“PROSECUTING HISTORY: THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD OF BEN FERENCZ”— The Last Surviving Prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials

“Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz”

The Last Surviving Prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials

Amos Lassen

Ben Ferencz is a  Romanian native who moved to the United States with his family when he was ten months old.  This was because of the anti-Semitic persecution during this time.  It wasn’t safe to be Jewish in Europe at the time.  He later attended Harvard Law School graduated in 1943.  One of the questions he asked himself during this time frame was how he could sabotage the German government.  His answer came in the form of throwing away all the propaganda.

Following law school, Ferencz wanted to join the cause and fight in the war.  Unfortunately for him, none of the military branches wanted him.  He eventually did serve and joined the 115th AAA Gun Battalion.  The military did “the dumbest things they could possibly do to a guy eager to serve” but that changed when General Patton calling him for his services.  A war crimes branch was starting up in 1945 and they wanted Ferencz to investigate and collect evidence so he was in Europe when the concentrated camps were being liberated.

The camps “fueled a nuclear reactor inside this man.”  Nobody could blame him because these sites would cause traumatic episodes for anyone.  The photos are horrific to say the least. Ferencz gets emotional just discussing the experience.

When the war ended in 1945, Ferencz went back to America but it wasn’t long after when he was asked to participate in the Nuremberg Trials.  Only 27 at the time, he was appointed as the Chief Prosecutor for the Einsatzgruppen Case.  This case saw  22 men be convicted of war crimes. 

This was the first time that anyone was able to define crimes against humanity and genocide while holding the people accountable.  All twenty-two men on trial were convicted during the Einsatzgruppen case.  These men in some capacity of Nazi leadership were held responsible for their crimes  Combined they killed a million Jews.  There was some symbolism in holding the trials in Nuremberg since many Nazi rallies took place where the trials were held.

 “Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz” shows that he never stopped fighting when it came to giving justice to international criminals. Barry Avrich directed the documentary.

Before the end of the Second World War, there were few set standards for determining evil on an international scale. Banning chemical weapons (including those just tossed across the U.S. border into Mexico) was something participants in the previous war had agreed to, though there was little mechanism to apply pressure to warring nations to abide by rules of engagement regarding civilians.

The Geneva Convention came about in 1949, just three years after 27-year-old Harvard Law School grad and former U.S. army private Benjamin Ferencz was tapped by General George Patton to investigate conditions at the newly liberated concentration camps. After that, he helped track down the records of genocide that had been meticulously kept by the German hierarchy.

Ferencz had learned English on the street and French from Charles Boyer movies, and he was a gifted student. He was a short man and  had to stand on books to reach the podium as one of the lead prosecutors at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials. Today he is 99 years old, and lives in an unassuming Florida bungalow with his wife of 72 years.

His story will be familiar to people who’ve read about the fall of the Third Reich. The procedural and moral aspects of Nuremberg are just as compelling.  Although Ferencz is filled with gratitude for a life well lived, he has become increasingly outspoken about signs emanating from his current government. “Because,” he says, “I’ve seen it all before.”

Most of “Prosecuting Evil” it finds Benjamin Ferencz simply talking to the lenses with perhaps little need for fancy direction. Yet this fellow is so riveting in his testament that his articulate chat is even more interesting than the black-and-white archival shots taken during the Nazi Holocaust. In many journals because of the meticulous recording practices of the Nazis, we see entries on the mass killing by death squads during the early forties. Ferencz saw to it that the people on trial had all received copies and therefore could not state in defense that they had no idea what was going on during the mass shootings and concentration camp exterminations. None of the defendants claimed, “I was just following orders,” or at least we heard nothing of this excuse in this documentary and not a single man showed remorse for killing 10,000 Jews and more in cold blood. Most were sentenced to death by hanging and we’re told that each one faced eight minutes of strangulation.

After the trials, Ferencz advocated for an international court to try war criminals and ultimately the International Criminal Court at the Hague was formed. Though President Bill Clinton signed on for the U.S. at the last minute, President George W. Bush, fearful that American sovereignty would be lost by the court’s judgements, did not sign the treaty and scrapped it.

In the final shots  of the documentary, we see Ferencz swimming, keeping up his stamina at his current age of 99, warning that though this is not his world any more, it’s up to the politicians to do what they can to prefer the rule of law rather than force.

Ferencz forever changed international justice and the way the world handles atrocity. He was more than just a witness to history, he had no less a stated goal than to “stop war,” and he saw the legal path to doing so at Nuremberg and beyond. “Prosecuting Evil” tells the story of the last living Nuremberg prosecutor, a brave young man who stood up and said that the only way we can stop injustice in the world is with justice.

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