The looming trial of Saddam Hussein will soon collide with a significant historical milestone. On Nov. 20 — 60 years ago — the first trials of German war criminals began in Nuremberg. For those in need of a quick refresher course, these prosecutions were held in the aftermath of World War II, when the four victorious Allies — France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States — brought to trial hundreds of Nazi party officials and ranking members of the German high command. The trials commenced in the city that had once been the prewar scene of the massive Nazi party rallies in which Hitler, like some high priest of a demented cult, held Germany in his thrall. In 13 trials that lasted until 1949, hundreds of defendants were prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity for their part in the war and the extermination of 6 million Jews and more than 5 million other Europeans. Before the trials opened, the Allies had agreed that the "superior orders" defense could not be used, although it might be considered as a mitigating factor. As the first trial opened, the evidence included eyewitness accounts of Nazi atrocities and graphic films of the liberated death camps, seen for the first time in public. Some defendants and many spectators wept openly. Of the initial 22 tried, 19 were convicted and 12 received death sentences, including Hermann Goering, General Alfred Jodl and Martin Bormann, convicted in absentia. But there is another reason to look back at the Nuremberg trials today. Establishing the legal guidelines for the trials and then leading the prosecution for the United States was Robert Houghwout Jackson, an extraordinary man whose life and accomplishments merit attention. Raised in upstate New York, Jackson never attended college, but had apprenticed in a law office, spent a year taking classes at Albany Law School, passed the bar and become a trial lawyer before going on to become solicitor general and then attorney general during Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal era. When FDR elevated Jackson to the Supreme Court in 1941, critics would have rightly described Jackson as a "crony"with no judicial experience and meager "academic credentials." Nonetheless, as a justice, Jackson was a powerful defender of individual rights and opponent of unfettered government power. Writing for the majority in a 1943 case that ruled the mandatory salute to the flag was unconstitutional, Justice Jackson wrote, "No official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion" — a view that was probably as unpopular back in wartime America as it might be today. Jackson took a leave of absence from the high court to lead the U.S. legal team at the Nuremberg trials. His final vote came as a member of the unanimous majority in Brown v. Board of Education, which ended public school segregation, shortly after which he suffered a heart attack and died in October 1954. His remains lie beneath a simple headstone reading, "He kept the ancient landmarks and built the new." The life, writings and words of Robert Jackson stand as eloquent testimony to the fact that judicial experience and the "right" colleges do not a great justice make — something to bear in mind when the Senate begins confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. Robert Jackson's greatness came from his humanity, unshakable defense of religious freedoms and a devotion to the rule of law. Nor was this New Dealer unwilling to take on a president. He infuriated Truman by joining the majority that said the president could not seize America's steel mills during a strike that threatened to cripple the nation. Above all, as he proved in his principled role as prosecutor of Nazi infamy, Jackson was committed to what is right, not retribution. At a time when many people called for summary executions of the accused, Jackson said in his eloquent opening statement, "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 has ever paid to Reason." Robert Jackson was devoted to fairness — and his example compels attention as Saddam's trial gets under way. Kenneth C. Davis of Dorset is author of "Don't Know Much About History." His new book is "Don't Know Much About Mythology" (HarperCollins). He will be speaking at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Centerat 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 18 .

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