Law is better than war. No matter what

A former Nazi war crimes prosecutor wants to achieve the impossible: a ban on war

Taco van der Eb

By Vincent Bongers

As a soldier, Benjamin Ferencz (94) witnessed the horrors of the concentration camps and, as the Chief Prosecutor, indicted Nazis for their war crimes at the Nuremberg trials. “My brain refused to register what my eyes were seeing.” He visited Leiden last week.

(Voor de originele, Nederlandse versie klik hier)
“I stood in the Austrian concentration Ebensee, which had just been liberated. The survivors who could still muster a little strength noticed a member of the SS escaping. They grabbed him and beat him unmercifully, bound him onto a metal plate and shoved him into the oven of the camp crematorium, allowing him to be slowly roasted. Then they took him out and beat him again, repeating the process until the man was dead.
“It was horrendous, but I didn’t do anything to put an end to the murder. Am I an accomplice because I didn’t intervene? If I had tried, they would have burned me too. There seemed to be no bounds to human brutality.
“The war seemed so unreal; all sense of ethics seemed to have disappeared. You have to kill and you cheer on those who help you cause death and destruction. In 1944, waiting for D-Day, I was stationed at Land’s End in Britain and as we got ready for the landings on the Normandy coast, the sky darkened with bombers that were to target the Germans in France. We stood waving our arms and shouting: ‘Go, get them boys!’ It was clear to me that we should never face such a situation again.
“I was born in a small town in Romania in 1921. When I was ten months old, my Hungarian parents wanted escape persecution and poverty so they took me and my sister to the United States. We lay on the deck of a cargo ship – I was just ten months and according to my mother I cried the whole journey because I was hungry and cold. We didn’t have any money but we made it. I had the chance to go to good schools and eventually graduated from Harvard Law School.
“When war broke out, I joined up and served in an anti-aircraft artillery unit. I knew practically nothing about guns but somehow I managed to survive D-Day and the Battle of the Ardennes. Even as the battle raged, we received reports of allied pilots who survived being shot down over enemy territory but who were then killed by the Germans. And I don’t mean that the Wehrmacht shot them: no, their heads had been smashed in by angry civilians.
“I was transferred to the Army’s new war crime branch and went out to investigate. Whenever I discovered a suspicious-looking grave, I would carefully dig up the corpse – by hand because a spade or pickaxe would have damaged the body and so affect the evidence. In the end, we managed to convict a number of murderers at the military tribunals.
“Matters grew more and more appalling. When our tanks moved on deeper into Germany, we received strange reports of groups of emaciated people dressed only in pyjamas. I got in my jeep and drove to the town of Ohrdruf, the first concentration camp we had liberated. The dead and dying lay everywhere. I had to be careful that I didn’t step on a hand or a foot. I took pictures, tried to collect and document as much evidence as much as possible. I dug up corpses there too so I could examine the bodies. All though it seemed impossible, the situation in the death camp at Buchenwald was even worse. I had caught a glimpse of Hell.
“I’m often asked why I still do so much work at my age. The most important reason is that I was traumatised because of what I saw and experienced. Nothing else can explain it. The only option is to create a more humane world.
“In 1947, at twenty-seven, I was involved in the greatest murder trial history has ever seen: the prosecution of the Nazis at the Nuremburg trails. I concentrated on the Einsatzgruppen, a deliberately euphemistic name for the death squads lead by the SS, whose mission was to kill as many Jews, gypsies and other undesirable elements as possible. Without a trace of compassion, they killed more than a million Jews: men, women and children.
“A major suspect in my trial was SS Gruppenführer Otto Ohlendorf, the Einzatsgruppe D commander, a Doctor of Economics and father of five. The death squads consisted of thousands of mass murderers and we couldn’t possibly indict them all for their crimes. I only had room to take 24 people to court. It sounds ridiculous – and it was. We decided to charge the big fish rather than the small fry so we selected them according to their rank and level of education.
“We succeeded in proving their crimes. Much has been carefully documented: we found reports stating how many Jews were killed every day; we discovered who was what in which department and who was in charge. I did not need to call any witnesses except the suspects.
“Ohlendorf was quite frank and honest. In his opinion, Jews threatened the future of the German Reich so killing them was a form of self defence. But did that legitimise the killing of children? Of course it did, because the children would grow up to be enemies of the Nazis. As far as he was concerned, he had done the right thing and he felt no remorse for his actions. He was sentenced to death.
“Ohlendorf is never far away. The self defence argument appears again and again, especially in my own country. George W. Bush used it to legitimise the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and Obama’s drone attacks are based on it too, even though they kill innocent civilians.
“We need an international mechanism to convict criminals, and one powerful enough for enforcement. At present, we have weak laws and a slack International Court of Justice without any form of enforcement. For now, war is the only means nations have if they are seeking justice so we are miles from my ideals.
“I want all the nations of the world to acknowledge that the deployment of armed forces, except for self defence, is a crime against humanity. I want to war to be declared illegal, nationally and internationally. And even if we aren’t there yet, we’ll keep working at it. Law is better than war. No matter what.
“A major obstacle on the path to peace is the fact that my own nation does not recognise the International Criminal Court. I know for sure that the majority of Americans support the ICC but we need an amendment to the Constitution to allow that recognition and for that, we need a two-thirds majority of the Senate. At present, it’s impossible to persuade Alabama, Mississippi and Texas to agree: they would rather die than hand over soldiers to a UN court.
“If people are willing to die for a cause, you can’t stop them. You can’t fight dogma with a gun. That’s the problem with how the West views the Islamic State. You can push back IS and slay their supporters, but for every evil person you kill, you make new enemies. The only option is to try and prosecute the people who committed those crimes. They may have their ideology: everyone has a right to his own principles.
“It’s difficult to get things sorted out and convict criminals. Just look at Israel: both sides are desperate and there’s no doubt they’re both committing war crimes. But if we don’t have the precise facts, we can’t accuse anyone, let alone decide right now who actually has the right to that piece of land they have been fighting over for so long. The same goes for the situation with the MH-17 crash in Ukraine. We only have a vague idea of what happened but nothing is certain, so we can’t convict anyone.
“But it’s still possible to achieve the impossible. A female minister or president was unthinkable only a short while ago and now they’re the reality.
“I’ve got a mobile phone in my pocket, which would have been completely impossible when I was young. I’m a little old Jewish man who prosecuted Germans and yet I have received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. So you never know what might happen in your lifetime.”

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