As tensions with Russia, threats from North Korea and turmoil in Syria push the world closer to World War III, the last living Nuremberg prosecutor is speaking out – advocating for peace.
In an interview with 60 Minutes, 97-year-old Benjamin Ferencz detailed the way he’s seen war turn good men and women into coldblooded war criminals.
‘War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people,’ he said.
The last living Nuremberg prosecutor, 97-year-old Benjamin Ferencz, recently sat down for an interview with 60 Minutes, condemning war
Even the men Ferencz helped convict for carrying out genocide weren’t savages, he said. They were ‘intelligent, patriotic human [beings]’ who, in their minds, were ‘acting in the interest’ of their country.
‘These men would never have been murderers had it not been for the war. These were people who could quote Goethe, who loved Wagner, who were polite,’ he said.
War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people.
The real issue for Ferencz is preventing war to protect otherwise decent people from being corrupted to carry out atrocities in the name of their country.
He thinks the best way to achieve that goal is to hold war criminals responsible in international court, such as the one set up in The Hague in 1998. Ferencz even gave the closing arguments in the very first case that court heard.
For those who call Ferencz’s dream of world piece ‘naive’, he says it’s ‘stupid’ to want war instead of peace.
‘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,’ he said.
Ferencz was 27 years old and had no court room experience when he headed Trial Number 9 at Nuremberg
The case dealt with SS Officers accused of rounding up and murdering Jews and other ‘undesirable’ while following the German army into the Soviet Union. Above, four of the men accused
Ferencz himself was raised by Jewish parents, who immigrated from Romania to the U.S. when he was just a baby.
The family settled in New York City, where Ferencz’s father got a job as a janitor.
Ferencz couldn’t speak English until he was eight years old, which kept him out of school for his early youth.
Otto Ohlendorf was the main organizer accused in the Einsatzgruppen. He and four others were executed by hanging
But once he was let into school, he excelled – becoming the first member of his family to go to college and later winning a scholarship to study law at Harvard.
In his first semester at law school, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and he tried to enlist, first in the Army Air Corps and then in the Marines. But both branches of the military passed on him due to his short stature.
Ferencz decided to finish law school instead, and when he graduated he enlisted in the Army.
He fought in Europe as part of an anti-aircraft artillery unit, taking part in the storming of Normandy beach and the Battle of the Bulge.
As the war drew to an end, Ferencz was reassigned to a new unit in General Patton’s Third Army tasked with investigating war crimes, due to his legal expertise.
That assignment landed him in a front row seat to history’s darkest hours. Ferencz’s job was in to go in and collect evidence when the U.S. Army liberated concentration camps.
Ferencz’s eyes welled up and he started to shake has he recalled the horrors of the camps.
Before he worked on the Nuremberg trials, Ferencz collected evidence at the concentration camps. His eyes began to water as he recalled the horrors he witnessed
Prisoners are seen at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany after it was liberated by General Patton’s Third Army in April 1945. Ferencz was assigned to Patton’s Third at the end of the war to collect evidence at the camps due to his legal expertise
‘A father who, his son told me the story. The father had died just as we were entering the camp. And the father had routinely saved a piece of his bread for his son, and he kept it under his arm at… He kept it under his arm at night so the other inmates wouldn’t steal it, you know. So you see these human stories which are not – they’re not real. They’re not real. But they were real,’ Ferencz recalled.
After victory in Europe, Ferencz returned home, married his childhood sweetheart and vowed never to return to Germany. But he quickly broke that promise when he was asked back by General Telford Taylor, the man in charge of the Nuremberg trials.
Taylor wanted Ferencz to lead a group of researchers in Berlin who were going through recovered documents from the German foreign ministry.
The documents revealed the existence of a group called Einsatzgruppen, which followed the German army into Soviet Russia to round up and murder Jews, gypsies and other ‘undesirable’ people.
The Eisantzgruppen were groups of SS officers who followed the Germany Army into Soviet Russia, rounded up Jews and other ‘undesirable’ people and executed them in mass
One video exists showing one such mass execution. Above, victims are ordered out of a truck
The victims were then made to run to the ditch where they would be shot dead
Above, the victims stand as they wait to be shot in a ditch, that was then quickly buried
It’s estimated that the Einsatzgruppen killed more than one millions Jews, and tens of thousands of ‘partisans,’ Romani, Slavs, and others during the war.
But by the time that Ferencz had discovered this, the Nuremberg trials had already begun and Taylor had no one to prosecute the case.
When he was told that the case wouldn’t get prosecuted, Ferencz said he started screaming.
‘I said, “Look. I’ve got here mass murder, mass murder on an unparalleled scale.” And he said, “Can you do this in addition to your other work?” And I said, “Sure.” He said, “OK. So you do it.”‘
Ferencz says he’s ‘still churning’ by how unaffected the defendants in the case seemed during the trial. DEfendents are seen in the back two rows during the trial
Ferencz didn’t call a single witness in the case. Instead, he used the German’s records against them. One such record reads: ‘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’
That’s how Ferencz, who had no prior court room experience, landed himself as the prosecutor on Trial Number 9 at Nuremberg at the young age of 27.
Ferencz didn’t have to call a single witness in the trial of the 22 men accused in the Einsatzgruppen. Instead, he used their own reports against them, which meticulously detailed how the victims were rounded up and killed and tracked the the total death count.
One report read: ‘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’
Ferencz says he’s still shaken by how unaffected the men appeared at trial. He said their faces were always blank, as if they ‘were waiting for a bus’.
But he says there was only one time that he felt like physically hurting one of the defendants.
Ferencz himself was raised Jewish. His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Romania when he was a baby (center)
During his first term in law school, the U.S. entered World War II and he tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps and the Marines but was turned down. Instead, he decided to finish law school first and later joined the Army
Ferencz (pictured left with some of his comrades) stormed the beaches of Normandy and fought in the Battle of the Bulge
‘One of these – my defendants said – He gets up, and he says, “[In German] What? The Jews were shot? I hear it here for the first time.” Boy, I felt if I’d had a bayonet I woulda jumped over the thing, and put a bayonet right through one ear, and let it come out the other. You know? You know?’
After the war, Ferencz briefly returned home to marry his childhood sweetheart. But he was quickly called back to Europe to take part in the Nuremberg trials
‘I’m still churning,’ Ferencz added.
All 22 men in the case were convicted, and four – Otto Ohlendorf, Erich Naumann, Paul Blobel and Werner Braune – were executed by hanging.
After Nuremberg, Ferencz stayed in Germany to help set up rehabilitation programs for Nazi victims. He also took part in the reparations agreement between Israel and West Germany.
Ferencz and his wife returned to the U.S. in 1956 with their four children, and he became a partner at the private law firm that General Taylor set up in New York.
He remained active in advocating for the creation of the International Criminal Court, and remains a popular figure in international law.
He has decided to donate his life’s savings to a genocide prevention initiative at the Holocaust Museum.
Ferencz has dedicated his life towards establishing an international court that holds war criminals accountable. He’s pictured above giving the closing arguments during the first case heard by the International Court of Justice at the Hague in 1998
Ferencz (pictured swimming) has decided to donate his life’s savings to a genocide prevention initiative at the Holocaust Museum