In 1946, Ben Ferencz prosecuted Nazis in the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Seventy years later, he wants the world to remember the devastating effects of war. Ferencz (born 1920) is the last living prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials and recently spoke to 60 Minutes about his experiences.
The Nuremberg trials were a series of military criminal trials held by Allied forces against Nazi Party leaders and other German military officials after World War II. Ferencz was the chief prosecutor of the Einsatzgruppen Trial, one of twelve trials held before United States military tribunals between 1946 and 1949.
Born in Transylvania, Ferencz immigrated with his family to the United States as a baby. After growing up in New York City, Ferencz was awarded a scholarship to attend Harvard Law School and graduated in 1943. He then joined the U.S. Army, where he was assigned the responsibility of setting up a war crimes branch to investigate war crimes committed by Nazis during World War II.
As part of this work, Ferencz traveled to Europe to gather evidence from concentration camps as members of the U.S. Army liberated them. Later, Ferencz found records and video footage that detailed the work of Einsatzgruppen, members of the Schutzstaffel (SS), whose main job was to round up and murder Jews, Roma and Communists. Ferencz did the math and realized that millions of people were being killed this way, which compelled him to bring the evidence to the Nuremberg trials.
The trials were already underway, and short on prosecutors. Ferencz was recruited to serve as a prosecutor for the Einsatzgruppen Trial to help convict the SS officers. Because the Germans kept such detailed records of what they’d done, Ferencz didn’t have to call a single witness. He succeeded in bringing the defendants to justice — all 22 of them were found responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million people.
Even after witnessing the horrors of World War II, Ferencz remains an optimistic person and notes how much progress the world has seen since then. Looking back on his experience prosecuting members of the SS, Ferencz says, “war makes murderers out of otherwise decent people.” Since then, he has dedicated his life to advocating against war and war crimes and he’s planning on donating his life savings to the Genocide Prevention Initiative at the Holocaust Museum.
Read the full interview between Ferencz and 60 Minutes here.