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tv   HAR Dtalk  BBC News  October 5, 2021 4:30am-5:01am BST

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the five years after the military tribunal is, hardtalk repeated 27 interview with the last surviving prosecutor from the trials of nazi war criminals. welcome to hardtalk, with me, zeinab badawi, here in florida, where my guest is 98—year—old ben ferencz. he is the last surviving prosecutor at the nuremberg nazi trials. he also helped liberate the death camps of europe while serving in the us army. so does he believe that the nuremberg trials have made genocide and other crimes against humanity less likely to be committed in the world today?
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ben ferencz, welcome to hardtalk. you were born in 1920 in transylvania in central europe. you moved to the united states with your family when you were a little baby. you really epitomise the american dream, a kind of rags to riches story, because it was discovered that you were highly intelligent, and you were put on a fast track to harvard law school. we arrived in america. my parents were young immigrants, fleeing persecution and poverty, no money, no skills, no language, and lucky to have some friendly new yorker offer us, my father, who had been trained as a shoemaker, but they didn't need any
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boots made in new york, there were no cowboys, but the owner of the building offered us the opportunity to sleep in the cellar, and my father would be the janitor, and that's where we began, and that's where my memory begins, in a high crime density area, known, for good reason, as hell's kitchen. there was a lot of crimes there. is that what excited your interest in law, and pursuing a career in law? well, it did it excite my interest in not being on the criminal side, i mean, put it that way. there was crime all around, and i had made up my mind early that i didn't want to be a cowboy, and i didn't want to be a fireman, ididn�*t want to be a crook, either. and that sort of much left me to go to the law, and i have focused on that ever since. after you graduated from harvard law school in 1943, you joined the us military and joined a battalion preparing for the invasion of france. what are your key recollections of that time?
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i enlisted wherever i could get into the army, and i was a buck private, the lowest rain you can get, assigned to be in the artillery battalion. in that capacity, we landed on the beaches of normandy. france was occupied by the germans. the only to move the war forward, to get rid of the war was to defeat the germans. i sailed from lands end, the tip of england, across to omaha beach, which was still, er, had been cleared by the time i got there a bit, but there were many soldiers in american uniforms still lying in the sea, face down. there were many armoured vehicle still in the water, and we have to push in from there into france and defeat them.
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i was with the artillery all the way, many battles on the way, and it was only when we got into the german occupied, and germany itself, that we began to encounter possible war crimes. as nazi atrocities were uncovered, you were transferred to a newly created war crimes branch of the army to gather evidence of nazi brutality, and apprehend the war criminals. you entered the death camps, like buchenwald, for instance, and you've described how you saw scenes from hell. just described to us... i can describe it to you quite vividly, because the recollection is very firm in my mind, but, at the same time, you will never understand what it was like, because the rational humid mind can't quite grasp it. coming into buchenwald,
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for example, dead bodies lying all on the ground, you can't tell if they're dead or alive. skeletons dressed in just rags, which had at one time been part of their work uniform, with a triangle indicating they were jews, homosexuals, or communists or whatever, and everybody�*s running in different directions, the ss are trying to run out. a scene like a pile of rubbish the size of this room, and in it inmates grovelling like rats for a bite of food and just picking out garbage and sticking it into their mild. the smell of foul flesh burning, crematoria with stacks of human bodies looking like bones stacked one on top of the other, while theyjust
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shovelled into the crematorium and then turned into ash, and the fat is used for making soap, and the ashes are used as fertiliser. the ss is running out, occasionally getting caught and beaten to death by the inmates that were still able to do anything about it, and when i wrote somewhere that i had peered into hell, i think hell would be paradise, compared to what i saw. are the memories of what you saw still very vivid for you? very vivid, yes, i don't like to talk about them much, because i have difficulty controlling my own emotions. in 1945, you left the us army, you returned to new york, and prepared to practise law, but shortly after that you were recruited for the nuremberg war crimes trials. the international military tribunal prosecution, against the likes of herman goering and other leading nazis, were already in progress. what was your reaction when you were asked to be part of that process?
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when the war was over, i came back, along with ten million other soldiers, looking for a job. i had graduated from the harvard law school, and i passed the bar, but i have no clouds of any kind, and i was pleased to get a telegram from the pentagon, inviting me to come to the pentagon, they wanted to talk to me. and i arrived there, and they said, "dear sir", they'd never cold me sir before. they wanted me to go back to germany to help with war crimes trials. now, i have done that during the war days, the last several months in the war, as we occupied portions of germany and france that had been occupied, we ran into examples of crimes of all kinds, the most obvious one is what we called the allied fire cases, very little
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is known about that. flyers who had been shut down in german held territory were almost invariably beaten to death by the german mob, and that was part of our first war crimes cases. so i had that kind of experience with me when i left the army, and i took that back then to germany when i agreed, with some hesitation, to go back to germany and help with trials which were to follow, the international military tribunal. why did you hesitate, was it because you didn't want to...? it's a horrible experience, for anyone. germany was associated in my mind with atrocity and terrible crimes. i didn't want to go back to germany. this is horror glorified, and there's nothing heroic about it at all. it shows how humid beings can be debated in time of war. so you did go back to germany, and you've scoured nazi offices and archives, trying to find
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evidence of the nazi atrocities by german doctors, officers, lawyers, and judges, generals. it was quite all pervasive, wasn't it, the people who were involved in the atrocities? well, the united states particularly felt that the international military tribunal trial against herman goering wasjust a calmer shot of a small sampling, and in order to really understand how a civilised country like germany could commit and tolerate the type of atrocities that were committed, you should understand the position of the doctors who performed medical experiments, the lawyers and judges who perverted the law, the ss murderers, of course, who did the actual killings, the industrialists who were working people to death. all of these were specific groups, and so the united states said let us take a sampling from each of these groups to help us
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understand it. so i went to berlin with a team of about 50 people, scoured through all the archives, miles of nazi documents, to gather enough evidence to cover the broad spectrum of german society, which was really basically responsible for the crimes. in previous interviews, you've described how, in gathering witness testimonies, you did we saw to duress, for instance, lining up villagers, and threatening to shoot them if they lied. and, i mean, such methods now would amount to witness harassment of the most extreme order. well, perhaps it would, but it's only because the people who make allegations don't understand what war is about. if i bring a room of 20 people in together, and this is an actual case, and line them up, and say, "i want you all to write out exactly what happened, what your role
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was, what others did, anybody who lies will be shot". now, you say, oh, how can you do a thing like that? you're threatening them, it's torture... what am i going to tell them? anybody who lies won't get his patty cake tonight? what do you want me to tell them?! please be honest, please confess that you're a murderer?! please do that? i don't want to have to threaten you with anything. what are you talking about?! there's a war going on! they'll kill you if they could. they were killing some of your buddies before, that's why they're standing there. so, what am i going to do? i didn't shoot them, but i threatened to, and that's the only weapon i had, and if that be torture, then call me a torturer. so you became, then, the chief prosecutor for the united states in one case at nuremberg, the einsatzgruppen case, described by the associated press news agency as the biggest milder press news agency as the biggest murder trial in history. 22 nazi war criminals, who were part of these death squads, shooting more than a million people, most of them civilians.
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it was quite a responsibility for a young man, you were only 27, to take, and infact, just before you talk to me about that, ijust want to show you. this is you at the nuremberg trial. this is thejudge, leading judge, michael musmanno, of the supreme court of pennsylvania. these are the defendants, 22 defendants, each one charged with mass murder. all of them pleaded not guilty, no—one ever showed any sign of remorse, whatsoever, and i remember very well what i said: "may it please your honours, it is with sorrow and with hope that we here disclose murder of over a million innocent and defenceless men, women and children. vengeance is not our goal, nor do we seek merely a just retribution. we ask this court to affirm
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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". that these men wrote the darkest page in human history. people were murdered because they didn't share the race, the colour and the ideology of their executioners. i thought it was horrible then, i think it's horrible now, and i appealed for a rule of law, which would, in future, protect people from that type of atrocity. when you look at that picture of you there, 27 years of age, chief prosecutor in the nuremberg process. that was an accident that i was a chief prosecutor. one of my researchers, i had about 50 of them in berlin, came upon the daily reports from a front of these special extermination squads, whose job it was to kill,
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without pity or remorse, every singlejewish man, woman or child they could lay their hands on, including the same for gipsies and any other perceived, suspected, opponents of the reich. no such trial had been planned. i flew down from berlin to nuremberg, talked to general telford taylor, who was in charge, and he said, "we can't put on this trial now, because all the lawyers are already assigned, their trials are in process, the pentagon hasn't approved it, i doubt if they will approve it". and i said, "i have here in my hand that example, mass murder on a scale never before seen in humid history, you can't let these guys go". he said, can you do it in addition to your other work? and i said, "sure!" and i did, and i rested my case in two days. you said you wanted to prosecute the officers. you weren't as interested in the foot soldiers. you wanted to get the educated officers amongst them. it's very hard for the public today to understand, the special extermination squads, einsatzgruppen,
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the german word that means "action groups", were 3,000 men. i selected of this 3,000, all of whom are complicit mass murderers, i selected those based on several factors. first of all, we had to have them in captivity. if you've got the evidence and you haven't got the prisoner, you've got nothing. i want a list of everybody who was an einsatzgruppen member from all of our intelligence sources sent out immediately to nuremberg. i went over the list. i picked those of the highest rank, and then checked out their background from their nazi party records, which were captured in berlin. those who had doctor degrees, and were generals, they got priority. and from these, i picked out 22. why not 28? because we only had 22 seats in the dock. is that absurd ? of course it's absurd, there were only 22 seats in the dock for herman goering and company, so you have a selection of a sampling, that's
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all it is. of the 22 who you tried in the einsatzgruppen case, about a dozen were given death sentences, four were a chilly —— actually executed, the others remained in prison, but only for a few years, until an agreement, a deal, was made between the american and german governments, and they were released. so it wasn't, you can't call it a success, can you, really? it wasn't that formalistic. the political atmosphere had changed. general george patton, who was my commander, made a speech in london to a woman's group before the war was over, in which he said we have fought the wrong enemy, we should not have been fighting the germans, we should have been fighting the russians, while the war was on. an american general. americans are still being killed in battle, and the russians are being slaughtered.
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it indicated the change of political scene in the united states, a conservative group were saying, what are we getting involved in these crimes against the germans? we need the germans. the british were particularly keen about not executing some of the german generals that the british army wanted. so the political pressure was such, together with some feeling of amnesty for humanitarian considerations, they stopped the trials, they released the people who were there, and then began to rehire people like wernher von braun, who knew about rockets, and some of his deputies, who came to the united states, as they had the new rocket science. so when the trial that you presided over at nuremberg, as chief prosecutor, was hailed as a success, as some did at the time, it can't really be described as that, if some of those who were found guilty were subsequently released. i was of course disappointed, but i never anticipated
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or tried to dojustice, in the broad sense, of holding every criminal accountable. it would have been a practical impossibility, so i was careful in the selection of having a man in custody, having a high rain, having good education, having absolute proof beyond any doubt of his guilt. i had his report, top secret to his commanders, saying how many people were executed. they were not quite accurate, they exaggerated the body count, to show more, how more they killed, and then they said, "it was against our will, superior orders". baloney! was that baloney...? it was absolute baloney. because sometimes aren't people just obeying orders? they were of course ordered to kill all thejews, but they did it with such enthusiasm, they wanted to brag about how many they killed. you said the lessons of nuremberg for you, you said, "i learned that if we did not devote ourselves to developing effective world law, the same cruel mentality that made the holocaust possible might one day destroy the entire humid race". so, today, so many years later,
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here you are in your 98th year, and you look around you at the world, the conflicts that have happened in recent times, what's your assessment? have we made progress? we have made progress. we have not learned the lesson of nuremberg. we have made progress, i'll come back to it, but first, let me emphasise the fact. i learned that war makes murderers, mass murderers, out of otherwise decent people, and it applies to all wars, and all nationalities, and i've seen it in all the wars. these are not wild animals, who are out for blood, these are patriots, who were trying to do their duty to protect either their religion, or their nationality, or their economic security. these are the three major causes. we have not learned that you cannot kill an ideology with a gun. we still go at it with the same stupid approach of spending
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all of your assets on building weapons, and more weapons, to kill more people, and depriving people of the things they need to eliminate the fears which they have in their lives. a man who's desperate, because he has nojob and has no money, if the money spent on weapons could be spent on eliminating the cause of his discontent, he's not going to risk his life and go out and kill people, the way that they do today. so you were very instrumental in the setting up of the international criminal court, which was established by the statute in 1998. do you think that has really helped prevent crimes against humanity, war crimes? do you think it's stopped these crimes being committed with impunity? it has helped, but not enough. certainly, the existence of laws prohibiting certain behaviour has some deterrent
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effect, but we have to bear in mind that, for centuries, we have glorified war—making. ever since david hit goliath in the head with a rock, we have glorified, the parades, the marching. no politician appears without his flags flying on all sides, and the bands going, and marching. and i was a soldier, and they gave me all the battle stars, and they gave me all the decorations and all that stuff. we've got to reverse those thousands of years of practice, because the world has changed. we're not throwing rocks any more. we're going to kill everybody. from cyberspace we can cut off the electrical grid of any city on the planet. are you all crazy?! you're standing here watching it happen. students don't have money to pay tuition. the refugees have no homes to go to. the old people are dying, because they can't afford the medical care, and you're pouring billions of dollars every day into killing machines?! what in your long life and career have you learned
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about the nature of evil, and human beings�*s capacity to commit the most unspeakable, horrific acts against their fellow humid beings? well, i've learned simply, as it's very obvious, that people in very high places, people of good education and high rain, are quite competent at becoming education and high rank, are quite competent at becoming mass murderers against any group that they think threatens either their nationality or their religion or their economic circumstance. i have seen that. and these are not crimes committed by devils with horns, these are committed by educated, well—intentioned, patriotic people. but we have to change the hearts and minds of people, so that they recognise it's not cowardice to be ready to compromise, and to be conciliatory and be compassionate in your
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dealing with people who have other points of view. and i know that it takes courage not to be discouraged, but we have got to have that kind of courage, because it's a tough job, and it will take a long time, and we've got to begin in the cradle. so, this re—education of the human spirit of the humid mind on a worldwide basis is the task before us, and we are doing it. look at the emancipation, with those limitations, on the black man. look at the emancipation of women. look at the change, the sex approach, a man can marrya man, a man can become a woman. all of these unthinkable things are realities today. 25 years ago they would have said, "you are out of your mind". and i say don't give up. law is always better than war, and that is my firm conviction. no matter if you get a bad decision, law will always be better than war, which is murderous and terrible. and there are three ways of preventing it, which is one, never give up, two never give up, three...
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and then i hear the echo from the audience, "never give up". ben ferencz, thank you very much indeed for coming on hardtalk. it's been a pleasure. i hope that you all, don't enjoy it, but think about it, and act on it. thank you. after a couple of days of sunshine and showers we are now seeing an area of low pressure moving in from the south—west that is mainly affecting england and wales. that is bringing with it some heavy rain and it is also strengthening the winds too. we start with some heavy rain across east anglia and the south—east but it will soon move away. but for northern england, it will be wet through much of the day. the rain continues to push into the south—east of scotland. for wales, the midlands and southern england it may brighten up, there may be sunshine but also showers.
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around the area of low pressure we have strong winds, particularly where it is wet, and it will make it feel cold. some of the wet weather could push into the north—east of scotland later, but we are missing the worst of the weather across western scotland and northern ireland with no more than one or two showers and some sunshine. the area of low pressure bringing the wet windy weather is slowly going to move away during wednesday, and the next system will be pushing in from the atlantic. we started with wind easing on for eastern england. the winds will ease, cloud and showers move away, sunshine comes out for many but then we look to the west. it will be clouding, then rain pusing in through northern ireland. clearing through the day, than in the afternoon rain will push in mainly for northern ireland. ahead of that, it should be a little bit warmer. temperatures of 16 or 17 degrees. there's warmer weather on the way later in the week. the weather front parking off scotland and northern ireland, high pressure into the
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south—east of the uk, so drawing drawing in a south—westerly wind all the way from the tropics. that's going to bring some higher temperatures, probably bring a lot of cloud, mind you, on thursday, and rain and drizzle at times across scotland and northern ireland. some dampness here and there across western england and wales with brighter skies further east. even with a lot of cloud, temperatures could reach 19 degrees in belfast and newcastle. could make 20 or so across other parts of england and wales. we still have that weather front hanging around a bit across northern parts of the uk. the position of the rain keeps chopping and changing, there's still the threat of rain for northern ireland, perhaps first thing in northern england as the rain moves northward into southern and central scotland. these areas not quite as warm, but with lighter winds and more sunshine breaking through across england and wales, it will be very mild, temperatures of 20 and 21 celsius.
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