Special Courts and the People’s Court

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The regime increasingly distrusted its own citizens. The old fear of a breach in the “home front”, the stab-in-the-back trauma of 1918, burst forth again once the war broke out and all the more when the fortunes of the war turned. Severity against the nation’s enemy was caring for the nation!, according to Roland Freisler, the dreaded judge on the “People’s Court”.

Special justice and criminal legislation were constantly made more severe. The Reich Ministry of Justice declared judges and district attorneys to be soldiers of the home front and the Special Courts constituted in all of the superior courts to be armored troops of the administration of justice.

The number of sanctions threatening death increased constantly. The death penalty, which was provided “solely” for three offenses before 1933, was imposed in 46 offenses in 1943-44. The number of death sentences in the “Altreich” soared over the course of the war. Whereas the numbers had been 178 in 1939, they were 1,592 in 1943. Altogether, over 16,000 death sentences were imposed by the criminal justice system, most of them by the Special Courts and the “People’s Court”.

Extraordinarily harsh punishments were provided for looting as well as for listening to foreign broadcasters. Section 5 of the Special Wartime Criminal Code served as a universal instrument against undermining military preparedness. It threatened the death penalty in any cases when someone openly sought to cripple or undermine the will of the German or allied people to assert themselves militarily. The most minor offenses against property were increasingly prosecuted with the same draconian severity as “defeatist remarks”.

The conviction of many judges and district attorneys that “destructive elements” and “hopeless anti-social elements” had no right to live in the Volksgemeinschaft (racial national community) anyway and ought to be “eradicated” was accompanied by fear of the disintegration of peace, discipline and order in the face of a military catastrophe.

An SD report from November 29, 1943 reveals this very strikingly:

Sentencing has steadily grown more severe according the verdicts compiled here. This is apparent from the compilation of the following older verdicts:

October of 1940: A man without any prior convictions steals an inexpensive sofa throw out of the ruins: 5 years of prison (Special Court in Cologne).

January 1941: A seventeen year old truck driver, who hauls rubble away, appropriated some small items from the ruins: 6 months of jail (Juvenile Court Cologne).

August 1941: Members of the SHD steal food and beverages and consume them at the scene: 4–12 years of prison (Special Court in Bielefeld). …

August 1942: A thirty-nine year old man steals 1 linen cover from the house where he is assigned to help: Death penalty (Special Court in Kassel).

August 1942: Theft of a watch, an alarm clock and cash from a damaged house: Death penalty (Special Court in Danzig).

August 1942: A Red Cross aid as medic steals 78 Reichsmark from a severely injured person’s belongings entrusted to him: 5 years of prison (Special Court in Frankfurt am Main), (Boberach, Meldungen aus dem Reich 15, 6077).

Even though the courts normally gave “healthy popular sentiment” as the grounds for their judgments, growing opposition stirred among the public against the disproportionately severe punishments for the slightest offense to the extent that – as a report from the chief judge of Cologne superior court of November 1943 reported – charges were frequently no longer pressed for looting out of consideration for the culprits or, at the least, for their family members.

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  • Mattes, public domain