Closing Down the Nuremberg Trials

Benjamin B. Ferencz

When the Einsatzgruppen case was completed, General Taylor appointed me to be his Executive Counsel with administrative responsibilities for the remaining trials. I received a promotion from the simulated rank of “Colonel” to the civilian equivalent of a “Brigadier General.” Since the War Department had discharged me as a sergeant of infantry when the war ended, my meteoric rise in rank may have set an army record. At a height of 5 feet 1/2 inches, I may also have been the shortest “General” since Napoleon Bonaparte.

One of my wrap-up functions was to turn over to the appropriate German authorities all incriminating evidence regarding suspects who, because of time, financial, or other policy constraints, had never faced the Nuremberg judges. The new Bavarian Minister of Justice, Camille Sachs, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, and his son, Hans, were entrusted with seeking additional prosecutions where such action was indicated. A “de-nazification” process run by the local governments sought out early supporters of the Hitler regime to impose civil or monetary penalties according to the degree of their complicity. Years later, the German Federal Government created a Central Office in Ludwigsburg to bring other German war crimes suspects to justice, but as many former Nazis were not willing to incriminate their colleagues, it grew increasingly difficult to obtain convictions in the German courts. The meager Nuremberg sampling remained the guiding light for the development of international criminal law.

One day I received a frantic call from Lt. Col. Wuest, who had been left in charge of our Berlin Branch. The Colonel responsible for the Berlin motor pool had directed Wuest to turn in all ten vehicles that still were assigned to our office. I telephoned the Colonel immediately and introduced myself as the Executive to GENERAL Taylor, with emphasis on the rank. He defended his order by noting that since the trials were ending he saw no need for further investigations or vehicles. He also could not refrain from expressing his pent up indignation that the former head of our Berlin office, “some guy by the name of Ferencz” had wrecked one of their finest sedans, a Maybach, and should have been court-martialed but got away with it.

Obviously, the officer on the line did not realize that he was talking to the man he was castigating. As the case had been dropped, I assured the Colonel that he could count on me to be fully cooperative. I would instruct our office to surrender three jeeps immediately and release the remaining seven as soon as feasible. With a volley of “Yes Sirs,” the Colonel thanked me profusely for my understanding. I inadvertently failed to mention that we could probably manage well with only five vehicles instead of seven.

One of my responsibilities as Executive Counsel was to deal with intransigent personnel problems. Collaboration among staff members and attorneys was very important, since newly discovered evidence might be vital to rebut alibis and lies offered by the defense. One of our able researchers, named Von Eckert, discovered the minutes of a conference that took place on January 20, 1942, when Nazi leaders met and agreed upon the detailed plan for “The Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.” In short, the Jews in Europe, estimated at some twelve million people, were all to be systematically murdered. Ordinarily, such powerful evidence would immediately be shared by all the Prosecutors. It wasn’t done.

The minutes of the meeting that became famous as “The Wannsee Protocol” was given to Robert M.W. Kempner, who was in charge of “The Ministries Case.” He had been a Prussian police official before fleeing to America. One of the participants in the murderous conspiracy was a lead defendant in “The Justice Case” headed by a feisty attorney, Charles M. LaFollette, of Minnesota. Of course, Kempner should have shared the evidence with LaFollette. But he didn’t. Perhaps he wanted it kept secret for use in rebuttal or perhaps he planned, at some opportune moment, to reveal it to the press with which he was very friendly. When Von Eckart learned that the document was not being shared, he blew the whistle. Very shortly thereafter, the enraged LaFollette stormed into my office to put me on notice that he was going to murder Kempner.

I didn’t think that killing the Chief Prosecutor of the Ministries Case was such a good idea since good replacements were hard to come by. I managed to straighten it out by finally coaxing Kempner to hand over the document from his locked drawer and by presenting it personally to LaFollette with apologies. Bob Kempner and I remained friends long after Nuremberg. I think he appreciated the fact that I had saved his life—or at least, his job.

In the 1990’s, the German government converted the villa at Wannsee into a museum that displays in shocking detail the original minutes of the Wannsee Protocol and the biography of all the murderous participants. No one, other than a liar and a fool, who sees those documents and the records of the Einsatzgruppen case, could ever doubt, or dare deny, the authenticity and horrors of the Holocaust. Nuremberg’s preservation of the historical record of incredible deeds may be its most lasting contribution.

Before closing shop in Nuremberg, over 150 tons of official Nuremberg trial records had to be assembled for shipment to Washington. Duplicates, in English and German, were to go to various educational institutions. Representatives of the Prosecution, Defense Counsel, and Court supervised the preparation of accurate and objective summaries of each of the twelve trials. I briefly served as first Editor of what became known as the “Green Series.” The publication was intended to record the historical truth and lay a foundation for the future development of international penal law.

General Taylor sent me to Washington to coordinate the transfer of records to the Judge Advocate Division of the War Department where a Colonel Young was to offer assistance. Since I have a terrible sense of direction, a good part of each morning was spent wandering through the maze in search of my office in the Pentagon. In due course, fifteen volumes were published in English by the U.S. Government Printing Office. An identical text was prepared in German. Unfortunately, it was never published, and since seems to have been lost. The U.S. Berlin command argued that there was an insufficient supply of paper and no further editions were needed. High-ranking army officers, with no legal training, failed to recognize that advancing the rule of law internationally was a means for preserving the peace and thereby protecting the lives of military personnel.

The historical value of the Nuremberg trials was hardly perceived by those who were involved in the process. Most of us were very young, enjoying the euphoria of victory, and the excitement of new adventures. Germany was in ruins, money had no value, we were victors in a land whose beaten inhabitants were primarily concerned with their own survival. We were constantly aware of the visible residue of the terrible war and its many innocent victims. The highest price had been paid by those who had barely survived the German concentration camps. Their only desire was to find the remnants of their families and to leave the cursed and blood drenched land as soon as humanly possible.

Concentration camp survivors did not understand why they were still alive. “Why me? Why me?” was the plaintive cry heard over and over again, as if there were some rational explanation for their unearned feelings of guilt. What hand guided them to safety and why? My wife and I frequently asked ourselves what strange happenstance had brought us to Germany. Our stay had been interesting and fruitful but Gertrude and I were eager to return home to start a normal life. After barely escaping death by plummeting off the Alps and later parachuting from a burning plane over the ruins of Berlin, perhaps it would be reasonable to wonder if Fate had something else in store for us? We would soon find out.