Benjamin Ferencz: In Memoriam
Benjamin Ferencz died on April 7, 2023 at age 103. He was born in Transylvania and grew up in New York City before earning his law degree from Harvard University. Ferencz, who was Jewish, despised National Socialist Germany. He was assigned to investigate the concentration camps at Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Dachau after World War II.1
Ferencz was the Chief Prosecutor for the U.S. Army in the Einsatzgruppen trial at Nuremberg in which all 22 defendants were convicted. Thirteen of these defendants were sentenced to death. He published several books on the subject of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and played an important role in establishing the International Criminal Court. Ferencz also played a part in the negotiations that led to the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany signed on September 10, 1952.2
Ferencz, in his later years, was candid about the injustice, torture and intimidation he and other Allied soldiers committed against German defendants in the Allied-run war-crimes trials. This memoriam focuses on interviews in which Ferencz admitted to the unfairness of the Allied war-crimes trials and his involvement in abuses against German defendants.
Ferencz stated in an interview that he did not have a high opinion of the Dachau war-crimes trials conducted by the U.S. Army:
I was there for the liberation, as a sergeant in the Third Army, General Patton’s Army, and my task was to collect camp records and witness testimony, which became the basis for prosecutions…But the Dachau trials were utterly contemptible. There was nothing resembling the rule of law. More like court-martials. For example, they might bring in 20 or 30 people, line them up, each one with a number on a card tied around his neck. The court would consist of three officers. None of them had any legal education as far as I could make out; it was coincidental if they did. One officer was assigned as defense counsel, another as prosecutor, the senior one presiding. The prosecutor would get up and say something like this: We accuse all of you of being accomplices to crimes against humanity and war crimes and mistreatment of prisoners of war and other brutalities in the camp, between 1942 and 1943, what do you have to say for yourself? Each defendant would be given about a minute to state his case, which was usually, not guilty. One trial for instance, which lasted two minutes, convicted 10 people and sentenced them all to death. It was not my idea of a judicial process. I mean, I was a young, idealistic Harvard law graduate.3
Ferencz further stated that nobody, including himself, protested against these procedures in the Dachau trials.4 Ferencz later said concerning the military trials at Dachau: “Did I think it was unjust? Not really. They were in the camp; they saw what happened…But I was sort of disgusted.”5
The defense counsel at the Mauthausen trial and later trials at Dachau insisted that signed confessions of the accused, used by the prosecution to great effect, had been extracted from the defendants through physical abuse, coercion and deceit.6 Benjamin Ferencz admitted in an interview that he used threats and intimidation to obtain confessions:
You know how I got witness statements? I’d go into a village where, say, an American pilot had parachuted and been beaten to death and line everyone up against the wall. Then I’d say, “Anyone who lies will be shot on the spot.” It never occurred to me that statements taken under duress would be invalid.7
In the same interview, Ferencz admitted to being an observer of the torture and murder of a captured SS man:
I once saw DPs [Displaced Persons] beat an SS man and then strap him to the steel gurney of a crematorium. They slid him in the oven, turned on the heat and took him back out. Beat him again, and put him back in until he was burnt alive. I did nothing to stop it. I suppose I could have brandished my weapon or shot in the air, but I was not inclined to do so. Does that make me an accomplice to murder?8
Benjamin Ferencz, who enjoyed an international reputation as a world peace advocate, further related a story concerning his interrogation of an SS colonel. Ferencz explained that he took out his pistol in order to intimidate him:
What do you do when he thinks he’s still in charge? I’ve got to show him that I’m in charge. All I’ve got to do is squeeze the trigger and mark it as auf der Flucht erschossen [shot while trying to escape] …I said “you are in a filthy uniform sir, take it off!” I stripped him naked and threw his clothes out the window. He stood there naked for half an hour, covering his balls with his hands, not looking nearly like the SS officer he was reported to be. Then I said “now listen, you and I are gonna have an understanding right now. I am a Jew—I would love to kill you and mark you down as auf der Flucht erschossen, but I’m gonna do what you would never do. You are gonna sit down and write out exactly what happened—when you entered the camp, who was there, how many died, why they died, everything else about it. Or, you don’t have to do that—you are under no obligation—you can write a note of five lines to your wife, and I will try to deliver it…” [Ferencz gets the desired statement and continues:] I then went to someone outside and said “Major, I got this affidavit, but I’m not gonna use it—it is a coerced confession. I want you to go in, be nice to him, and have him re-write it.” The second one seemed to be okay—I told him to keep the second one and destroy the first one. That was it.9
The fact that Ferencz threatened and humiliated his witness and reported as much to his superior officer indicates that he operated in a culture where such illegal methods were acceptable.10 Any Harvard-law graduate knows that such evidence is not admissible in a legitimate court of law.
Benjamin Ferencz was an inspiration to many proponents of the Holocaust story. For example, in the Acknowledgements section of his book Holocaust, Genocide, and the Law, Jewish attorney Michael Bazyler writes:
The guiding spirit has been Benjamin Ferencz, a hero to all of us in the field of Holocaust and genocide studies. Thank you, Ben, for your friendship and inspiration. This book is a personal tribute to you.11
Ferencz frequently promoted the memory of those who perished in the so-called Holocaust. Ferencz wrote: “The memory of those who perished in the Holocaust and countless wars since then cries out for an improved social order and a more humane and peaceful world for everyone.”12
To his credit, Ferencz later acknowledged some of the abuses he and others committed against German defendants in the Allied-run war-crimes trials. These abuses did not lead to the “more humane and peaceful world for everyone” that Ferencz said he desired.
1 Stover, Eric, Peskin, Victor, and Koenig, Alexa, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Pursuit of War Criminals from Nuremberg to the War on Terror, Oakland, CA.: University of California Press, 2016, p. 32.
3 Stuart, Heikelina Verrijn and Simons, Marlise, The Prosecutor and the Judge, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009, p. 17.
5 Lowe, Keith, The Fear and the Freedom: How the Second World War Changed Us, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017, p. 198.
6 Jardim, Tomaz, The Mauthausen Trial, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2012, p. 6.
7 Brzezinski, Matthew, “Giving Hitler Hell”, The Washington Post Magazine, July 24, 2005, p. 26.
10 Ibid., p. 83.
11 Bazyler, Michael, Holocaust, Genocide, and the Law, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, p. xviii.