Benjamin Ferencz: Law Not War!

Former Nuremberg prosecutor shares wisdom during visit to the Ikeda Center

April 30, 2015

Benjamin Ferencz is the only surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials, which, soon after the conclusion of WWII, held Nazi leaders to account for war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated during the war. Specifically, Mr. Ferencz was the Chief Prosecutor of the Einsatzgruppen case, in which 22 high-ranking Nazis were convicted of slaughtering over a million innocent men, women, and children. Just 27 years old at the time, Ferencz was named to prosecute this case since it resulted from facts he unearthed as part of the fifty-person team charged by the US after the war with investigating Nazi crimes, including genocide.

A child of immigrants, Mr. Ferencz entered Harvard Law School on a scholarship in 1940, where he did his initial research into the topic of war crimes. After graduating from Harvard Law in 1943 he served in the U.S. Army in Europe, fighting under General Patton. With his strong legal background, he was recruited to join the War Crimes Branch of the Army as combat was concluding, and in this capacity witnessed first-hand the atrocities of the concentration camps.

“Nuremberg taught me,” Mr. Ferencz has written, “that creating a world of tolerance and compassion would be a long and arduous task. And I learned that if we did not devote ourselves to developing effective world law, the same cruel mentality that made the Holocaust possible might one day destroy the entire human race.” After Nuremberg, Mr. Ferencz commited himself to the creation of world law, and was among those responsible for the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998. This is a major achievement, but Ferencz cautions us that the work will remain incomplete until all states accept that they do not have “a sovereign right to wage war,” and that the ICC has the capacity to prosecute “illegal armed force as a crime against humanity.”

Mr. Ferencz honored the Ikeda Center with a visit on April 30, 2015. Now 95, he made an immediate impression with his good cheer and vitality. The thoughts posted here are excerpted and edited from an in-depth dialogue he engaged in with Center staff members Kevin Maher, Helena Barth, Masa Hagiya, and Sandra Galiwango. Prior to that conversation he met with the full staff and shared his essential message, which boils down to two exhortations: Never Give Up! and Law Not War!

Benjamin Ferencz at the Ikeda Center

I. Can the ICC Succeed?

What are the challenges for the success of the ICC? The challenges are enormous, simply because many people don’t believe in the rule of law. And these are perfectly good people, intelligent people. America’s a great democracy and it’s inevitable that there will be people in the United States who have differences of opinion and that’s as it should be. The opinions deserve to be respected. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.

But those who don’t want an International Criminal Court — and it’s not only the United States; many military countries feel the same way — feel that the only thing that really counts in the last analysis is power, and that to create a third party institution to settle disputes or to decide whether what you’re doing is lawful or unlawful is not something that they are ready to accept. They think we have no experience with that, it’s liable to be corrupt, it’s liable to be biased, politically motivated and so on, and therefore we just rely upon the old system. That is their point of view, and as I say, it should be considered. I don’t share that point of view.

On the contrary, I think it’s a very dangerous point of view for many reasons. First of all, it’s based on a thousand-year-old tradition and culture, which glorified war making. It may be that it was glorious for King Arthur to take Excalibur out of the rock and fight the foe, or for David to throw a rock at Goliath. We’re in a different world now. We live in the cyberspace world. We now have the capacity — by we, I mean the United States as well as China, I suppose Japan possibly, I don’t know, Russia, surely — from cyberspace to cut off the electrical grid on planet earth. That means that in a very short period of time, depending upon your access to water and your physical condition, many will die. The hospitals will not function, the lights will be out, the phones will be out.

Benjamin Ferencz

II. Changing Hearts and Minds

Our current system is that if two heads of state or leaders of divergent groups are unable to agree, what they do is they take young people like you, and they send them out to kill other young people like you, people who they don’t even know, who have done them no harm, who may never have harmed anyone — and they start to kill each other. And when they get tired of killing each other, they stop. Each one declares a victory, although who has the victory besides death I don’t know, and they rest for a while, then they go back and start killing each other again.

That is the current system. And they say I’m crazy? No, I’m not crazy; they’re the ones who are crazy. I’m not concerned about myself. I’ve been a combat soldier and received five battle stars for having survived every major battle in World War II in Europe, and I know what war is about. I’m 95 years old now, as I speak, and I’m not concerned about my welfare, but I am concerned about the welfare of the young people like you, sitting around this table, whose future is at stake.

And we cannot go on this way, because it’s getting worse all the time, in the sense that it’s more expensive, more money is being spent on useless armaments that we cannot possibly use. It’s continued glorification of power instead of reason, and that’s why it’s so important to have organizations like the Ikeda Center and the Soka Gakkai and other Buddhist groups, and other groups who are non-Buddhist, who believe in tolerance and in compassion and compromise and understanding, because that’s the way the world has to go, if it is to survive.

And that requires primarily a change of heart and mind and a willingness to recognize that all human beings are entitled to live in peace and human dignity, regardless of their race or their creed or their religion or their nationality or anything else. This is a human entitlement, which distinguishes us from the wild beasts. And that will take a long time to indoctrinate, but it’s inevitable in my judgment that it will come, because I see there has been, during my lifetime, the awakening of the human conscience.

III. The Impossible Is Possible

When I started in Cambridge at Harvard Law in 1940, there was no such thing as a female even being seen in the dormitory of a male student, because they would be expelled for such a terrible and ignorant thing as to have a woman come to a male dormitory. Tonight, I’m having dinner with the dean of the Harvard Law School. She happens to be a female, and her predecessor was also a female, who now sits on the Supreme Court of the United States. So don’t tell me that things can’t change. Things that were considered impossible when I began have become not only possible; they’ve become the realities of today.

IV. What I've Learned

I was a poor immigrant boy who came to Harvard on a scholarship. I appreciate very much what I learned here in Cambridge. I learned about law, I learned about equity, I learned about what’s fair and what’s right. And I’m trying to share that knowledge and make it a reality. So I’m grateful to the Ikeda Center for inviting me to come here and talk to you briefly about what I have learned in the last 95 years, and I hope that this will make your job easier and that you’ll have some good suggestions for me, about how I can make the dream a reality.

V. Reason Over Power

Our task requires work on all levels. At the legal level, we need to make clear that the illegal use of armed force is in violation of the UN Charter, which means that if it’s not in self-defense and not approved by the Security Council, it is a crime for which the individual perpetrator will be held to account, wherever in the world he may be caught. Acts punishable by the International Criminal Court, which does have a provision prohibiting inhumane acts, such as rape and torture and other things, should also include the illegal use of armed force.

There are always differences of opinion. But reason has to prevail over power. People must see that it’s impossible to go back to a world of killing each other as a way of settling disputes. So we have to reeducate and change hearts and minds. Talk to the people, persuade them, point these things out to them, and keep on talking to them, because once is not enough. They have to see it for themselves. They have to feel it for themselves.

They have to think of their children, even those still unborn, and try to create a more humane world. And I think it’s inevitable that it will come. Maybe they must have more suffering before they realize. People learn, I think, more from suffering than from reason. But I think the Japanese people should have suffered enough, and I think the German people should have suffered enough, and everybody who’s involved in warfare throughout the world that’s continuing to this day, and who are the innocent victims of quarrels they don’t even understand, should have suffered enough.

And we can spread the word through institutions like this, through lectures like what I’m offering you now in the hope that you will disseminate this information to all of your members and friends. Tell them, “We had this little guy, this old man, who came and this is what he told us. And we think it’s worth listening to and thinking about.” And if you do that my trip will have been worthwhile, you will have done something that hopefully will be worthwhile, and then I can go home and go to work. Thank you very much for inviting me.

VI. Never Give Up!

I always give people three pieces of advice. One: Never give up. Two: Never give up. Three: Never give up. And also, never give up hope. Because hope is the engine that drives human endeavor. And if you don’t give up, and you continue to hope, every little bit counts. I have been pushing this rock up a hill. I know I’ll not see the top of the hill. I know that. I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid. I push the rock a little bit further up the hill, knowing that there will be times when I get kicked in the head and it slips back. That happens too. Pick up the rock and keep pushing it. And if there are enough people who keep pushing it long enough, we’ll reach the top of the mountain. Martin Luther King said, “I have seen the mountaintop.” The mountaintop is there. It’s sensible, and I’m a believer that human intelligence will, in the long run, prevail.

VII. Limits of State Sovereignty

However, there’s something else which is obsolete, but which has not yet been recognized, and that’s the notion of state sovereignty. Centuries ago the various nations of the world were busy killing each other, in Europe particularly. So they reached the Treaty of Westphalia, in which they said that every state would be independent and what they do within their borders is their private affair. No other state can interfere in their internal affairs. But if they go outside their borders with their violence or aggression, it’s illegal, and states can go to war, et cetera.

Well, that notion, which may have been okay two hundred and fifty years ago, is absolute nonsense today, because you cannot consider any state sovereign. You couldn’t fly an airplane into the air, you couldn’t mail a postcard, without international agreements. Absolute sovereignty is absolutely obsolete. You have to begin to realize the world has changed and we have to change with it and law has to change to meet up with contemporary needs. It must meet the needs of society, and we cannot continue to have this enormous discrepancy in wealth where some people are starving and other people are spending millions of dollars on things that nobody needs, and so on.

VIII. Historical Perspective

So the world is changing. And our conception of what human security is has not. We have recognized that human beings are entitled to live with minimum standards of human dignity, and we are doing that. You know, there’s an earthquake, immediately all the organizations jump in and the United States is very often in the forefront. That’s informal. But our constitution requires two-thirds of the Senate to agree before any international treaty would be binding on the United States. Two-thirds is a lot of Senators, and if you have one portion of the country — it doesn’t have to be one location, it can be spread throughout — people who are very conservative and don’t trust anybody else, you can’t get the two-thirds. That puts you into a political bind, because if you then espouse ignoring their point of view, you lose their vote. You lose their vote, you lose your power. It’s a democracy.

So the president is trapped in the complications of our own constitution and the inability to change it, just as we have no ability to improve the United Nations charter. The Security Council, for example, was trusted with the responsibility to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. That’s the opening sentence of the charter. And it appoints the powerful nations, the five Security Council members, to enforce that principle. They have betrayed their trust. They went back to war as usual. Can’t get away with that forever. So that means that no one respects the United Nations as they should.

These are all historical events that I recite from a perspective of a man who’s watched it for a long time, and who cares. I don’t want anything for myself. I don’t care anything about that, about legacy or names or recognition or anything like that. But I do care about doing whatever I can to have a more humane world. And that, I think, is the same goal that Mr. Ikeda has and shares. And we do that by talking to people first, and persuading enough of them, and if eventually the vast majority will agree and recognize the need for change, it will come into being. So I wish you luck on that.

IX. Earning Trust

Trust among nations has to be earned. And it’s difficult, because every country has the same type of political problems. The dictatorships are worse to the extent that power resides in the hands of a few people, and they don’t care about your trust or not, they rely only on their power, and that causes the problems that we have. So trust has to be earned, but it can be lost as well. When the United States ended World War II, everybody loved the Americans. Maybe the Japanese didn’t, but everybody in Europe, certainly. We were much admired on all sides. We have lost that in recent years. It can be recouped, and I hope it will be recouped, when it becomes recognized in the world that we are not using our power for the benefit of ourselves only. When the President of the United States ends a speech, instead of saying, as presidents invariably do now, “God bless the United States of America,” he should add, “And the rest of the world.” And next time when he says, “God bless the United States of America,” people should say, “What about me?” So that’s easily changed. When you begin to make fun of them a little bit, you know, they’ll change the wording.

So don’t despair. Just do the best you can. That’s been my philosophy. I do the best I can. I want nothing in exchange or nothing in return. But I want to satisfy my own conscience and my own feeling, perhaps inspired by the horrors that I have personally seen, to do whatever I can to make it a more humane world. If I know I’ve done my best, I can’t ask for more. I die in peace. Peace is important. Isn’t that beautiful?

X. Law Not War!

Just do your best, that’s all. Everybody has a role to play, everybody. Talk to your friends, talk to your parents, talk to your boyfriends, talk to your girlfriends, talk to your enemies, talk to anybody. Make the point. Three words, three words; that’s all you have to remember: Law not war.

XI. Tycho Brahe's message

And now I must tell you the story of Tycho Brahe. Nobody ever heard of Tycho Brahe. So I will tell you the story about Tycho Brahe. There’s a film out now, called Watchers of the Sky. The title of the film comes from a book I have on my shelf at New Rochelle. And it tells the story of a Danish astronomer whose name was Tycho Brahe, who lived in Denmark, who was educated in the church – that was the only source of education in those days — and it was the time of Galileo and Copernicus, people wondered about the stars and the universe. And he went to the king and he said he would like to spend his life studying the stars to see if he could find the meaning of the universe. The king was a wise old man, he said, “fine,” and they built him a laboratory on the island of Hven — this is all a true story — which is not far from Elsinore, made famous in Hamlet. There, he built his astronomical observatory and every night he would go out (he had invented telescopes) and measure the stars.

One day, the old king died and the new king came on and said to some of his advisors, “What’s going down there on Hven, spending so much money?” And the budget guys came down and they woke him up because, you know, astronomers, they sleep by day and they work by night. They woke him up and said, “What have you been doing all these last twenty years?” He said, “Well, I’ve been watching the stars.” “You’ve been watching the stars? What for?” He said, “Well, I make a chart. I can tell you exactly the movement of every star in the heavens. And I can tell you with great precision where it is, and I have 97 charts like that. Every one is very exact.” And they said, “Well, what do you hope to achieve with that?” He said, “If I live long enough, I hope to achieve a hundred.” “But what’s the utility of it?” “Well,” he said, “I realize that I will probably not find out the meaning of the universe. But someday somebody will. And I will have saved that person twenty years of labor.”

XII. Picking Up the Flag

Wherever you do your outreach, just say, “Look, we hosted this Nuremberg war crimes prosecutor. He prosecuted the biggest murder trial in history when he was twenty-seven. And when he was ninety-two, he continued to prosecute the first case for the new International Criminal Court, and he worked all of his life to create that court. And he still continues to do that. And he has never lost hope. And he spends his time going around, trying to inspire younger people to pick up the flag and carry it, because that’s what we need. And therefore, he has authorized us to disseminate this any place we think it’ll do some good.” No obligation, no charge, nothing. If you agree with it, do it. That’s it. Send that around to your people. You may change the world.

XIII. Humor is Essential

And don’t lose your humor. Because if you’re crying on the inside, you better be laughing on the outside, or you’ll drown in tears. So you have your work cut out for you, and I have mine, so I go.

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