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Ben Ferencz: D-Day vet, Nuremberg prosecutor, ICC visionary

Heike Mund
April 9, 2023

Ben Ferencz, a lawyer who secured evidence from concentration camps as a soldier and then became US chief prosecutor at 27, brought some of Hitler's inner circle to justice.

Benjamin Ferencz speaking at the Einsatzgruppen Trial in Nuremberg - besuited man speaking at rostrum with microphone
Benjamin Ferencz speaking at the Einsatzgruppen Trial in NurembergImage: Vertical Entertainment/Everett Collection/picture alliance

He made history on two fronts: As a US soldier, the young Benjamin Ferencz unearthed vital evidence for the Nuremberg trials, without which the US prosecution would have had difficulties bringing the Nazi leadership to court in 1945.

Later, as a lawyer, Ferencz campaigned passionately for the establishment of an international criminal tribunal, and his dogged determination paid off: The International Criminal Court  (ICC) was established in The Hague in 2002. There, even heads of state can now be prosecuted for committing war crimes, with Russian President Vladimir Putin the court's latest target and surely its most ambitious to date.

Military service — from Camp David to Omaha Beach and eastward

He had a rather inauspicious start after enlisting in the US Army: The well-read Ferencz, who had attended Harvard Law School on a merit scholarship, started out as a typist at Camp David in the US state of North Carolina. At the time, he could neither type nor fire a rifle. Instead, he was first assigned to clean toilets and scrub pots and floors. 

Things turned serious in the spring of 1944. Ferencz's combat unit was transferred to England during World War Two. On June 6, 1944, D-Day, Ferencz and his comrades jumped off the landing craft on Omaha Beach on the northern French coast. The Allied invasion of Normandy had begun, signaling the end of Nazi domination in Western Europe.

During the advance of US troops, Ferencz and his unit breached the Siegfried Line, also known in German as the Westwall, fought on the front lines of the Battle of the Bulge and toward the end of the advance in the spring of 1945, crossed the Remagen Bridge over the Rhine River with his fellow victorious Americans.

At the headquarters of General George Patton's 3rd US Army at the end of the war, those with legal experience were sought to secure evidence of Nazi war crimes. Finally, the young lawyer had found a job more suited to his skills.

Ferencz and his team meticulously combed through information on Nazi authorities and SS clerical offices and visited concentration camps liberated by the US Army. What he discovered in Buchenwald, Dachau, Mauthausen and other camps went beyond his imagination of the extent of the Nazis' atrocious crimes and their apparatus of murder.

First arrest warrants against Nazi leaders

"The important thing was to secure the evidence, the lists of prisoners, the names of camp leaders and those in charge at the SS," Ferencz recounted in his memoirs (Always Tell Your Truth, 2020). "On this basis, we issued warrants to arrest the persons. We secured all the evidence and drove directly to the next camp."

On the way, they encountered Red Army units that made short shrift of apprehended SS officers. At that moment, the lawyer in uniform realized that he — the son of emigrant Hungarian Jews — was not concerned with revenge and retribution, but with justice.

At first, he was merely a spectator at the first Nuremberg trial against the main war criminals of the Nazi regime, which began on November 20, 1945. His return to civilian life in the United States had already been planned. "At the start of the trial, the rows were packed. The audience sat upstairs in the gallery. But as the trial progressed, the stands emptied. The Germans hardly showed any interest anymore."

'We searched all the Nazi archives'

Back in America, the former US soldier found himself unemployed at first; no law firm wanted to entrust him with a case. Then, an unexpected telegram from the Pentagon summoned him to General Telford Taylor, a brilliant lawyer who was personally appointed by US President Truman to be in charge of the Nuremberg follow-up trials. Taylor appointed the war-experienced Ferencz to his task force for Germany.

"The US found that the Nuremberg trial of the top 22 Nazis could not fully explain how something like this could have happened in a civilized country like Germany," Ferencz recalls in the German documentary film A Man Can Make a Difference (2015). "The first assignment I got from Taylor was to go to Berlin and collect evidence of the monstrous Nazi crimes there."

The war-torn capital became the headquarters of the US investigative team. Greater Berlin, meanwhile, had been divided into separate sectors by the four occupying powers — the US, Britain, the USSR and France. Each had its own law enforcement methods.

Ferencz and his team of 50 investigators were given free rein, seizing reams of documents and incriminating material from the extensive Nazi bureaucracy. Berlin's Gestapo headquarters, in particular, proved to be a haven of German thoroughness. "A legal goldmine," Ferencz called it.

 Ben Ferencz in a suit jacket sitting at his desk writing in a large opened book partly on his lap, several telepones in view
Ferencz was just 27 years old when he was made chief prosecutor (undated photo)Image: Piper Verlag/dpa/picture alliance

Chief prosecutor in the 'Einsatzgruppen Trial'

In the spring of 1947, an employee came across three thick Leitz folders in the filing cabinets of the German Foreign Ministry, labeled "Ereignismeldungen aus der UdSSR — Berichte von der Ostfront" ("Dispatches from the Soviet Union — reports from the Eastern Front").

"They were reports from SS special units, disguised by a seemingly meaningless name: 'Einsatzgruppen.' Nobody knew what they were," Ferencz later recalled. He immediately recognized the political explosiveness of the find: "It looked harmless, but the contents inside were stamped 'Secret Reich Matter.'"

The SS Einsatzgruppen divisions operated behind the lines in Nazi-occupied Europe, particularly on the eastern front in World War II. They were not combat units. For the most part, they were influential in rounding up those people in the occupied local populations who the Nazis deemed should be sent to concentration or extermination camps like Auschwitz. 

The pieces of evidence found by the employee at the Foreign Ministry formed the legal foundation for one of the biggest murder trials in history. On September 15, 1947, Ferencz delivered his opening statement. At 27, he was the youngest chief prosecutor of the "Einsatzgruppen Trial," one of the total of 12 Nuremberg trials carried out by the US.

Germany: Witnesses Remember the Nuremberg Trials

Initiative for the International Criminal Court

For Ferencz, who was born in 1920 in the Carpathians to Jewish parents and who grew up in abject poverty in New York, these experiences in post-war Germany proved formative. As a representative of the Jewish Claims Conference, he later worked tirelessly for the reparations agreement between Israel and West Germany, which was signed in Luxembourg in 1952. And he legally represented the claims of forced laborers, especially from Eastern Europe, whom the Nazis had enslaved and exploited.

In 2010, Ferencz was awarded one of the Commanders Crosses of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for his lifelong commitment to international law at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin.

But he probably received his most important honor on November 20, 2020, marking the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials, at which he presented a keynote address via video. As a sign of respect, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier did not speak until after him.

This article was translated from German.