MAY 13, 2017 — Picture yourself at age 27. How do you and your accomplishments compare to those of a young Ben Ferencz? In 1947, Ferencz was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, bringing to account 22 Nazi SS commanders for the murders of more than 1 million innocent people.
Now picture yourself at 97, if you can, but make it a fiercely passionate and brilliant 97 years old. This is Ferencz today, still fighting the good fight against evil as the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, 70 years later.
More than an old U.S. Army vet telling his story, the Eastern European-born Ferencz uses his unique link to World War II history to advocate for peace, morality and justice. His idealistic vision is that someday humans learn to settle political differences without arming themselves to kill and destroy. “War invariably makes murderers out of otherwise decent people because that’s the purpose of the war,” Ferencz told CBC Radio this year. “You kill him or he’ll kill you. That’s the system. My God, can’t we think of anything better way to settle disputes?”
He’s got no answer to that question — yet. But Ferencz long ago placed hope in the lessons of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunals. He believes a foundation of international law can govern wartime behavior to deter crimes against humanity. And he’s spent his post-war career working in support of the idea. To the extent that the International Criminal Court and other tribunals exist today, he’s made progress. Yet genocides still thrive: Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, arguably Syria …
We saw Ferencz on a recent “60 Minutes” episode and were struck by his experiences, magnetism and enduring optimism. It can’t be an easy outlook to maintain.
As an Army sergeant and Harvard Law grad, Ferencz was among the troops who liberated Nazi death camps. What he saw shocked him: the death and degradation of prisoners, their bodies stacked like wood. Two years later, he was back in Germany working for the Nuremberg tribunals when a researcher in Berlin uncovered documents showing how Nazi death squads were responsible for the systematic extermination of civilians in the former Soviet Union. These einsatzgruppen — SS action groups — rolled into towns after German army victories to slaughter Jews, Gypsies, communist officials and others.
The Nazi documents told the story in meticulous detail. Ferencz added up the horrifying numbers — 55,000 Jews liquidated here, 91,678 executed there — until he’d reached a total of more than a million victims. The war crimes tribunals were under way, requiring Ferencz to persuade his superiors to add another trial. “I said, ‘Look, I’ve got here mass murder, mass murder on an unparalleled scale,’” he told Leslie Stahl of “60 Minutes.”
His opening statement at trial, viewable on the website of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, laid out the case: “Reports will show that the slaughter committed by these defendants was dictated not by military necessity, but by that supreme perversion of thought: the Nazi theory of the master race. We shall show that these deeds of men in uniform were the methodical execution of long-range plans to destroy ethnic, national, political and religious groups which stood condemned in the Nazi mind.”
The Germans’ paperwork was so detailed, Ferencz never had to call a witness. All 22 defendants were found guilty; four were hanged.
War is a horror. And maybe perpetual. But as Ben Ferencz showed, evil committed in the guise of war is intolerable and punishable.