Benjamin Ferencz obituary

Last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor who played a key role in advancing the cause of international justice

In 2011, at the age of 92, the diminutive but indomitable Benjamin Ferencz rose to deliver the closing prosecution speech at the first trial ever heard before the international criminal court (ICC) in The Hague. Wearing black robes and a starched white neck band, the veteran lawyer, who had prosecuted Nazi mass murderers at the Nuremberg war crimes trials more than 60 years earlier, saluted a “historic moment in the evolution of international criminal law”.

Granting Ferencz, who has died aged 103, the honour of appearing on the prosecution team – in the trial of a Congolese warlord – acknowledged the extraordinary role he had played in advancing the cause of international justice.

The last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, he had dedicated his life to campaigning, successfully, for the establishment of a permanent court – the ICC – to try the world’s most serious crimes and for laws establishing the crime of aggression. Guided by his motto, “Law, Not War”, Ferencz was still giving television interviews last year – arguing that those responsible for atrocities in Ukraine must be brought to trial.

Benjamin Ferencz in Leiden, the Netherlands, in 2014. His motto was ‘Law, Not War’.
Benjamin Ferencz in Leiden, the Netherlands, in 2014. His motto was ‘Law, Not War’. Photograph: Action Press/Shutterstock

His reputation rested on two criminal trials he conducted at the age of 27 before US military courts sitting at Nuremberg in 1947 after the second world war. At the time, he had no previous experience leading courtroom prosecutions.

His first case was against SS officers who organised the Einsatzgruppen mobile death squads operating in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe. An estimated two million people were shot or beaten to death and their bodies dumped in pits; the majority of the victims were Jewish.

The documentary evidence Ferencz assembled was so persuasive that he did not need to rely on witnesses. Opening his argument, Ferencz declared: “Vengeance is not our goal … we ask this court to affirm by international penal action man’s right to live in peace and dignity.” It was later dubbed the biggest murder trial in history.

Twenty-two of the 24 Einsatzgruppen defendants were found guilty of crimes against humanity. Fourteen were sentenced to death and four eventually hanged. Ferencz had not requested the death penalty.

His second Nuremberg trial, in which he appeared as special counsel, involved the Krupp armaments group, whose directors were accused of crimes against humanity and exploitation of 100,000 slave labourers. Eleven directors were found guilty, and served prison terms of between three and 12 years.

Ferencz was born in a Transylvanian village, Şomcuta Mare, which was then in Hungary and later became part of Romania. Shortly afterwards his parents, Sarah (nee Schwartz) and Joseph Ferencz, fled with their two children to the US to escape antisemitism.

Benjamin was raised in the Hell’s Kitchen district of New York, an area then renowned for poverty and crime. He won a scholarship to Harvard law school, where he researched war crimes. In 1943, he enlisted as a soldier and fought his way from the Normandy beaches to the Battle of the Bulge.

His legal experience resulted in his being called into General George Patton’s headquarters, where he was reassigned as a war crimes investigator. In Buchenwald and other concentration camps, he saw piles of corpses and emaciated survivors. His first target, he later recalled, was to seize the death records and correspondence that provided the evidence used at Nuremberg.

He was discharged after the war and returned to New York to practise law and marry Gertrude Fried. In 1946, however, he was recruited to join the American war crimes unit at the Nuremberg trials.

The couple spent the next decade in Germany, where four children were born and Ferencz worked alongside General Telford Taylor, lead prosecutor at the US military tribunals. When the trials finished in 1949, Ferencz coordinated reparations claims for Jewish survivors’ groups.

In 1956, he returned to New York and opened a law firm with Taylor, but later turned his attention to campaigning for a permanent international criminal court. He wrote legal and popular books, the last of which, Make It Count, an autobiography, was published earlier this year. One of Ferencz’s greatest regrets was that the US consistently refused to ratify the ICC agreement and, in his words, repeatedly “tried to kill the idea”.

International recognition of Ferencz’s contribution came towards the end of his life. In his 90s, a path alongside the international court of justice in The Hague was named after him and a bench set up with the motto Law, Not War.

Ferencz identified the problem that international criminal law is a patchwork where offenders who commit atrocities often escape justice because many states have still not ratified international court statutes. His response was “Never give up!”

“He was inspiring precisely because in the face of all the horror, he somehow managed to be optimistic,” Philippe Sands, professor of international law at University College, London, said.

Sir Geoffrey Nice, a war crimes prosecutor at the international criminal court for the former Yugoslavia, who also cooperated with Ferencz, paid tribute to the way in which he “turned the traumas he experienced … into an enduring determination to learn and teach from them”.

Gertrude died in 2019. He is survived by his son, Don, who continued his father’s work developing international jurisdiction for the crime of aggression, three daughters, Nina, Robin and Keri, and three grandchildren.

• Benjamin Berell Ferencz, war crimes prosecutor, born 11 March 1920; died 7 April 2023


Owen Bowcott

The GuardianTramp

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