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The University of Cologne mourns the death of Benjamin Ferencz

The last living prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials and honorary doctor of the University of Cologne, Benjamin Ferencz has died. This world-wide highly respected jurist died on Friday at the age of 103.

Professor Ferencz began investigating Nazi war crimes even during the Second World War. In 1947 and 1948, he served as chief US prosecutor in the so-called Einsatzgruppen trial.  Later, he was one of those scholars who contributed decisively to the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

Benjamin Ferencz was born in Romania in 1920 as the son of a Jewish shoemaker who emigrated to the US in the 1920s. His parents settled on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Thanks to his outstanding intellect and determination, he managed not only to do well in school but later to excel at Harvard Law School. He studied there with the well-known American legal scholar Roscoe Pound and worked with Professor Sheldon Glueck who was writing a book on war crimes at the time.

During World War II, Ferencz landed with the Allies on Omaha Beach on 6 June 1944 and then took part in numerous battles until the Allied crossing of the Rhine at Remagen in the spring of 1945. While still a U.S. soldier, Ferencz collected evidence of German war crimes and participated in the liberation of several German concentration camps for this purpose. After a brief period in the United States, Ferencz returned to Germany in 1946 to participate as a prosecutor on Telford Taylor's team in the trials before US military tribunals that followed the main Nuremberg war crimes trial. Within the framework of these Nuremberg follow-up trials, Ferencz initiated the one on the ‘Einsatzgruppen’ and here, at just 27 years of age, became chief US prosecutor. All 22 defendants in what was described at the time as the largest murder trial in history were found guilty in 1948.

Ferencz helped gaining compensation for Jewish victims of National Socialism in the 1950s. From the 1970s onwards, he became active in support of the establishment of an international criminal court. He was of the view that its jurisdiction had to include the crime of aggression (the Nuremberg crime against peace).

In 2008, Benjamin Ferencz, Professor of International Law at Pace University (New York), visited the University of Cologne to speak in honour of his friend Dr h.c. Hans-Peter Kaul, the first German judge at the International Criminal Court, to whom the Faculty of Law of the University of Cologne awarded an honorary doctorate.
At the beginning of 2021, Benjamin Ferencz then received an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Law at the University of Cologne himself. The conferral of the honorary doctorate was recorded along with a conversation with Ferencz on the occasion of the ceremony.

In 2022, the illustrated volume ‘In Honour of Benjamin Ferencz’ was published in the series ‘Cologne Studies on International Peace and Security Law’ as a lasting reminder of the ceremony for the conferral of the honorary doctorate. The volume includes the reprint of a personal memoir by Benjamin Ferencz of his many years of dealing with the crime of aggression.

At the University of Cologne, Benjamin Ferencz was particularly associated with Professor Dr Claus Kreß at the University of Cologne who remembers him in an interview with Michael Köhler (Deutschlandfunk).