May 8, 2006

Drexel A. Sprecher, 92, U.S. Prosecutor at Nuremberg, Dies

Drexel A. Sprecher, a lawyer who researched, plotted strategy and argued cases at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, including presenting the case that convicted the head of the Hitler Youth movement, died on March 18 in Washington. He was 92 and a resident of Chevy Chase, Md.

Belle Zeck, another Nuremberg prosecutor, died the same day as Mr. Sprecher. Benjamin B. Ferencz, who was also a Nuremberg prosecutor and roomed with Mr. Sprecher, said only about a half dozen of their number were alive.

Mr. Sprecher was the only assistant prosecutor to present cases against two defendants at the first Nuremberg trial, in which a court created by the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France indicted 24 of the most important captured leaders of Nazi Germany.

Before the trial, one defendant hanged himself and another was considered too frail to stand trial. Three of the 22 tried were acquitted, 8 went to prison and the rest were executed.

Mr. Sprecher became one of the few original prosecutors to go on to subsequent Nuremburg trials conducted by the United States in its zone of occupied Germany. At these 12 trials, Mr. Sprecher at different times led four different divisions of the American prosecution team and was top deputy to Telford Taylor, chief counsel.

The Nuremberg trials were the first time an international court had tried government leaders. Their crimes seemed so huge and flagrant that Winston Churchill first advocated summarily shooting them. But the Allies instead advanced the notion that international, moral laws superceded national, immoral ones.

"The basic legal argument," Mr. Sprecher said in an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1995, "is that if you're ordered to kill an innocent person, you have to resist to the extent you can, unless there's actually a revolver at your head — and, even then, you may be convicted of being an accessory to murder."

On Oct. 19, 1945, in reporting the indictment of the 24 top Nazis the day before, The New York Times said they were charged with "participation in the bloodiest, blackest plot against peace and humanity that has ever stained history's pages."

The most difficult count to prove was the first one: conspiracy to wage aggressive war. The job was given to the United States.

Robert H. Jackson, the chief American prosecutor in the larger first trial, thought prewar documents were the best proof, not least because Germans kept good records.

The United States Army gathered many tons of documents as it seized German territory, then sent them in fleets of trucks to document centers. Sifting through them would have been laborious enough, but too few Americans were fluent in German.

Mr. Sprecher, who was fluent, provided crucial help with a particularly prized trove: papers of Alfred Rosenberg, a top official responsible for much Nazi theory. These were found behind a false wall in a Bavarian castle and discussed hideous crimes like enslaving children.

But the great need was to find evidence of conspiracy to start World War II, and Col. Robert G. Storey, the first executive trial counsel, asked Mr. Sprecher, then an Army captain, to find some in the Rosenberg documents.

"I looked at them and I thought, 'Jeez, where shall I start?' " Mr. Sprecher said in an interview with Newsweek in 1995. He then saw a small book titled "Norway." It reported on a visit to Berlin by Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian fascist party leader, in 1939.

Because the Germans invaded Norway the next year, the report supported the theory that the invasion had been plotted. Investigators then found material from just before the invasion of other countries.

Another example of Mr. Sprecher's research was a memorandum he sent Colonel Storey on Sept. 21, 1945, which included a list of 535 people the Nazis listed as members of the opposition in 1939. If these people were later persecuted, he said, it would prove conspiracy.

Mr. Sprecher's successful case against Baldur von Schirach, Hitler Youth leader from 1931 to 1940, involved arguing that the militarization of millions of youths, including rifle-shooting drills by 7,000 instructors, was "a central thread" of the Nazi conspiracy.

In the other case Mr. Sprecher presented, he contended that Hans Fritzsche, a deputy to the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, incited Germans by broadcasting lies on the radio.

"The propagandists who lent themselves to this evil mission of instigation and incitement are more guilty than the credulous and callous minions who headed firing squads or operated the gas chambers," he said.

In an interview with Court TV in 1999, Mr. Sprecher said he withheld evidence of Mr. Fritzsche's anti-Soviet raves for fear of offending the Russians. Mr. Fritzsche was acquitted.

In the 12 American trials, Mr. Sprecher was most visible in the prosecution of I. G. Farben, the German industrial giant. He wrote in a pretrial memorandum that the goal was to prove planning to convert or expand German industry for war, including secret rearmament.

Farben executives were found not guilty of conspiracy, but some were convicted of plunder and using slave labor.

Mr. Sprecher edited the 15-volume record of the 12 American trials, with The Times in 1949 calling the work "a triumph of condensation." In 1950, he published "Inside the Nuremberg Trial — A Prosecutor's Comprehensive Account."

Drexel Andreas Sprecher was born in Independence, Wis., on March 25, 1913, and attended North Central College before graduating from the University of Wisconsin and Harvard Law School.

He worked for the National Labor Relations Board, enlisted in the Army and moved on to the Office of Strategic Services, where he taught Germans to spy.

After Nuremberg, he held various jobs in the Truman administration and worked for the Democratic National Committee, for which he was deputy chairman for political organization from 1957 to 1960. He was also a management consultant and taught at George Washington University.

Mr. Sprecher's daughter Karen Maloy Sprecher Keating announced his death in March; publication in The New York Times was delayed by oversights.

His wife of 55 years, the former Virginia Lee, died on May 1. He is survived by his daughters, Karen of Washington, D.C., and Jenna Garman Sprecher Venero of Tampa, Fla.; his son, Drexel Jr., of Sausalito, Calif.; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Mr. Sprecher said in the interview with The Inquirer that he thought it was "psychologically necessary" to think of the Nazis as "monsters." But he told Court TV that that did not stop him from having a polite exchange with Hermann Göring, Hitler's lieutenant, after Göring broke his pencil and Mr. Sprecher handed him his own.

"I'm pleased to have helped you," he told Göring in German.