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Quick Takes: Pursuing War Crimes from Nuremberg to Rwanda

Ralph Seliger
December 19, 2017

by Ralph Seliger

LAST SPRING, my late parents’ friend and neighbor was featured on primetime TV on more than one occasion. Benjamin Ferencz was profiled in a segment of 60 Minutes on May 7, 2017. (Click here for the full transcript of the feature; CBS subscribers can watch it here). At 97, he is the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg Trials and a still-active legal authority on crimes against humanity. In 2014, he testified at the International Criminal Court in The Hague to help convict a ringleader of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He remains vigorous, shown swimming in one of his Florida retirement community pools, exercising in the gym, and doing push-ups in his apartment.

I also encountered Ferencz as an important on-screen presence in the March 2017 PBS three-part series on war crimes and crimes against humanity, entitled Dead Reckoning: War, Crime, and Justice from WW2 to the War on Terror. This is not easy viewing; although I write about the Holocaust and other mass atrocities with some frequency, it’s only now that I’ve caught up on all three episodes. (Ben Ferencz appears in episodes one and three.)

Ferencz escaped antisemitism in his native Transylvania, immigrating to the U.S. with his family as a baby. As a 27-year-old U.S. Army veteran of combat from Normandy through the Battle of the Bulge, and with a Harvard law degree, Ferencz was appointed by Telford Taylor, chief counsel at the Nuremberg Trials, to prosecute Nazi war criminals.

Through his efforts, Ferencz uncovered legal proof of the crimes committed by the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile SS killing squads who shot between one and two million Jews in the wake of the Nazi advance into the Soviet Union. (My father’s three siblings, their children, and my paternal grandmother may have been among their victims.)

Ferencz brought 22 SS men to justice. In his phrasing, it amounted to a mere “sample” of the criminals, a figure determined by the number of seats available in the courtroom dock. He both researched the mammoth dimensions of the crime and prosecuted these officers before the tribunal, and his work on the case is mentioned prominently in this useful Wikipedia summary of the Einsatzgruppen trial.

ALLOW ME to digress and add a few little-known footnotes from the aforementioned PBS series, Dead Reckoning. Tomoyuki Yamashita, possibly the most highly skilled Japanese general in World War II, was apparently hanged unjustly as a war criminal, condemned by a military tribunal that was manipulated by General Douglas MacArthur (more reason for me to dislike this American icon, but that’s another story).

Yamashita -- who had won a lightning-fast victory in 1941-42 over British Imperial forces in Malaya and Singapore that outnumbered his army nearly three to one -- was rushed to defend the Philippines against MacArthur in 1944. But with the U.S. advancing in overwhelming numbers, Yamashita withdrew most of his army from the Philippine capital of Manila, and forbade a full-scale defense of the city, which he saw as untenable. Instead, he retreated to remote mountains until surrendering with his remaining 50,000 soldiers when made aware of Japan’s capitulation eight months later. In this, he was unique among embattled Japanese commanders in the Pacific -- allowing his men to survive by formally surrendering rather than fighting to the end.

Back in Manila, a Japanese admiral rushed 16,000 naval troops into the city and together with the small residual army garrison mounted a savage house-to-house defense, while committing hideous massacres; 100,000 civilians perished. Yamashita was found guilty and executed in accordance with a legal doctrine known as “Command Responsibility,” which contended that, as the overall commander in the Philippines, he was responsible for all Japanese military actions there. It counted for nothing that his orders were contravened by the admiral, that the offending combatants were not actually under his command, and that Yamashita, from his mountain fastness, had no knowledge of what was happening in Manila.

The former war-crimes investigator for the U.S. Department of Justice, Allan Ryan, now a teacher on the laws of war and genocide at Harvard and Boston College, embodies the connecting thread for the Yamashita story and the Holocaust. He wrote Yamashita’s Ghost on the general’s case, and is a talking head in the PBS series. It’s Ryan who also revealed how the U.S. had recruited Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo’s “Butcher of Lyon,” as one of a number of Nazis to spy on Communist activities in Europe, and then spirited him away to Bolivia, where he lived most of his adult life as a businessman, until tracked down and brought to justice in France by Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld.

Ralph Seliger, a JC contributing writer, is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued, and currently co-administers The Third Narrative website.