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Whitney R. Harris: Nuremberg war-crimes trial prosecutor, author, teacher, philanthropist

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 23, 2010 - Whitney Robson Harris believed that law and justice are the most powerful weapons that civilization has to fight tyranny. In 1945, at age 33, he used those weapons as a member of the legal team that prosecuted Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg following World War II.

"Peace and justice are the stanchions of humanity," Mr. Harris wrote in" The Tragedy of War," his 2004 recounting of major tragedies, genocides and mass murders during the past 100 years. "The way to permanent peace is not through the power of the sword but through the precepts of the law."

Mr. Harris, the last of the original team that prosecuted Nazis in 1945 and 1946, died Wednesday at his home in Frontenac of complications from cancer. He was 97.

For more than six decades, Mr. Harris practiced law: private, corporate, in academia and the military. He lived a philanthropic life and woven throughout were the strands of justice, his legacy from Nuremberg.

Tyranny on Trial

Mr. Harris was a captain in the U.S. Navy, serving in the Pacific theater, when he was sent to London to work with British intelligence investigating war crimes in Europe. He was assigned to the team headed by the late U.S. Chief of Counsel Robert Houghwout Jackson, the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials.

Mr. Harris had not "the slightest idea" of the scale of German genocide when he began work as a prosecutor in Nuremberg. The team of young prosecutors assembled at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, the setting for the trials. They prepared and presented the case against the Gestapo and the SS, Germany's secret police.


"I had a secretary and one typewriter," Mr. Harris said in a 2007 interview. "We set to work to develop evidence and gather incriminating documents."

Their efforts resulted in the international court trying 22 high-ranking Nazis; 19 were convicted of war crimes and crimes against the state; 12 were sentenced to death. Mr. Harris served as Jackson's official representative at the conclusion of the trial in October 1946 and was on-hand for the execution of the condemned Nazi defendants, including Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Hoess, commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. For his work at Nuremberg, Mr. Harris received the Legion of Merit, a U.S. military honor awarded for exceptionally meritorious conduct.

In 1954, Mr. Harris would use the volumes of documents he researched and accumulated, replete with direct testimony from the trials, to write "Tyranny on Trial." The book has been cited as the first comprehensive study of the Nuremberg trials, and it served as the basis of a History Channel special.

He also wrote "Family Law," "Murder by the Millions: Rudolf Hoess at Auschwitz" and "Law, Culture and Values." He co-wrote "Legal Services and Procedure" and penned numerous articles for legal journals throughout his career.

Much of Mr. Harris' work ended up in the grateful hands of Washington University.

"We are fortunate to be home to his many papers and documents related to the Nuremberg trials," said Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton. "He was very enthusiastic and generous towards others and their points of view."


The Making of a Defender of Justice


Mr. Harris was born August 12, 1912, in Seattle. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Washington in 1933. Three years later, he graduated from law school at the University of California. He practiced law in Los Angeles until he entered the Navy following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In 1948, Mr. Harris was invited to join the faculty at Southern Methodist University by Robert Storey, dean of the law school, who had been Jackson's executive trial counsel at Nuremberg. After six years as a law professor, Mr. Harris came to St. Louis as a corporate lawyer for Southwestern Bell. He later joined the St. Louis firm of Sumner Harris and Sumner and remained in private practice until his retirement.

He was a member of the bar in California, Texas, and Missouri, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court bar, and held Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degrees from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and McKendree College. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the Order of the Coif.

Leaving a Legacy of Truth and Treasure

"Whitney's experiences at Nuremberg as a young lawyer made an indelible impression upon him, and he quickly emerged as one of the major spokesmen for the Nuremberg legacy," said Leila Sadat, director of Washington University's Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute. "He inspired all of us."


In 1998, Mr. Harris served as a non-governmental delegate to the United Nations conference in Rome that resulted in a treaty calling for the establishment of a permanent international criminal court.

He spoke and wrote extensively on behalf of the International Criminal Court and was present in the Reichstag in 2001 as Germany became the 23rd nation to ratify the treaty. In 2002, the court achieved ratification by the required 60 nations. To date, the United State is not among more than 100 member nations of the International Criminal Court.

In 1981, Mr. Harris donated his books and documents on the Third Reich to Olin Library at Washington University, a collection that has grown to nearly 2,500 items and is housed in the Jane and Whitney Harris Reserve Reading Room.

Mr. Harris and his first wife, Jane Fruend Harris, were often partners in philanthropy until her death in 1999. They generously supported many charitable organizations and educational institutions, including the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the St. Louis Muny Opera, where a garden bears their names.

They were especially supportive of Washington University programs. In 1998, an endowed scholarship was established at the University's School of Law in their honor. A bequest by Jane Harris created the Jane and Whitney Harris Community Service Award, which annually honors a husband and wife who have made an outstanding contribution to St. Louis.

"Jane provided a gift that lets us recognize other couples like them in our community," Wrighton said. "Now Anna (Mr. Harris's wife of 10 years) has embraced this treasured award and has been very active in supporting it."

Mr. Harris carried on the legacy of giving. In 2000, Washington University established the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute, a center for instruction and research in international and comparative law. In 2001, Washington University renamed its Institute for Global Legal Studies in his honor. The Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center at the University of Missouri St. Louis, a hub of conservation and ecology initiatives, also bears Mr. Harris's name.

Speaking at Washington University in a reflective moment several years ago, Mr. Harris said of his life, "The protection and elevation of human rights -- I can imagine no greater career."

He was preceded in death by his parents and one son, Charles "Chick" Harris.

Mr. Harris is survived by his wife, Anna Galakatos Harris, and a son, Eugene Harris of Olivette; three stepsons, Charles Foster Jr. of Denver, Greg Galakatos of Town and Country and Christopher Galakatos of Des Peres; a stepdaughter, Theresa Galakatos of Richmond Heights; four grandchildren and seven step-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be May 23 in Graham Chapel at Washington University. His remains were cremated.

Some information for this story came from the Washington University Magazine.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.