The Last Nuremberg Prosecutor Has 3 Words Of Advice: 'Law Not War'

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The man we hear next is one of the last living links to an epic moment in history. Seventy years ago, the United States and its allies held a series of trials. They tried German leaders held responsible for war crimes during World War II. Today, one prosecutor from those famous Nuremberg trials is still alive. His name is Benjamin Ferencz.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BENJAMIN FERENCZ: We shall establish, beyond the realm of doubt, facts which before the dark decade of the Third Reich would have seemed incredible.

INSKEEP: Ferencz was just in his 20s when he made that argument. He conducted the last of 13 trials. This one for members of a German execution squad. Ferencz was taking part in a novel process not universally embraced. British leader Winston Churchill wanted top Nazis to simply be executed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt disagreed, saying Americans would expect proper trials. Ferencz became a prosecutor after serving as a soldier assigned to General Patton's headquarters.

FERENCZ: My final assignment in the Army was to go into the concentration camps as they were being liberated and collect all the evidence of the crimes for future trials.

INSKEEP: Did you visit some of the most famous concentration camps, like Buchenwald for example?

FERENCZ: (Laughter) I was not a visitor. I came in as a liberator. First camp we hit was a place called Gusen, which was part of the Buchenwald camp. I then went on to Mathausen and Flossenberg and a whole host of camps. It was hell, absolute hell. Dead bodies all around the place piled up like cordwood before the crematoria, old diseases, rats, lice, dysentery.

INSKEEP: What evidence would you go away with from a camp?

FERENCZ: Well, the evidence varied, of course. The most important evidence were the death registries, who was in the camp, how long they were in the camp, the names of the officers, photographs - evidence to prove the crime beyond any possible doubt. And I was able to do that because the crimes were so enormous. And the Germans were so kind just to leave a complete record of all their crimes. And I gathered all of that evidence and rested my case in two days without calling a single witness. I convicted all 22 defendants. I was then 27 years old.

INSKEEP: Would you describe what it was like to be 27 years old and walk into that courtroom in Nuremberg? What did it look like? What did it feel like?

FERENCZ: I know the case I had had historic dimensions and was very careful in the opening statement that I made and also in my selection of the defendants. There were 3,000 men who every day for about two years went out and slaughtered people because they were Jews or Gypsies. And I selected them on the basis of their rank and their education. Many of them had Ph.D.'s. No enlisted men in my dock. I picked the leaders who were really top responsibility if we had them in captivity.

INSKEEP: What principle were you following in prosecuting the 22 top guys as best you could determine and leaving almost 3,000 others alone?

FERENCZ: Oh (laughter) the question is sensible. The answer is ridiculous. The question - how, why did we stop at 22? There were only 22 seats in the dock. Three thousand men could have been tried for the same crimes.

INSKEEP: What do you think you proved by putting men on trial in the way that you did?

FERENCZ: What I was trying to prove - and I think I proved it in that case, whether it remained is another question - I was trying to prove that the rule of law should govern human behavior, and nobody should treat human beings that way. These were crimes against humanity because everyone should have been ashamed that such a thing happened. And I am ashamed that we've had genocide in Rwanda and elsewhere since that time. And I was trying to build a rule of law to deter the crimes in future, at least to some extent. And I think I succeeded to some extent in that. We do have another international criminal court after Nuremberg, which now exists in the Hague, the International Criminal Court it's called, ICC.

INSKEEP: Although the International Criminal Court has not been able to replicate something you did in Nuremberg, which was simply put a lot of people on trial and get the cases to a conclusion. There have been very few cases before the International Criminal Court.

FERENCZ: Well, they are putting people on trial. But today, the International Criminal Court has big problems. They can't even get into the country where the crimes are occurring because the head of state himself may be responsible. Or he certainly may be sympathetic to the criminals and therefore he doesn't let them in.

INSKEEP: How has it affected the International Criminal Court that the United States is not a member of it?

FERENCZ: The United States is a great democracy. When World War II was over, Americans were loved everywhere. They kissed me and hugged me, and everybody loved the Americans. Not today, not today because now they say the Americans, look, they don't want to go onto the court. It's not the Americans. It's a small minority group, and you need two-thirds of the Senate to ratify a treaty, which created these courts. You can't get two-thirds because there are always a few guys from the south, entitled to their opinion, entitled to respect, but we don't have to be guided by backward-looking thinking.

INSKEEP: You know, you've hit here on a great paradox because you've made it clear that you think that war is terrible.

FERENCZ: War is hell. It's not terrible. It's awful. And it's - in addition to being cruel and mean and rotten, it's stupid because look at what we do now. We take young people - if the heads of state can't agree, you send young people to kill other young people they don't even know who may never have harmed them or anybody else. And they get tired of killing them, then they stop and each side declares victory, rests for a while and they go back again, and they start killing each other again.

INSKEEP: But this is...

FERENCZ: That's the current system. Don't tell me that that's a rational approach.

INSKEEP: But this is...

FERENCZ: It's absolutely cruel and impossible. You're getting me wind up (laughter) wound up, and I feel very strongly about it.

INSKEEP: That's OK. I - you clearly do. Did I miss anything important you wanted to say or get anything wrong?

FERENCZ: Yes. I want you to say one more thing. I have boiled everything down into a slogan - law, not war - three words. If you could do that, how you would change the world. You'd save billions of dollars every day to be able to take care of the students who can't pay their tuition, take care of the refugees who don't have homes, et cetera. Three words - law, not war. And the next question is, how do you do it? I have also three words - never give up. And that's what I'm doing. And all I can do as an old man and sit here in a little bungalow in Florida and urge the world to come to its senses. Good luck world.

INSKEEP: It's been an honor to talk with you. Thank you.

FERENCZ: OK, have fun, live long, be happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: As he seems to have done. Benjamin Ferencz was a prosecutor at one of the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

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