Nazi Show Trials and the Politics of Condemnation

Roland Freisler was one of the more unsavoury personalities of the Third Reich-era. This achievement was no small feat given his competition: Himmler, Bormann, Goebbels and Streicher were all strong contenders in the crappy personality department. Nevertheless, Freisler occupied a unique place in the pantheon of Nazi functionaries as the odious Judge responsible for condemning thousands of political prisoners to their death.

Born in lower Saxony in 1893, Freisler saw action in the German Army throughout the First World War, receiving the Iron Cross first class. Captured by the Russians on the Eastern Front, Freisler used his time in captivity to learn Russian and cultivate an intellectual interest in Marxism, and some doubt exists as to whether he actually became an ideological sympathiser by way of a dubious associations with Russian military forces. Following his return to Germany in 1920 Freisler resumed his legal studies at the University of Jena. He received his doctorate in 1922, which was eventually published as Schriften des Instituts für Wirtschaftsrecht (Fundamentals of Business Organization). A respectable career in the legal profession followed, in which Freisler distinguished himself as both ruthless and articulate.  Freisler’s biographer Helmut Ortner describes the young lawyer as being “extremely competent in his field and a skilled public speaker,” as well as being a master of “stalling tactics and the art of the probing question”[1]-skills Freisler would use to great effect in coming years.

During this period Freisler involved himself in the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) via a role on the Kassel city council. A skilled political strategist, Freisler was able to steadily increase his profile within the Nazi party and when Hitler made Chancellor in 1933 Freisler was rewarded with a post as the Director of the Prussian Ministry for Justice. Freisler functioned as a fanatical advocate for the Nazification of Nazi law and helped institute legal changes that would reflect the ideology of Nazism- many of which related to so-called ‘inferior races.’[2] In terms of historical memory, however, Freisler’s lasting legacy is as the noxious president of the Volksgerichtshof– the People’s Court. It was the People’s Court which hosted the infamous Nazi show trials, which are known to history as the stuff of dubious legend.

imagesThe Nazi show trials were nothing more than exercises in party propaganda. Film recordings of these events[3] depict a lonely, crestfallen defendant who had been condemned to death from the moment of arrest. Facing a panel of Nazi-appointed judges and legal staff, the accused were berated, screamed at and mocked in what appears to be little more than an exercise in inflicting humiliation and shame. Behind the defendant lie the courtroom audience and press- many of whom gathered for the purposes of obtaining enjoyment through watching the condemned receive Nazi justice. When called upon to present their defence, the accused faced the intimidating task of facing Freisler disdainful glare. Surrounded by antagonism, many of the defendants were reduced meek whimpering in the face of Freisler verbal ferocity. Appeals to reason, lack of evidence or clemency were utterly in vain, as the proceedings inexorably hurled toward their pre-determined outcome. Many of the accused were at pains to express their loyalty toward ‘Volk und Vaterland,’ and many could appeal to their military service during the Great War as a sign of sacrifice for the nation. That this meant nothing in Freisler’s ‘People’s Court’ merely reflected that the trials were not about prosecuting specific crimes but were instead oriented toward condemning the failure of individuals to reflect Nazi ideology in a sufficiently fanatical and zealous manner.

It is the public nature of these trials which attest to the essentially voyeuristic nature of law and punishment. The punishment being meted out to these alleged ‘criminals’ was in actuality an exercise in entertainment and sadism- twin elements of Nazi justice in which the public was also complicit through their willingness to inform on their friends and family at the slightest misdemeanour. In the Nazi ‘courts’ it was not enough for the prisoner to receive their inevitable sentence swiftly and with minimum of fanfare. Rather, what was essential was that the accused be stripped of their dignity and credibility in the most public way possible- the legal equivalent of the guillotine in the village square. For Freisler, the true crime of the accused was not simply their arrestable offence but related instead to a broader failure to conform to the type of individual required by the Nazi dictatorship. And of course, I use the word ‘individual’ loosely here, as the ideal ‘individual’ for the Nazis was one who did not think critically or independently, but instead unquestioningly submitted themselves to the Führerprinzip.

In his study of the history of the prison, Discipline and Punish, the French philosopher Michel Foucault gives expression to the idea that justice primarily functions as societal revenge toward an individual who dares to defy the moral conventions of the time. The reflections raised by Foucault remain pertinent in our own time of pervasive outrage and mercilessness:

The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social-worker judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements. [4]

According to Foucault, the criminal is judged both officially (according to the law) and the members of the society in which the ‘crime occurred.’ This dual dynamic can be observed in the show trials, as the filming and public spectacle allowed for the maximisation of shame and degradation- and all for the most trivial of misdemeanours (where they did occur at all). The goal was the non-existence of the accused- both literally and symbolically. In the process of condemnation, they became a persona non grata– one without a history or a future. This all had the additional benefit of acting as a fairly effective deterrent to others who might contemplate acting on their rebellious convictions.

The question now becomes: far have we evolved from the era of Nazi show trials? The answer is perhaps not as clear-cut as we might think. Any response to this question must give primacy to the role of technology in our society. The possibilities for self-expression inherent in the age of social media, for example, have also brought with it the curse of superficial moral condemnation, in which the failings of an individual are broadcast to great swathes of people ready to pounce on the accused. What has emerged is a ‘people’s court’ of our own making- one which runs parallel to the state legal system. The new court of public condemnation functions as a space for mass humiliation and degradation, in which those who have failed to meet the moral expectations of a particular group fall prey to humanities lust for blood. Today’s accused remain immortalized in digital memory- broadcast around the world to suffer a condemnation perhaps far worse than any fate that could be meted out by Freisler’s court. And if the reality of this seems overwhelmingly bleak, we can perhaps take small comfort in the manner of Freisler’s death. The Nazi parties toughest and most fanatical Judge died during a bombing raid as he was trying a case in court- a somewhat satisfying end for a truly obnoxious individual. Apparently, no-one mourned his passing.[5]

 

Notes:

[1] Helmut Ortner, Hitler’s Executioner: Roland Freisler, President of the Nazi People’s Court (Yorkshire: Frontline, 2018),

[2] In these effort Freisler found inspiration United States racial segregation laws. See James Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 103–6.

[3] For an assessment of the role of film in the administration of Nazi justice see Peter Drexler, “The German Courtroom Film During the Nazi Period: Ideology, Aesthetics, Historical Context,” Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 8 No. 1 (2001): 64–78.

[4] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin, 1977), 304.

[5] Granberg, Jerje, “Berlin, Nerves Racked by Air Raids, Fears Russian Army Most,” Oakland Tribune, 23 February 1945, p. 1.

 

About Ryan Buesnel

Welcome to my page! I am a writer and musician from Melbourne who enjoys reading philosophy, theology and military history. I am a Ph.D. Candidate through Charles Sturt University, with my thesis exploring the activities of the German State Church during the Third Reich-era.
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