“Vengeance is Not Our Goal”: A Conversation with Nuremberg Prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz


“Vengeance is not our goal, nor do we seek merely a just retribution. We ask this court to affirm by international penal action, man’s right to live in peace and dignity, regardless of his race or creed. The case we present is a plea of humanity to law.”

– Benjamin Ferencz, Opening Statement before the Nuremberg Military Tribunal, 1947


As a former prosecutor and a professor at the Army Command and General Staff College who teaches courses on war crimes, I have more than a passing interest in the Nuremberg trials. This monumental event in international legal history is, in fact, my specialty.

A couple weeks ago, I reached out to Ben Ferencz for an interview. Ferencz prosecuted the “Einsatzgruppen case,” which concerned German special action groups who rampaged their way through what was then the Soviet Union and massacred Jews, Communists, Roma, and other classes of human beings the Nazis viewed as undesirables. They were responsible for the murder of over a million people.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Ferencz began the war as an artillery private and was later transferred to General Patton’s headquarters to serve as a war crimes investigator. He left the Army in 1946, but due to his expertise on the issue, was asked to return to Germany and serve on the staff of the Chief Counsel for War Crimes.

Since the Nuremberg Trials, Ferencz, who lives in Florida, has been a major advocate for the International Criminal Court, in his words, because it is “the only reasonable means to end the scourge of war and the crimes which follow from it.” For those of you looking to learn more, Ferencz’s personal archives are open to researchers at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum and his website has a complete collection of freely available online material.

Below is the transcript of my recent interview with him:


Q: Twenty-seven years old, the Nuremberg trial was your first case. Can you talk a little about what that was like – the pressure, perhaps, the satisfaction of bringing these heinous crimes to closure?

The most impressive thing to me at Nuremberg and in my other experiences in Germany was a complete absence of remorse on the part of the defendants. They argued that they were justified in doing what they did. The simple soldiers argued superiors’ orders; the higher ups who were on the policy-making level argued that what they did was in self-defense – that they knew or feared that the Soviet Union was about to attack them and therefore they felt justified in a preemptive first strike. And the additional argument was then made, then why did they kill all the Jews? According to their own reports, they killed millions of Jews.

The trial in which I was the chief prosecutor against the special extermination squads, the lead defendant (Ohlendorf) explained it very clearly: “We had to kill the Jews,” he said, “because we knew that they were supportive of the Bolsheviks so therefore we had to kill them to eliminate any increased opposition to us.” And why did you have to kill the children? “If we killed the parents, then the children would grow up to be enemies of Germany.” Why did you kill the gypsies? “No one trusted the gypsies so we had to kill the gypsies as well.” These arguments that supported justification of killing millions of human beings left me very, very cold. And they still do today.

Q: How were you selected to lead the prosecution in the Einsatzgruppen case?

After leaving the Army in early 1946, I was asked if I would be willing to return to Germany to work on the staff of the Chief Counsel for War Crimes. I was assigned to collect and evaluate captured Nazi documents in the Berlin Document Center and forward any useful material to Nuremberg where the trials had already started. One of the researchers came in, and he said, “Look what I found!” These were what the Germans call Lietz-Ordner (loose leaf folders), reporting on their activities in the Soviet Union, as they followed behind the German troops. What they reported is, well, Einsatzgruppen.

Einsatzgruppen can’t be translated. They were special action groups, and they reported what they did every day. We entered this and this town. Within the first 24 hours, we succeeded in eliminating all the Jews. Or, we succeeded in executing 4,327 persons, including 27 Communist officials and 14 Gypsies. And so on in the next town. I had the name of the officer, the unit, the time, the place. Perfect for a prosecutor. Beautiful. Give me this. I took it. I jumped into a plane. I flew down to Nuremberg.

I told General Telford Taylor, “We’ve got another trial. I’ve got evidence here.” I had first tabulated on my own little adding machine, over a million people murdered in cold blood, because they were Jews or Gypsies. They didn’t share the faith, or the race of their murderers. And so, they were killed. Where it said the town was cleansed of Jews, I put down one. I didn’t know how many there were. It could have been a thousand. It was over a million.

I said to Telford, look, I’ve got here cold-blooded murder of a million men, women and children. I have the names of the people in charge of the operation. I have the time. I have the place. It’s a top-secret report. It was distributed in 100 copies. I had the distribution list. We ought to put them on trial. I’ll send out arrest orders to have these guys picked up, according to rank, the highest-ranking first, put them on trial.

He said, we don’t have staff. We don’t have budget. Our program is already planned. I don’t see how we can now put on a new trial. I said, you can’t let them go. This is absolute genocide in its purest form. He said, “Can you do it in addition to your other work?” I said, “Of course.” He said, “You got it.”

So it came about that I became the chief prosecutor for the United States in what was undoubtedly the biggest murder trial in history.

Q: Which one of the defendants do you remember most?

SS General Otto Ohlendorf. He had admitted killing 90,000 people — 90,000 people. That’s a lot of people. He then went on to challenge whether his own figure of 90,000 was accurate. He said, well because some of the men were bragging about the body count, they wanted it to be more. It was not that they objected to what they were doing. They were proud of what they were doing and tried to make the figures even higher. He — and the same with the other defendants — showed no remorse whatsoever. They were glad of what they did. They made it clear they would do it again. That mentality still exists in many other places and many other countries. It exists all over the world. That may help explain why I went on to a broader view of what I would have to do with my life if I was going to try to prevent another Holocaust.

I visited Ohlendorf after the verdicts were announced because first of all he was my lead defendant. The case was Ohlendorf, et al. Secondly, he was relatively honest. He finally conceded that his unit — the unit under his direct command — had murdered 90,000 people. I can assure you, my temptation was to gouge out their eyes. I had to hold myself back in order not to do that. These were not defendants I cared to talk to. They were sentenced to death and I hoped they were executed.

Ohlendorf was a peculiar man. He was the father of five children. Like most of my defendants, he was a well-educated man. I tried to pick only those leaders as defendants who would be held responsible. I wasn’t concerned about the poor Joe who was down there machine gunning people because they told him, that’s what you’ve got to do to save Germany. I wasn’t concerned about him. The Germans could handle him on their own later. And so, I picked people who were well educated. Many of them had doctorates in law as well.

I said to Ohlendorf, “Herr Ohlendorf, is there anything I can do for you? These will be your last days.” He had five children. I thought, he’ll say – “Tell my wife I love her,” or “Tell my kids I tried.” Tell me to do some human act, you know, that I would be glad to do as a human favor even for a mass murderer like him, because he was an intelligent man. He was acting according to his belief in what was right. He was an idealist in his own way. I didn’t share his ideals. Maybe because I would have been a victim of them, but nevertheless, I didn’t share them.

And so I put this question to him. We were sitting in a little cell. He was guarded. There was the plate glass between us with little holes in it. The guards were standing next to him ready to whack him on the head if anything happened. He looked at me and he said, “The Jews in America will suffer for what you have done to me.” I looked at him. I stood up.

I said, “Goodbye, Mr. Ohlendorf.” And that was the end of that conversation. And I never saw him again. He is dead.

Q: What happened to the other convicted Einsatzgruppen defendants?

Four of them were executed. Many of the others got life sentences and after, oh, another five or six years, they were released. It was not a repudiation of the Nuremberg Trials, as is commonly understood. It was not on appeal. It was an act of clemency, supposedly, because they had served whatever time was reasonable. They were treated well in prison. Some of them came out, like the industrialists, to champagne parties, and went back, and became important German leaders again. Perhaps, the richest in Germany. Mr. [Friedrich] Flick, for example. And the lessons we tried to teach at Nuremberg were forgotten. That’s what happened.

Q: Did Germany try some of the other Einsatzgruppen killers?

Germany held its own trials. The Zentrale Stelle at Ludwigsburg, the central office for German war crimes went through the rosters of the criminals. Most of them were not charged at all because the statute of limitations had expired, except for those who were directly involved in murder. There were some trials.

I appeared as a witness in one of the trials — not in Ludwigsburg but in one of the other cities nearby. Some of them were sentenced mildly to prison terms. Most of them were not tried at all or released. One of my Einsatzgruppen defendants I heard, years later, was practicing law somewhere in Germany.

Q: What should the Nuremberg Trials mean today?

Nuremberg laid a foundation of law. Certain crimes, like the ones we prosecuted at the IMT and NMT are so terrible that the world has got to stop committing those crimes because it cannot survive those crimes being repeated, as Justice Robert Jackson made clear.

That was first of all war-making itself. A crime against peace (or aggressive war) is itself the worst of all crimes. In war, all the other crimes are committed. That spawns all of the other crimes. The crimes against humanity: the rapes, the pillage, the killing of the children and all that, comes out of war. Nuremberg held that war making was no longer a national right. It was an international crime for which those responsible, the leaders re — I’m not talking about the common soldier who goes out and fights — I’m talking about those who plan and perpetrate the aggressive war, will be held to account in a court of law. That was the most important lesson which came out of Nuremberg. As you well know, it was ignored after Nuremberg. We’ve had a hundred wars since then. Another hundred million people killed. The international community had an obligation to do better.

The second point that came out of Nuremberg was that crimes against humanity, crimes which shock the conscience of mankind, like genocide, are so horrendous, that the whole world has a right to stop them. Never again, will we allow such crimes to be committed. They are being committed and they were committed. So I was trying to build on these Nuremberg foundations. I worked at this very hard.

Q: You were one of the earliest and most passionate advocates for an International Criminal Court. Can you talk about your vision for it now and in the future?

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1958 warning: “In a very real sense, the world no longer has a choice between force and law. If civilization is to survive, it must choose the rule of law.”  My website www.benferencz.org spells out the details. Everything on my web is free and can be used to serve the cause of peace.

Q: Your biography states that your primary objective had been to “establish a legal precedent that would encourage a more humane and secure world in the future.” Do you believe you were successful? What changed as a result of the Nuremberg trials?

Well, certainly we were not entirely successful in having a more humane and secure world today. In some respects, we were successful because the creation of new international courts which we now see – the permanent International Criminal Court in The Hague as well as the Security Council ad hoc tribunals for the crimes committed in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, are certainly steps forward. The Rwanda situation is a good illustration of why we failed. It is a disgrace to our civilization that we allowed 800,000 people to be butchered in that country, knowing that it would probably happen, and did nothing to prevent it.

So what we see is a slow advance from the Nuremberg trials, but there’s still a long way to go.

Q: You have spent the past 50 to 60 years continuing efforts toward an international rule of law. In what other ways has your work at Nuremberg impacted you personally?

My entire experience in Germany has had an enormous impact on me. First of all, coming into the many concentration camps – like Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and other camps that are unknown today – was so traumatic, seeing all the dead bodies lying around, the crematoria, corpses lined up, the gas chambers, and then talking to the mass killers and knowing their mentality, has increased my determination to spend the rest of my life trying to make it a more humane and peaceful world.

Q: Would you please comment on your role in the Rome Statute and establishing an International Criminal Court?

For many years, I worked on trying to set the foundations for an international criminal court. I did that by getting accredited to the United Nations. I don’t represent anybody in fact. No one hired me and no one can fire me, which gave me a great advantage.

Now I did write a two-volume book on defining international aggression, which is one of the big problems. I wrote another two volumes on an International Criminal Court (An International Criminal Court-A Step Toward World Peace, Oceana, 1980)), which laid the foundation for further action because I included all the documentation and history on what had happened up until that time. And these documents, I suppose, were useful to those who were the official representatives acting on it. I was honored in Rome by being invited to make a statement to the delegation in which I explained that I came to speak for those who cannot speak. I spoke for the victims and I urged the delegates to continue their work and that the goal was within their reach and they had to carry on. So I think I inspired some of the people, it might have helped a bit.

Q: If there is one thing that this audience of military officers needs to know about war crimes and international justice, what would that be?

There has never been and never will be a war without atrocities committed by all sides. I agree with the oft-repeated statement of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen that it is better to deter a war than to fight one.. As an honorably discharged Sergeant of Infantry awarded five battle stars for surviving the major battles of World War Two, my primary objective has always been to stop American soldiers from coming home in body-bags or in parts. The only way I know to do that is to put a stop to war-making itself — as far as possible.  My books spell out the details [See, for example New Legal Foundations for Global Survival]


Mark Hull is an associate professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, KS, where he teaches both war crimes law and history courses. Prior to teaching at CGSC, Dr. Hull worked as a criminal prosecutor and served as a brigade intelligence advisor to the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division military transition team from 2006-07 in Iraq. His books include Irish Secrets: German Espionage in Wartime Ireland.


Photo credit:: Office of the U.S. Chief of Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality/Still Picture Records LICON, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S).