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Whitney R. Harris, 97

Whitney R. Harris, 97; prosecuted Nazi crimes after WWII

Whitney R. Harris interrogated the former Auschwitz commander.
Whitney R. Harris interrogated the former Auschwitz commander. (Diether Endlicher/associated Press)

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By Tim O'Neil
Saturday, April 24, 2010

Whitney R. Harris, 97, one of the last original prosecutors of Nazi crimes after World War II, died April 21 at his home in Frontenac, Mo. He had complications from cancer.

Mr. Harris was part of the team, led by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, that began the prosecution of war criminals in Nuremberg, Germany, shortly after the war's end. In 1945, Mr. Harris led the team's case against Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the highest-ranking leader of the Nazi Security Police to face trial.

In concentrating on the secret services, or SS, Mr. Harris interrogated Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Hoess, former commander of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

"Mr. Hoess told me, as unemotionally as if he were talking at the breakfast table, that 2.5 million people were killed at Auschwitz," Mr. Harris later said.

Mr. Harris won a conviction of Kaltenbrunner for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including his roles in running the Gestapo, the Nazi concentration camps and the massacre of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. Kaltenbrunner was hanged.

Mr. Harris' three-day interview of Hoess in April 1946 helped a Polish tribunal convict him and order his execution. Mr. Harris said he and other lawyers and investigators gathered an abundance of evidence from German files.

"We were really surprised at the documentation we were able to come up with," he said. "I went through Gestapo offices and dug through rubbish and found documents ordering the extermination of Jews. We scurried all over Europe getting documentary evidence."

Mr. Harris was born in Seattle, the son of a car dealer, and graduated from the University of Washington. He received a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley. He was a lawyer in the Navy at the rank of captain when he was selected to work with Jackson. About 200 lawyers took part in the trials.

The special international court tried 22 high-ranking Nazis, convicted 19 and sentenced 12 to death. For his work there, Mr. Harris was decorated with the Legion of Merit.

In 1948, Mr. Harris returned to the United States to teach law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and spent part of the next six years writing a book, "Tyranny on Trial," an account of the Nuremberg trials.

A third edition of his book, published in 1995, includes a model statute for a permanent International Criminal Court. In 1998, Mr. Harris was a delegate at a conference to create the court, which sits at The Hague in the Netherlands. He was at the Reichstag in Berlin in 2000 when Germany's lower house voted to ratify the treaty to establish the court.

"It's amazing to me that the nation we prosecuted in 1946 has adopted the treaty, but the U.S. has not yet ratified it," Mr. Harris said in 2000. The treaty remains unratified.


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