After 1938, all criminal acts and, after 1939, all
minor offenses could be prosecuted before the Special Courts. These
courts consisted of three professional judges, and the verdict they
rendered were the first and final stage of appeal.
Wartime criminal law allowed the death penalty for
nearly every criminal act. Most important were sections 2 and 4 of the
ordinance on “antisocial parasites,” which allowed the death
penalty for acts committed during a blackout or while “exploiting
wartime conditions.” The Special Courts interpreted wartime criminal
law so liberally that even petty criminals, first-time offenders, and
infrequent offenders were sentenced to death in large numbers.
According to section 1 of the ordinance on “antisocial
parasites,” “looters” who committed thefts during
or after air raids received mandatory death sentences. Each Special
Court formed what were known as “looter” tribunals in 1942.
These tribunals convened after severe air raids and handed down death
sentences in summary proceedings, and the executions that took place
immediately after the raids were announced on red posters as a deterrent.
The defendants had no opportunity to prove their innocence or otherwise
The attempted coup of July
20, 1944, was the pivotal event in the resistance against National Socialism and also marked the last major turning point
in the domestic policy of the National Socialist regime. The terror
in Germany was intensified after the failure to assassinate Hitler.
On July 30, 1944, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich
Himmler and Chief of Armed Forces High Command Wilhelm
Keitel reported for a meeting with Hitler at his headquarters in
the “Wolf's Lair.” They established a “court of honor”
of army generals and field marshals to take action against the conspirators.
Between August 4 and September 14, 1944, a total of 55 army officers
were forcibly removed from the Wehrmacht and another 29 were discharged
at the request of the “court of honor.” Their forcible removal
from the Wehrmacht was required so that they could be sentenced by the
“People’s Court” and not the Reich Military Court,
which would otherwise have jurisdiction.
On August 7 and 8, 1944, the first trial was held against
Field Marshal Erwin von
Witzleben, First Lieutenant Peter
Graf Yorck von Wartenburg, Colonel-General Erich
Hoepner, Lieutenant General Paul
von Hase, Major General Hellmuth
Stieff, Captain Karl
Friedrich Klausing, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bernardis, and First
Lieutenant Albrecht von Hagen. All of the defendants were sentenced
to death. They were murdered that same day in Plötzensee prison.
Some of them were able to receive spiritual comfort from prison chaplains
Harald Poelchau and Peter Buchholz.
This marked the beginning of a series of more than
50 trials that resulted in more than 110 death sentences. From October
1944 on, these trials also included persons aiding fugitives and persons
providing support to those involved in the attempted coup. Roland Freisler,
the president of the “People’s Court,” presided over
most of these trials himself. Surviving films, photographs, and sound
recordings provide an impression of the hate-filled manner in which
he conducted these proceedings. The defendants were not allowed to choose
their own legal counsel; they and the public defender were permitted
to review the charges and specifications only shortly before the proceedings.
The first trial was given extensive coverage in the government-controlled
press, and passages of the proceedings were quoted in full.
The second trial on August 10, 1944, ended with death
sentences against officers Erich Fellgiebel, Fritz-Dietlof Graf von
der Schulenburg, Berthold Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, Alfred Kranzfelder,
and Georg Hansen, who were murdered that same day in Plötzensee.
This trial and the two that follow were also highly publicized.
On August 15, 1944, the “People’s Court”
sentenced Bernhard and Johannes Georg Klamroth, Egbert Hayessen, Wolf
Heinrich Graf von Helldorf, Adam
von Trott zu Solz, and Hans
Bernd von Haeften to death.
Between August 21 and September 29, 1944, 30 people
were sentenced to death in another seven trials. In contrast to the
initial trials, these later proceedings received no publicity so as
not to contradict the National Socialist assertion that the conspirators
comprised a “small clique of traitors without any conscience”
and expose the broad base of the resistance movement.
Between August 8, 1944, and April 9, 1945, a total
of 90 people were murdered in Plötzensee who were either thought to belong to the resistance
circles involved in the attempted coup of July 20, 1944, or who had
On September 7 and 8, 1944, the proceedings focused
on the civilian leaders of the coup attempt as Carl
Friedrich Goerdeler, Wilhelm
Leuschner, Josef Wirmer, Ulrich von Hassell, and
Paul Lejeune-Jung wenton trial. Social Democrats Julius
Leber, Hermann Maaß, and Adolf Reichwein were sentenced on
October 20, 1944. In late November 1944, Erich and Elisabeth Gloeden,
Elisabeth Kuznitzky, Hans Sierks, and Carl Marks were sentenced to death
for aiding fugitive artillery general Fritz Lindemann, who died of gunshot
wounds shortly after his arrest. Others received penitentiary and prison
The major trial against the members of the Kreisau
Circle took place between January 9 and 11, 1945. Helmuth
James Graf von Moltke wrote to his wife Freya: “We are being
executed because we thought together.” Moltke was sentenced to
death together with Franz Sperr and Alfred Delp; a few days later Freisler
sentenced Theodor Haubach, Theodor Steltzer, and Nikolaus Gross to death.
On February 2, 1945, the circle around Klaus
Bonhoeffer was prosecuted. He, his brother-in-law Rüdiger Schleicher,
Hans John, and Friedrich Justus Perels were sentenced to death. This
is the last trial that Roland Freisler conducted. On February 3, 1945,
he was crushed by a falling beam in the building of the “People’s
Court” during an air raid.
For almost a month there were no more trials. Fritz
Voigt, Franz Leuninger, and Oswald Wiersich were only sentenced to death
on February 26, 1945. The verdicts were somewhat more lenient after
Freisler’s death; several defendants received prison sentences.
In March 1945, Arthur Nebe and Friedrich Fromm were
sentenced to death; later death sentences can no longer be documented.