A Prosecutor's Personal Account: From Nuremberg to Rome

By Ferencz, Benjamin | Journal of International Affairs, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

A Prosecutor's Personal Account: From Nuremberg to Rome


Ferencz, Benjamin, Journal of International Affairs


The Nuremberg trials in 1946 were the beginning of a process that sought to apply the rule of law to protect fundamental human rights of people everywhere. As a prosecutor at Nuremberg, I peered into the eyes of remorseless murderers--many of them educated men. How does one cope with those who remain convinced, in complete absence of shame or regret, that they were part of a master race and that what they did was necessary and just? Teaching tolerance, understanding and compassion in a world replete with nationalism, arrogance, hatred and fear is not a quick or easy task. Economic, social and religious disparities are so dominant that rooting out causes of violent discontent remains our greatest challenge. The lesson of my life, however, has been that progress is surely possible and the goal of a humane world under law can be reached.

I was born in 1920 in a ramshackle cottage in a tiny village in Transylvania. Hungary had ceded the region to Romania after the First World War and my parents were eager to escape the Romanian persecutions of the Hungarian Jewish minority. Without education, funds or skills, the young couple took their family and emigrated to America.

My childhood recollections begin in a basement apartment in Hell's Kitchen, a crime-infested district in New York City. I was educated in the public schools of New York, including City College, where I studied crime prevention. Based on the results of my criminal law exam, I won a scholarship to Harvard Law School, where I served as a research assistant to Professor Sheldon Glueck, a leading criminologist who had written a book on the prosecution of war criminals. He profoundly influenced my subsequent career.

When the United States entered the Second World War, I applied for an assignment in army intelligence but was disqualified due to my foreign birth. After I received my law degree, I enlisted and was assigned as a private in the supply section of an anti-aircraft battalion trained for the invasion of France. Soon after, the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy and my unit joined General Patton's Third Army that was pursuing the Nazis back across the Rhine and on to the final Battle of the Bulge. After three years of military service, I was honorably discharged as a sergeant with five battle stars. The most formative events of my army career, however, centered on war crimes.

U.S. ARMY WAR CRIME TRIALS, DACHAU

Following the defeat of Adolf Hitler, Allied leaders were determined to hold war criminals accountable for atrocities committed during the war. Washington turned to Professor Glueck for guidance.(1) He suggested that the army try to locate me to help set up a war crimes branch, noting I had just written an article on the "Rehabilitation of Army Offenders" as a corporal with the 115th AAA Gun Battalion.(2) In December 1944, I was transferred to a new Judge Advocate section of the Third Army headquarters in Luxembourg.

The first persons targeted for trial were Germans who had committed atrocities against Americans--such as killing prisoners of war or downed allied flyers. Captured Nazi concentration camp commanders were also called before American military courts. A few enlisted men carried out the investigations. After digging up bodies of American flyers murdered by German mobs, I prepared reports identifying the suspects and listing the violated war laws. Witnesses were ordered to write out a complete description of the criminal event--under threat of being shot. Confessions from the accused were obtained by similar persuasions--even though they usually were rewritten under more sympathetic circumstances before an officer validated it for evidence. It was a grisly assignment. But the worst was yet to come.

As a form of symbolic justice, the army decided to try the captured criminals in a former Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, near Munich. The proceedings were in the nature of traditional military commissions, where judges, prosecutors and defense counsels were U. …

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