“You have it in your power to change the world,” says Benjamin Ferencz. Today, looking back on nearly seven decades devoted to an investigation of the global pathology of war and international aggression, Ferencz continues the plight. “We live in a small, interconnected, interdependent world which is shrinking all the time, but the individual has a vital role to play. Can one individual make a difference? Of course one individual can make a difference. Don’t underestimate the power of the individual. Just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you don’t have to do anything. Do something. Find a way in which you can play an important role. The ultimate power lies with the people.” Benjamin Ferencz is a testament to these words and continues to impart their importance upon our ever-expanding international community.
Born in Transylvania in 1920, Ferencz soon immigrated to New York City with his family to escape the persecution of Hungarian Jews following the Hungarian ceding of the territory where his family lived in Romania after World War I.
Ferencz went on to study crime prevention at the City College of New York where he earned a scholarship to Harvard Law School. Following his graduation in 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving in the 115th AAA Gun Battalion. In 1945, Ferencz was transferred to the headquarters of General Patton’s Third Army where he was given the special task of assembling a war crimes branch. This was a pivotal moment for Ferencz, as he was sent to Nazi concentration camps following the Allied liberation. Here, the foundations of his life’s work were constructed.
“People don’t want aggression to be a crime. They don’t want to be challenged in their authority to decide for themselves when to use force against their neighbors. I can swear to you as a combat soldier, that there will never be a war without atrocities. War is better than law? Why? Now we have the capacity to change that with a general recognition that all human beings are entitled to being treated as humans. We have to overcome these ingrained thoughts that prevent us from moving forward. We must do something.”
Following World War II, Ferencz took a position as an investigator of Nazi war crimes for the U.S. government and went on to become the Chief Prosecutor for the U.S. Army for the twelve military trials known today as the Nuremberg Trials, the largest murder trial in the history of the world.
Ferencz has spent his life’s work battling crimes against humanity. Following the disillusionment of the Vietnam War, he left the private practice he had returned to in order to serve upon the International Criminal Court. His participation became a vital one as he sought to define international aggression in the journey for world peace. Ferencz’s voice within this international dialogue was a beacon of hope amidst the international onslaught of conflicts: “What we have to do is change the way people think, and that’s a very hard thing to do. We are all raised with certain traditions- political, patriotic, nationalistic, religious- which we grow up with, and we think it’s got to be that way. There’s nothing wrong with adhering to your own traditions, but once you say ‘When you don’t follow my traditions, we’re going to kill you’- If you’re back to doing that, nothing will save you.”
With over a decade of passing on his wisdom and worldview to students of International Law at Pace University, today Ferencz continues his incredible work to help transform the landscape of the world’s vantage of war. “We have to overcome the glorification of war,” he says. “Roll up your sleeves. I think everyone of you can learn from Tom Payne. He said that you have it in your power to change the world, and I think you do. Now in my 88th year, the torch will soon fall from my hands and it’s up to you. I wish you all the best of luck.”