Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Thursday 05 August |
The Commemoration of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major
home iconInspiring Stories
line break icon

How could ordinary men be capable of such evil? The last Nazi prosecutor has the answer


Robin Utrecht | Belga | AFP

Zelda Caldwell - published on 05/10/17

Former Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz explains how the Holocaust was possible.

In an interview with the last living Nuremberg prosecutor, 97-year-old Ben Ferencz, Sixty Minutes’ Leslie Stahl asked him a question that gets to the heart of what is so unfathomable about the Holocaust: How could ordinary people commit such extraordinary evil?

“Did you meet a lot of people who perpetrated war crimes who would otherwise in your opinion have been just a normal, upstanding citizen?” she asked.

Ferencz was the chief prosecutor for the U.S. Army at the Einsatzgruppen trial, one of the 12 war crimes trials held in Nuremberg, Germany, after the end of World War II. He helped prove the guilt of a group of German SS officers accused of participating in mobile death squads in which over a million men, women and children were shot dead in their own towns and villages across Eastern Europe.

He answered that even these men who had committed these horrible atrocities – who had shot down more than a million innocent people – were normal, ordinary men:

“Of course, is my answer. These men would never have been murderers had it not been for the war. These were people who could quote Goethe, who loved Wagner, who were polite,” Ferencz said.

When Stahl asked him, “What turns a man into a savage beast like that?”

He then shared this profound insight, gleaned from years of staring into the face of the worst evil man can inflict on man:

Benjamin Ferencz: He’s not a savage. He’s an intelligent, patriotic human being. Lesley Stahl: He’s a savage when he does the murder though. Benjamin Ferencz: No. He’s a patriotic human being acting in the interest of his country, in his mind. Lesley Stahl: You don’t think they turn into savages even for the act? Benjamin Ferencz: Do you think the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was a savage? Now I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people.

Read about the rest of this interview here, and watch it here.


Read more:
Rare color film of Jewish quarter in Warsaw just before Nazi invasion

World War II
Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in seven languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
Saint Mary of the Angels
Bret Thoman, OFS
All your sins will be forgiven if you go to a Franciscan church o...
Philip Kosloski
Most priests can’t absolve these sins
Ignacio María Doñoro
Francisco Veneto
The military chaplain who pretended to be a criminal to rescue a ...
Violeta Tejera
Carlo Acutis’ first stained glass window in jeans and sneak...
Zelda Caldwell
World-record winning gymnast Simone Biles leans on her Catholic f...
Cerith Gardiner
Nightbirde’s beautiful message as she drops out of TV show
Gianmarco Tamberi AND Mutaz Essa Barshim
Cerith Gardiner
This Olympic event captures the true meaning of the Games
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.