Benjamin B. Ferencz

Benjamin B. Ferencz

Ferencz standing in the courtroom where the Nuremberg trials were held, 2012
Born (1920-03-11) March 11, 1920
Transylvania, Romania
Nationality American
Alma mater Harvard Law School
City College of New York
Occupation Lawyer

Benjamin Berell[1] Ferencz (born March 11, 1920)[2][3] is a Hungarian-born American lawyer. He was an investigator of Nazi war crimes after World War II and the Chief Prosecutor for the United States Army at the Einsatzgruppen Trial, one of the twelve military trials held by the U.S. authorities at Nuremberg, Germany. Later, he became an advocate of the establishment of an international rule of law and of an International Criminal Court. From 1985 to 1996, he was Adjunct Professor of International Law at Pace University.


Early life, education and army service

He was born in Transylvania, in Romania, from where his family immigrated into the United States when he was ten months old. According to his own account, the family left Romania to evade the persecution of Hungarian Jews after Transylvania was ceded from Hungary to Romania by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon after World War I.[4] The family settled in New York City, where they lived in the Lower East Side in Manhattan.[5]

He studied crime prevention at the City College of New York and won a scholarship to Harvard Law School with his criminal law exam. At Harvard, he studied under Roscoe Pound[6] and also did research for Sheldon Glueck, who at that time was writing a book on war crimes. Ferencz graduated from Harvard in 1943.[7] After his studies, he joined the U.S. Army, where he served in the 115th AAA Gun Battalion, an anti-aircraft artillery unit.[5] In 1945, he was transferred to the headquarters of General Patton's Third Army, where he was assigned to a team tasked with setting up a war crimes branch and collecting evidence for such crimes. In this function, he was then sent to the concentration camps as they were liberated by the U.S. army.[5]

Nuremberg trial prosecutor

Benjamin Ferencz

On Christmas 1945,[6] Ferencz was honorably discharged from the Army with the rank of Sergeant. He returned to New York, but was recruited only a few weeks later to participate as a prosecutor in the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials in the legal team of Telford Taylor. Taylor appointed him Chief Prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen Case—Ferencz's first case.[5] All of the 22 men on trial were convicted; 14 of them received death sentences, of which four were eventually carried out.

In a 2005 interview for the Washington Post he revealed some of his activities during his period in Germany by way of showing how different military legal norms were at the time:

"I once saw DPs beat an SS man and then strap him to the steel gurney of a crematorium. They slid him in the oven, turned on the heat and took him back out. Beat him again, and put him back in until he was burnt alive. I did nothing to stop it. I suppose I could have brandished my weapon or shot in the air, but I was not inclined to do so. Does that make me an accomplice to murder?"[8]
"You know how I got witness statements?" "I'd go into a village where, say, an American pilot had parachuted and been beaten to death and line everyone one up against the wall. Then I'd say, 'Anyone who lies will be shot on the spot.' It never occurred to me that statements taken under duress would be invalid."[8]

Ferencz stayed in Germany after the Nuremberg Trials, together with his wife Gertrude,[5] whom he had married in New York[9] on March 31, 1946.[2] He participated in the setup of reparation and rehabilitation programs for the victims of persecutions by the Nazis, and also had a part in the negotiations that led to the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany signed on September 10, 1952[10] and the first German Restitution Law in 1953.[5] In 1956, the family—they had four children by then—returned to the U.S., where Ferencz entered private law practice[9] as a partner of Telford Taylor.[11]

Role in forming the International Criminal Court

But the experiences made just after World War II left a defining impression on Ferencz.[9] After thirteen years, and under the impression of the events of the Vietnam War, Ferencz left the private law practice and henceforth worked for the institution of an International Criminal Court that would serve as a worldwide highest instance for issues of crimes against humanity and war crimes.[9] He also published several books on this subject. Already in his first book published in 1975, entitled Defining International Aggression-The Search for World Peace, he argued for the establishment of such an international court.[7] From 1985 to 1996, Ferencz also worked as an Adjunct Professor of International Law at Pace University at White Plains, New York.[4]

An International Criminal Court was indeed established on July 1, 2002, when the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court entered in force. Under the Bush administration, the U.S. did sign the treaty, but did not subsequently ratify it. The administration of George W. Bush concluded a large number of bilateral agreements with other states that would exclude U.S. citizens from being brought before the ICC.[12]

Ferencz has repeatedly argued against this procedure and suggested that the U.S. join the ICC without reservations, as it was a long-established rule of law that "law must apply equally to everyone", also in an international context.[9] In this vein, he has suggested in an interview given on August 25, 2006, that not only Saddam Hussein should be tried, but also George W. Bush because the Iraq War had been begun by the U.S. without permission by the UN Security Council.[9]

Later years

In 2009, Ferencz was awarded the Erasmus Prize, together with Antonio Cassese; the award is given to individuals or institutions that have made notable contributions to European culture, society, or social science.[13]

On May 3, 2011, two days after the death of Osama bin Laden was reported, Ferencz published a letter in the New York Times arguing that "illegal and unwarranted execution - even of suspected mass murderers - undermines democracy."[14][15] Also that year he presented a closing statement in the trial of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo in Uganda.[16]

On March 16, 2012, Ferencz published a letter to the editor of the New York Times hailing the International Criminal Court's conviction of Thomas Lubanga as "a milestone in the evolution of international criminal law."[17]

Selected bibliography


See also


  1. Gale Reference Team: Biography - Ferencz, Benjamin B(erell) (1920-):, Thomson Gale, April 6, 2006.
  2. 1 2 Logli, Ch.:"Benjamin Ferencz". Archived from the original on 2006-01-13. Retrieved 2006-12-12. , Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 1999? URL last accessed 2006-12-12.
  3. Ferencz, B.: Photos. One of the captions reads "On March 11, 2003, his 83rd birthday, ..." URL last accessed 2006-12-13.
  4. 1 2 "Benjamin B.Ferencz, A Prosecutor's Personal Account: From Nuremberg to Rome, September 23, 1998". Archived from the original on 2007-02-02. Retrieved 2006-12-13.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 USHMM: Chief prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz presents his case at the Einsatzgruppen Trial, USHMM photograph #41618. URL last accessed 2006-12-12.
  6. 1 2 The Legal History Project: Interview with Benjamin Ferencz, May 2006. URL last accessed 2006-12-12.
  7. 1 2 Ferencz, B.: (Auto-)Biography. URL last accessed 2006-12-12.
  8. 1 2 Matthew Brzezinski, Giving Hitler Hell Washington Post Sunday, July 24, 2005; Page W08
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Harvard Law School: Benjamin Ferencz Archived September 10, 2006, at the Wayback Machine. Archived September 10, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.: Speaker's biography from the Pursuing Human Dignity: The Legacies of Nuremberg for International Law, Human Rights & Education Archived January 7, 2007, at the Wayback Machine. conference, November 2005. URL last accessed 2006-12-12.
  10. USHMM: Chancellor Konrad Adenauer signs the reparations agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel, USHMM photograph #11019. URL last accessed 2006-12-13.
  11. Ferencz, B.: Telford Taylor: Pioneer of International Criminal Law Archived February 2, 2007, at the Wayback Machine., Columbia Journal of Transnational Law 37(3), pp. 661 – 664; 1999. URL last accessed 2006-12-13.
  12. Coalition for the International Criminal Court: 2006. Status of US Bilateral Immunity Acts. 2006. URL last accessed 2006-12-12.
  13. Stichting Praemium Erasmianum: 2009: Antonio Cassese, Benjamin Ferencz. URL last accessed 2012-11-15.
  14. Ferencz Weighs in on Bin Laden Killing Archived May 25, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. 2011-05-03
  15. Letter to NY Times re: Bin Laden's Killing Archived May 25, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. 2011-05-03
  16. "The improbable story of the man who won history’s ‘biggest murder trial’ at Nuremberg". Washington Post, By Karen Heller August 31, 2016.
  17. Letter to NY Times re: Crimes Against Humanity 2012-03-16

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