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October 10, 1996


Henry King was a small-town mayor in Connecticut who enjoyed discussing political issues at the dinner table. One night in May 1935 he posed this question to his wife and two children: How do you stop war? His family was stumped. After a silence, King proclaimed: "The people don't want wars. It's their leaders who start wars. To stop wars, you have to punish the leaders." King's son — Henry T. King Jr. — never forgot that lesson. And a decade later, while still in his late-20s, he helped to transform his father's words into action by becoming a United States prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.

King and another former U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, Benjamin B. Ferencz, gave the fifth annual McLean Lecture on World Law, Sept. 26, in the Pitt law school's Teplitz Memorial Courtroom.

Their lecture, "Fifty Years Later: Reflections on Nuremberg," was co-sponsored by the law school and the World Federalist Association of Pittsburgh.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the culminating events of the first Nuremberg trials. On Oct. 1, 1946, following 10 months of testimony, cross-examinations and consideration of an estimated six boxcars' worth of evidence, the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal sentenced a dozen of Nazi Germany's most infamous war criminals to die. They included Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring, the ranking Nazi survivor; Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbontrop; and Hitler's secretary, Martin Bormann (who had disappeared at the end of the war, never to be found, and was tried in absentia). Seven others were sentenced to prison, including the enigmatic Rudolf Hess and the suave, aristocratic Albert Speer. The three remaining defendants were acquitted.

On the morning of Oct. 16, 1946, 10 of the convicted were executed in the courthouse gymnasium, in a botched hanging so brutal it could have been staged by the Nazis themselves. One of the guilty cheated the hangman: A few hours earlier, Göring had committed suicide by biting into a cyanide capsule he'd hidden in his cell.

While that first round of trials remains the best known, 12 more Nuremberg trials followed — of S.S. officers, German industrialists and government officials, among others — between 1946 and 1949.

The Associated Press called Nuremberg "the biggest murder trial in history." King referred to the trials as "the most impressive moral advance emanating from World War II…In a nutshell, Nuremberg was, together with the founding of the United Nations, the seminal legal event of the 20th century." Ferencz said: "Nuremberg declared, for the first time, that it was illegal to wage a war of aggression. That the persons who planned such wars would be held accountable in a court of law. That crimes against humanity, such as the genocide committed against the Jews and Gypsies and others, were punishable international criminal offenses for which those responsible would be held accountable. That war crimes, which had been prohibited under international law since 1899 and earlier, would be punished." Like King, Ferencz was in his 20s when he joined the American prosecution team at Nuremberg. He was recruited for the job based on his Harvard law degree and his experiences as a U.S. Army investigator of German war crimes. "I was in many of the concentration camps, all of those liberated by [Gen. George S.] Patton's 3rd Army, when the crematoria were still burning," Ferencz said. "I have dug up bodies with my bare hands. I have seen man's inhumanity to man in ways that are not comprehensible to a rational mind." Ferencz was eager to participate in Nuremberg, but as an enlisted man he had misgivings about his status. A special officer's commission solved that problem.

King admitted that it took the goading of his wife and a former Yale law classmate to convince him to join the Nuremberg team. Following the war, King had landed a cushy job as a Wall Street attorney. "My wife asked me one night, 'What do you do all day?' I said, 'I read indentures, I rewrite them, I modify them.' She said, 'You know, Henry, there's a world out there. We ought to be part of it.'" Soon after, King visited the former classmate to crow about his Wall Street position. The friend listened patiently, then smiled and said, "Henry, I hate to upstage you, but I'm joining the U.S. prosecution staff at Nuremberg." King, conscience-stricken and recalling his father's remarks about punishing the masters of war, had had enough. The next day, he traveled to the Pentagon and signed on to the team himself.

King and Ferencz did not reminisce at length about their courtroom victories. Neither man offered personal vignettes about the chief Nazis. At a Downtown luncheon on the day of the speech, Ferencz feigned confusion when a guest asked a what-was-he-really-like question about the rotund, drug-addicted, rouge-cheeked, superficially jovial Göring — certainly the most colorful of the Nuremberg defendants, and the only one who remained unrepentant and never tried to deflect blame to superiors. "Never heard of him!" Ferencz snapped. Then, grinning disdainfully, he added: "Oh…you mean that fat guy." Ferencz did refer in his Pitt speech to a brief conversation he had with Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and chief of war production. (King himself is writing a book about Speer, who got off with a 20-year prison sentence.) "Speer told me personally that he believed the trials had been fair," Ferencz said.

Others weren't so sure — most famously, U.S. Sen. Robert Taft, who condemned the trials as "victors' justice" imposed by the winning side against the war's losers. Taft's remarks about Nuremberg didn't go over well with most of the U.S. public, and poisoned his chances for the presidency. But by taking such an unpopular stand so defiantly, Taft earned a chapter in John F. Kennedy's book "Profiles in Courage" and caused some Americans to have second thoughts about the fairness of Nuremberg.

Ferencz and King bristle at such notions. "Everybody said Taft had a great mind, until he made it up," Ferencz snarled at the pre-lecture luncheon. "The man had no background in international law, and in this case, he didn't know what he was talking about." Immediately after V-E Day, some Allied leaders — especially among the Soviets and the British — suggested that captured Nazi leaders be shot without trial. But key Americans, most notably Secretary of War Henry Stimson, argued effectively that such executions would undermine the post-war world's faith in the rule of law, and might lead to another war, Ferencz noted.

So the Allies paid for lawyers of the defendants' choosing, opened the trials to the media, and ultimately convicted (or acquitted) defendants based on the Nazis' own, exhaustive records, rather than relying on witnesses whose credibility might be tainted by their urge for revenge.

"The one thing we did not have were judges from neutral countries, but what was the alternative?" Ferencz said. Swedes, Swiss and other neutrals were all-too-aware that they eventually would have to co-exist with a resurgent Germany; how objective would judges from those countries have been? Ferencz asked.

For the last quarter-century, Ferencz has campaigned for a permanent, international criminal court with power to enforce its judgments. Nuremberg was a model for such a court, but post-World War II leaders have chosen not to adopt that model permanently on the grounds that it would infringe on national sovereignty. "So we have, in effect, a system which more resembles the Wild West in America than an international legal order," Ferencz said.

The world court at The Hague can't enforce its rulings and only tries cases in which both sides consent to participate, Ferencz and King noted. The United Nations-convened international criminal tribunal on war crimes in the former Yugoslavia is narrowly focused, under-funded and similarly powerless to extradite and punish defendants, the speakers said.

The Western powers' failure to try Saddam Hussein for war crimes following the Gulf War was a "terrible tragedy," King said. "If nothing else, it would have been better to have tried him in absentia, as we tried Martin Bormann at Nuremberg. There certainly was plenty of evidence documenting his crimes. Saddam could even have defended himself and presented his case by video, if he so chose.

"What did we gain by looking the other way and turning our back on his personal responsibility for his crimes? In effect, we ratified his actions and made it more likely that such behavior would be repeated, which it has been in Yugoslavia and elsewhere." According to the speakers, Nuremberg and the U.N. Charter provided a blueprint for a working system of international justice, complete with a world police force and agreed-upon definitions of human rights that transcend national boundaries. "So I make a radical appeal," Ferencz said. "Let's honor the U.N. Charter principles. These are not only moral obligations, these are legal obligations. All states that are member of the United Nations are legally obliged to respect those principles." Addressing students in the law school audience, Ferencz pleaded: "We need more determination on the part of the young people today. Now, don't tell me that you can't do it. Don't tell me that one person can't make a difference. You've got two people up here who've made a difference. What does it take? It takes knowing what's right, feeling it very strongly and fighting for it. Screaming for it.

"Write to the president. Write to your congressman. Tell them you want a permanent international court that is going to try to inhibit the crazy acts of warfare and aggression and crimes against humanity which contaminate this planet. Write to them, and if they don't answer, write again. Call them up.

"And if you want to know when you're going to have this better world, it's when you've earned it. Don't wait for the future to come to you. Make the future. If you do that, you'll have a more peaceful world than we've had. And don't think you can't do it." Ferencz concluded with three pieces of advice: "Never give up. Never give up. Never give up." — Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 4

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