One of the last surviving Americans who prosecuted Nazi-era war criminals passed away a week ago today at his home in Summit, New Jersey. His name was H.W. William Caming. He went by “Bill.” But he was already well into his 80s when I first met him, and so to me the soft-spoken gentleman was always “Mr. Caming.”
We met at the International Humanitarian Law Dialogs in Chautauqua, New York, cosponsored by the Robert H. Jackson Center (which sent news of his passing). Caming attended that annual gathering of international prosecutors most years, always dapper in suit and tie – even when age had confined him to a wheelchair. (credit for 2011 photo at bottom of Caming, left, with fellow Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz)
He spoke with great pride of his work at Nuremberg, where he served on the prosecution team for 3 years. Top Prosecutor Telford Taylor hired Caming – who’d spent World War II trying cases with the Air Force Judge Advocate General corps in China, Burma, and India – in 1946. When I interviewed him at Chautauqua in 2010, he remembered:
‘I had just come home from China after 27 months away. I was home in Florida, on 30 days’ R&R. I received a call from General Taylor. He was at the Pentagon. I went down. We had an interview. The rest is history.’
Caming indeed made history, as a lead prosecutor in the Ministries Case, the trial of nearly a dozen men who’d served in the Foreign Office and other government departments. (credit for photo at top of Caming in trial) His was the only one of the 11 cases that followed the Trial of the Major War Criminals in which prosecutors secured convictions for crimes against peace, known today as the crime of aggression. (The case was also notable as the only one in which a woman served as lead attorney – Dr. Elisabeth Gombel, who secured a favorable plea bargain for the client who chose her, Ernst Bohle.)
Although a few of the Ministries defendants were sentenced to upwards of 20 years in prison, some sentences were much lower, and all defendants were released by 1958, on orders of the U.S. High Commissioner. As he had in “Bringing War Criminals to Justice at Nuremberg,” an essay he published in the Dialogs Proceedings, in his interview with me Caming attributed this turn of events to Cold War politics:
‘There was a changed political climate and the Cold War had erupted. There was a constant pressure to end the case just as quickly as possible. They wanted to use Germany as a bulwark against Communism sweeping over Europe.’
In this view, which some dispute, Caming echoed a book he recommended to me, Peter Maguire’s Law and War (2010).
Not every day at Nuremberg was difficult, however. Among those who visited the trials was Rebecca West, the Briton who’d written a “quite good” account of the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941). “I more or less was her tour guide, mainly through the intricacies of the trials,” but also to a castle that had not been destroyed in Allied bombing and thus served as one of the area’s very few “tourist attractions.” I will remember Mr. Caming’s evident pleasure in recalling that visit, his gentle manner in talking with me, and his unfailing support for international criminal justice.