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CHAPTER 5 HANDY-DANDY JUSTICE NAZI CRIMES AND THE SELF-ABSOLUTION OF THE WEST GERMAN JUDICIARY A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thy ears; look how yond justice rails upon yond thief. Hark in thine ear: change places, and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? King Lear, Act IV, Scene 6, 165–68 The profession called upon to judge former death camp staff from Sobibor, Belzec , and Treblinka was no less implicated in Nazi atrocities than the defendants over whom they sat in judgment. At more than 90-percent membership in the NSDAP,1 the German judiciary had been the most Nazified professional group in the Third Reich, and the party affiliation of its judges and lawyers was far from nominal: they were instrumental in laying the foundation of Hitler’s dictatorship and enabling his monumental crimes. These ranged from the spurt of legislation following on the Nazi seizure of power—including the Reichstag Fire Decree, the Enabling Act, and a host of anti-Jewish laws aimed at depriving the German Jews of their rights2 —to Reich Justice Minister Gürtner’s declaration that the Night of the Long Knives was perfectly legal, an abdication of judicial responsibility that, in Ian Kershaw’s words, affirmed “Hitler’s right to commit murder in the interest of the state.”3 Jurists wrote the Nuremberg Laws forbidding Jews and “Aryans” from marrying, crafted a “Marital Health Law” that prevented marriage on the grounds of genetic unfitness, and administered Hitler’s “hereditary health courts” that led to the sterilization of as many as four hundred thousand Germans. All of these measures predated the outbreak of the war in September 1939. From this date until the fiery end of the Third Reich, the German judiciary moved in lockstep with the Nazis in their descent into barbarism. The premier venues for judicial criminality during the war were the “special courts” Handy-Dandy Justice 192 and “People’s Court” of Nazi Germany. The “special courts” (Sondergerichte) were not inventions of the Nazis but grew conceptually out of the presidential decrees of Chancellors Brüning and Papen. Initially intended as extraordinary courts to deal efficiently and swiftly with the political violence engulfing Weimar Germany prior to the Nazis’ seizure of power, the special courts came into being in March 1933 with jurisdiction over crimes specified under Hitler’s emergency decree of February 28, 1933—namely, incitement to disobedience of government decrees, sabotage, and the infinitely tensile offense of acting “contrary to the public welfare.”4 The Nazi government installed a special court in each regional court district;5 in the ensuing years, their number was greatly multiplied. The raison d’être of the special courts was to grease the rails for punishing political offenders by reducing their legal protections and eliminating their right of appeal. The special courts became the primary mechanism for enforcing the regime’s “treachery” (Heimtücke) law, passed in December 1934, which could impose prison terms of up to two years for “making false or grossly distorted statements” about the Nazis.6 Over time the special courts, staffed by three ordinary court judges, developed a métier for inflicting capital punishment on the regime’s political and racial enemies. A Ministry of Justice official told the legal reporter Edith Roper that the courts of the Third Reich were carrying out more than twenty executions each day in 1938.7 That number ballooned into the tens of thousands after the outbreak of the war: by the spring of 1945, German ordinary, special, and military courts had executed some eighty thousand people within the Reich and German-occupied Europe.8 The second crimogenic venue for the German judiciary was the People’s Court (Volksgerichtshof), pilloried by Telford Taylor in his opening statement at Nuremberg as “the most notorious Nazi judicial innovation.”9 Although not formally established until April 24, 1934, the idea of the “People’s Court” is traceable to the early history of the Nazi Party. In Mein Kampf (1924), Hitler vowed a settling of scores with the “November criminals,” which would one day take the form of “a German national tribunal” to convict and “execute several tens of thousands” of them. Future Reich Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick, then a deputy in the Reichstag, proclaimed in 1928 that when they came to power, the Nazis would have SPD politician Ernst Heilmann “hanged by a German state tribunal . . . in a fully lawful manner.” Hitler returned...


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