Nuremberg Prosecutor Whitney Harris Dies
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The world has lost a key player in an event that reshaped modern international law. Whitney Harris was the last surviving courtroom prosecutor from the first Nuremberg trial after World War II. He died Wednesday in St. Louis at age 97. Matt Sepic of St. Louis Public Radio has this remembrance.
MATT SEPIC: Whitney Harris knew the Nazis committed mass murder, but like many others at the time, he had no idea of the scale. Soon, the 33-year-old lawyer and Navy officer would learn every detail of these atrocities from the people who planned them.
In 1946, Harris opened the case against Ernst Kaltenbrunner, a high-ranking member of the SS.
Mr. WHITNEY HARRIS (Attorney): Kaltenbrunner joined the Nazi Party and the SS in Austria in 1932.
SEPIC: Harris went on to draw wrenching testimony from the commandant of Auschwitz and other top Nazis, many of whom spoke unemotionally of their roles in atrocities. Decades later, in 2004, Harris said the trial had its lighter moments, too, like when Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, tried to feign amnesia.
Mr. HARRIS: We had Hess on the stand, and Hess said something about Belgium being in the war. Aha, we've got him. So we said okay, Hess, if you can only remember things back two weeks, how did you know that Belgium was in the war?
SEPIC: Still, listening to Nazis testify day after day for a year took its toll. After Nuremberg, Harris wrote a book, taught law and went into private practice. He wanted to put the horror behind him but did not want the world to forget. Whitney Harris became a leading advocate for modern international courts.
Leila Sadat of the Harris World Law Institute at Washington University says Harris always emphasized Nuremberg's positives.
Ms. LEILA SADAT (Harris World Law Institute, Washington University St. Louis): I never saw him become cynical. I think he had a truly undying faith in the ability of humankind to do better.
SEPIC: In the first Nuremberg trial, 18 top Nazis were convicted, and 10 were hanged. In 2008, Harris returned to Germany for the last time. In the same courtroom where he saw humanity at its worst 62 years earlier, Nurembergers gave him a hero's welcome.
Historian and legal scholar John Barrett says it was a poignant moment.
Mr. JOHN BARRETT (Historian, Legal Scholar): What Whitney would always talk about is, as we walked around Nuremberg, is how amazing it was to see how this had all developed out of the wreckage that he had known.
SEPIC: Whitney Harris always looked at people's capacity for good, but on NPR's series This I Believe, he expressed concern that the world still has not heeded some of the lessons of the Nazis.
Mr. HARRIS: I believe there is God. I believe God is merciful and just, but if man desires to destroy himself, I believe God will not save him.
SEPIC: Leila Sadat says while international law is complex, Whitney Harris's legacy is simple.
Ms. SADAT: He and the other prosecutors are very much the conscience of the world, saying to powerful government leaders: You need to do the right thing.
SEPIC: Not only has the world lost a powerful voice for justice, but one that reminded us of Nuremberg, where as Whitney Harris said, tyranny was put on trial.
For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in St. Louis.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.