In 1948 Dan Haywood, an American judge recently defeated for reelection in Maine, arrives in Nuremberg to preside over the trial of several German judges accused of destroying law and justice to support Hitler's infamous mandates which took the lives of 6 million innocent people. From the moment the prosecuting attorney, Col. Tad Lawson, makes his emotion-packed opening statements, it is obvious that he is determined to obtain the maximum punishment for the judges. The defense lawyer, Hans Rolfe, counters by charging that if these men are guilty because they upheld the laws of their country, then all of Germany must be tried. To support his accusations of inhuman actions, Lawson offers the testimony of Rudolf Petersen, a victim of sterilization who, it develops, was castrated because of mental incompetence. During the long weeks of the trial, Haywood wanders about the city trying to "understand" the German people, trying to determine if they really understood what Hitler stood for. In particular, Haywood often chats with the aristocratic Madame Bertholt, the widow of a German general executed after the earlier war crimes trials. The proceedings reach a climax when a woman named Irene Hoffman is called to the stand. When she testifies that a former friend, an aged Jew, was falsely accused of being intimate with her (thereby "polluting the Aryan race") and then executed, Rolfe tries to break down her story by frantically accusing her of distorting the truth. As the distraught woman breaks into hysterical denials, one of the accused, Ernst Janning, interrupts the hearings and asks to make a statement. Throughout the trial he has remained silent, but he now voluntarily takes the stand and admits to being guilty of both ignoring and rationalizing the inhuman Nazi acts because he felt they were for the ultimate good of the country. As Haywood and his two associate judges ponder their decisions, the news that Russia has blockaded Berlin prompts military officials to hint that lenient judgments might be wise--and expedient. But Haywood, determined to stand for "justice, truth, and the value of a single human being," refuses to compromise, and he sentences the defendants to life imprisonment. The defiant Rolfe sneers that in 5 years the convicted men will be free.