Post Title: Benjamin Ferencz was the last surviving prosecutor from the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials. In 1947, he became the chief prosecutor in what was called “the biggest murder trial in history”. He spent his entire life fighting for justice for the victims of war crimes. He died this week
This write-up will be far longer than any other I have done, or will ever do.
I genuinely believe that this man is one of the greatest Americans in this entire country’s dark history. He is up there with John Brown.
So right here, right now, I will give you Ferencz’s entire life story.
Ferencz wasn’t a prosecutor at the International Military Tribunal, the trial which everyone knows about. Instead, he was a chief prosecutor at one of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials.
The Subsequent Nuremberg Trials were a series of major war crimes trials conducted after the International Military Tribunal. There were differences between the two.
The Nuremberg Trials which people know about were conducted by an international tribunal consisting of Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The Subsequent Nuremberg Trials were conducted exclusively by the United States.
There had been plans for more international trials, but worsening relations between the West and the East made that impossible. However, the major Allied powers agreed that they were still obligated to prosecute suspected war criminals in their respective occupation zones of Germany.
Now, some people know that many war criminals were treated leniently, ignored, or even outright protected for political or other reasons. That said, there were still hundreds of trials conducted against thousands of defendants.
The British conducted most of their minor war crimes trials in Hamburg, the French in Rastatt, the Americans on the grounds of the former Dachau concentration camp (they found that the prison bunker was convenient for housing suspects), and the Soviets in various parts of Eastern Germany.
Shortly after the international tribunal issued its verdicts, the U.S. high command established the Office of the Chief of Counsel for War Crimes (OCCWC), a war crimes investigation team. The OCCWC was instructed to prepare major war crimes trials in the American occupation zone.
The likes of Dachau Trials handled mostly concentration camp guards and soldiers who murdered POWs. Sometimes, more important war criminals were tried in those trials.
The OCCWC was different; their sole purpose was to pursue those more important war criminals. They were supposed to pursue of the more important people who’d managed to avoid prosecution in the likes of the Dachau Trials.
At the time, Ferencz was a nobody. The only thing special about him was his height.
Ferencz was only five feet and two inches tall.
Ferencz was a Hungarian-Jewish man. His parents emigrated to the U.S. when he was a child, to avoid anti-Semitic persecution after Romania gained control of Transylvania and Eastern Hungary. As an adult, he studied law at Harvard. Ferencz became interested in the realm of war crimes, and started writing a book about them.
After graduating in 1943, Ferencz joined the U.S. military to fight in the Second World War. He wanted to be a pilot, but the Army Air Corps refused to take him. They said he was too short. His legs couldn’t even reach the pedals.
So instead, Ferencz joined the Army. He started off as a typist at a camp in North Carolina. He would recall how he was unfamiliar with a typewriter and struggled to even fire a weapon. Nevertheless, by 1944, he was seeing combat.
Ferencz served in the 115th AAA Gun Battalion, an anti-aircraft artillery unit. He participated in numerous major battles, including D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. Towards the end of the war, he was assigned to an investigation team.
The Army thought Ferencz would be useful due to his background in law. They told him to help collect evidence for the Dachau Trials. As such, Ferencz visited numerous liberated concentration camps, such as Dachau and Buchenwald.
Ferencz said what he saw still haunts him:
“Indelibly seared into my memory are the scenes I witnessed while liberating these centers of death and destruction. Camps like Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and Dachau are vividly imprinted in my mind’s eye. Even today, when I close my eyes, I witness a deadly vision I can never forget-the crematoria aglow with the fire of burning flesh, the mounds of emaciated corpses stacked like cordwood waiting to be burned…. I had peered into Hell.”
At the end of 1945, Ferencz was discharged from the Army with the rank of Sergeant and returned to New York. He prepared to practice law. Within weeks, however, the military asked him to come back.
They’d just created the OCCWC, and thought Ferencz could remain useful for the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials. The military knew this job was not pleasant, and that Ferencz had fulfilled his obligations.
As such, they promised to promote Ferencz to the rank of Colonel if he returned.
Ferencz agreed to come back.
Ferencz’s pass to enter the Palace of Justice
The Subsequent Nuremberg Trials were, as the name suggests, held in Nuremberg, which happened to be in the U.S. occupation zone of Germany.
The director of the OCCWC was Brigadier General Telford Taylor. Unlike Ferencz, Taylor was actually involved in the International Military Tribunal, albeit his role was minor. He served as an assistant to the chief prosecutor representing the United States, Robert Jackson.
Taylor had plans for the OCCWC. They would conduct an inquiry into the Nazi regime with a series of trials. Each trial would focus on different categories of offenders and crimes. The trials were held in Nuremberg, which was in the American occupation zone.
At the time, Ferencz’s role, while becoming more important, was still relatively minor. Taylor made him the leader of a team of 50 researchers who were digging through German records for evidence which would implicate German doctors, lawyers, judges, generals, and industrialists.
Ferencz remained relatively insignificant until the trial of the Einsatzgruppen (here’s the article for the other relevant organization, the Einsatzkommandos. The Einsatzgruppen were SS paramilitary death squads of Nazi Germany which were responsible for mass murder, primarily by shooting, in German-occupied Europe, mainly in Eastern Europe.
In Poland, the Einsatzgruppen started off carrying out mass executions of intellectuals and the cultural elite. Almost all of the people they killed were civilians.
As the war progressed, the actions of the Einsatzgruppen escalated. Their tasks rapidly became increasingly genocidal in nature. They started targeting political commissars, actual or alleged partisans, Romas, and Jews throughout Eastern Europe.
From 1941 to 1945, the Einsatzgruppen and its closest collaborators murdered over 2 million people; 1.3 million Jews, up to 250,000 Romas, and around 500,000 so-called “partisans”, disabled people, political commissars, Slavs, LGBT people, and others. The vast majority of these murders were committed in the Soviet Union.
It is impossible to go through all of the crimes of the Einsatzgruppen. That would take too long. So instead, I will focus on only several of their crimes.
One such crime was the massacre of Soviet Jews, Romas, and other civilians in Kerch.
A Yad Vashem article on the massacre
On November 28, 1941, an order was issued to the effect that by November 29, the Ashkenazi Jews had to appear with the keys to their apartments at the collection point of Sennaya Square on the pretext that they were going to be resettled. They were allowed to take with them some possessions and food for three days. The Jews from mixed marriages were temporarily exempted from showing up. Nine Jewish dentists were also temporarily spared since the Germans needed them for their dental services. The Jews were warned that anyone who violated these orders would be shot to death in public. Those who showed up (mainly women, children, and the elderly) were taken in a column six rows wide to the city prison. Those who couldn’t keep up the pace due to illness or old age were beaten and thrown into carts. At the prison the Jews had to hand over the keys and the addresses of their apartments to the prison commander. Their valuables were confiscated. Many women and teenage girls were separated from the rest and put into separate cells, where they were brutally raped and tortured. The Jews were barely given any food and no water.
Between December 1 and December 3, an Einsatzgruppen unit executed approximately 7,000 civilians, including about 2,500 Ashkenazi Jews at an anti-tank trench near Bagerovo village. The civilians were taken to the murder site by truck. The victims were taken in groups of 10 to the trench, positioned there with their backs to the murder squad that was standing at the edge of the trench, and shot. The shooting lasted from early morning until evening.
The area was liberated by the Red Army in January 1942. The soldier came across the bodies. They recorded the incident.
“On December 30, 1941, after the expulsion of the Germans from Kerch by the Red Army, in the prison courtyard was discovered a shapeless pile of disfigured naked bodies of girls who had been viciously and cynically tortured by the fascists. The Hitlerites chose a anti-tank trench as the execution site near Bagerovo village, to which in the course of three days trucks conveyed whole families of the doomed people. After the arrival of the Red Army in Kerch in January 1942, during an examination of the Bagerov ditch it was discovered that the trench 1 kilometer long, 4 meters wide, and 2 meters deep was filled with the bodies of women, children, old people, and adolescents. Near the trench there were frozen puddles of blood. Stumps of legs and arms and other parts of the human body, children’s hats, toys, ribbons, torn off buttons, gloves, baby bottles, boots, and overshoes were lying around. All this was splattered with blood and brains. The vicious fascists shot the civilians to death with explosive bullets. The mangled body of a woman was lying at the edge of the trench. With her dying arms she had embraced her nursing baby, who was carefully wrapped in a white lace blanket. Next to this woman laid a girl of about 8 years old and a boy age 5, who had both been shot dead by explosive bullets. Their hands were grasping their mother’s dress….”
But the soldiers were not the only ones who came across the massacre. Surviving civilians were also present. Soviet photojournalist Dmitry Baltermants
took a photo of the aftermath, which he titled “Grief”.
A man finds his wife and children amongst the bodies
The name of the man in the last photo is Grigory Berman. That is all I know.
When you learn about WWII atrocities, it often doesn’t take much effort to find out who exactly was responsible. This is especially true for Europe, given the documentation of the Nazis.
When I say that, I mean that we actually know which specific unit was directly responsible for the deaths of all of those people, including Berman’s family.
The unit responsible for this massacre was Sonderkommando 10b. We also know which officer was commanding the unit when this happened. The commander of Sonderkommando 10b was Alois Persterer.
Sonderkommando 10b was a subunit of Einsatzgruppe D. The commander of Einsatzgruppe D was Otto Ohlendorf.
The Wehrmacht commander in charge of this region when the massacre occurred was Erich von Manstein. While historians do not know if Manstein had any direct role, his name is nevertheless important.
In the 1960s or 1970s, Erwin Schulz, the former commander of Einsatzkommando 5, a subunit of Einsatzkommando C, was interviewed. During this brief interview, he discussed how the Wehrmacht leadership was complicit in the Holocaust.
Strangely enough, Schulz actually recognized that what he did was wrong. Of all people, I would would not expect any level of self-reflection from a death squad commander.
Perhaps it had something to do with Schulz’s resignation. After being involved in hundreds of murders, He resigned after only one month on the job.
On August 10, 1941, he was summoned to a meeting by his superior, Einsatzgruppe C commander Otto Rasch. There, Schulz received new orders; he and his men would now kill all Jews, including women and children.
He resigned after his superiors told him that more Jews needed to be killed. They said he needed to start massacring women and children.
Until now, Schulz’s unit had been targeting adult men, many of whom were Jews, Romas, and other “undesirables”. Victims were almost always written off as “saboteurs”, “looters”, “officials”, and “political functionaries”.
Schulz asked if the order could be reconsidered. He asked who approved the order.
Schulz learned that the order had the direct approval of Hitler himself. Hitler wanted every single Jewish man, woman, and child needed to be exterminated.
Schulz asked to be relieved of his post.
Schulz was allowed to step down, immediately. An order discharging him was personally issued by Reinhard Heydrich. He spent the remainder of the war at an insignificant office job. He faced no consequences for his decision
In fact, Schulz even got promoted shortly after.
Schulz was not a good person, not remotely. He joined the Nazi Party in 1933, which meant he was a genuine believer in the ideology. He joined the SS in 1935.
More importantly, Schulz was a mass murderer. Just one day before he requested that transfer, Einsatzkommando 5 executed 400 Jewish men. Most of those victims were described as “saboteurs and political functionaries”.
Only when Schulz was told to escalate the genocide did he finally hesitate. Nevertheless, there was one thing even more telling than his reaction.
During the interview, Schulz recalled how his colleagues reacted to that order.
They went right back to work.
Within months, Einsatzkommando 5 was not only shooting thousands of men, but now thousands of women and children. One of the most famous photos of the Holocaust, an Einsatzkommando shooting a woman holding her children, was taken of Einsatzkommando 5 only months after Schulz resigned.
This is the only reason Schulz resigned. As horrible as he was, even he couldn’t stomach doing something that horrible. He couldn’t take it anymore.
And even then, Schulz was one of the very few people who did stop. The brief interview of him is featured in The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders.
When asked about his wartime experiences, Schulz got to the point:
“I never knew of any cases where members or heads of the Einsatzkommandos acted in the same way as I did. I believe that things in Russia would never have turned out as they did had a few heads of the Einsatzkommandos and Einsatzgruppen declared that they could not carry out these liquidations.”
“The way I see it, the same applies… to the Wehrmacht commanders in whose areas of command the liquidations were carried out of the avalanche could have still been checked if a field marshal or the commanding officer of any army group had intervened.”
In areas near the front, the Wehrmacht had control over the Einsatzgruppen.
Perhaps the clearest example of what Schulz said regarding the Wehrmacht was what happened in the Ukrainian town of Bila Tserkva. Nearly the entire town’s adult Jewish population was massacred. A few Jewish women and 90 small children and toddlers were sent to a church. The plan was to execute them later.
However, before this could happen, Wehrmacht Lieutenant Colonel Helmuth Groscurth ordered the Einsatzkommando men to not kill the children. Several Wehrmacht priests had seen the state of the children. They were just sitting there, and crying. They were crying since their parents had been murdered.
The priests pleaded with the troops to stand down. When the local SS commander refused, the priests sought other officers for help.
They convinced Groscurth that this had to stop. It was the first and only time that Wehrmacht priests actively tried to halt atrocities they were witnessing.
These same priests had witnessed the mass murder of the adults, in which some of the Wehrmacht troops had actively participated, and done nothing. Only when it came to small children did they try to do something.
Since the Wehrmacht had control in areas near the front, Groscurth, unlike Schulz, had the power to stop this massacre. When he told the SS to stand down, they were forced to stand down.
Then the Wehrmacht commander in control of this area, Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau (Reichenau was killed during the war), intervened.
Reichenau intervened so he could override Groscurth’s order. All of the children were then ordered to be shot by Sonderkommando 4a commander Paul Blobel.
After even one of the senior SS men, August Häfner, protested, saying he and his men couldn’t do this, the deed was done by Ukrainian collaborators.
During his own trial in the 1960s, Häfner described what happened:
“The children were taken down from the vehicle. They were lined up along the top of the grave and shot so that they fell into it. They were shot where they were shot. They fell into the grave. The wailing was indescribable.”
“I shall never forget the scene as long as I live.”
Blobel was so adamant for the children to be killed that when Häfner protested, he said anyone who protested should have to carry out the order themselves.
So why did Groscurth’s actions matter? They mattered since unlike Groscurth, Erich von Manstein was no mere Lieutenant Colonel. He was a Field Marshal.
So what happened to Persterer, Manstein, and Ohlendorf after the war?
Persterer, 35, was fatally shot in Austria on May 30, 1945. The circumstances of his death are unclear. He was shot during a robbery or while resisting arrest when American soldiers tried to take him into custody. I do not know.
Regardless, Persterer was dead.
On the other hand, Manstein and Ohlendorf both outlived Persterer by years.
In August 1945, Mainstein was arrested by the British Army. While there, he helped prepare a 132-page document for the defense of the General Staff and the OKW, whose surviving top leaders were being tried in front of the international tribunal Nuremberg in 1946.
The myth that the Wehrmacht was “clean” – not culpable for the events of the Holocaust – arose partly as a result of this document, written largely by Manstein.
Manstein also gave oral testimony about the Einsatzgruppen, the treatment of POWs, and the concept of military obedience, especially as related to the Commissar Order, an order issued by Hitler in 1941, requiring all Soviet political commissars to be shot without trial.
Manstein admitted that he received the order, but said he did not carry it out. He denied any knowledge of the activities of the Einsatzgruppen.
These were all blatant lies. While we do not know if Manstein directly ordered or authorized massacres, we know that he knew exactly what was happening.
And we know he couldn’t have cared less:
That Manstein was well aware of the Einsatzgruppen massacres is demonstrated by a 1941 letter he sent to Otto Ohlendorf, in which Manstein demands Ohlendorf hand over the wristwatches of murdered Jews. Manstein felt his men deserved the watches, since they were doing so much to help Ohlendorf’s men with their work.
Two historians note that this letter was the only time Manstein ever complained about the activities of the Einsatzgruppen. Ohlendorf and his men executed tens of thousands of civilians in areas which Manstein controlled.
Manstein wasn’t a defendant in front of the international tribunal. As important as he was, he was not important enough to have a spot on the dock. Instead, he was sent back to an internment camp to await the decision on his fate.
During this time, British author B. H. Liddell Hart was in correspondence with Manstein and others at Island Farm and visited inmates of several camps around Britain. Hart was an admirer of the German generals; he described Manstein as an operational genius.
Admittedly, Manstein was one of the few Wehrmacht commanders, who, war crimes aside, actually was a competent military strategist. However, his military competence does not erase his crimes.
In 1947, Telford Taylor sent a report to the British.
The report which presented overwhelming evidence that Manstein and three other high-ranking German officers, Walther von Brauchitsch, Gerd von Rundstedt, and Adolf Strauss, had been complicit in atrocities on the Eastern Front.
Taylor’s report included excerpts from the verdict of the international tribunal:
“They have been responsible in large measure for the miseries and suffering that have fallen on millions of men, women and children. They have been a disgrace to the honorable profession of arms. Without their military guidance, the aggressive intentions of Hitler and his fellow Nazis would have been academic and sterile.”
Unfortunately, an extremely concerning number of British people were sympathetic to Nazis. France and the United States were also guilty of this. However, I think Britain was honestly the worst offender.
But I am not referring to ordinary British people when I say this.
I am referring to their government and the upper-class establishment.
The average 1940s American/British/French person, while not exactly bastions of morality, had more than enough human decency to be enraged when they saw the camps with their own eyes.
Because when Western Allied soldiers arrived at the camps, they grabbed the nearest German civilians they could find, dragged them to the camps, and screamed at them about how they could have let this happen. Then they forced them to help bury the bodies.
As for the actual guards, there were numerous instances of soldiers turning a blind eye when freed prisoners beat and even lynched them. In Dachau, several U.S. soldiers notoriously got so angry that they personally started machine-gunning SS guards.
Had you told those people about even half of the things Manstein had done and not done, they wouldn’t have praised his military prowess. They would’ve shot him. However, they were not the ones in charge.
A British official concluded that the evidence presented against Manstein and the other officers in the report was overwhelming. However, the British government was extremely reluctant to put these generals on trial.
Many British officials were outright opposed to trying the generals.
So far, the British government was alone in having not put a single German senior doctor, scientist, jurist, or bureaucrat on trial, despite many of them being in British custody.
Initially, the British had told the OCCWC that in addition to those low-level minor war crimes trials, they would do something “roughly parallel” to the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials.
That never happened.
That’s not to say that the British never prosecuted any high-profile war criminals.
For example, the British prosecuted German businessmen Bruno Tesch and Karl Weinbacher, who had sold massive quantities of Zyklon B to the SS during the war, knowing how the gas was being the used.
Initially, the British High Command almost let them go. However, two British officers, one of whom was a chemist, were adamant that the investigation continue. Eventually, high command relented.
The trial, which was almost completely ignored at the time, would result in Tesch, as well as his deputy executive, Karl Weinbacher, becoming the only German civilian businessmen to be executed in Western Europe for their roles in the Holocaust.
And to think all that took was the wrath of several angry British people.
This time, however, things went differently. There were no angry British people who actually cared. Instead, there were only people like Liddell Hart.
The British Foreign Office had no plans to prosecute the officers. Instead, they decided to give them to the Americans. After all, they did that with several other high-profile war criminals. They even did that with Oswald Pohl, the director of the entire Nazi concentration camp system.
Placing Pohl’s position into perspective, historian Heinz Höhne wrote:
“Four potent departments placed Pohl’s hand firmly on the levers of power in the SS empire: he was in charge of the entire administration and supply of the Waffen-SS; he controlled the 20 concentration camps and 165 labor camps; he directed all SS and Police building projects; he was in charge of all SS economic enterprises.”
Pohl had answered only to Himmler himself.
Even Patrick Dean, a representative of the British war crimes staff who was one of the few British officials to actively support additional trials, and actually berated the military for being too lenient, and berated other politicians for not showing enough interest, had no issue with dumping his responsibilities.
“There seems no reason to go to the considerable trouble and expense of setting up a special parallel organization to try a few industrialists if the Americans are prepared to do the work for us. The proposal has the further advantage that if any of the trials go wrong and the industrialists escape the primary political criticism will rest upon American shoulders and not upon ours.”
However, when the British tried to transfer Manstein and the other officers, they got an unusual response.
The Americans were planning their own mass trial for German officers. However, the military governor for the U.S. occupation zone of West Germany, Lucius Clay, did not want Manstein included in the indictment.
Not that Clay didn’t think Manstein was guilty, but he wanted the British to contribute to his prosecution.
This innocent request led to perhaps one of the saddest and most pathetic sequence of events from the British government in the country’s history.
Because the British government didn’t just say yes. Instead, they doubled-down and did everything they could do not prosecute the generals.
Taylor was willing to conduct a joint trial with the British. However, the British military governor, Baron Sholto Douglas, rejected that offer.
Ignoring the overwhelming evidence, Douglas called the case against the generals weak and said he would rather do nothing than possibly “commit an injustice.” He planned to quietly release the generals once other people stopped paying attention.
However, in 1948, the Soviets and Poles requested their extradition, accusing them of their complicity in war crimes. The British government refused. However, they realized that they were running out of options.
They did not want to cooperate with Telford Taylor.
They did not want to extradite the generals, but if they released them, there could be international outrage once Taylor’s report eventually became public.
Only when every other option was exhausted was the British government, to save themselves from public humiliation, forced to file charges against each of the four generals.
Brauchitsch died in prison in 1948. The charges against Rundstedt (he died in 1953) and Strauss (he died in 1973) were dropped on health grounds. As such, Manstein stood trial alone.
Most Britons didn’t advocate for Manstein. Public opinions on the trials were mostly positive. The majority of ordinary Britons believed that war criminals deserve to face just punishment.
The only people actually opposed to this trial were those same people I discussed above. Manstein’s lawyer was not German, but British. He was represented by Reginald Paget, a British Labor politician who volunteered to represent him pro-bono.
During the trial, Manstein’s advocates finally took the mask off. Paget showed his true his defense consisted mostly of anti-Slavic racism. He called the Soviets “savages”.
Paget said Manstein had shown restraint as a “decent German soldier” in upholding the laws of war when he fought the Soviets. Manstein’s victims, he said, had displayed “appalling savagery”.
Funds totaling £2,000 were raised by Manstein’s sympathizers. One donor was Winston Churchill, a particularly ardent opponent of the trial. Manstein was not the first war criminal who Churchill had stood up for.
Churchill also stood up for Albert Kesselring, who ordered reprisals against Italian civilians. His actions resulted in the murder of over 1000 Italian men, women, and children.
When a British military court condemned Kesselring to death by firing squad for his crimes, Churchill and others like him were outraged.
They were outraged that Kesselring was being held accountable:
- Field Marshal Harold Alexander
- “As his old opponent on the battlefield, I have no complaints against him. Kesselring and his soldiers fought against us hard but clean.”
- Alexander said he doubted that such a “fine and able general” was capable of such crimes, which he blamed on the SS. While he later admitted to not knowing the details, he nevertheless described Kesselring as a commander who “showed great skill in extricating himself from the desperate situations into which his faulty intelligence had led him” in his memoirs.
- Cuthbert Headlam, an MP
- “I suppose it is a just sentence but somehow as others it rather revolts me. It is time, I think, to end all of these trials of war criminals. I feel that enough has been done to show the Germans how naughty they have been, more especially as the crimes they committed are no worse than those committed by the Russians.”
- General Oliver Leese
- “He was a gallant soldier who fought well and squarely. If things had gone the other way, the man sentenced to death might have been me.”
They threw such a tantrum over the prospect of Kesselring being shot that the military relented and commuted his sentence to life in prison.
Since Kesselring’s sentence was commuted, the sentences of his two subordinates, Kurt Mälzer and Eberhard von Mackensen, condemned for their roles in the Ardeatine massacre, were commuted as well.
Some of you will be shocked by what I will say next. Some of you will not be shocked. As soon as World War II ended, Churchill ordered the immediate creation of a plan to invade the Soviet Union.
Not only that, he wanted to liberate Nazis from POW camps to help carry out the invasion. The plan was only scrapped due to the extremely low odds of success, which became nil after President Truman said he was not interested.
In December 1949, Manstein was acquitted of directly participating in the Holocaust. However, he did not walk free. The prosecution said it was Manstein’s legal and moral duty to stop genocidal operations.
He clearly failed those duties.
On lesser charges, Manstein was found guilty on nine counts and sentenced to 18 years in prison. That was long enough to keep Manstein, who was in his early 60s, in prison for most, if not the rest of his life.
Most British media outlets reacted positively to the outcome. The British Pathé reported that yet another one of Hitler’s “war lords” had been found guilty. However, British politicians were outraged.
They were shocked that British judges refused to accept racism or even the Clean Wehrmacht myth as valid defenses for Manstein.
After reviewing the case, British officers recommended confirming Manstein’s sentence. High command commuted it to 12 years anyway.
As soon as Churchill managed to retake his spot as Prime Minister, he made the release of war criminals such as Manstein his top priority.
After only 8 years in custody, and four years after his conviction, Manstein was released from prison on May 7, 1953. His release came as a result of pressure by Churchill, Liddell Hart, Paget, and others, including many in the West German government.
In 1951, Paget published a best-selling book about Manstein’s career and trial. The book portrayed him as an honorable soldier fighting heroically against overwhelming odds on the Eastern Front.
Kesselring and Mackensen were both released in 1952. After Mälzer died in prison, Churchill and the British establishment released war criminals even faster to ensure that Kesselring and Manstein did not.
After Manstein was released, he was quickly recruited as a military advisor for the West German government and the newfound NATO. Nobody cared about his crimes anymore. They only cared about his military prowess.
Manstein died in 1973.
In the last days of the war, Otto Ohlendorf and many other major Holocaust perpetrators participated in Heinrich Himmler’s escape from Flensburg using Ratline North.
However, unlike with other ratlines, most of these fugitives, including Himmler and Ohlendorf, were caught. They were arrested by the British in Lüneburg. Himmler killed himself in custody.
Ohlendorf testified at the international tribunal. His testimony revealed that he had no remorse and genuinely believed he did nothing wrong.
- “Some of the unit leaders did not carry out the liquidation in the military manner, but killed the victims singly by shooting them in the back of the neck.”
- “And you objected to that procedure?”
- “I was against that procedure, yes.”
- “For what reason?”
- “Because both for the victims and for those who carried out the executions, it was, psychologically, an immense burden to bear.”
Ohlendorf confessed to everything. Asked why Jewish children were killed, he said he was ordered to exterminate the entire Jewish population. Afterwards, Hermann Göring made an angry remark.
“What does this pig expect to gain from this? He’s going to hang anyway.”
As it turns out, nothing was guaranteed for the countless Nazis who’d avoided an indictment in the international trial.
During this time, American investigators requested Ohlendorf’s transfer. The British government immediately handed him over, saying they only planned to use him as a witness. In U.S. custody, Ohlendorf said the same thing.
Many investigators started asking if they should put Ohlendorf on trial. However, they then stalled. As the military occupation of Germany came closer to ending, Ohlendorf’s future became increasingly uncertain.
But then one man changed everything.
That one man was Benjamin Ferencz.
In the spring of 1947, Ferencz and his 50-man team were told to search through Berlin archives for evidence. During their search, one of the men, Fred Burin, came across some reports.
The reports described the daily activities of the Einsatzgruppen. The reports were from Ohlendorf and other Einsatzgruppen commanders. They covered a period of two years in the Soviet Union.
The reports revealed the murders of hundreds of thousands of people in the Soviet Union. They listed the number of Jews, Communists, Romas, and other victims killed by the Einsatzgruppen.
Ferencz started tallying up the death toll. After reaching one million, he took some of the reports and flew to Nuremberg. There, he immediately went to Taylor and showed him what he’d found.
Ferencz demanded another trial.
Taylor was a staunch advocate of the prosecutions. However, there were problems. Interest in further trials was rapidly declining. Taylor told high command that the OCCWC needed millions of dollars in funding.
For 1947, he said he needed over $3.2 million, but was told he could only receive $1 million. After pleading for more funding, Taylor thankfully found sympathy from Governor Clay.
Clay allocated Telford Taylor $3.5 million for the rest of 1947. He secured him another $1 million immediately.
Taylor asked for another $2 million for 1948. That money never came. Taylor’s initial plan was 36 mass trials with at least 266 defendants. Due to limited resources, most of those cases were abandoned.
Taylor was now on his own.
I’m not sure what France was doing. They held their own major war crimes trials, but nothing like the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials. I’d assume they were dealing with collaborators, albeit many French police officers involved in the Holocaust avoided prosecution.
In his memoirs, Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of West Germany, described the United States as having been slightly more “vindictive” than Britain and France when it came to denazification.
The likes of Paget and Churchill had to be dragged kicking and screaming into holding Nazis accountable, whereas U.S. was allowing their investigators to whatever they wanted.
But the U.S. gave those investigators minimal support. In the end, the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials said far less good things about the United States, and far more bad things about people like Paget.
Taylor had nothing to apologize for. This wasn’t his fault. People like him were trying as hard as they could do the right thing.
This is why Taylor was forced to say no:
“We don’t have staff. We don’t have budget. Our program is already planned. I don’t see how we can now put on a new trial.”
Except Ferencz refused to accept it. Even when Taylor was forced to say no, he rejected that answer.
Ferencz refused to accept it since he was that kind of person. He was even more determined than Taylor. He stood up for hurt people when were no other advocates.
Ferencz detailed the implications of the reports. Taylor was sympathetic, but said his hands were tied. The prospects of receiving additional support were bleak.
Ferencz persisted. He said the evidence was straightforward. A trial of leading Einsatzgruppen officers could be completely quickly. They could do this. Ferencz said there was no choice.
He told Taylor that doing nothing would be unforgivable.
Had Ferencz stood down, we have no idea what would’ve happened to Ohlendorf. At the time, the only other countries prosecuting Einsatzgruppen personnel were Poland and the Soviet Union.
Due to the collapse of Western-Eastern relations, extraditing the suspects to the Soviet Union was no longer possible. Ohlendorf wasn’t responsible for any massacres in Poland, so sending him there wasn’t an option, either.
Giving Ohlendorf to Germany was risky. Germany has changed for the better, but it was very different back then.
Many people complain about how Germany came to terms with its past, but not Japan. What they don’t know is how long it took.
At the time, West German people were reacting increasingly negatively to the prospect of denazification.
Back then, yes, West Germany still might’ve thrown Ohlendorf in prison for the rest of his life, which is the least he deserved.
However, what was far more likely was Ohlendorf receiving a slap on the wrist. Maybe he’d get acquitted, despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt. In the worst case scenario, he might even get elected mayor. Nothing was guaranteed.
In desperation, Ferencz made one last proposition. If there was no one else left, if there was no other money or resources left, he said one person could still do the job.
Ferencz said that one person was him.
Taylor started to waver. He asked Ferencz if he could handle such a monumental task, in addition to all of his other responsibilities.
Ferencz recounted what happened next:
I said, “Of course.”
He said, “You got it.”
Taylor added one last trial to the docket.
Ferencz contacted U.S. intelligence officials and asked for the names of all Einsatzgruppen men. There had been 3000 German Einsatzgruppen men. Since they operated from behind the front lines, many of them had survived the war.
Einsatzgruppen units did suffer many deaths. However, those deaths were mostly from unusually high suicide rates and alcoholism.
Ferencz was limited to 24 defendants:
“No Nuremberg tribunal could try more than 24 defendants in the same trial. The reason was that there were only 24 seats in the dock. Historians may not believe it, but it’s true.”
“Sure, it’s ridiculous. But that’s the reality. That’s what it was. We never intended to try all those who were guilty of mass crimes. We only intended, at best, to have a meager sampling of the different categories of people who made all of this possible.”
The OCCWC had realized that they were essentially dealing with an entire country of war criminals. A total purge was impossible, especially with limited resources.
Taylor’s backup plan was to educate Germany with the trials. That would allow for a smooth transition, one hopefully allowing Germany to take the torch and conduct their own major trials.
After examining the list, Ferencz selected 24 well-educated mid-to-high-ranking officers. They were indicted on three counts.
- Crimes against humanity
- War crimes
- Membership in a criminal organization
Otto Ohlendorf was one of those men.
Paul Blobel was one of those men.
Erwin Schulz was one of those men.
Otto Rasch was one of those men.
Mugshots of all four men taken in U.S. custody
Rasch was removed from the dock after he was found to be dying from Parkinson’s. He died in U.S. custody on November 1, 1948. Another officer hanged himself only two days after the indictment.
Ohlendorf, Schulz, and two others receiving their indictments
A photo showing some of the defendants in the dock
The trial started on September 29, 1947. Ferencz came with everything he needed. The reports spoke for themselves.
Ohlendorf was implicated in the executions of over 90,000 men, women, and children.
Blobel was implicated in the executions of over 60,000 men, women, and children.
Ferencz didn’t know at the time, but Blobel was the director of Sonderaktion 1005, an attempt by the Nazis to hide what they did in Eastern Europe. They forced their victims to help them dispose of hundreds of thousands of bodies.
Survivors of Sonderaktion 1005 standing next to a machine used to crush the bones of dead victims, for easier disposal
Blobel’s unit was also one of the main perpetrators of the Babi Yar massacre, in which over 33,700 Soviet Jews were murdered in two days. Babi Yar was one of the Holocaust’s worst individual massacres.
Photos of some of the people who died in Babi Yar, and their names
Erwin Schulz was implicated in the executions of hundreds of adult men.
Faced with the reports, each defendant was asked to explain themselves. What most of them said in response was as vile, if not even more vile, than what Manstein’s defenders said.
Blobel said that every person who died under his orders was legally executed in accordance with international law. In other words, he said that they had it coming.
At one point, Ohlendorf said his actions were preemptive self-defense. He said the thousands of children who died as a result of his orders would’ve grown up to become enemies of Germany.
Ohlendorf on the witness stand:
When Ohlendorf was asked to verify that his unit had murdered 90,000 Jews, the SS General began to quibble. He said he couldn’t confirm it. The reason given was that sometimes his men exaggerated the body count. “Would the General care to venture an estimate?” “No.” “Was it perhaps 80,000 or only 70,000?” “That was possible.” “Or perhaps 100,000?” “Maybe.” “And were there many Jewish children among those who were killed?” “Yes, of course.” But, added Ohlendorf, he never allowed his men to do as some other units did. He told his men never to use infants for target practice nor smash their heads against a tree. He ordered his men to allow the mother to hold her infant to her breast and to aim for her heart. That would avoid screaming and would allow the shooter to kill both mother and child with one bullet. It saved ammunition.
The presiding judge, Michael Musmanno, seemed morbidly fascinated. He elicited the confirmation that captured Jews were shot simply for being Jews.
Schulz said he was told the men he had shot were all criminals. He also talked about his resignation.
Ferencz’s persistence made the United States the only Western country to prosecute Einsatzgruppen personnel during the post-war period. The verdicts were delivered in April 1948.
The Associated Press had called it “The biggest murder trial in history.” And every single defendant was found guilty.
The full verdict of the Einsatzgruppen Trial (this form summarizes every argument, the verdicts, and the sentences)
Ohlendorf, Blobel, and Schulz were found guilty on all counts. The court read out a lengthy judgement rejecting each of the defenses offered by the defendants.
Ferencz did not expect harsh sentences.
He thought Judge Musmanno was not taking the case seriously. Musmanno often joked around and allowed the defendants to present whatever “evidence” they wanted, including blatant falsehoods.
Furthermore, Musmanno, a devout Catholic, staunchly opposed capital punishment. Struggling with the idea of condemning someone to death, he spent nearly a week at a monastery to consult with a priest.
Years later, Ferencz said he didn’t oppose capital punishment, albeit he understood why it was no longer widely used. He said he always thought his defendants deserved to die.
Ferencz did not request death sentences. It’s not that they didn’t deserve it, but it felt like an empty gesture.
“We’ve got 24 defendants and a million people murdered. You cannot balance the scales of justice with these, no matter if you chopped them up into a million pieces and fed them to the dogs. We owed it to the millions of victims to try to give their deaths some greater significance. Perhaps by revealing the depths of their suffering, and demonstrating that law would not condone such atrocities, the cry ‘Never Again’ might become a reality.”
So instead, this was Ferencz’s opening statement:
“This was the tragic fulfillment of a program of intolerance and arrogance. Vengeance is not our goal, nor do we seek merely a just retribution. We ask this court to affirm by international penal action man’s right to live in peace and dignity regardless of his race or creed. The case we present is a plea of humanity to law.”
Taylor assisted Ferencz with the trial. Ferencz’s efforts had renewed his hopes. Taylor urged Musmanno to be stern.
The sentences were imposed on April 10, 1948. They were delivered in a courtroom nearly devoid of spectators. Only the defendants and all other necessary officials were present.
Ferencz said there were two reasons for that:
- Most West Germans were busy with the daily troubles of the occupation
- Many were starting to view the trials as victors’ justice
After it was over, Ferencz left the courtroom in shock. He was shocked by Musmanno’s final decision. Only the sentences imposed weren’t more lenient than what he’d anticipated.
They were harsher:
“Judge Musmanno spoke, ‘Defendant Otto Ohlendorf, on the counts of the indictment on which you have been convicted, the Tribunal sentences you to death by hanging.’ The condemned man stood erect, took off his earphones, and without any expression, nodded and stepped back into the small lift that then slowly descended, as if into Hell.”
“The next prisoner was brought in.”
Ferencz expected this outcome for Ohlendorf.
What he didn’t expect was Musmanno not stopping:
“Each time he said ‘Death by hanging’ it was like a hammer blow that shocked my brain.”
Musmanno had realized that this case was too important for his personal feelings to get in the way. But even then, he didn’t condemn every defendant to death.
Musmanno decided not to impose death sentences when he thought mitigation was present. However, he was thinking about something very different than orders.
Schulz never personally shot anyone.
Musmanno recalled what Schulz said:
“When he conducted these executions, he was so tenderhearted, that after he would give the command to shoot, that he would turn his head so he wouldn’t see the victims fall.”
And he said none of that mattered. Ohlendorf never personally shot anyone, either. He only sometimes supervised the executions. What mattered is that they gave the orders.
They were just as guilty as the triggermen.
Musmanno also considered Schulz’s resignation. That he’d protested the killing of women and children, then resigned when he couldn’t stop what was happening.
The circumstances of one of the defendants, Matthias Graf, destroyed the argument of superior orders entirely. Before the war started, Graf tried to leave Germany.
During the war, the SS conscripted Graf , then transferred him to the Einsatzgruppen. He was then was offered a chance to direct executions.
Graf refused. He was briefly detained, but then released without any charges. In October 1942, he was allowed to return to Germany.
Musmanno asked the defendants to give examples of Einsatzgruppen men being executed for rejecting their orders.
When they couldn’t give even one, Musmanno told them this:
“A soldier is a reasoning agent. He does not respond, and is not expected to respond like a piece of machinery. It is a fallacy of wide-spread consumption that a soldier is required to do everything his superior officer orders him to do.”
Ferencz’s case lasted only two days. All he had to do was show Musmanno the reports. It was the defense’s case which lasted months. Their case consisted almost entirely of the defendants pleading for mercy.
Musmanno showed mercy.
Rather than being executed, he decided that Schulz and those who’d acted similarly should instead spend decades, if not the rest of their lives in prison.
There were two defendants other than Graf who never killed anyone, nor had the power to stop it from happening. One of them was Felix Rühl. He was just a quartermaster.
Felix Rühl and Matthias Graf were the only defendants to be acquitted of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Instead, they were only found guilty for their SS membership; the SS had been deemed an inherently criminal organization.
Musmanno still saw the difference between Matthias Graf and Felix Rühl. Graf chose to get out. Rühl chose to continue associating with the Einsatzgruppen.
Graf was sentenced to time served and left the courtroom a free man. Rühl was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Musmanno hadn’t held back in the verdict, either. He said what needed to be said.
“The facts are so beyond the experience of normal man and the range of man-made phenomena that only the most complete judicial inquiry, and the most exhaustive trial, could verify and confirm them. Although the principal accusation is murder, … the charge of purposeful homicide in this case reaches such fantastic proportions and surpasses such credible limits that believability must be bolstered with assurance a hundred times repeated.”
“… A crime of such unprecedented brutality and of such inconceivable savagery that the mind rebels against its own thought image and the imagination staggers in the contemplation of a human degradation beyond the power of language to adequately portray.”
“The number of deaths resulting from the activities with which these defendants have been connected and which the prosecution has set at one million is but an abstract number. One cannot grasp the full cumulative terror of murder one million times repeated.”
“It is only when this grotesque total is broken down into units capable of mental assimilation that one can understand the monstrousness of the things we are in this trial contemplating. One must visualize not one million people but only ten persons – men, women, and children, perhaps all of one family – falling before the executioner’s guns.”
“If one million is divided by ten, this scene must happen one hundred thousand times, and as one visualizes the repetitious horror, one begins to understand the meaning of the prosecution’s words.”
“‘It is with sorrow and with hope that we here disclose the deliberate slaughter of more than a million innocent and defenseless men, women, and children.'”
After all this time, someone finally listened.
Musmanno understood why this happened. This wasn’t just Hitler’s fault. It was the fault of everyone who helped him or never stood in his way. Some were more guilty than others.
As one author put it, even a mass murderer like Erwin Schulz was not the true face of the Einsatzgruppen. The true faces of the Einsatzgruppen were men like Otto Ohlendorf and Paul Blobel.
Had they been like Schulz, other people wouldn’t have needed to march all the way to Berlin to stop them.
Had they been like Graf, who was kicked out of the SS due to his “lack of attendance and general indifference to the goals of the organization,” the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened.
Musmanno had shown undeserved mercy to those who’d actually done something to say they deserved mercy.
But for the others, he knew what had to be done.
This time, he showed absolutely no mercy.
Blobel and Ohlendorf being sentenced to death
When one of Ohlendorf’s subordinates said he was following orders, Musmanno asked him if he would’ve shot his own parents if someone told him to kill them.
After two days of silence, the man admitted the truth. The truth was he couldn’t have carried out such an order.
Musmanno condemned that man to death.
He imposed 14 death sentences, two life sentences, three 20-year sentences, and two 10-year sentences. He imposed more death sentences than even the international tribunal.
Despite growing pressure for an amnesty, Clay quickly confirmed all of these sentences. He confirmed all but one or two of the sentences from the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials.
The appeals were expected to buy the defendants time, but only several months. However, Ohlendorf’s lawyers were the best of the best.
They kept finding ways to buy more time. Unlike other notorious war criminals, such as Karl Brandt, Ohlendorf would live to see the Cold War.
Some people already know where this is going.
Back home, certain people were causing trouble. Rising Senator Joseph McCarthy, who went on to direct the Red Scare, was falsely accusing U.S. investigators of torturing suspected Nazi war criminals.
Except McCarthy wasn’t just defending Nazi war criminals. He was defending LSSAH soldiers who were responsible for the Malmedy massacre, in which hundreds of American POWs and Belgian civilians had been murdered.
The massacre caused widespread public outrage in the United States. As terrible as it was, Malmedy was not the only atrocity committed by the LSSAH. They did those things regularly on the Eastern Front.
Occasionally they did them on the Western Front:
The LSSAH battalion of one of the officers chiefly responsible for Malmedy, Joachim Peiper, had been nicknamed the “Blowtorch Battalion” for what they’d done in Eastern Europe. They earned that nickname from this.
Ukrainian sources, including surviving witness Ivan Kiselev, who was 14 at the time of the massacre, described the killings at the villages of Yefremovka and Semyonovka on 17 February 1943. On 12 February troops of the LSSAH occupied the two villages, where retreating Soviet forces had wounded two SS officers. In retaliation, five days later, LSSAH troops killed 872 men, women and children. Some 240 of these were burned alive in the church of Yefremovka.
Malmedy was different. The murderers finally realized that they made a mistake.
Except they realized it the hard way.
Some realized it when many U.S. soldiers abruptly refused to give them quarter when they were the ones trying to surrender. Instead, they just got shot.
For others, the realization came at the Dachau Trials, which had no limits on the number of defendants. The likes of the Dachau Trials were the ones in which there were mass trials of concentration camp personnel.
The Malmedy massacre trial was the largest mass trial of the Dachau Trials..
Except this one wasn’t focusing only on the camps.
This one wasn’t focusing only the officers.
A witness to the massacre identifying one of the shooters
All 73 perpetrators of the Malmedy massacre who could be identified, including Joachim Peiper, were tried jointly.
Throughout the war, the LSSAH had committed atrocity after atrocity. Most of the murderers would get away with those atrocities.
But these murderers got caught red-handed:
- All 73 of them were found guilty
- 43 of them, including Peiper, were sentenced to death
- 22 more received life sentences
- The other 8 received prison terms ranging from 10 to 20 years
On appeal, several of the death sentences were reduced to life sentences or long prison terms. Several convictions were overturned due to insufficient evidence.
But that was it. Until McCarthy came, that is.
For some reason, he was still willing to defend them, even lie about how investigators tortured them into confessing. At the time, those lies were very popular in Germany.
Some American politicians, like McCarthy, openly sympathized with Nazis. However, most of these sympathizers had distanced themselves from the Malmedy case.
But they did not distance themselves merely because the victims were now their own countrymen. They were afraid of losing votes. McCarthy’s actions were extremely unpopular. He had virtually nothing to gain in doing this.
And yet, some his reasons for doing it anyway were obvious:
The view that McCarthy’s reaction to the Malmedy prosecution was partly rooted in anti-Semitism was reinforced the following year, when he led a smear campaign against Anna Rosenberg, a Hungarian-born Jew and WWII heroine who was tapped by Defense Secretary George Marshall to raise troops for the Korean War. McCarthy’s allies included the Holocaust-denying KKK member Wesley Swift, who said the nominee was not merely a “Jewess” but “an alien from Budapest with Socialistic ideas.”
Why single out Jewish investigators who, McCarthy claimed during the hearings, “intensely hate the German people as a race” and had formed what amounted to a “vengeance team?”
Nevertheless, he and his accomplices kept going. They did irreparable damage to the reputation of the Dachau Trials.
Looking at his record, the U.S. military governor, Lucius Clay, made many terrible mistakes. I am not going to praise Clay. What I will do is give him a small amount of credit.
Out of all of the officials in this story with actual power, Clay might’ve been the only one with some level of genuine commitment. He was the only one to sympathize with Telford Taylor and give him the funding he wanted, and more.
Instead of throwing a tantrum over the trials, Clay personally observed some of them.
As the occupation neared its end, Clay was the last person to call out out Germany’s lack of cooperation. West German courts were reinstating nearly all of the Nazi officials who had been booted from their positions. After Clay told the courts in the U.S. zone to do better, the they did, but only temporarily.
Clay predicted that it would take an entire generation to truly denazify Germany. The Western Allies had to get tougher and stay longer.
Clay’s superiors didn’t listen. None of them did. The United States, Britain, and France were already preparing to leave. The Cold War was more important to them.
Towards the end, Clay admitted his hopes for denazification were failing in the U.S. occupation zone. They were failing everywhere. And while Clay had power, he did not have enough power to prevent the failure of denazification.
McCarthy’s lobbying managed to secure a mass stay for all of the Nazi war criminals on death row in the U.S. occupation zone. The Einsatzgruppen defendants were still appealing.
However, the Einsatzgruppen men and Peiper’s men were not the only men on death row. Eventually, the government removed the stay of execution on almost everyone but the Malmedy defendants.
They were out of protection.
Some of those now unprotected war criminals were nobodies. Some of them weren’t.
One of them, Fritz Dietrich), was condemned for ordering the murders of 8 American POWs. But unlike with Peiper, U.S. officials had no clue about what Dietrich had done in Eastern Europe.
As it turns out, Fritz Dietrich had been directly responsible for having 5000 Jewish men, women, and children massacred in Latvia. Most Nazis did not have that much blood on their hands.
However, Dietrich was an example of the worst case scenario. It turns out, the U.S. might’ve allowed him to walk free one day.
Except Clay used the power he did have to ensure that Dietrich would never walk free. Dietrich never actually got to benefit from the growing indifference of the Western Allies.
Nobody remembers Fritz Dietrich, because of what Clay did next. He carried out the death sentences of as many condemned Nazi war criminals as he could during his last few months on duty.
The German clergy were horrified. They wanted mass amnesty for Nazi war criminals, not mass executions. They accused Clay of setting back American-German relations back by decades.
Clay ignored them and kept going. He maintained that the condemned were each convicted of “cold-blooded murder” in which no mitigating circumstances were present.
Between October 1948 and March 1949, Clay had over 100 Nazi war criminals hanged. He would make the United States, not France, the country which executed the most Nazi war criminals (excluding collaborators) in Western Europe.
One of those men was Fritz Dietrich, who was hanged on October 22, 1948. According to The Mark of Cain: Guilt and Denial in the Post-War Lives of Nazi Perpetrators, barely any of the condemned expressed remorse in their final statements.
Instead, most of them, including Dietrich, rambled about how they were dying for their country. They were buried in unmarked graves in a cemetery next to the prison.
In January 1951, Ohlendorf and 27 others, including all but one other defendant(*) from the Einsatzgruppen Trial, were still alive and on death row. They were among the few who’d survived the last few months of the occupation.
These men were the last death row inmates under Allied military law. Rumors spread that their executions were imminent, causing West Germans protests.
As it turns out, Clay had made the right call. Because this time, the protests were much larger. Tens of thousands of West Germans got onto the streets demanding amnesty for the war criminals.
The crowd gathered in the town of Landsberg am Lech in Bavaria. They did that since Landsberg Prison was where nearly all of the war criminals in U.S. custody were being held, and the condemned were being executed.
Coincidentally, Landsberg Prison was the same prison where Adolf Hitler once served only part of his extremely lenient sentence for the Beer Hall Putsch. Everyone saw what happened next.
*The asterisk is for Eduard Strauch, who was extradited to Belgium, where he died in custody in 1955.
Although West Germany had abolished capital punishment in 1949, the crowd was not there to protesting out of any principles.
Back in those days, the vast majority, including most of Germany, had zero problems with capital punishment. Even most of those with mixed feelings were willing to make some exceptions for the Nazis.
The crowd, which including many West German politicians, was only objecting since those being executed were war criminals. They claimed the convicts were innocent and demanded full amnesty. In their eyes, the likes of Ohlendorf were not war criminals. They were practically heroes.
Gebhard Seelos called the death row inmates “beacons of the German Volk in their struggle for justice, peace and the reconciliation of nations.” He compared their suffering to the suffering of those who died in the Holocaust.
The comparison drew massive applause from the crowd.
In the 1960s, many of the same politicians at this protest would become ardent advocates for the restoration of capital punishment in West Germany. One of them, Richard Jaeger, became such a prominent advocate that he earned the nickname “Chop-the-head-off Jaeger”.
The original abolition had been the idea of a far-right politician who was hoping to convince the Allies to halt further executions, and preventing West German authorities from doing the same. Others just hoped for right-wing votes.
About 300 counter-protesters, mostly displaced (DPs) Jews, arrived at Landsberg. They held a memorial for the victims of one of the most notorious red jackets, Otto Ohlendorf. Ohlendorf was a former commander of the death squad Einsatzgruppe D; he and his men were responsible for the murders of over 90,000 Soviet civilians, mostly Jews.
Some of the DPs lost their patience and heckled Seelos’s speech. They screamed that the red jackets were mass-murdering “blood drinkers” and all deserved to die. In response, the crowd chanted the Nazi-era slogan “Juden raus!” (“Jews out!”) and assaulted them.
One Jewish DP asked why he was being attacked.
“I have a right to call them mass murderers, because my 14 relatives were all killed by Ohlendorf.”
The reply he got was, “Go to Palestine.”
Eventually, the situation calmed down and most of the initial protesters left. However, as the leader of the DPs said he wanted to organize annual commemorations for Ohlendorf’s victims, he was interrupted by whistling and heckling.
West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer personally met with John McCloy, the new U.S. High Commissioner. He said the fates of the Landsberg convicts were not a matter of justice, but of politics. Hanging the red jackets, Adenauer claimed, would ruin any chance of West Germany aiding the U.S. in the Cold War.
McCloy had actually complained about how many West Germans were sympathizing with the convicts when he first arrived.
However, McCloy was a coward. So instead of holding his ground, he granted mass commutations. The partial amnesty was issued on January 31, 1951.
Ferencz said he understood that McCloy was under a massive amount of pressure, and it’s not like the U.S. government was giving him any support. Later on, Ferencz said McCloy did assist him in obtaining compensation for slave laborers.
Still, McCloy’s actions left Ferencz very bitter.
McCloy cut the sentences of dozens of war criminals. He commuted nearly all of the death sentences. Some of his commutations were still not as much as the West German government had wanted.
But it didn’t matter. All of those prison sentences were cut by decades. Convicts were released early. Wanting to appease Germany, Britain and France released Nazi war criminals even faster.
Schulz’s sentence was reduced to 15 years. Further lobbying got President Eisenhower, who’d once promised to remain as Germany as long as it was necessary, to establish a parole board.
Social Democrats from Bremen, Schulz’s hometown, pushed for his release, claiming he was very humane during the Holocaust.
Schulz was paroled in 1954. He was then given his salary, a pension, and compensation for the time he spent in prison.
West Germany, while fighting to not pay compensation to Holocaust victims, paid millions to Nazi war criminals who had been released from Allied custody.
Due to West German pressure and weakening American resolve, every Nazi war criminal in U.S. custody is released by 1958. Britain and France released theirs in 1957.
This wasn’t entirely on McCloy, not even close. He just did it first. His successors even further reduced their sentences and freed war criminals as quickly as possible.
Schulz died in 1981. The only thing I can say is at least he had shame. According to Ferencz, the time first time he was in Germany, he saw absolutely no shame.
“I never had a German come up to me and say I’m sorry all the time I was in Germany. That was my biggest disappointment; nobody, including my mass murderers, ever said I’m sorry. That was the mentality.”
Ferencz may have been misremembering this part, as he gave this interview when he was in his 100s. There was actually one German who personally who told Ferencz he was sorry, and that man was one of his own defendants.
The day after he was indicted for the Einsatzgruppen Trial, that man had written to Ferencz. In his letter, he said he now understood what he had done.
The following day, he was found hanging in his cell.
If you thought Ferencz stopped after this trial, you are still wrong.
Instead, Ferencz decided to spend his entire life to the victims of Nazism and war crimes.
Ferencz fought relentlessly to get compensation for Holocaust victims, as he knew how few people stood up for them.
There were some good West German government officials out there, such as Fritz Bauer. Bauer organized mass trials for Auschwitz guards in West German courts.
For people like Bauer, it was even harder, since unlike Ferencz, he had no help.
The government didn’t even have one ounce of pity for people like him. They either didn’t care or were actual ex-Nazis.
Bauer had no one like Telford Taylor to help him. He didn’t even have judges such as Michael Musmanno.
Instead, Bauer had to convince his fellow Germans, some of whom were ex-Nazis themselves, to reckon with their country’s past.
Ferencz had several people who genuinely empathized with his cause. The justice he obtained was just stolen from him by cowards, opportunists, and Nazis.
For Bauer, he was alone, and getting justice was like pulling out teeth.
Bauer once risked possible treason charges when he decided to inform Israel, rather than his own country, about where Adolf Eichmann was hiding.
As Bauer once put it:
“In the justice system, I live as I were in exile.”
Because 10 years in prison for genocide was no longer the political compromise punishment. It was now the going rate.
Ferencz helped establish the International Criminal Court. He did that because he knew that some people don’t have have several angry strangers to fight for their rights.
Above all, Ferencz dedicated his entire life to ending war. That’s the only thing he’d ever truly wanted in his life. He didn’t care who was waging that war. Whether it was African warlords, or Nazis, or Russians.
Ferencz didn’t care even when those war criminals were his fellow Americans:
An International Criminal Court was indeed established on July 1, 2002, when the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court came into force. Under the Bush administration, the U.S. signed the treaty, but didn’t 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.
Ferencz 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.
In this vein, he 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. He also suggested that Bush should be tried in the International Criminal Court for “269 war crime charges” related to the Iraq War.
I also want to briefly recognize Telford Taylor, the director of the subsequent Nuremberg trials.
Taylor was similar to Ferencz, except even more outspoken. He was a staunch opponent of fascists like McCarthy. He defended victims of McCarthyism, and criticized President Eisenhower for not doing enough to stop McCarthy.
McCarthy is also one of the few people who didn’t get off scot-free in this story. He died a broken alcoholic only several years later, after pushing his luck too far.
Neither did that Nazi, Joachim Peiper, whom McCarthy fought so hard to save.
Peiper survived, barely. Only the partial amnesty in 1951 saved his life. Now, let’s be honest, he didn’t survive five years due to Cold War politics.
Back on those days, nobody could’ve lasted that long on death row without serious help. That help came from people like Joseph McCarthy.
The last known American survivor of Malmedy who McCarthy betrayed was Harold Billow. Billow, who was 99, died last year.
Only a few years back, Billow said he still remembered how he barely survived Malmedy. The SS sifted through the slain bodies of POWs, looking for any signs of life. They shot anyone who moved in the slightest.
These are the kinds of people who McCarthy sided with, over his own countrymen.
Billow said his feelings on the perpetrators never changed. Were up to him, Peiper and his entire small army of mass murderers would’ve been shot.
In 1976, 30 years after he had been condemned to death, 25 years after he was supposed to be executed, and 20 years after he had been released from prison early, a group of vigilantes tracked Joachim Peiper, now 61, down.
And after all these years, Peiper hadn’t been charged for anything other than Malmedy. It really was the only time he got caught red-handed.
A photo of a now middle-aged Peiper
After all these years, Peiper hadn’t changed. He claimed he committed no other crimes, other than Malmedy, for which he said he’d already paid.
Those vigilantes burned down Peiper’s house. He died in the fire.
The police made no effort to search for the vigilantes.
As a professor at Columbia University, Telford Taylor was one of the only teachers who refused to sign a statement issued by the Columbia Law School, which termed anti-Vietnam student protests at Columbia in 1968 as being beyond the “allowable limits” of civil disobedience.
Taylor was horrified by the Vietnam War. He compared the crimes which America was committing in Vietnam to those which he prosecuted in Nuremberg. He compared the United States to Nazi Germany.
Some viewed the theory as outrageous. However, Taylor discussed the similarities in his 1970 book Nuremberg and Vietnam.
Taylor was aware that the United States was not guilty of the worst elements of Nazi Germany. Nobody was.
For example, yes, eugenics was prevalent worldwide, including in the United States. However, only Nazi Germany has ever done something like Aktion T4.
To this day, Nazi Germany has thankfully remained the only regime to commit industrial level genocide. Hopefully, it stays that way.
But that wasn’t Taylor’s point. The point was there were enough other similarities. Honestly, even one was bad enough.
“How could it ever have been thought that air-strikes, free-fire zones and a mass uprooting and removal of the rural population were the way to win the allegiance of the South-Vietnamese? By what mad cerebrations could a ratio of 28 to one between our investments in bombing and in relief for those we had wounded and made homeless, have been contemplated, let alone adopted as an operational pattern?’
Taylor concluded that the “the anti-aggression spirit of Nuremberg and the United Nations Charter are invoked to justify our venture in Vietnam, where we have smashed the country to bits, and will not even take the trouble to clean up the blood and rubble.”
Taylor understood that the United States had done awful things before World War II. However, he said this one stung much harder. He’d expected his country to take their own lessons from the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials.
What he saw in Vietnam made him realize something.
“Somehow, we failed ourselves to learn the lessons we undertook to teach in Nuremberg.”
He called this one of the greatest tragedies in the country’s history.
That is the end.
Fritz Bauer died on July 1, 1968. He was 64 years old.
Michael Musmanno died on October 12, 1968. He was 71 years old.
Telford Taylor died on May 23, 1998. He was 90 years old.
Ferencz died on April 7, 2023. He was 103 years old.
One day, I hope we finally do learn something.