When Nazis Were Judges

Judges, even the best of judges, sometimes make the wrong decisions. And then there are courts where the wrong decision is unavoidable because wrong decisions are part of the process.

In Law, Justice, and the Holocaust (2009, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), William F. Meinecke and Alexandra Zapruder explore the role of the German judiciary in supporting and enforcing Nazi policies from 1933 to 1945. From the beginning of the Third Reich right up to its collapse, German courts followed laws passed by the Nazi government that deprived people of basic human rights while furthering the stated aims of Adolf Hitler and his top aides.

The judges who sat in those courtrooms were not hand-picked Nazis just waiting for an opportunity to serve their Fuhrer, though. Almost all of them were hold-overs from the previous regime. Yet when told to take a new oath of office, one which explicitly elevated Hitler as the supreme object of their allegiance over the rule of law, they did so with alacrity.

Nazi leadership quickly passed laws – some signed by Hitler personally – criminalizing  free assembly and free speech, as well as providing harsher penalties for what would otherwise be minor crimes. Jews, of course, were not only specified in some of these laws as under particular restrictions, but were also singled out for that harsher punishment.

Attorney Michael Siegel paraded through Munich in 1933 with a sign reading "I am a Jew but I will never again complain to the police"

Attorney Michael Siegel paraded through Munich in 1933 with a sign reading “I am a Jew but I will never again complain to the police”

One of the most insidious laws concerned the Nazi efforts to preserve the “purity” of the nation. The national purity laws prohibited sexual relations between those the Nazis considered desirable citizens and those who were not desirable. Jews headed the list of those considered not desirable, and this law criminalized sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews. As Meinecke and Zapruder describe these laws in their book, even non-sexual relationships led to convictions. The death penalty (but only for the Jewish person in the relationship) was swiftly carried out.

Standing Up For The Oppressed

You might wonder how many judges resisted these laws, perhaps even resigned in protest over them.

One.

One judge in all of Germany quietly resigned rather than sit on the bench enforcing the laws passed in furtherance of Nazi policies. The rest stayed on the job.

When the war crimes trials came following the war, their defense sounded much like the military officers who said they were only following orders. The judges insisted they were only enforcing the laws passed by the government. Many of them were convicted.

They had forgotten some of the most basic principles of judging:

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. (Leviticus 19:15.)

Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31:9.)

Hear the disputes between your people and judge fairly, whether the case is between two Israelites or between an Israelite and a foreigner residing among you. (Deuteronomy 1:16.)

The Nazi judges forgot that courts are not tools for promoting the government’s agenda.

They forgot that everyone is to be treated the same under the law, whether a citizen of the chosen nation or a foreigner, whether rich or poor, whether needy or not.

They forgot how to judge fairly, as the verses above repeatedly require.

The Nazi judges forgot that courts are a forum for providing equal justice under the law.

That is how one judges fairly.

***

Tomorrow’s post will discuss judges and bribes.

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22 Responses to When Nazis Were Judges

  1. Adriana says:

    Only one judge in all of Germany? Oh my word. I looked him up because I wondered what became of him after stepping down. Hjalmar Schacht. Looks like he was imprisoned along with 7,000 others after the July 20 Plot then acquitted at Nuremberg after the war. Interesting.

    Thank you for this reminder that the Word provides clarity for all of life’s tough choices and leads to peace and new life rather than destruction and a culture of death.

  2. How might your Christian faith and biblical truth conflict with the need to uphold the laws of the land? For example, the Bible talks about the strangers among us and then of course there is the whole abortion issue. Strangers and unborn need advocates.

  3. Jeannie says:

    Judges clearly have a very solemn responsibility, Tim — not one that can be thrown out when the situation becomes threatening and dangerous.

  4. Laura Droege says:

    How does a judge learn to be neutral and impartial (or at least as impartial as possible for a human)? It’s hard for me to hear anything without forming a premature, uninformed opinion about it, and I wondered how you’ve learned to do it.

    • Tim says:

      Part if it is just from experience, Laura. I’ve been in too many hearings where it looks like things are going one way and then I hear the other side and realize it is a different thing all together.

  5. cowgirlsuz says:

    Fascinating, Tim. Hitler’s power involved collusion by so many, including law enforcement, military, government, business, and even clergy. It’s sad that judges cooperated too! It’s hard to understand how that happened. Why do you think judges didn’t stand up? I’ve always thought people who become judges have a strong innate sense of justice and extra strength and courage to act on their convictions. Do you think that’s true? If so, why did those qualities falter during the rise of Nazi power?

    • Tim says:

      The judiciary as a whole operated under a philosophy that if those lawfully in power passed the laws it wasn’t up to the courts to second guess them. Very different from our American concept of judicial review.

  6. Tuija says:

    When I read the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (By Eric Metaxas) last year, I was again struck by how many church members were cooperating with Nazis and espousing all those antisemitic, racist principles.
    From the Wikipedia link that I put above, I noticed that Kreyssig, the one judge who resisted the Nazi regime, was actually a member of the Confessing Church: the group that resisted the nazification of the German evangelical church (Bonhoeffer also belonged to this group).
    Apparently Kreyssig, too, got his principles for judging from the Bible.

    Thanks, Tim, for yet another thought-provoking post.

  7. Pingback: Judges and Bribes | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  8. Aimee Byrd says:

    Wow, enlightening article, and the comments too! I love getting your perspective as a judge, Tim, and I also love learning form other people’s reading. Thanks for sharing.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Aimee. If you are interested in more, I linked to an on line version of the book above. It’s relatively short, and makes for gripping reading.

  9. Pingback: My Journey From Junior Judge to Senior Sage – 20 years on the bench | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  10. You said “One judge in all of Germany quietly resigned rather than sit on the bench enforcing the laws passed in furtherance of Nazi policies”. The perils of popular-thinking never cease to amaze me.

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