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Hitler's Justice: The Courts of the Third Reich, by Ingo Muller

Nazi Justice in Democratic West Germany

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Hitler's Justice: The Courts of the Third Reich, by Ingo Muller

Hitler's Justice: The Courts of the Third Reich, by Ingo Muller

Most may assume that after World War II, the Nazi element was eliminated from Germany. That assumption is not entirely correct. Early efforts were aimed at denazification, but the passion to eliminate Nazis from German politics and culture quickly subsided. First, the regular rotation of new Allied administrators brought in people with less interest in denazification. Second, there was political pressure to placate the Germans, who were thought necessary to oppose the communist menace

The situation was perhaps worst in the judicial system, where judges and professors who participated in the Nazi regime of terror paid almost no price for their crimes. Most not only returned to their jobs, sooner or later, but many would go on to play instrumental roles in the creation of the West German government and post-Nazi legal precedents. Some even tried to argue that the Third Reich never truly ended and that the new democratic government in Germany had legal and administrative continuity with Hitler’s dictatorship.

Only communist East Germany took significant steps to truly eliminate the Nazis from government administration, which is ironic given how West German jurists reacted to communists. Judges who had earlier served on Race Law trials or who were high-ranking SA leaders were given the authority to decide if communists were fit to be in the civil service. Law professors whose theories helped justify Nazi ideology kept their posts and continued teaching their ideas to a whole new generation, though without explicit references to the Nazis.

Nazi jurists were provided with handsome pensions; victims of these jurists were provided with little or no compensation. Nazi jurists presided in trials over the subversive activities of communists who, a few years earlier, would have been part of the anti-Nazi resistance. Courts in democratic West Germany found that it was correct for Nazi courts to deprive Jews of their liberties or to order the execution of Nazis who refused to sign death sentences.

So, perhaps there was more continuity between Nazi Germany and democratic West Germany than is commonly realized? Why this is all so horrible is, once again, aptly stated in the 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg. At the end of the trial, chief defendant Ernst Janning takes the stand and makes a statement which concludes:

    Ernst Janning: Your honor, I was content to sit silent during this trial. I was content to tend my roses. I was even content to let counsel try to save my name, until I realized that in order to save it, he would have to raise the specter again. You have seen him do it - he has done it here in this courtroom. He has suggested that the Third Reich worked for the benefit of people. He has suggested that we sterilized men for the welfare of the country. He has suggested that perhaps the old Jew did sleep with the sixteen year old girl, after all. Once more it is being done for love of country.
Hitler's Justice: The Courts of the Third Reich, by Ingo Muller

Hitler's Justice: The Courts of the Third Reich, by Ingo Muller

    It is not easy to tell the truth; but if there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it...whatever the pain and humiliation.

This is fiction, but it’s also true: for the love of country, Germans avoided holding murderers responsible for their crimes because it would have undermined confidence in German culture, government, and society. The film referenced pressure on the judges to reach judgments that were “favorable” to the Germans in order to maintain their support in the growing conflict with the communists, a serious indictment of American policy at this time. That’s basically what happened, however, and so Nazi jurists became tightly integrated into the West German judicial system, almost as if nothing had ever happened.

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