Nuremberg prosecutor rested case in 2 days: 'I had the proof they murdered a million people'

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Ben Ferencz’s legal victory in the Nuremberg, Germany's courtroom more than 70 years ago is hard to match.

“I rested my case in two days," Ferencz said. "And I convicted all of them. That was a record which will never be matched in human history, of any trials!”

He did not call a single witness to the stand. Instead, he used the defendants' own reports against them.

"I had the proof they murdered a million people," he said. "I had the proof there were 3,000 murderers."

Those murderers were SS soldiers who belonged to the Einsatzgruppen, a ruthless killing squad trained and ordered to kill every Jewish man, woman, and child they could lay their hands on.

"They all [pleaded] not guilty," he said.

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%INLINE%Ferencz would prosecute 22 of them. The answer as to why it was only 22 was simple.

"There were only 22 seats in the dock," Ferencz said, the frustration still evident today. "We only had 22 seats in the courtroom. There was no way you could balance 22 deaths against a million people killed by just one criminal trial. So I said, 'No, this trial itself, is only symbolic.'"

He said, as he made his opening statements, he wasn't nervous.

"I was not nervous," he said. "And I was not nervous either when I confronted the defendants in the courtroom. But I was concerned. I was concerned because there was no way I could do justice. What difference would it make if I sentenced these 22 to death? What happens to the rest? Where is justice, where is the balance, where is the scale?"

His use of the term "genocide" was the first time the phrase was ever used in a courtroom. He defined it as the extermination of whole categories of human beings and claimed it was the foremost instrument of the Nazi Doctrine.

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%INLINE%"I remember some of my phrases," he recalls. 'These men wrote the darkest human page in human history.' 'Death was their tool, life was their toy.' 'If these men be immune, then life has lost its meaning, and man must live in fear.' And the judges recognized the validity of that appeal."

All 22 were found guilty. 13 were sentenced to death. and four of them were hanged.

One of those was Otto Ohlendorf. The Nazi claimed his crimes were done in self-defense. Ferencz admits he went to see him after the trial.

"I thought maybe he wanted to send a message to his wife, or to his children. I got through the security and they opened the gates and I said to him in German, “Can I do something for you?” And he said, 'You will see I was right. The Jews in America will suffer. The Russians will take over.' And he began to repeat the argument he made on the trial. Not a word of remorse of any kind. I said 'Goodbye, Mr. Ohlendorf,' in English, and closed the door on him. The next thing I saw was a picture of him hanging."

More than half a century later, Ferencz is still haunted by the events.

"I think about the events more than the people," he said. "I think about Ohlendorf. I imagine what would happen if I met one of his children."

But his life's work is ensuring it doesn't happen again.

"Imagine if you could substitute a rule of law for war," he said. "That you could have to go to a court and settle your disputes without the use of armed force."

Law, not war, is his motto. And if anyone calls him naive, he already knows his response.

"I have three rules," he said. "One, never give up. Two, never give up. And three, never give up."