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Nov. 16, 2010
Courts' Role in Nazi Germany Discussed at Supreme Court Lecture Series

A United States Holocaust Memorial Museum historian told an audience today at the Supreme Court of Ohio that pre-World War II German courts set the stage for Nazi atrocities by falling for promises of restoring order, professionalism and judges’ authority.

Presented by Dr. William Meinecke, the fourth Forum on the Law lecture on “How the Courts Failed Germany” was sponsored by the Supreme Court, the Columbus Jewish Federation, the Ohio Jewish Communities and the Ohio Judicial Center Foundation.

As a recognized authority on the role of German courts during the period leading up to and during Adolf Hitler’s regime, Dr. Meinecke explained that judges and lawyers saw the Nazis as the lesser of two evils compared to the Communists, a belief that Hitler exploited.

“It’s clear that these professions failed … and that they contributed substantially to the Holocaust,” Meineke said.

Meinecke said the role of judges was critical to the Nazis’ rise to power because they needed the judges’ blessing to stabilize the judicial system, which led to its legitimacy. Many judges had begun to view the existing Weimar Republic, born of revolution in 1918, as illegitimate. The Nazis promised a restoration of order as had existed under the Kaiser regime, which was appealing to jurists.

Hitler promised to restore judges’ authority too. Judges were still applying imperial codes where judges appointed by the Kaiser were applying laws written by the Kaiser. People had lost respect for the law, Meinecke said.

Even when the number of political prisoners held by the Ministry of Justice increased from 35,000 to 150,000 in the 1930s, Meinecke said the situation looked normal to jurists. “Jurists had no interest in questioning the legitimacy of the Nazi state, because it saved them from the abyss,” he said. “The court was afraid of being irrelevant.”

In his research, Meinecke said he uncovered one sitting judge who challenged Nazi practices. The judge, who objected to a secret killing program of mentally and physically disabled people, was removed from office. Another judge, who refused to take an oath to Hitler resulting in unlimited power, resigned from office. Neither judge was arrested. Other officials with objections were transferred to distant posts with little meaning and little power.

Slowly, Hitler remade the judiciary step-by-step in his own image. “He used the rules of democracy to destroy democracy,” Meinecke said. Jurists, obviously, couldn’t see where all this was headed and called the changes minor because they didn’t affect nonpartisan jurists, only Jews or those politically active, he said.

Among the changes, Hitler withdrew the treason powers of the Supreme Court and handed it to the People’s Court in Berlin, “a purely political court run by Nazi partisans.” Meinecke said the Supreme Court was actually relieved to not have to deal with political issues and focus on ensuring legal codes were applied the same in all German courts.

Judges also saw the Nazi regime as an opportunity for advancement as Jews were removed from the bench.

Constantly expanding police powers eventually resulted in “intensified interrogation techniques” with suspects showing up in court bruised and battered, Meinecke said. When courts or lawyers questioned the techniques, Hitler’s solution was to continue the torture, enter an admission by police of using the techniques and have the courts weigh whether it was justified to gain a confession.

The Supreme Court of Ohio began the Forum on the Law lecture series last year to bring together the legal and judicial communities to explore topics of interest.

Contact: Chris Davey or Bret Crow at 614.387.9250.