My Guiding Stars

Benjamin B. Ferencz

Of the countless billions of stars in the firmament, only a very small number serve as guides to astronauts exploring the universe. As I peruse my own mind and the countless authors I have read, they have all had some influence on my thinking, but a few shine more brightly than others. Selecting a handful that might demonstrate the origins and influences on my life is rather impossible. Nevertheless, since trying to do the impossible is my favorite sport, I will mention only three that quickly come to mind, even though most people have probably never heard of them. In order of my own awareness of their existence, I would name as my top influences Vespasien V. Pella, a Romanian who wrote in French, Johann Caspar Bluntschli, a Swiss who wrote in German, and Tycho Brahe, a Dane who may not have written anything since he was noted only for his charts. The chosen few would probably insist on a disclaimer disavowing responsibility for any of my behavior, but that will not be possible—they all died long ago.

When I discovered him, Pella was lying on a shelf in the Harvard Law School library. I refer to his book, not to his body. In the year I was born, he had written a book condemning counterfeiting. Although I had no money, I was not planning on counterfeiting at that time, or even later. I was impressed by his book, Le Droit Penal de l’Avenir, which was written in 1925 when I was only 5 years old and couldn’t read—especially in French. The full title in English would be something like The Criminality of States and the International Penal Law of the Future. The gist of his thinking was that there were certain crimes that were often committed with the connivance of the State. He argued that the world needed an international criminal court to punish and deter such offenses. Crime prevention was my chosen field of study, and Pella made a big impression with his common sense conclusion.

It was only coincidental that Pella and I were both born in Romania. I did not hold that against him, even though Romania had fought on the side of Hitler during the war. He held a diplomatic post at the League of Nations in Geneva and played a key role in drafting a 1935 Convention for the Repression of Terrorism. It was never accepted. When his government was taken over by the communists after World War Two, Pella found refuge in New York where he was active with the Romanian Mission at the United Nations. He continued to write about the desirability of an international criminal tribunal which the General Assembly had resolved should be created. He played an important behind-the-scenes role when a 1947 draft for such a court was attached to the Genocide Convention; but it was again rejected by short-sighted diplomats who masqueraded as Statesmen. In 1950, the American Journal of International Law published an article by Pella in support of an International Criminal Court. His significant contributions were eulogized in the Journal when he died a few years thereafter. Then he was largely forgotten, but not by me.

Shortly after my return to the U.S. in 1956, I called upon Pella’s widow, who lived near Fifth Avenue in New York. She was pleased to meet a former Nuremberg Prosecutor who was also an admirer of her late husband. We talked about his many writings that filled a tall bookcase in the small apartment. After a few such social calls, Mrs. Pella graciously asked me to accept all of his writings as a gift. She was disappointed when I declined her offer and suggested that his valuable works deserved a more suitable home in a university library. She then handed me a small round case containing a bronze medal. It had been given to her husband to commemorate a major anniversary of his leadership at a renowned international law society that he had founded. I cherished the medal and, many years later, presented it in Budapest to Professor Cherif Bassiouni of De Paul University. He had written or edited many books on the subject and was celebrating the 25th anniversary of his own Presidency of a similar international organization in support of the court. He promised to pass it along, in time, to a young scholar who might supplant him as the champion advocate for the Court. The commemorative medal, with its engraved artistic portrait of Pella in full diplomatic regalia, remains an indestructible reminder of an almost forgotten originator of an indestructible idea.

Johann Caspar Bluntschli came upon me by surprise. It was not that he pounced on my back, but I discovered some of his writings by chance while browsing in the old law library of the University of Heidelberg. He was a renowned Professor of International Law who died in 1881 at the age of 53. He had written approvingly about a Prussian army officer and friend, Franz Lieber, who, at the request of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, had drawn up The Lieber Code that still governs the conduct of U.S. armies in the field. Bluntschli had also written about the rights of minorities, which was a courageous protest against the persecution of Jews in Romania. A small unknown pamphlet entitled “Gesamelte Kleine Schriften” (collected brief writings) caught my eye. In its pages there were copies of an exchange of correspondence between Bluntschli, the liberal German professor, and the Prussian military hero, Field Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke. They had apparently been together at a grand ball where the Prussian had asked the Professor what he was up to. I found their exchange of letters most interesting.

In writing to the Field Marshal, Bluntschli described his plan that appeared in his large German book, International Law for Civilized States. It outlined the formation of a league of European states that would meet to settle all disputes peacefully. It was remarkably similar to what later became the League of Nations and the United Nations. Prussia’s highest military officer, reflecting views held by his “blood and iron” Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, replied with slightly disguised disdain, “My dear Bluntschli, what in the world are you talking about?” Von Moltke then went on to point out that war was humankind’s most glorious accomplishment. It gave men the opportunity to band together as comrades and to risk their lives gloriously for their fellow soldiers and their country. To deprive them of this thrill and fulfillment of their manly destiny was an intolerable thought. The scornful Field Marshal made plain that the only thing that mattered in affairs of state was power. According to the haughty Field Marshal, the novel plan put forward by Heidelberg’s most illustrious teacher of international law was an absurd and dangerous idea. Von Moltke’s point of view would have been, and probably still is, very popular in the Pentagon and other military headquarters.

I made copies of the correspondence and have the letters in my cabinet at home. It epitomizes the fundamental differences in opinion that prevailed before the First World War, and that were carried forward through the Second World War. These differences in perspective, which can be traced back to ancient history, remain to this very day. The plans and programs put forth by idealists like Bluntschli, in search of a more peaceful world order, were unable to persuade those in authority to do more than pay lip service to the noble aspirations. The League of Nations that grew out of the World War I, was an inadequate beginning that failed to prevent World War II. The formation of the United Nations was another noble effort that also failed to achieve its primary goal of saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war. The UN Charter mandates prohibiting the use of unauthorized military might, calling for disarmament, and an international military force were never even given a chance. Self-styled realists, like Bismarck, von Moltke, Stalin, Hitler, and a host of other misguided leaders in many lands, were convinced that military power held the only reliable answer to every international problem. Their antiquated and misconceived views have bathed the world in the blood of millions of innocent people everywhere. Who remembers Bluntschli? I do.

Pasted on a glass panel of a door leading into my study at home is a sign which reads: “HERE LIES TYCHO BRAHE AD INFINITUM.” That strange saying was put there about 30 years ago by our oldest daughter, who changed her name from Carol to Keri. I never met Tycho Brahe, who always called himself Tycho Brahe, and never read anything written by him. Yet he has had an important influence in my life. I came to know of him via a great man who sat on a bench. Not a park bench to be sure, but a judicial one. My most admired Judge was Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, who began his judicial career in New York and ended on the Supreme Court of the United States. The clarity and beauty of his legal opinions inspired my studies as a law student. I bought a used copy of a book he had written that included a commencement address to the Union Theological Seminary in the 1930’s. It was in Cardozo’s speech that I was introduced to Tycho, the Danish astronomer.

The story told by Cardozo is based on a poem by a quiet Englishman named Noyes, that inappropriately rhymes with noise. It appeared in a 1922 book called Watchers of the Skies. The book by Alfred Noyes was out of print, and I was pleased when a copy was given to me on my 70th birthday by our son Donald. The poem tells the tale of the Danish astronomer, who was supported by a wise old king who was eager to know more about the origins of the universe. A royal astronomical observatory was built for Tycho on the Isle of Wen, located near Elsinore, that was made famous by Shakespeare’s description of Hamlet’s father prowling around there on foggy nights. For many years, Tycho peered through his handmade telescope and marked the position of all the stars he could see in the universe—which, at that time, were not too many. These markings and movements he recorded on charts that were carefully drawn by his own hand.

When the wise old King passed away to his heavenly repose, the new young King sent his auditors over to the Isle of Wen to see what old Tycho was up to. They woke him, since, as should be obvious, astronomers work at night and sleep by day. “The young King wants to know where all this money is going,” was the likely demand. Tycho explained that he had already produced about 89 books of charts of the stars and that each one was guaranteed perfect. “But what do you hope to achieve?” “Well,” replied the patient Tycho, “if I live long enough, I hope to reach a hundred.” “But what is the use of it?” asked his irritated inquisitors. Then Tycho confessed that he had not yet fathomed the mystery of the stars. But he expressed confidence that, one day, someone would be able to detect the pattern and meaning of the universe. Of one thing Tycho was sure: he knew that, because of his own efforts, his successor would be saved twenty years of labor. In fact, the Tables of Tycho, as they came to be called, were used effectively by the first American astronauts who landed on the moon in 1970. I can not be sure that my work will be effective in charting the world toward a more peaceful future, but I do believe, as Tycho did, that I will save the ones who follow me a great deal of time and trouble before they reach that distant goal.