Speech: Unveiling of the memorial plaque for Jewish judges and public prosecutors persecuted during the National Socialist dictatorship
Federal Minister of Justice Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, Member of Parliament, at the Federation of German Judges on 6 October 2010 in Berlin
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Ladies and Gentlemen!
When it comes to the relationship between the German justice system and the Nazi dictatorship, there is no longer any doubt: Many judges and public prosecutors were willing henchmen of injustice and accomplices in Nazi crimes. Following the war and liberation, the German justice system burdened itself with guilt for a second time: It did not bring a single perpetrator from its ranks to justice. But many victims of the justice system had to wait much too long for justice to prevail.
Meanwhile, commemorations to those who fell victim to that murderous justice can be found in many judicial buildings. Examples include the Court of Appeals here in Berlin, where the so-called People’s Supreme Court held its sessions, and Plötzensee, where more than 3,000 people were murdered after their unjust convictions.
Today, our remembrance of the victims of the justice system is accompanied by our remembrance of the victims within that system.
Following 1933, more than 1,000 judges and public prosecutors were expelled from their positions. They were robbed of their profession, their honour and their existence; in many cases, they lost their liberty and their life as well.
This expulsion from their positions supposedly happened under the auspices of the law, under the guise of the so-called “Act to Re-establish the Professional Civil Service.” In 2003, the Federal Ministry of Justice took the 70th anniversary of that law as an occasion to commence a research project aimed at finding out the fates of Prussian judges and public prosecutors of Jewish heritage. The names that we found can also be found on this new memorial plaque. Sebastian Haffner, a legal clerk at the Court of Appeals at the time, described poignantly how the terror against Jewish lawyers began in 1933. We do not know exactly how authentic the details of his description are. But we know that what Haffner wrote was the reality in many German cities: Within a few weeks after Hitler came to power, SA thugs in many cities occupied the courts and attacked Jewish jurists.
Here in Berlin, one of the first victims was Friedrich Nothmann who worked at the Court of Appeals. After serving at the Regional Court, he came to the Court of Appeals in 1929. He was a member of the second criminal panel, and his performance evaluations promised that he would continue with a stellar judicial career. On 31 March, Nothmann was attacked by SA thugs in the Court of Appeals, dragged onto the street and beaten up. That began a long path of suffering for him and his family.
Banned from their profession and persecuted, the world imploded for Nothmann and many of his Jewish colleagues. Like the large majority of judges during that time, jurists of Jewish descent tended to have rather conservative political attitudes. They were extremely shocked when their rights began to be taken away. A baptized Appeals Court judge, who had been suspended because of his Jewish heritage, wrote an incensed letter to the Prussian Justice Minister at the beginning of April 1933: He wrote:
“I have never been anything but a German and a Christian. My entire existence is closely and inextricably tied to my German homeland and my German people. I perceive each and every doubt about my patriotic attitude to be an undeserved humiliation.” As evidence, he mentioned the battles of World War I in which he had fought and the medals he had been awarded.
This example makes it clear why Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde very aptly described the persecution of the German Jews as “betrayal of the citizens” by the German state.
But this betrayal was in no way confined to the State. When the Nazis began their incitement of violence and banned Jewish judges from their profession, how did their superiors, colleagues and judge’s associations react? Did they emphatically reject the brazenness of the government? Did they shield or protect their colleagues in any way? Did they help those with whom they had been sharing the court and its panels for decades?
No, quite the contrary. As far as we know, there was very little protest or solidarity – neither within the judiciary nor in the ministries. Instead, there were tributes to Hitler; the German Judges Association declared its membership in the NS Association of Jurists, and as early as October 1933, 10,000 jurists swore a loyalty oath to Hitler before the Leipzig Reich Court – voluntarily and long before civil servants and the military swore their oath to Hitler. For that reason, we cannot escape a painful recognition: The persecution of German jurists of Jewish heritage was not only a betrayal of the citizenry; it was a betrayal of colleagues and co-workers as well.
The fate of Friedrich Nothmann illustrates the horrible consequences of that betrayal. Following the night of the pogrom, he was able to emigrate to Holland in 1939. But his protection from persecution did not last long. After the German attack on our neighbour, he was deported to the Westerbork concentration camp; then to Theresienstadt, and finally to Auschwitz. On 18 October 1944 – his 57th birthday – the former Court of Appeals judge was murdered in the concentration camp. His wife and his three children died along with him.
Today, we are remembering all judges and public prosecutors who were persecuted, expelled and murdered because of their Jewish heritage.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the fact that we are commemorating the victims from our own ranks does nothing to alleviate the guilt on the part of the German judiciary. To the contrary: the shame of their actions is exacerbated by their lack of solidarity with their persecuted colleagues.
Another reason for this was that the attitude toward the Weimar democracy on the part of the majority of the judiciary ranged from distance to total rejection. Only very few jurists worked actively for the Republic. Their position within their own ranks was difficult; often, their colleagues confronted them with open enmity.
One of them was Hermann Grossmann. He was a judge at the Reich Court in Leipzig. He was a longtime member of the German Democratic Party and a member of the Republican Judges’ Association. As late as 1932, Hermann Grossmann strongly advocated for the rule of law in public gatherings, and warned of the threatening dictatorship. In 1933, the Nazis drove Grossmann out of office as well. Not because of his religion, but rather because of his commitment to democracy.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Individuals have no influence on their heritage and origin. But they can indeed influence their own political conduct. This is why we cannot separate our commemoration of the Jewish victims from the memory of the failure of so many of their colleagues. And this is why we should also today remember the few judges and public prosecutors who did not have a passive attitude toward the Republic, but rather publicly advocated it and were persecuted because of their political commitment. If there had been more of them, history might have proceeded more favourably.
Above all, however, we should also keep alive the memory of the few courageous judges and public prosecutors who actively resisted the injustice. Let us remember Lothar Kreyssig, who as a local court judge in Brandenburg protested against the murder of mentally ill people. Let us remember Ernst Strassmann, who as a regional court judge here in Berlin established a liberal resistance group. And let us also remember Munich Public Prosecutor Josef Hartinger, who in 1933 did not simply acquiesce to the crimes at Dachau concentration camp, but rather began an investigation.
It would surely be worth studying whether there were other cases of resistance by judges. Not in order to lessen the dismal failure on the part of the judiciary, but rather to show what individuals with civic courage did and what the great majority of judges and public prosecutors failed to do – out of cowardice, opportunism or malevolence.
Ladies and Gentlemen, a memorial plaque at the Higher Regional Court in Brandenburg today commemorates Lothar Kreyssig.
“Called injustice by its name while others remained silent” That sentence is written on the plaque.
Not remaining silent; speaking up against anti-Semitism and racism and for democracy: German history compels us all – and certainly those of us in the justice system – to take on this responsibility.
With this memorial plaque, we honour and remember the victims of the past; and for the future, we recall our responsibility not to keep silent, but rather to always raise our voices when law and justice are endangered. This is why this plaque has such value, and I would like to thank the German Judges' Association for it.