The court system in Nazi Germany was an example of the meandering course of Hitler’s efforts to reshape government institutions to suit his interests. Despite the lenient treatment he had received from sympathetic Weimar-era judges during his assault and treason trials, Hitler had claimed to want to annihilate the German judiciary and replace it with pure, National Socialist courts. The exact structure of this proposed new court system was never spelled out–in keeping with many of Hitler’s proposed policies–but it sounded radical, and Hitler’s heart usually warmed to radical sounding notions, however impractical.
But, when the Nazis finally seized power in 1933, Hitler made no initial moves against the judiciary. In part, this was because of the complexity of the job. German courts were divided into Federal, state, and local courts, each with their own independent hierarchies. Because the regime still had to recognize the power of President Hindenburg, the cabinet’s more conventional conservatives (including then-Minister of Justice Guertner), and the governments of several German states that weren’t yet under Nazi control, a bold strike at the whole of the judiciary would have been beyond Hitler’s capacity. But, as it worked out, the Ministry of Justice and the courts, aware that Hitler had been thinking of obliterating both, were happy enough to please him by purging themselves of socialists, communists, Jews, and other political undesirables.
Still, the courts were an early source of frustration to Hitler in at least one case–the Reichstag Fire case. Hitler had expected the judges to find a large communist conspiracy behind the Reichstag fire, but instead only a single communist was convicted. Furious, Hitler used the power granted him under the Reichstag Fire Decree to set up his own court system, outside the hierarchies of the German courts and beyond the reach of German law. These were the Sondergerichte, the Nazi special courts.
The remit of the special courts was broad. Almost any crime that could be described in terms of political opposition ended up before them. The most infamous of these courts was the Volksgerichtshof, the People’s Court, created in 1934 to prosecute treason trials. Though the People’s Court was the best known of the special courts, it operated in much the same way that the others did.
Trials in the special courts seldom lasted more than an hour or two. Their procedure was less a legal process than a ritual of humiliation. The defendant, dressed in shabby clothing and frequently chained, would be brought before the judge. His or her defense attorney had to remain silent while the public prosecutor and the judge harassed and abused the defendant for the bulk of the trial. When the judge was finished, he’d pronounce the sentence, usually death. No appeals were permitted. The defendant would often be executed within a few hours.
The film below is an example of the court at work. It’s taken from the trial of the coup plotters who bombed Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair conference room in 1944. The judge who does most of the talking is Roland Freisler, Chief Justice of the court. The film is in German and lacks subtitles, but a brief look is all it takes to get the idea.
In theory, the regular Reich courts remained independent during the first year of Nazi rule. However, after Hitler had Ernst Roehm, the SA leadership, and a number of other inconvenient people killed, Hitler made a speech justifying the killings that set the relationship between the dictatorship and the court system for the next eleven years:
If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice for conviction of the offenders, then all that I can say to him is this: in this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people!
After this, judges in the conventional courts were encouraged to go beyond trial evidence, or the specific letter of the law, to condemn those persons who in any way offended the spirit of the German racial community. Joseph Goebbels stated the matter plainly:
While making his decisions the judge is to proceed less from the law than from the basic idea that the offender is to be eliminated from the community. During a war it is not so much a matter of whether a judgment is just or unjust, but only the decision is expedient. The State must protect itself in the most efficient way and wipe them out entirely…One must not proceed from the law, but from the resolution that the man must be wiped out.
One judge would later say that, ideally, Hitler would settle all legal cases himself; but since he couldn’t, it was up to judges to enforce apply their understanding of Hitler’s will to the cases before them. Law, as it had been known, was no longer decisive in legal proceedings. Judges, now more than ever, were working toward the Fuehrer. Judicial independence, once the ideal of the German state, nearly vanished. By the end of the thirties, Justice Minister Guertner, who’d once resisted some of Hitler’s more violent decrees, fired a judge who questioned the legal basis of the euthanasia program. He said to him “If you cannot recognise the will of the Führer as a source of law, then you cannot remain a judge.”