By Andrew Cohen
Whitney Harris ’36, the last surviving prosecutor who appeared before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg during the trials of top surviving Nazi war criminals, died Wednesday in St. Louis. He was 97.
After graduating from Berkeley Law, Harris practiced in Los Angeles until he entered the U.S. Navy following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served as a line officer in the Pacific theater until 1945, when the Navy assigned him to the Office of Strategic Services.
Sent to London to investigate war crimes in Europe, Harris was appointed to the staff of Robert H. Jackson, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice and chief prosecutor for the Nuremberg trials. Harris became a trusted aide to Jackson and assisted him throughout the trials, including his cross-examination of defendant Hermann Goering.
Harris drew valuable testimony from the commandant of Auschwitz and other top Nazis, many of whom spoke unemotionally about their roles in various atrocities. In his first Nuremburg trial, 18 top Nazis were convicted and 10 were hanged. Footage of Harris in the Nuremberg courtroom is available here, and he discusses the experience at a 2008 event here.
Despite the gravity of the cases, there were occasional light moments. In 2004, Harris told a St. Louis radio station how Rudolf Hess, Adolph Hiter’s deputy, ruined his attempt to feign amnesia by testifying about Belgium being in the war. “We got him,” Harris recalled. “We said, ‘OK, Hess, if you can only remember things back two weeks, how did you remember that Belgium was in the war?’”
After Nuremberg, Harris served as Chief of Legal Advice during the Berlin Blockade, law professor at Southern Methodist University, director of the Hoover Commission’s Legal Services Task Force, the first executive director of the American Bar Association, and as solicitor general of Southwestern Bell Telephone Company.
Harris also taught law, went into private practice, became a major philanthropist in the St. Louis area, and authored Tyranny on Trial—a comprehensive account of the Nuremberg trials. Footage of Harris reading excerpts from Jackson’s introduction to the book at a 2001 event is available here.
A leading advocate for bringing modern war criminals to justice, Harris often voiced his concern that parts of the world weren’t heeding the lessons of Nazi Germany. “I believe God is merciful and just,” Harris said in 2006 on National Public Radio. “But if man desires to destroy himself, I believe God will not save him.”
Two major academic centers have been named after Harris: the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute at Washington University in St. Louis, and the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center at the University of Missouri.