You couldn’t have invented the Nazis, not as literary constructs at any rate. Anyone trying to pitch the idea that a paramilitary organization that stitched skulls to their uniforms went ‘mainstream legit,’ would have been laughed out of the publishing house boardroom. Their vile antisemitism coupled with an odd infatuation with mysticism would stretch the credulity of even the most closed-minded reader.
And yet they were real. The crimes they perpetrated were real.
The Second World War was a war like no other. Few conflicts are as clear-cut as a George Lucas screenplay. There is no good, there is no evil. There are just endless shades of gray that stretch on to the horizon.
Some point to the geopolitical wisdom of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq yet fall silent when the death toll — 174,367 civilians and counting — is brought up. Others can point to Vietnam as a war that had to be fought and yet find no words that can adequately justify the sight of young Phan Thị Kim Phúc — the napalm girl — who was immortalized in 1973 in Nick Ut’s Pulitzer prize winning photograph. You know the one. The girl, running down a nameless dirt track, naked, screaming.
Covered in burns.
Few wars are worth fighting. But there is such a thing as the unavoidable conflict. The just-war fought reluctantly. Sometimes, if rarely the rhetoric isn’t hollow hackle-razing sophistry. Some wars have to be fought. There’s even a name for such conflicts, the Manichean war. It’s an old word to be sure but an apt one. It refers to an ancient religion of the same name. One that was based on the idea of moral dualism.
The idea of good vs. evil.
World War II was one such conflict.
There had been wars before of course. There had even been war crimes. Whilst the Geneva Conventions in their modern iteration were not implemented until 1949, attempts at laying down rules of war stretch back to the middle of the 19th century.
Moves to abolish privateering in 1856 were followed in 1864 by the ‘first’ Geneva Convention that set down rules regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 set further restrictions on what was considered to be improper behavior on the battlefield.
By the time WWI began in 1914, rules pertaining to the rights of neutral powers, the usage of certain weapons such as poisonous gas and bombs dropped from balloons were married to the more technical aspects of war. The need for a formal declaration of war prior to the commencement of hostilities and so on.
Although during WWI both sides accused one another of egregious violations of the rules, one nation was singled out as the consummate villain of the whole sorry drama. German atrocities in occupied Belgium — though exaggerated by popular propaganda cartoonists such as Louis Raemaker — were used as evidence of war guilt.
Still, the crimes committed by German troops during WWI were nothing compared to those perpetrated by the Nazi’s. Civilian casualties by direct military action cost 950,000 lives during WWI; during WWII the figure was 45,000,000.
The Last Witness
The Nuremberg trials were set up with a mind to providing a degree of closure to the millions of people whose lives had been affected by the Nazi’s murderous campaign of terror. It was not one but rather a series of trials, the most prominent being the trial of the major war criminals. It took place between November 20, 1945 and October 1, 1946.
Today, Ben Ferencz at 95 years old is the last surviving member of the prosecution team that helped bring Nazi war criminals to justice. He was charged with prosecuting 22 commanders of the Einsatzgruppen Nazi death squads at trial number 9 at Nuremberg. The SS officers in question were accused of murdering over a million men, women, and children shot down in their own towns and villages in cold blood.
Ferencz, grew up in New York City where his father found work as a janitor after having emigrated to the U.S. whilst Ben was just a baby. His early years in that tough New York neighborhood were something of a struggle. He told Lesley Stahl on last week’s 60 Minutes:
“When I was taken to school at the age of seven, I couldn’t speak English– spoke Yiddish at home. And I was very small. And so they wouldn’t let me in.”
He was a quick study though. After a short stint at college, he earned himself a scholarship to Harvard Law School, one interrupted in the very first semester by the attack on Pearl Harbor. He immediately attempted to enlist in the Army Air Corps hoping to become a pilot but they did not want him:
“No, you’re too short. Your legs won’t reach the pedals.”
“The Marines, they just looked at me and said, ‘Forget it, kid.'”
Trial Of Tears
Demoralized but not beaten, he finished his course at Harvard then enlisted as a private in the Army. He landed on the beach at Normandy. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. His legal training, however, did not go unnoticed. He was transferred to a brand new unit charged with investigating war crimes. As concentration camps were liberated one by one, he was ordered to go in a search for evidence.
Ferencz admits that the images he saw during the Holocaust are still vivid:
“I’m still churning,” he told Stahl.
He returned to New York after the war, married his childhood sweetheart and tried to put the things he’d seen in Europe behind him.
It didn’t last.
He was called back to service by General Telford Taylor who had been put in charge of the Nuremberg trials:
“He gave me a bunch of binders, four binders. And these were daily reports from the Eastern Front– which unit entered which town, how many people they killed. It was classified, so many Jews, so many gypsies, so many others.”
With resources stretched thin, the trial almost never happened. General Taylor was adamant that he couldn’t spare the resources needed for a 9th trial:
“I started screaming. I said, look. I’ve got here mass murder, mass murder on an unparalleled scale.”
General Taylor relented, on the grounds that his perusal of the case did not interfere with Ferencz’ other duties.
Crimes Against Humanity
The accused all denied their guilt of course but Ferencz knew otherwise. Despite having never even set foot in a court before, he summarized his findings without calling a single witness. He relied instead on the defendant’s own words listed in the reports he had uncovered. Such was the case with Exhibit 111:
“In the last 10 weeks, we have liquidated around 55,000 Jews.”
Exhibit 179, from Kiev in 1941:
“The city’s Jews were ordered to present themselves… about 34,000 reported, including women and children. After they had been made to give up their clothing and valuables, all of them were killed, which took several days.”
Exhibit 84, from Einsatzgruppen D in March of 1942:
“Total number executed so far: 91,678.”
“Einsatzgruppen D was the unit of the lead defendant Otto Ohlendorf,” Ferencz explained before adding:
“He didn’t deny the killings — he had the gall to claim they were done in self-defense.”
It was hard for him to listen to some of the lies that poured from the mouths of the former Nazi officers. He recalled how at times he wanted to tear a hole in the defendant right there, in the courtroom:
“There was only one time I wanted to– really. One of these– my defendants said– He gets up, and he says ‘What? The Jews were shot? I hear it here for the first time.’ Boy, I felt if I’d had a bayonet I would have jumped over the thing, and put a bayonet right through one ear, and let it come out the other. You know? You know?”
There was, at any rate, little reason to take matters into his own hands. According to the Holocaust encyclopedia:
“While 24 defendants had been indicted, only 22 were tried. Emil Hausmann had committed suicide in July 1947, and Otto Rasch was deemed too ill to stand trial. The Tribunal rendered its judgment on April 8–9, 1948, finding 20 defendants guilty on all three counts and two guilties on count three alone.”
“In all, 14 defendants were sentenced to death, two were sentenced to life terms, and five received sentences that ranged from 10 to 20 years. Only Matthias Graf was released with time served. Ultimately, only four of the 14 death sentences were carried out on June 7, 1951. The head of Einsatzkommando II, Eduard Strauch, who received a death sentence, was extradited to Belgium where he received a further death sentence. The remainder of the defendants had their sentences commuted or were paroled. All of the convicted defendants, in this case, were released from prison in 1958.”
Lessons To Be Learned
The question has to be asked though. It always has to be asked.
Why did they do it? Why did they engage in the willful slaughter of fellow human beings? What turns men into beasts?
Ferencz is more qualified than most to answer such a question and his answer might not be what you expect:
“These men would never have been murderers had it not been for the war. These were people who could quote Goethe, who loved Wagner, who were polite. He’s not a savage. He’s an intelligent, patriotic human being. He’s a patriotic human being acting in the interest of his country, in his mind.”
Such sentiment might sound surprising but Ferencz is hardly the first person to realize that patriotism — especially during times of war is often used as a way to galvanize the masses. Patriotism can shrink-wrap the brain. It can send you home in a body bag.
Because the true villain of the piece is –according to Ferencz — war itself:
“Do you think the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was a savage? I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people.”
“If it’s naive to want peace instead of war, let ’em make sure they say I’m naive. Because I want peace instead of war. If they tell me they want war instead of peace, I don’t say they’re naive, I say they’re stupid. Stupid to an incredible degree to send young people out to kill other young people they don’t even know, who never did anybody any harm, never harmed them. That is the current system.”
Young At Heart
His clarity of vision is startling though he manages to shrug it off with surprising humility:
“I’m a realist. And I see the progress. The progress has been remarkable. Look at the emancipation of woman in my lifetime. You’re sitting here as a female. Look what’s happened to the same-sex marriages. To tell somebody a man can become a woman, a woman can become a man, and a man can marry a man, they would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But it’s a reality today. So the world is changing. And you shouldn’t– you know– be despairing because it’s never happened before. Nothing new ever happened before.”
Such progressive views, though absolutely consistent with our best understanding of the progressive nature of history are usually the province of younger minds.
But then, Ferencz is by his own admission, still a young man:
“I’m still in there fighting. And you know what keeps me going? I know I’m right.”
Watch chilling footage of Nuremberg defendants up close:
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