Taking Heed of What Ben Ferencz, the Last Surviving Nuremberg Prosecutor, Wants Us To Know

Yesterday marked the 77th anniversary of the beginning of the NAZI’s clearing of the Warsaw Ghetto known as the Great Deportation. This summer is also the 100th anniversary of the Red Summer of 1919 that saw over 200 African Americans killed in what are still incorrectly referred to as race riots instead of targeted acts of terrorism by white Americans against African Americans. The Great Deportation lasted all summer. Between July 22 and September 21, 1942 more than 250,000 Jews were removed from the Warsaw Ghetto, sent to Treblinka, and exterminated.

The acts of terrorism, as well as the acts of self defense by African Americans, during the Red Summer of 1919, didn’t all start on the same day or in the same place during the summer of 1919. For instance, the riots in Chicago started on July 29th and were precipitated by the raft of 17 year old, let me repeat that 17 YEAR OLD, Eugene Williams drifting past the color line separating the white from the African American areas of Lake Michigan and its shore. The raft drifted across the line because Eugene Williams had drowned. The violence in Chicago lasted for about a week leaving 38 people dead, 23 African Americans and 15 whites, and over 500 were injured and/or left homeless due to fires set to specifically drive African Americans out of their homes. Washington, DC’s Red Summer began about two weeks after the 4th of July celebrations. On July 18th two African American men were accused of bumping into a 19 year old white woman and trying to steal her umbrella as she walked home. Despite a quick arrest, the story was told and retold, embellished at every retelling, until DC also boiled over in racist violence. Similar incidents and similar responses occurred in other cities across the United States.

The geographically and temporally distinct events of The Great Deportation and the Red Summer, driven by different forms of racism, during the summers of 1919 and 1942, are just two examples of why it is important to pay attention when someone like Ben Ferencz has something to tell all of us. Ferencz, who is 99, is the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor alive as he was also the youngest one. 60 Minutes interviewed him in June and he has some hard won wisdom he wishes to pass on to us.

Lesley Stahl: Did you meet a lot of people who perpetrated war crimes who would otherwise in your opinion have been just a normal, upstanding citizen?

Benjamin Ferencz: Of course, is my answer. These men would never have been murderers had it not been for the war. These were people who could quote Goethe, who loved Wagner, who were polite–

Lesley Stahl: What turns a man into a savage beast like that?

Benjamin Ferencz: He’s not a savage. He’s an intelligent, patriotic human being.

Lesley Stahl: He’s a savage when he does the murder though.

Benjamin Ferencz: No. He’s a patriotic human being acting in the interest of his country, in his mind.

Lesley Stahl: You don’t think they turn into savages even for the act?

Benjamin Ferencz: Do you think the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was a savage? Now I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people.

Lesley Stahl: Now, you’ve been at this for 50 years, if not more. We’ve had genocide since then.

Benjamin Ferencz: Yes.

Lesley Stahl: In Cambodia—

Benjamin Ferencz: Going on right this minute, yes.

Lesley Stahl: Going on right this minute in Sudan.

Benjamin Ferencz: Yes.

Lesley Stahl: We’ve had Rwanda, we’ve had Bosnia. You’re not getting very far.

Benjamin Ferencz: Well, don’t say that. People get discouraged. They should remember, from me, it takes courage not to be discouraged.

Lesley Stahl: Did anybody ever say that you’re naive?

Benjamin Ferencz: Of course. Some people say I’m crazy.

Lesley Stahl: Are you naive here?

Benjamin Ferencz: Well, if it’s naive to want peace instead of war, let ’em make sure they say I’m naive. Because I want peace instead of war. If they tell me they want war instead of peace, I don’t say they’re naive, I say they’re stupid. Stupid to an incredible degree to send young people out to kill other young people they don’t even know, who never did anybody any harm, never harmed them. That is the current system. I am naive? That’s insane.

Ferencz is legendary in the world of international law, and he’s still at it. He never stops pushing his message and he’s donating his life savings to a Genocide Prevention Initiative at the Holocaust Museum. He says he’s grateful for the life he’s lived in this country, and it’s his turn to give back.

Lesley Stahl: You are such an idealist.

Benjamin Ferencz: I don’t think I’m an idealist.  I’m a realist. And I see the progress.  The progress has been remarkable. Look at the emancipation of woman in my lifetime. You’re sitting here as a female. Look what’s happened to the same-sex marriages. To tell somebody a man can become a woman, a woman can become a man, and a man can marry a man, they would have said, “You’re crazy.” But it’s a reality today. So the world is changing. And you shouldn’t– you know– be despairing because it’s never happened before. Nothing new ever happened before.

Lesley Stahl: Ben—

Benjamin Ferencz: We’re on a roll.

Lesley Stahl: I can’t—

Benjamin Ferencz: We’re marching forward.

Lesley Stahl: Ben? I’m sitting here listening to you. And you’re very wise. And you’re full of energy and passion.  And I can’t believe you’re 97 years old.

Benjamin Ferencz: Well, I’m still a young man.

Lesley Stahl: Clearly, clearly.

Benjamin Ferencz: And I’m still in there fighting.  And you know what keeps me going? I know I’m right.

It is important to pay attention to the men and women like Ben Ferencz while we still have them with us. As they pass away we lose our living memory of the NAZIs, as well as other fascists and authoritarians and their crimes against humanity. Those living memories, the recollections of the men and women like Ferencz who fought the NAZIs or the Italian fascists or the Spanish fascists or other authoritarians and totalitarians, as well as those who have worked diligently and tirelessly to hold them to account and get justice for their victims are societal and political antibodies. They help us fight off attempts to revive these noxious, dangerous, and illiberal ideologies and their deadly effects. Ben Ferencz and those like him, by their very existence as living testimonies and testaments to remind us of what happens when fascism in general and racist fascism like NAZIism in specific is allowed to grow and spread unchecked. It is important that we pay attention to what Ben Ferenzc is trying to still teach us so that we do not have to relearn the terrible lessons he is trying to impart to us the hard way.

Here are some videos of Ben Ferencz still trying to teach us the lessons that he and his colleagues had to learn the hard way during World War II.

Open thread!

48 replies
  1. 1
    Adam L Silverman says:

    I’ve got to go do some stuff, I’ll try to check in later.

  2. 2
    MagdaInBlack says:

    Thank you, Adam. I ‘ll just be over hete watching these now.

  3. 3
    Mary G says:


    People get discouraged. They should remember, from me, it takes courage not to be discouraged.

    I have to tell myself something like this every day because the firehose of Trump news and the morons who love him makes me want to stay in bed with my head under the covers.

  4. 4
    joel hanes says:

    Tulsa race riot pogrom, 1921

  5. 5
    TenguPhule says:

    The acts of terrorism, as well as the acts of self defense by African Americans, during the Red Summer of 2019,

    Freudian slip?

  6. 6
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @TenguPhule: Only in your fever dreams.

  7. 7
    Shana says:

    A dear friend, now retired from unnamed government agency, spent much of his career working on cases of genocide. We were invited to his retirement ceremony and listened as people who’d worked with him for decades spoke about the important work he’d done. We, of course, never knew any of this before his retirement. While he’s a generation younger than Mr. Ferencz the work still needs to be done because humanity still does this shit.

  8. 8
    J R in WV says:

    Adam, where you say: ‘The acts of terrorism, as well as the acts of self defense by African Americans, during the Red Summer of 2019…”

    Perhaps you mean the Rd Summer of 1919???

  9. 9
    SRW1 says:

    Bless you, Benjamin Ferencz, for your strength and your optimism.

  10. 10
    MagdaInBlack says:

    Typo: hete = here.

  11. 11
    dimmsdale says:

    When I was younger, Judgment at Nuremberg was one of my favorite movies, partly because of the stunning performances, but mostly because of its clear moral universe, where the lines between good and evil seemed to be sharply drawn (and, as I felt at the time, in the US’s favor). It made me a little proud to be on the side of right (I did say I was younger!). Now, with so many Americans being washed in the puke of Fox News all their waking hours, I think it’s a miracle ONLY 42% of the country approves of Trump; given cable news’ right-wing slant, Russian (and possibly Brad Parscale’s) bots on Twitter, and the overwhelming sense of grievance that the right wing has managed to cultivate among otherwise normal Americans, I think the figure ought to be a lot higher.

    I do not know what’s to be done about this; it’s clear to me that the cable networks’ business models require them to legitimize right wing scumbags and build them up so that there can be a “both sides” for our infotainment court jesters to position themselves between. I don’t see that going away. Social media’s business models don’t allow for policing their platforms either, and I don’t see that changing. I expect major upheavals during the 2020 vote counts; the recent proliferation of hackable voting machines (built by companies affiliated with and contributing to Republicans) makes it a certainty that the election results will themselves be UN-certain, and undoubtedly hotly contested, perhaps leading to mini-Brooks Brothers riots (at least I HOPE ‘mini’) all over the country.

    Thanks for the piece, Adam, and the videos of Ben Ferencz. We will all need the zest for the fight that he still has; and the moral compass he displays.

  12. 12
    Jager says:

    When I would stay with my grandparents, grandma would send me to the little neighborhood store. The owner. Mr Adler had a concentration camp tattoo.
    Made strong immpression on a little boy in the 50’s.

  13. 13
    Mike in NC says:

    Paul Tibbets, pilot of the B-29 “Enola Gay”, was a poker buddy of my wife’s dad, who in the early 1960s was Provost Marshal of the Military District of Washington. On several occasions he acted as her baby sitter. We saw him at the then new Udgar-Hazy annex to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum near Dulles Airport around 2002.

  14. 14
    Shana says:

    @Jager: Out of curiosity, where was that?

  15. 15
    c u n d gulag says:

    Wise, great, words!

    Wasted on the AmerKKKan “Ignorinate.”

  16. 16

    @Jager: When I was in college, my roommate and I went to Farmers Market in Fairfax, he pointed out the older women with the number tattoos.

  17. 17
    Another Scott says:

    He’s a good man. And he’s exactly right.

    Not to distract from the topic, Stahl, however, makes my skin crawl in that interview. Horrible.

    “Savages”. Again and again.

    She wasn’t listening to him, and she seems to think that her audience has the intellect of a second grader to ask questions like that.


    I’m glad he pushed back and didn’t let her bully him into using her words.

    My $0.02.


  18. 18
    Jager says:


    Grand Forks ND, I think the Adlers were initially sponsored by our small but active Jewish community.

  19. 19
    Dan B says:

    It’s stunning to me that Ferencz mentions the expansion of LGBTQ rights. Many people from that generation don’t see it as important or worthy of mention. During the war many LGB people were brought together. They found each other and did not have to deal with the law to any great extent. In 1953 Eisenhower made it illegal for the government to hire homosexuals. The “cleansings” began as did the blackmail. People were sent to mental hospitals where they were sometimes castrated or had pre-frontal lobotomies. I met a couple – disturbing that it took place into the 60’s.

    So Eisenhower saved Europe and the war allowed gay people to have lives but then life became hell for hundreds of thousands.

  20. 20
    Jay says:

    Thank you Adam, this one goes in the vault along with your “The Only Way Out, Is Through”.

  21. 21
    Dan B says:

    @Another Scott: Savages… The same mindset that fails to see that many in the 1 percent are full bore on climate genocide and the GOP as well. They are not savages according to Florencz. They are ordinary polite people who fail to see their inhumanity. They see empathy as existential weakness.

  22. 22
    Jay says:

    @Dan B:

    The book burnings that followed Kristallnacht was predominantly social research papers that showed that LBGTQ people were normal and had existed through out history.

  23. 23
    Steve in the ATL says:

    @Another Scott: @Dan B: on a more positive note, “Savages” was a fantastic book by Don Winslow, and the movie based on it was well done too.

  24. 24
    Martin says:

    Can I just say how much I LOVE having Katie Porter on TV all the time? So happy to have a good representative.

  25. 25
    Dan B says:

    @Jay: I wonder if Pompeo’s “Natural Law” commission is the overture to new scientific studies. Or some form of first stifling the left-wing science and then “rewriting” the science.

  26. 26
    Jay says:

    @Dan B:

    It’s just the ususal Christo Facist homophobic bull dressed up in White Supremacy. What do you expect with Nazis running the White Supremacy House and Congress.

  27. 27
    Another Scott says:

    @Dan B: I don’t have the words to explain my understanding of Ferencz’s views in a way that won’t sound belittling or condescending to you (and probably to me). I get your point.

    But, at the risk of making things worse, I’ll briefly try: murderous rage can arise in just about all of us – especially in wartime. To that extent, we all are “savages” and throwing the word at Nazis or the Khmer Rouge or the Red Army with some air of superiority isn’t really helpful. They’re (and we’re) humans and humans can (and do) do monstrous things. And the people who do such things aren’t a different species from you or me. The best way to keep people from committing monstrous crimes is to end war.

    That’s what I took from Ferencz’s comments.

    It, as you say, won’t end people treating each other horribly. But it will help.



  28. 28
    Kattails says:

    Just got done with the first video. Damn! All these pollens in the air, my eyes are all watery and they’ve given me the sniffles.
    Thank you for compiling this; I will definitely send links around to a few people who will appreciate it.

  29. 29
    Jay says:

    EU shoots down Boris Johnson's Brexit plan within moments of him becoming Tory leader https://t.co/gEp2lHvlSX— Jon Stone (@joncstone) July 23, 2019

  30. 30
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Steve in the ATL: Directed by Oliver Stone and starring Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, and some dudes?

  31. 31
    Jay says:

    @Another Scott:

    He goes further than that. He covers cold blooded genocide as part of “National Policy”, you know ICE/CBP.

  32. 32
    Fake Irishman says:

    I’m always grateful I took a few IR courses back during undergrad and came across the work of the historian Christopher Browning. “Ordinary Men” posed a chilling reminder of what any of us can become and has always stayed in the back of my mind reminding me to remain quietly vigilant lest I become a monster myself; or permit those around me to become them (it’s come in handy with the recent way the U.S. government has been treating immigrants.) Good on Ferencz for carrying the torch.

  33. 33
    Steve in the ATL says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: ayup. Dudes, as noted, are irrelevant. Even having seen the movie, you should read the book. If you haven’t already, you should read all of his books.

  34. 34
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Steve in the ATL: I will add it to my list.

  35. 35
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @joel hanes: Yep, but that is better known than the Red Summer.

  36. 36
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @TenguPhule: Fat fingered typo. I’m back from my errand and will fix it now.

  37. 37
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @J R in WV: Yes, fat fingered typo. I just got in and have now fixed it.

  38. 38
    debbie says:


    Seconded. The 60 Minutes interview was far above the program’s usual fare.

  39. 39
    debbie says:


    A high school classmate’s mother survived Dachau and her (the classmate’s) father was one of the soldiers who liberated the camp. The mother was so kind but also so sad. She made no attempt to hide her tattoo.

  40. 40
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Jager: @Shana: @debbie: An ex girlfriend once told me about a wedding she’d gone to before we were seeing each other. At the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner one of the groom’s grandfathers kept staring at one of the bride’s grandmothers. The grandparents on each side had not previously met each other. The staring had reached a point where people like my ex girlfriend were noticing. Eventually he went over and asked her “what is your number?”, as in the tattooed number from the camps. Turns out it was his first wife. They had been separated in the camps, couldn’t find each other afterwards, presumed the other was dead, made their way to the US, remarried, started families, and lived their lives never knowing the other was alive until their grandchildren’s wedding rehearsal.

  41. 41
    divF says:

    I just watched the TedxTeen talk, which he delivered in 2017, when he was 97 years old. It was delivered with extraordinary clarity and passion. I can only hope to have it that together through the end of my life.

  42. 42
    Steve in the ATL says:

    @Adam L Silverman: damn.

  43. 43
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Adam L Silverman:

    I think you might have related that story a few years ago. Sounds like the plot of a Galsworthy novel. Just amazing.

    As both were (unintentional and unwitting, to be sure) bigamists, did they have to jump through any legal hoops once their situation was known?

  44. 44
    RedDirtGirl says:

    Thanks, Adam.

  45. 45
  46. 46
    DHD says:

    @Dan B: This is as fascinating as it is sad… it parallels the great expansion of women’s rights in both the USA and USSR during the war that got brutally rolled back afterwards (perhaps more so in the USA).

    Funny how in times of great crisis people can suddenly discover the humanity of others. Sad how they can so easily forget it.

  47. 47
    Miss Bianca says:

    @Adam L Silverman: Way late to the thread, but that’s one of the most amazing stories I have ever heard.

  48. 48
    Mike in Pasadena says:

    Watching the video reminds me why the DOJ under Obama or an international tribunal should have prosecuted Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and others for war crimes. I really don’t give a damn about Congressional authorizations. Sorry, I know, I’m not supposed to say the quiet parts out loud.

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