Q&A with Ben Ferencz

Q: You were recruited for the Nuremberg war crime trials. How did this come about - was it related to your work with the War Crimes Branch of the Army?

To some respects it was. When I graduated from the Harvard Law School, I had done research for one of my professors who was doing a book on war crimes, so I was thoroughly familiar with all of the laws involved, and eventually the Army - where I started off as a private in the artillery - transferred me to General Patton's headquarters to become a war crimes investigator and to help set up the war crimes programs. So by the time the Nuremberg trials were on, I was a very experienced man in the field, having been involved in the liberation of many concentration camps and knowing the legal background as well as the factual background.

Q: Twenty-seven years old, the Nuremberg trial was your first case. Can you talk a little about what that was like - the pressure, perhaps, the satisfaction of bringing these heinous crimes to closure?

The most impressive thing to me at Nuremberg and in my other experiences in Germany was a complete absence of remorse on the part of the defendants. They argued that they were justified in doing what they did. The simple soldiers argued superiors' orders; the higher ups who were on the policy-making level argued that what they did was in self-defense - that they knew or feared that the Soviet Union was about to attack them and therefore they felt justified in a preemptive first strike. And the additional argument was then made, then why did they kill all the Jews? According to their own reports, they killed millions of Jews.

The trial in which I was the chief prosecutor against the special extermination squad, the lead defendant there was a general in the SS, Doctor Ohlendorf. He explained it very clearly: "We had to kill the Jews," he said, "because we knew that they were supportive of the Bolsheviks so therefore we had to kill them to eliminate any increased opposition to us." And why did you have to kill the children? "If we killed the parents, then the children would grow up to be enemies of Germany." Why did you kill the gypsies? "No one trusted the gypsies so we had to kill the gypsies as well." These arguments that supported justification of killing millions of human beings left me very, very cold. And they still do today.

Q: Your biography states that your primary objective had been to "establish a legal precedent that would encourage a more humane and secure world in the future." Do you believe you were successful? What changed as a result of the Nuremberg trials?

Well, certainly we were not entirely successful in having a more humane and secure world today. In some respects, we were successful because the creation of new international courts which we now see - the permanent international criminal court in The Hague as well as the Security Council ad hoc tribunals for the crimes committed in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, are certainly steps forward. The Rwanda situation is a good illustration of why we failed. It is a disgrace to our civilization that we allowed 800,000 people to be butchered in that country, knowing that it would probably happen, and did nothing to prevent it.

So what we see is a slow advance from the Nuremberg trials, but there's still a long way to go.

Q: You have spent the past 50 to 60 years continuing efforts toward an international rule of law. In what other ways has your work at Nuremberg impacted you personally?

My entire experience in Germany has had an enormous impact on me. First of all, coming into the many concentration camps - like Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and other camps that are unknown today - was so traumatic, seeing all the dead bodies lying around, the crematoria, corpses lined up, the gas chambers, and then talking to the mass killers and knowing their mentality, has increased my determination to spend the rest of my life trying to make it a more humane and peaceful world.

Q: Would you please comment on your role in the Rome Statute and establishing an International Criminal Court?

For many years, I worked on trying to set the foundations for an international criminal court. I did that by getting accredited to the United Nations. I don't represent anybody in fact. No one hired me and no one can fire me, which gave me a great advantage.

Now I did write a two-volume book on defining international aggression, which is one of the big problems. I wrote another two volumes on an International Criminal Court, which laid the foundation for further action because I included all the documentation and history on what had happened up until that time. And these documents, I suppose, were useful to those who were the official representatives acting on it. I was honored in Rome by being invited to make a statement to the delegation in which I explained that I came to speak for those who cannot speak. I spoke for the victims and I urged the delegates to continue their work and that the goal was within their reach and they had to carry on. So I think I inspired some of the people, it might have helped a bit.

Q: How close do you feel we are with respect to replacing the "rule of force" with the "rule of law"? What needs to be done to see that this is accomplished?

Well, we've still a long way to go, but we have done a great deal. I recall back to my early student days. Women in the United States were still suffering from our constitutional requirement that they had no right to vote and no right to own property. We had never heard of human rights. I knew Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term, 'genocide.' I knew Rene Cassin, who invented the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, for which he received a Nobel Prize. Women have received their rights, in the United States at least, and in other countries we have eliminated slavery. So, all of these are illustrations of the law being used to replace the rule of force.

The existence of these tribunals, despite the misguided opposition of the United States, as far as the international criminal court is concerned, is another example of real progress.

What needs to be done? Well, there's a great deal that needs to be done. We have to begin to change the way people think, and that is not an easy thing to do when their thinking has been ingrained for many generations. We have to stop supporting buying the military and advance the idea that law is better than war.

We have to compromise, be willing to tolerate some of the differences we have. We can begin educating our children at the earliest stages for all these new principles. That'll take a long time to do.

From my vantage point of now being 86 years of age, and having started on this about 60 years ago, I see significant progress, and I am hopeful that that progress will be continued because we owe that to the memory of those who have perished seeking these humane and peaceful goals.

Q: Any other comments you would like to make regarding your experiences or hopes for the future?

Yes. I would like to encourage anyone who may read this never to give up. That is the answer. We must continue striving for these goals, which are surely in the interest of all of humankind despite the difficulties which are inherent. And despite the time that it will take, I am confident that if we continue, we will at some future date find a more peaceful and humane world.