Benjamin Ferencz Acceptance Speech on Receiving Erasmus Prize
Your Majesty, your Royal Highnesses, distinguished guests and friends,You honor me by your presence and I am deeply moved. Allow me to convey my gratitude by sharing some personal experiences which may reflect the values of Erasmus, whose name we here commemorate.
My life was shaped in the crucible of wars. The First World War caused my family to flee to America. My destiny was shaped by the impact of the Second World War. Three goals became the focus of my life:
- trying to bring perpetrators of war crimes to justice,
- caring for survivors and
- trying to prevent future wars.
As soon as my studies were completed, I enlisted in the United States army. In due course, I landed on the beaches of Normandy and participated in every major battle. As a war crimes investigator in the army of General Patton, I joined in the liberation of many Nazi concentration camps and witnessed indescribable horrors. After the war ended, I was discharged as a sergeant of infantry and awarded five battle stars for not being killed or wounded. Not all wounds are visible. I never speak of "winning" a war. I learned that the only victor in war is death.
The next phase of my life was helping to bring to justice some of those responsible for the aggressions and atrocities. The famous Nuremberg trial by the international military tribunal was followed by twelve subsequent trials. I was appointed chief prosecutor in what was probably the biggest murder trial in history. Twenty-two Nazi leaders of extermination squads called Einsatzgruppen were convicted of deliberately murdering over a million innocent men, women and children. I was then 27 years old and it was my first case.
The victims were slain because they did not share the race, faith or ideology of their executioners. I thought murdering thousands of children and all their relatives for such cruel reasons was a very terrible thing. I have never lost hat feeling. Punishing criminals must not obscure the need to care for their innocent victims. In 1948, I became the director of restitution programs to recover heirless properties for the benefit of needy survivors. That led to an additional assignment as counsel in negotiating a very sensitive "reparations treaty" between West Germany, Israel and major Jewish charitable organizations. Millions of Nazi victims, regardless of persuasion, Jews and non-Jews alike, have benefited from the unprecedented indemnification laws which were negotiated in secret here in The Hague in Kasteel Oud Wassenaar in 1952.
Appreciation belongs primarily to German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who, as a devout catholic, proclaimed that amends had to be made for the terrible crimes committed in the name of the German people.
My files dealing with my war crimes and restitution have been donated to the US Holocaust Museum in Washington. My books and lectures are available free on my website and the internet under a new United Nations audio-visual program. My Erasmus prize will all go for peace purposes.
Let me spend the few remaining minutes on what I consider the most important phase of my life and that is trying to prevent war-making itself. At Nuremberg war-making ceased to be regarded as a national right but was condemned as "the supreme international crime". There has never been a war without atrocities. Illegal war-making is the biggest atrocity of all.
The best way to protect the brave young people who serve in the military of all nations is to try to eliminate war. The UN charter prohibits the use of armed force except under very limited circumstances. It is high time for the powerful nations that control the Security Council to remember and respect their basic legal obligations to all nations.
It was made crystal clear at Nuremberg, and affirmed by the UN General Assembly, that law must apply equally to everyone. It is very dangerous when any person, or any nation, takes the law into its own hands. In a world seething with incredible destructive capabilities, there is no international dispute so overwhelming that it could justify the illegal use of armed force. Law is always better than war.
Many well-intentioned people believe that war can never be stopped since it is ordained as part of some eternal plan. From the unbelievable horrors of war that I have personally witnessed, I cannot believe the cruelties I have seen were divinely inspired. I share the view of Erasmus and religious leaders of many faiths who hold that we are all members of one human family and must learn to live in peace and dignity regardless of our race or creed. I recall the words of my supreme military commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, when he became president of the United States: "The world no longer has a choice between force and law. If civilization is to survive, it must choose the rule of law."
It is difficult and takes time to change the heart and mind of persons with deeply entrenched and cherished ideals for which they are ready to kill and die. But it can surely be done. The early United States constitution denied all women the right to vote or own property. White men felt they had a right to own black people as slaves; not long ago, it would have been unthinkable that the United States would elect a non-white president, but take note: The world has changed!
The world has changed and is ever-changing. National laws are being changed to conform to international obligations. There has been a gradual awakening of the human conscience.
Whether aggression is punishable by an international court will be challenged at the International Criminal Court review conference next April. I believe we owe it to the future and to the memory of all who perished in wars, to go forward from Nuremberg and not backward. Even if only a small number of wars are deterred by the threat of punishment, it will surely be worthwhile.
The stubborn belief that the human mind is incapable of creating an improved social order is a self-defeating prophecy of doom. It ignores the potential of new technologies. Holland has become the international law capital of the world. But it is a work in progress, the values which inspired Erasmus to speak out against abuses by vested authority are still needed today. Fear and hatred that fuels violence can best be conquered by reason, tolerance, compassion and a willingness to compromise that should be taught everywhere at every level of learning, the glorification of war must be replaced by the glorification of peace.
I have tried to carry forward the main lesson of Nuremberg that aggression is the supreme international crime. I consider myself a realistic optimist; realist because I see the problems. Optimist because I see the progress. The international community is still in its formative stage and there has been more progress in the last half century than in all of human history. I am aware that I will not live to see the goal of abolishing all wars. But I will be content to know that perhaps I will have helped to move closer to that ideal. To young people I say: "Never give up. Try harder". Have the courage to speak up for what you know is right. You will find contentment in the knowledge that you have done your best to make this a more humane and peaceful world.
I thank you all for the honor and privilege of addressing you.
Benjamin B. Ferencz
Former Nuremberg Prosecutor and World Peace Advocate
Crime of Aggression
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