A Passion for Justice. A Passion for Peace.

September 1, 2015
Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz makes HDS initiative part of his effort to end war

As a soldier in WWII, Ben Ferencz, JD '43, participated in the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, sites of some of the worst atrocities in human history. When the war was over, as chief prosecutor of one of the Nuremberg trials, he brought to justice the murderers of more than a million people.

Since then, he's been a staunch advocate for peace and international law, working over 50 years to help establish the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Through it all, he says he's never forgotten an act of kindness he experienced more than seventy years ago.

"I was a scholarship student at Harvard Law School in 1942," he remembers. "I had no money of my own. I went over to Harvard Divinity School's dining hall and said "I'm hungry. I want to work for food. Can you help me?" They said "'Of course,' so I came in at 2 pm to help clear up the dishes. Whatever food was left, I served myself. I ate enough food in two days to keep me alive for a week!"

Last year, Ferencz repaid the School's kindness and then some—with a major gift to its new initiative, Religions and the Practice of Peace (RPP). He says he was drawn to RPP's focus on ways that religious resources can play powerful roles in inspiring and sustaining efforts for peace.

"I admire the work that RPP does," he says. "I've been particularly impressed by Dean David Hempton's leadership on the issue of global peace."

"I've been particularly impressed by Dean David Hempton’s leadership on the issue of global peace."

Now in his 96th year, Ferencz has the vigor of a man half his age—energy that he devotes to promoting peace and international cooperation. It's work that is both remarkable and understandable, given the brutality he has witnessed. A Jewish immigrant from Transylvania, Ferencz enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943 fresh out of law school. He was there when U.S. forces rolled into death camps like Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and Dachau. After the war, the army recruited him to help gather evidence for the 12 war crimes trials in Nuremberg that followed those of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and others. The painstaking task involved going through thousands of documents to catalog Nazi atrocities.

"We wanted to put on trial the doctors who performed experiments, the lawyers and judges who perverted the law, the SS men who were mass murderers, the army people who participated, the diplomats who lied and encouraged it all," he says. "We wanted to get a comprehensive picture."

One day, one of Ferencz's researchers came into his Berlin office with the daily reports of special squads on the Eastern front innocuously named "action squads" (einsatzgruppen). The reports told of 3,000 men divided in groups that followed behind the German lines. Their instructions were to kill every Jewish man, woman, and child they could find, and to do the same with "Gypsies" and any other potential enemy of the Reich. They kept top secret records of their activities and reported back to Berlin each day.

"I took a hand adding machine and began to add up the numbers killed," Ferencz says. "When I passed 1,000,000 I said 'That's enough.'"

Ferencz flew to Nuremberg from Berlin and told his commanding officer, General Telford Taylor, a Harvard Law graduate and chief counsel for the prosecution, that they had to hold a new trial. The general balked. It would need Pentagon approval, and besides, all of the legal staff were assigned to other cases.

Wrong answer.

"I said 'You cannot let these mass murderers go free!'" Ferencz says. "Finally, Taylor asked me if I could try the case in addition to my other responsibilities. I said 'Yes,' and that's how I was designated the chief prosecutor."

Ferencz was only 27 years old. He had never tried a case in court. Suddenly he was in charge of what he calls "the biggest murder trial in human history." He proceeded carefully, laying out proof of the crimes. When the trial was over, he had brought some of history's greatest mass murderers to justice.

"I knew from my Harvard Law School education that the best evidence is top secret contemporaneous documents," Ferencz says. "The most unreliable evidence is witness testimony. So I didn't call a single witness. I rested my case in two days and convicted all of them, including 13 of them sentenced to death." Ferencz remained in Germany for several years, directing programs to compensate the victims of Nazi persecution.

He returned home to the United States seeking not to eliminate evil, but to feed his wife and young children. Ferencz went into private practice—Telford Taylor became a partner—and focused on making a living. In the 1960s, however, Taylor went to Vietnam in the midst of growing unrest about the war. He returned convinced that the United States had forgotten what it tried to teach the world at Nuremberg. Shaken by his partner's observations, Ferencz decided to give up his practice and devote the rest of his life to peace.

"It became clear to me that you cannot kill an ideology with a gun," he says. "You cannot change people who are ready to kill and die for their ideals—whether it's religion, or nationalism, or their economic circumstances, or completely unjustified fears. I determined to spend the rest of my life trying to promote peace."

A prolific writer and legal scholar, Ferencz produced a two-volume book on defining aggression, then another two volumes on creating an international criminal court, then a final two on the enforcement of international law. (All the books—and many other works—are available on Ferencz's website for free.) He also labored for decades to establish the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He says that his efforts are guided by a simple principle: Law, not war.

"You need three important institutions to have a peaceful society: laws to define what's permissible and not permissible; courts to determine whether the laws have been violated and to serve as a forum for settlements; and a system of effective enforcement. To the extent that you have those three basic components, you have relative tranquility."

Ferencz shows little signs of slowing down as he approaches his 100th birthday. In fact, he has a staggering new goal: to make war a crime against humanity.

"War, when it's not in self-defense and it's not approved by the U.N. Security Council—should be condemned as a crime against humanity and tried by any court that can apprehend the criminal," he says.

Religious orientation has a major influence on the way that people think about violence, force, and war, Ferencz says. He supports RPP because he thinks Harvard Divinity School can be a key player in the effort to promote peace.

"We're up against a tradition of glorifying warmaking that goes back thousands of years," he says. "Religious education is a very powerful tool for changing hearts and minds all over the world. We have to reach out to all religions, to all people  who are kind and see this as an important issue."