Whitney Harris: Lawyer who assisted in the prosecution of high-ranking Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Whitney Harris was the last surviving member of the three-man US legal team that prosecuted high-ranking Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, and he later became a significant voice in the founding of the International Criminal Court. The work carried out by Harris and his colleagues, through interrogations and evidence-gathering, helped to reveal much to the outside world of the atrocities carried out in Eastern Europe by the Einsatzgruppen, or death squads, and the origins of the Holocaust.

Born in Seattle in 1912, the son of a car salesman, Whitney Robson Harris graduated from the University of Washington in 1933 and received his law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1936. Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour he joined the Navy and was recruited to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to the CIA, where his assignments included gathering evidence relating to war crimes.

He joined the allied war crimes legal team as the war in Europe came to a close, working closely with, and becoming the principal aide to, the United States chief prosecutor Justice Robert Jackson. At Nuremberg, Harris was lead prosecutor and chiefly responsible for the prosecution of Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the most senior surviving leader and former Chief of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Main Security Office), and against two of its main agencies, the Gestapo and the SD, or security service.

In order to obtain evidence against Kaltenbrunner, Harris participated in the three-day interrogation of the former Auschwitz concentration camp commandant Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss, who claimed unapologetically that 2.5 million people had been exterminated under his supervision. This, along with photographs showing Kaltenbrunner at Mauthausen concentration camp flanking his security office predecessor, Heinrich Himmler, the commander of the SS and the Nazi police, helped secure his conviction. Harris also helped in the cross-examination of Hermann Göring, Hitler's second-in-command and designated successor, but Göring evaded the hangman's noose by taking cyanide just before he was due to face execution.

The International Military Tribunal, which took place between November 1945 and October 1946, saw 24 Nazi officials indicted, with 21 tried, one in absentia, 18 convicted and three acquitted. On the night of 15 October 1946, 10 of the convicted were hanged, with Harris there to represent the prosecution. "The bodies were burned in ovens which had been designed, and used, for Dachau prisoners," he recalled.

After Nuremberg, Harris served as Chief of Legal Advice during the Berlin Blockade before returning home to become professor of law at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, as well as director of the Hoover Commission's Legal Services Task Force and the first Executive Director of the American Bar Association. Harris is credited with writing the first comprehensive book on the Nuremberg trials, Tyranny on Trial, the Evidence at Nuremberg (1954), which was described by the New York Times as "the first complete historical and legal analysis of the Nuremberg trial".

In later years he devoted his energies primarily to speaking, writing, and teaching in the area of international law and justice. Despite being haunted by his work during the Nuremberg trials, he was a strong supporter of modern international tribunals, including the court for the former Yugoslavia, the court for Rwanda, and the International Criminal Court, which he helped in the creation of, along with two colleagues, Henry King Jr and Benjamin Ferencz. "We should not fear to establish the principles of law which will permit civilisation to survive," Harris said.

Whitney Robson Harris, lawyer; born Seattle 12 August 1912; married 1964 Jane Foster (died 1999), secondly Anna Galakatos (one son, three stepsons, one stepdaughter); died St Louis, Missouri 21 April 2010.