The post-World War II trials at Nuremberg represented “man’s first effort to put tyranny on trial,” according to one of the principal members of the prosecuting team at the international military tribunal held 60 years ago in the defeated Germany.
Whitney R. Harris, now 93, spoke of his experiences in an April 10 talk to a packed auditorium in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.
He said that similar tribunals since then, such as those in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, “send a strong signal to those who have used the cover of war to commit terrible atrocities that they cannot escape the consequences of such actions.”
The setting for Harris’ talk was appropriate. The Dodd Center is named for the
late U.S. Sen. Dodd – father of the present senator – who was also a prosecutor at Nuremberg.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, who introduced Harris, noted that as time passes, fewer people will be alive who personally witnessed the atrocities of the German Nazi regime.
“Gatherings such as this enable people around the world who are too young to remember the Holocaust to know the meanings of names like Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka,” he said.
Dodd said a small group of men, including Whitney Harris and his father, along with chief United States prosecutor Robert Jackson, were driven by the idea that “the best way to judge these crimes against humanity and to deter future crimes would be a fair trial. Their shared work and values led them to forge an unbreakable bond that would last the rest of their lives.”
Dodd said that for his father and Harris, Nuremberg was more than “just the defendants, the evidence, and the sentences that were handed out. They believed that the crimes committed by the Nazis were so heinous, so unthinkable, that they violated the basic rules by which all humanity must abide.”
An international criminal court must be established, “once and for all,” Dodd said, adding, “it’s an embarrassment that the United States doesn’t stand up and support one.” An International Criminal Court was created four years ago in the Netherlands, but the U.S. has not signed the treaty establishing it, and says it will not do so.
Harris said he, too, supports an international criminal court.
Harris practiced law in Los Angeles from 1936 until 1942, when he entered the Navy.
Toward the end of World War II, he was assigned for special duty with the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, and was put in charge of the investigation of war crimes in the European theater.
In August 1945, he joined Chief Prosecutor Jackson’s staff in the trial of the major German war criminals at Nuremberg, serving as a prosecutor throughout the trial until Oct. 1, 1946. He was later awarded the Legion of Merit.
Harris told the Dodd Center audience that “an especially dramatic moment” of the trial was the cross-examination of Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering, the highest-ranking Nazi official to be brought before the tribunal.
“Among the issues we raised was Goering’s role in the terrible program of Nov. 9, 1938, which has come to be known as Kristallnacht,” Harris said.
During that night, Jewish stores were destroyed throughout Germany and thousands of Jews were taken into custody and sent to concentration camps.
Goering, who had met with Chancellor Adolf Hitler to consider further repressive measures, declared the Jews should be forced out of the economy. Harris repeated Goering’s words: “We must agree on a clear action that will be profitable to the State. I’d like to say again, that I would not like to be a Jew in Germany.”
After being convicted and sentenced to death, Goering committed suicide in his cell by taking poison. How he received the cyanide capsule still remains a mystery.
Harris questioned Rudolf Hoess, commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
“I interrogated him over a period of three days, reducing his testimony to an affidavit,” Harris said.
In May 1941, SS commander Heinrich Himmler “called Hoess to Berlin, where he told him that in addition to the war against the allied powers, Germany was engaged in a secondary struggle with the Jews,” Harris said.
“Himmler said that if the Jews were not eliminated during the war they, in turn, would destroy Germany. Hoess actually believed this nonsense.”
Harris said that Hoess “confessed to me, sitting across the table, that approximately 2 .5 million persons had been murdered at Auschwitz.”
Forty-one years after the final judgment of the tribunal, “the tyrant and his chief cohorts were gone,” Harris said.
“They had sought to achieve greatness in history, but they inscribed their names in sand. They had intended to establish a new order for Europe, but they built upon pillars of hate. And what they stood for could not stand.
“Because of Nuremberg and the effort which it represents of man’s attempt to elevate justice and law, there is hope for a better tomorrow.”