‘World powers betrayed the spirit of Nuremberg’

Photo courtesy of benferencz.org

On the 70th anniversary of the start of the Nuremberg trials, France 24 asked Ben Ferencz, the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, about his role in the historic trials and his later work to create the ICC.


Ben Ferencz’s family left Europe in 1921, fleeing the persecution of Hungarian Jews. They arrived in the United States when he was just 10 months old. “I was raised as a poor boy in a heavy crime area in New York City, and I didn’t like what I saw,” he says by way of explaining his interest in law at a young age. He would eventually graduate from Harvard Law School in 1943.

Even before the Allied powers declared victory in Europe in May 1945, Ferencz had started compiling evidence of Nazi atrocities as a corporal and then a sergeant in the US Army. After the war he was recruited to work on what would be described as the “greatest trial in history”.

Ben Ferencz (left) served as a corporal and sergeant in the US Army in European campaign during World War II.
Ben Ferencz (left) served as a corporal and sergeant in the US Army in European campaign during World War II.

The first of the 12 military tribunals to judge Nazi war crimes – including the Holocaust – after World War II, began in the German city of Nuremberg on November 20, 1945.

At Nuremberg, Ferencz held the distinction of being the youngest prosecutor at just 27, and the chief prosecutor in the case against leaders of the Einsatzgruppen, roaming death squads responsible for killing over one million civilians – mainly by shooting – in Eastern Europe.

In the years after Nuremberg, Ferencz was haunted by the possibility of a repeat of the Holocaust and became a tireless advocate of the creation of an international court to settle disputes before war broke out. That once far-fetched dream became a reality with the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the late 1990s.

Ferencz, now 96, continues to work to advance the cause of peace, and remains convinced justice is the only way for humanity to survive the next 70 years. He spoke to FRANCE 24 via telephone from his home in New Rochelle, New York.

FRANCE 24: The Einsatzgruppen trial almost didn’t happen. How did you bring the case to trial and become its chief prosecutor?

Ben Ferencz: I had been assigned by General [Telford] Taylor, who was chief of council for the 11 trials, to continue doing my work in the army as investigator of the Nazi crimes. He said, “Look, you know what’s happened, so go to Berlin and set up an office there and send us the evidence of the crimes”… One of my researchers who was working in the foreign ministry came upon a set of reports in big binders which had the German title “Reports from the Eastern Front – Top Secret”. In there, they reported how these special extermination squads hidden under the untranslatable name Einsatzgruppen operated. And every day they reported to Berlin from the field describing how many Jews they killed. They never used the word “killed”, only “eliminated” -- how many communist officials they eliminated, how many gypsies they had eliminated, and any other potential threats to the Reich. When those reports were handed to me in Berlin I took a little adding machine and began adding up the numbers murdered by these special squads. When I reached a million murders I stopped adding.

I flew from Berlin to Nuremberg, and told General Taylor that we have to put on a new trial. He said ‘”We cannot. The schedules have already been made, all the lawyers have been assigned, the Pentagon is not going to agree to any further expansion, so we can’t do it”. I told them we couldn’t let these mass murderers go free. And he said, “Can you do it in addition to your other responsibilities?’ So it came about that I became the chief prosecutor in what was the biggest murder trial in human history… I convicted all of the defendants, all 22 of them, 13 were sentenced to death, and I rested my case after two days. I didn’t call a single witness, and I was 27 years old. And that broke every record in the book.

How did your experience in Nuremberg shape your personal views about justice?

You cannot talk about justice under such circumstances. In these particular instances, in any war, crime is committed on a vast scale. In my judgement war is the biggest crime of all. The only thing that would be “just” in a war is to stop killing the people – that would be justice.

Nuremberg set a pattern as a whole. What was done was absolutely the correct thing to do: to hold the individuals responsible for their crimes, to limit it to the leaders, to treat everyone equally under the law. It condemned what had been a national right, that is, the right to go to war when you think your national interests are threatened. It changed that national right into an international crime…

But wars have continued and the ideals of Nuremberg – what we hoped to teach the rest of the world – were forgotten. The United States itself had forgotten it when it went into Vietnam and other places. Instead of using peaceful means only, we sought to achieve our goals through force and violence. Well, we have paid a serious price, the world has paid a serious price for that very fatal mistake. We continue to pay the price, and I continue to try to stop it.

You played an instrumental part in creating the ICC, do you worry about its future?

When the ICC was finally created, it finally had its own case against [Congolese militia leader Thomas] Lubanga. When they finally reached that point, the head prosecutor Luis Moreno Campos sent me a note, he told me, “We want you to do the closing statements for the prosecution”. I did the closing remarks for the prosecution on the first case of the first International Criminal Court. I was then 92-years-old. So I have two interesting book ends. The first case was the biggest murder trial when I was 27, the second when I was 92.

Yes, [the ICC] can be undone, because one never knows when suddenly someone comes on the horizon, like a Senator McCarthy, like we had in the United States, who gets public support and then tries to undo things when they perceive it as weaknesses on the part of the government… So we must always be on guard because political attitudes change and when they change, they change the action as well. Almost invariably the net effect of that is large numbers of innocent people who pay with their blood.

In previous interviews you described gathering witness testimonies under duress just after WWII, lining up villagers and threatening to shoot them if they lied. You said at the time you were not aware such methods could invalidate evidence. Do you think 70 years from now people will raise their eyebrows over how justice was served in 2015? Think that it was backwards?

No, they will not look on it as backwards. Unless they accept the principle of settling disputes peacefully, there will be nobody here 70 years from now. This will be a cold planet like the other billions of planets in space… Our capacity to kill people so far exceeds our capacity to create the institutions necessary to avoid that. There is an acute danger that 70 years from now, if we do not change, not only our habits and our way of thinking, but also the methods by which we settle our disputes, there will be nobody left. And I will be looking down from heaven, or up from hell, or wherever, saying ‘I told you so’.

Ben Ferencz (right) was awarded France's Légion d'honneur during a ceremony in New York on July 3, 2015
Ben Ferencz (right) was awarded France's Légion d'honneur during a ceremony in New York on July 3, 2015

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