Benjamin Kaplan: Judge who played a crucial role in preparations for the Nuremberg trials

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The Independent Online

Benjamin Kaplan was one of the principal architects of the international trial at Nuremberg of leading Nazi government, military and party officials at the end of the Second World War in 1945. With the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel Kaplan was working in procurement at the Pentagon when in May 1945 he was ordered to join Justice Robert H Jackson's staff in preparing the trial.

During that summer, while Jackson was in London, negotiating with Britain, France and the Soviet Union about the proposed trial, Kaplan remained in Washington. There, along with Colonel Telford Taylor he supervised a legal team that was gathering and analysing the increasing mass of evidence. It was a scramble to complete the task. The Washington team broke new ground in developing legal theories for the case but were inevitably accused, in some quarters, of preparing "victors' justice". As the Manchester Guardian put it, "Grave precedents are being set. For the first time the leaders of a state are being tried for starting a war and breaking treaties." Kaplan was chiefly responsible for the drafting of a large part of Count I [The Common Plan or Conspiracy], which represented the American contribution to the Indictment.

In August 1945 Kaplan joined Jackson in London to continue with his mission, and in October he was present when the Indictment was filed with the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in Berlin. From there he went to Nuremberg and worked with his staff on preparation for the trial, which began on 20 November 1945.

Justice Jackson asked Kaplan to be one of the prosecutors presenting the case to the IMT, but he asked to be relieved of this burden. Because he had enough points to be discharged from the Army, in late November, after the trial commenced, Kaplan requested his release. It had been an exhausting task sifting through material about appalling and in many cases carefully planned atrocities, what one interpreter called, "the long monotony of horror." Of the 22 high-ranking Nazi officials tried at the first and most famous Nuremberg trial, three were acquitted, eight went to prison and the rest were sentenced to death. Of those sentenced to hang, Hermann Göring committed suicide in prison and Martin Bormann was never found.

The third of four children of a Jewish family, Benjamin Kaplan grew up in a five-storey apartment building in the squalor of the South Bronx. His father ran a candy store and worked as a textile cutter. Benjamin graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School at 14 and, from City College of New York at 18, before entering Columbia Law School. After graduation in 1933, he worked at the law firm of Greenbaum, Wolff & Ernst from 1934 until he began his military service in 1942.

Once more a civilian, Kaplan returned to his earlier specialisms, copyright law and civil procedures, on which he wrote several works. In 1947 he joined the law faculty at Harvard, remaining there for 25 years. Among his students were two who became Surpreme Court judges. In 1972, despite being an academic and a Democrat, he was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court by a Republican governor, Francis W Sargent, serving for nine years until the mandatory retirement age of 70. Later he served on the Massachusetts Appeals Court, deciding cases into his 90s.

David Childs

Benjamin Kaplan, lawyer and academic: born New York 11 April 1911; married 1942 Felicia Lamport (died 1999; one son, one daughter); died Cambridge, Massachusetts 18 August 2010.