Only one lawyer who prosecuted the Nuremberg trials is still alive today, and he has an important message for the world: war is not the answer.
60 Minutes recently interviewed Ben Ferencz, a son of Romanian Jewish immigrants who found refuge in the United States. His father worked as a janitor, and Ben was the first person in his family to go to college. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, he was driven to enlist in the military.
Due to his short stature, the Air Force rejected him, as did the Marines. He eventually finished his education at Harvard and went on to join the Army, landing at Normandy and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.
Because of his legal training, Ferencz was transferred to a new unit in General Patton’s Third Army, where he was tasked with gathering evidence from concentration camps as the U.S. Army liberated them. That information was going to be used to prosecute war crimes.
He says he is still haunted by what he saw and the stories he heard, remembering the story of a son whose father had hidden bread for him under his arm every night so other prisoners couldn’t steal it.
Though he returned home to the United States, he has soon summoned again. General Telford Taylor, who was in charge of the Nuremberg trials, requested Ferencz’ legal expertise, sending him multiple binders of top secret documents from the Nazi regime.
“He gave me a bunch of binders, four binders. And these were daily reports from the Eastern Front — which unit entered which town, how many people they killed. It was classified, so many Jews, so many gypsies, so many others,” he told 60 Minutes.
“Ferencz had stumbled upon reports sent back to headquarters by secret SS units called Einsatzgruppen, or action groups. Their job had been to follow the German army as it invaded the Soviet Union in 1941,” killing communists, gypsies, and Jews, the outlet reported. These murders were independent of concentration camp exterminations and occurred in the victims’ own towns.
“They were 3,000 SS officers trained for the purpose, and directed to kill without pity or remorse, every single Jewish man, woman, and child they could lay their hands on,” Ferencz recounted.
Ultimately, his findings led him to push for an additional trial, despite the previous ones already being conducted at Nuremberg.
“When I reached over a million people murdered that way, over a million people, that’s more people than you’ve ever seen in your life, I took a sample. I got on the next plane, flew from Berlin down to Nuremberg, and I said to Taylor, ‘General, we’ve gotta put on a new trial.’“
Because the prosecutors were already stretched thin and other trials were already underway, Taylor put him in charge of handling the Einsatzgruppen. At age 27, Ferencz prosecuted 22 former commanders, all of whom plead not guilty to their crimes.
But, as Ferencz proved with written evidence, they had documented their atrocities in cold, plain language. 60 Minutes noted the Nazi reports:
“Exhibit 111: ‘In the last 10 weeks, we have liquidated around 55,000 Jews.’ Exhibit 179, from Kiev in 1941: ‘The city’s Jews were ordered to present themselves… about 34,000 reported, including women and children. After they had been made to give up their clothing and valuables, all of them were killed, which took several days.’ Exhibit 84, from Einsatzgruppen D in March of 1942: Total number executed so far: 91,678.”
Otto Ohlendorf, who led Einsatzgruppen D, actually claimed the murders were carried out in self-defense. “He was not ashamed of that. He was proud of that. He was carrying out his government’s instructions,” Ferencz told 60 Minutes.
Though Ferencz was exposed to some of the worst behavior in human history, he fell short of calling the soldiers “savages,” as the 60 Minutes interviewer referred to them. Rather, he blamed the power of patriotism and soldiers ‘just doing their jobs.’
“He’s a patriotic human being acting in the interest of his country, in his mind,” he said, speaking of soldiers who commit atrocities.
“Do you think the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was a savage? Now I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people.” [emphasis added]
Ferencz successfully prosecuted the 22 commanders he put on trial, and four were hanged. He has spent his life trying to deter war crimes and delivered the closing arguments in the first case at the International Criminal Court at the Hague in the Netherlands, which was established in 1988. He has also donated his personal life savings to a Genocide Prevention Initiative at the Holocaust Museum.
When the interviewer pressed him about his optimism in the face of continued genocide in places like Sudan — asking whether he is simply naive — he maintained his positivity and rejected the claims of those who insist war is necessary:
“Well, if it’s naive to want peace instead of war, let ’em make sure they say I’m naive. Because I want peace instead of war. If they tell me they want war instead of peace, I don’t say they’re naive, I say they’re stupid. Stupid to an incredible degree to send young people out to kill other young people they don’t even know, who never did anybody any harm, never harmed them. That is the current system. I am naive? That’s insane.”
Though the interviewer also accused of him being an idealist, he insisted the opposite — that he’s a realist. He also said:
“People get discouraged. They should remember, from me, it takes courage not to be discouraged.”
He pointed out that decades ago, freedom for women, gays, and transsexuals was unthinkable, they have now come to pass, insisting it’s also possible to end mass murder and war.
“[I]t’s a reality today. So the world is changing. And you shouldn’t — you know — be despairing because it’s never happened before. Nothing new ever happened before.”