Benjamin Berell Ferencz knows what hell looks like. He once visited many of its neighborhoods: Mauthausen, Ohrdruf, Dachau... And now, nearly 70 years later, he can still see them when he shuts his eyes, because such places are impossible to forget.
He was 27 when he became the chief prosecutor for the United States Army in one of the 12 US military trials known as the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials, held between 1946 and 1949, after the main trials against the biggest Nazi war criminals.
The young Ferencz participated in the Eisatzgruppen Trial, which targeted the people behind the death of a million Jews at the hands of the Eisatzgruppen, the special action groups of the SS. It was his first case.
At the age of 95, the last living prosecutor who was at the Nuremberg trials this week flew to Madrid to participate in a symposium on the concept of universal jurisdiction. The gathering was organized by the Baltasar Garzón International Foundation after the Spanish government’s recent decision to curtail a principle that enabled Spanish courts to try foreigners for crimes committed outside national borders.
“I admire Garzón for his courage, his achievements and his perseverance in common ideals,” said Ferencz of the former High Court judge. “I know what happened to him. When brave people try to make progress, there is always someone who tries to prevent it by any means.”
In his first interview granted in Spain, Ferencz talked to EL PAÍS while law students and teachers stood in line to have their picture taken with him.
I believe the main thing is to change the way people think about these crimes”
Question. Garzón opened an investigation into crimes against humanity by the Franco dictatorship and he was suspended from his duties as a judge. The Spanish justice system contends that those crimes have prescribed. Do you agree?
Answer. In civilized societies, there are no limits to try crimes against humanity. The perpetrators of those crimes should not be able to hide anywhere.
Q. Spain has just closed the door on universal jurisdiction. One of the victims affected by this decision says that the government is trading in “money for human rights.” Do you share this opinion?
A. Most states are doing the same thing. To say ‘from now on we will no longer go after these crimes' is a way of encouraging them. But I believe the main thing is to change the way people think about these crimes. And that takes a long time. It has to be done through education, by teaching tolerance and education at schools.
Q. Did you ever feel that the world needs new Nuremberg trials?
A. The International Criminal Court is the new Nuremberg. I spent many years calling for its creation, and Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo awarded me the honor of intervening in that court’s first case.
A death penalty for killing a million people? Killing them was not enough”
By then, Ferencz was already 92 years old, but it was only his second case: between Nuremberg and The Hague he spent his life writing and working to ensure that there would be no hideouts or economic interests to help the worst criminals get away — criminals who had stared him in the eyes, unrepentant, during that historical trial against Nazism.
Q. In your opening statement at Nuremberg you said that the goal of the trial was not revenge, but to sustain a man’s right to live in peace and dignity regardless of race or creed. Yet of the 22 suspects, 13 were sentenced to death and four executed. Is the death penalty not a form of revenge, a defeat for the law?
A. Sometimes it is useful, it is an effective deterrent. But I did not ask for death penalties. A death penalty for killing a million people? Killing them was not enough. It was too little. I believe in the law, I am a lawyer.
Q. You criticized the fact that the Navy Seals killed Bin Laden.
A. There is a rule that says that you cannot shoot the enemy who has surrendered or who is wounded. I did not like to see the president of the United States, a Nobel Peace prize winner, announcing Bin Laden’s death on television. I do not lament the loss, but as a lawyer I think that shooting a man wearing his pajamas in the head, dumping his body and getting rid of the witnesses stinks. I would have liked to have seen Bin Laden stand trial. If you kill him, you create more enemies for yourself. You cannot kill an ideology with a weapon, you need a better ideology.
Q. And that was not applicable to the Nazis who were convicted to death?
A. That was not revenge. We could have killed everyone we caught, but we took them to a trial with all kinds of guarantees. Just a small sample of everyone who was in charge, because justice is never complete, it is imperfect, especially in these types of crimes, where you can only deliver symbolic justice. The goal was to create a more humane world and prevent anyone from wanting to imitate them.