Benjamin Ferencz flanked by German defense attorneys

Benjamin Ferencz ’43 had an opportunity Eli Rosenbaum could never have–to bring Nazis before a criminal tribunal. In 1947 Ferencz served as chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg trial of 22 SS officers, including six generals, accused of mass murder. Part of Hitler’s mobile killing squad, known as the Einsatzgruppen, the 22 defendants were convicted and 14 were sentenced to death for their part in the murder of a million people.

When Ferencz made his case, the first he ever argued, he did so, he said in his opening statement, “with sorrow and with hope.” Ferencz was 27 at the time. He’s since spent much of his career teaching, writing, speaking–out of sorrow at what he’s witnessed and out of hope that he can make a difference. He saw the emaciated corpses at concentration camps, the remorseless defendants in the Nuremberg courtroom, the pain of survivors with whom he worked after the war to set up a system of compensation.

And after the attacks of September 11, he is even more convinced that the world should turn to law, not war, to respond to crimes against humanity (he spoke on the topic at HLS in October). For years he’s advocated for a permanent international court to prosecute those who commit genocide and other war crimes. As of April, the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court had been ratified by 66 nations, although the United States was not among them.

Ferencz’s connection to the prosecution of war crimes goes back to Harvard Law School. As a research assistant to professor and criminologist Sheldon Glueck ’28, he read every book in the Harvard Law library on the topic, he says. When he was an enlisted man in the U.S. Army, his expertise was discovered, and after landing on the beaches of Normandy and surviving the Battle of the Bulge, he was plucked from the ranks of the artillery to investigate war crimes.

Ferencz went into concentration camps after they were liberated to collect evidence. He took testimony from witnesses. He dug up bodies, often with his bare hands. After the war he returned to Germany as part of the Nuremberg team working under Telford Taylor ’32, a principal prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. Taylor made Ferencz chief prosecutor of the Einsatzgruppen defendants. (Ferencz has given his papers from that era to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.)

More than a half century later, when the 82-year-old thinks about prosecuting Nazi war criminals today, he sees difficulties, both logistical and humanitarian, in going after “a person who has been living a peaceful and lawful life for many years . . . for a crime that was committed under very different circumstances in a different country.”

But according to Ferencz, our obligation to the accused must be weighed against what we owe victims of the genocide and those who have survived. “And when putting those things in the scale,” he says, “I am afraid it is the wrongdoer who must carry the burden.”