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Nuremberg Prosecutor Dies at 97

There were 12 more trials of Nazis in Nuremberg after the first (and most famous) international criminal trial. Whitney Harris was the last living courtroom prosecutor from that initial proceeding.

US Navy lawyer Whitney Harris put 'tyranny on trial'

The last surviving courtroom prosecutor from the first Nuremberg trial has died.

Whitney Harris died April 21 in St. Louis, Missouri, at the age of 97.

'Tyranny on trial'

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 those atrocities from the people who planned them.

In 1946, Harris opened the case against Ernst Kaltenbruner — a high-ranking member of the SS, the elite corps responsible for implementing Hitler's plans to exterminate Jews and other groups Nazis considered to be inferior or enemies of the state.

He told the court, "Kaltenbruner joined the SS and the Nazi Party in Austria in 1932. He was party member 300179. And SS member 13039." He went on to draw wrenching testimony from the commandant of the Auschwitz extermination camp and other top Nazis, many of whom spoke unemotionally of their roles in atrocities.

Decades later, in 2004, Harris said the first Nuremberg trial had its lighter moments too… like when Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess tried to feign amnesia. "We had Hess on the stand and Hess said something about Belgium being in the war. Aha! We got him! We said, 'Okay, Hess, if you can only remember things back two weeks, how did you remember that Belgium was in the war?'"

Hess, along with 17 other top Nazis, was convicted. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Ten of the others, including Kaltenbruner, were hanged.

Nuremberg prosecutor Whitney Harris died April 21 in St. Louis, Missouri, at the age of 97.
Nuremberg prosecutor Whitney Harris died April 21 in St. Louis, Missouri, at the age of 97.

Vocal advocate for international justice

After Nuremberg, Harris wrote a book, taught law and went into private practice. Listening to Nazis testify day after day for an entire year had taken its toll. He wanted to put the horror behind him, but didn't want the world to forget.

Harris became a leading advocate for bringing modern war criminals to justice.

Leila Sadat heads the Whitney Harris World Law Institute at Washington University in St. Louis. She says Harris always emphasized the good that came out of Nuremberg.

"I never saw him become cynical," she says. "I think he had a truly undying faith in the ability of humankind to do better. And that's not true of all his compatriots. I think that was something about Whitney."

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.

Lasting legacy

Historian and legal scholar John Barrett says Harris was always humble about this ultimate triumph.

"What Whitney would always talk about, as we walked around Nuremberg — rebuilt, beautiful, humane, progressive, human-rights-committed Nuremberg — is how marvelous and how amazing it was to see how this had all developed out of the wreckage that he had known in 1945-46."

Leila Sadat says while international law is complex, Whitney Harris' legacy is simple.

"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.'"

When Whitney Harris died Wednesday in St. Louis, Missouri, the world not only lost a powerful voice for justice, but also one that reminded us of Nuremberg — where, as Harris said, tyranny was put on trial.