Whitney R. Harris dies at 97; prosecutor of WWII Nazi criminals

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

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of the former commander of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Rudolf Hoess was the commandant of Auschwitz; he is not to be confused with Rudolf Hess, who was a deputy to Adolf Hitler.

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, Harris led the team’s first case, that of Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the highest-ranking leader of the Nazi Security Police to face trial.

In concentrating on the secret services, or SS, 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,” Harris said in Nuremberg in 1996, during the 50th anniversary commemoration of the trials.

Harris moved to St. Louis in 1963 as general solicitor of the former Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. He endowed programs at Washington University and was active until last year in seminars at the university’s law school.

“He was a tireless advocate for bringing the rule of law to relations among countries, and of trying to prevent any repetition of the Holocaust,” said Leila Sadat, director of the university’s Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute.

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 executed by hanging. Harris’ three-day interview of Hoess in April 1946 helped a Polish tribunal convict him and order his execution.

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.”

Harris was born Aug. 12, 1912, in Seattle, the son of a car dealer, and graduated from the University of Washington. He received his law degree from UC Berkeley and practiced in Los Angeles from 1936 until 1942. He was a lawyer in the Navy at the rank of captain when he was selected to work with Jackson.

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

In 1948, Harris returned to the U.S. to teach law at Southern Methodist University and wrote a book, “Tyranny on Trial: The Evidence at Nuremberg.”

In 1954 and 1955, he was national executive director of the American Bar Assn. He then joined Southwestern Bell before going into private practice.

Harris’ survivors include his wife, Anna; a son, three stepsons, a stepdaughter, four grandchildren, and nine step-grandchildren.