St. Louis – 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 Two. He died Wednesday in St. Louis at the age of 97.
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 U.S. Navy officer would learn every detail of these atrocities from the people who planned them. Harris opened the case against Ernst Kaltenbruner, a high-ranking member of the SS.
"Kaltenbruner joined the SS and the Nazi Party in Austria in 1932," said Harris at the prosecutors' lectern in 1946. "He was party member 300179, and SS member 13039."
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 on St. Louis on the Air that 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," Harris said. "Aha! We got him! We said, 'OK Hess, if you can only remember things back two weeks, how did you remember that Belgium was in the war?'"
Still, listening to Nazis testify day after day for an entire 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 didn't want the world to forget.
Whitney Harris, who became a major philanthropist in the St. Louis area, was also 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 said Harris always emphasized the good that came out of Nuremberg.
"I never saw him become cynical," Sadat said. "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 the first Nuremburg 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 of St. John's University said 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," Barrett said.
Whitney Harris always looked at people's capacity for good. But speaking in 2006 on NPR's series This I Believe, he expressed concern that the world still has not heeded some of the lessons of the Nazis.
"I believe there is God," Harris said. "I believe God is merciful and just. But if man desires to destroy himself, I believe God will not save him."
Leila Sadat said 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.'"
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."
>> Listen to an interview with Harris from St. Louis on the Air.
>> Listen to Harris' This I Believe essay