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The Nazi Party: The “People’s Court”

(1934 - 1945)

Since its founding, the National Socialist German Workers Party fought against the rule of law. The National Socialist takeover also represented a victory of authoritarian criminal law over liberal criminal law. The creation of Special Courts (Sondergerichte) in 1933 and the “People’s Court” (Volksgerichtshof) in 1934 were important milestones.

With Roland Freisler’s appointment as president of the “People’s Court” in 1942, the trials lost their last semblance of legitimate legal proceedings. Freisler humiliated and ridiculed the defendants. The wording of statues was systematically misinterpreted; death sentences were “justified” on grounds presented on less than two pages of text. The “People’s Court” committed judicial murders.

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 defend themselves.

The July Plot

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 supported them.

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 sentences.

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.

Sources: Plötzensee Memorial Center