Young Lawyer Who Prosecuted War Criminals At Nuremberg Now Reflects On War and Justice, Aged 96

Benjamin Ferencz was just 27 when he was given the job of a prosecutor at what were the greatest trials in history: prosecuting Nazis for international war crimes at Nuremberg following the Second World War.

He was to prosecute at one trial out of 13 that sentenced Nazi leaders from 1954 to 1949.

He was a combat soldier during the fighting but as the war drew to a close Ferencz was assigned to the headquarters of General George Patton.

In a recent interviewFerencz, now 96, reflected on the trials and how to avoid war in the future.

He described a visit to Gusen, a concentration camp that was part of Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and Flossenberg, describing them as absolute hell. There were dead bodies stacked like cordwood before the crematoria. From those camps, he gathered the evidence to use at trial, made all the easier since the Germans kept meticulous records and photographs. So convincing was the evidence that all 22 defendants were convicted following a two-day trial.

Ferencz’s strategy was straightforward: he had the historic dimensions, the evidence was circumspect in his opening statement, and chose the defendants who were chiefly responsible for the crimes. He selected them based on their education and rank since there were 3,000 men who murdered Jews, Gypsies, and others for two years. Most had a high level of education. None were enlisted men.

Unfortunately, there were only 22 seats in the dock, so 3,000 didn’t get tried for the same crimes.

Ferencz was proving not only their guilt but attempting to prove that the law should oversee human behavior to prevent similar crimes in the future. He thinks he succeeded to some degree.

“Although there is an International Criminal Court (ICC), it is handicapped because it cannot get into the country where such crimes are committed since the head of state might be responsible or has sympathy for the criminals,” he explained.

He blames a small minority who have made it impossible for the Senate to ratify the treaty which created those courts, NPR reported.

The best way to avoid conflicts, he believes, can be summed up in three words: Law not War. Doing so, he said, would change the planet. Billions of dollars would be saved every day which could assist students who cannot pay tuition or provide housing for refugees.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE