of importance to the larger community. That’s particularly true this year when we are celebrating the anniversary of such a historic event that happened right here but affected the entire world.”

“What is most remembered about Jackson at Nuremberg is his famous opening statement and his almost equally famous closing argument,” notes UB Law Professor Alfred S. Konefsky, a legal historian who has helped to organize the Mitchell lecture. “They’re two extraordinary documents of the 20th century. What has been lost to history is this speech he made in a matter of days after returning from Germany to the United States. He made the speech on a Friday, then took a train to D.C. so he could be in place when the Supreme Court convened on the first Monday in October, which was Oct. 7.”

The words Jackson spoke at UB that day, Konefsky says, had a personal edge. “It’s an extraordinary speech, quite a powerful speech, because it’s the first time he expressed in public what the meaning of the Nuremberg experience was to him. It’s a distillation and a reflection of what he experienced.”

Jackson’s speech, Konefsky says, was broadcast live on radio and The New York Times ran a front-page story about it the next day, as well as the full text of the address. Despite that coverage at the time, Konefsky says, “This speech has been largely forgotten. The Mitchell lecture is an attempt not only to commemorate the event, but also to reintroduce it into historical memory.”

Makau Mutua, dean of the law school, says it is “exciting for our students and alumni, as well as our faculty, to have a chance to explore these timely, yet historic topics with three prominent legal scholars here on the UB campus.”

Following the lecture event, a reception will be held in the Law School’s Cellino & Barnes Conference Center on the fifth floor of O’Brian Hall.