Glossary of Terms and Individuals in the Nazi Judicial System

Bumke, Erwin: President of Germany's Supreme Court from 1929 through 1945. Bumke had a reputation as an apolitical lawyer of the old school. Nevertheless, he joined the German National People's Party (DNVP) in 1919 and the Nazi Party in May 1937 and became a compliant servant of the Nazi regime.

Concentration camps: Places of incarceration under the administration of the SS, in which people were held without regard to due process and the legal norms of arrest and detention. In addition to concentration camps, the Nazi regime ran several other kinds of camps under various SS, military, police, or civilian authorities, including labor camps, transit camps, prisoner-of-war camps, and killing centers.

Criminal Police (Kriminalpolizei; “Kripo”): Police detective force responsible for investigating nonpolitical crimes.

Decree against Public Enemies (Volksschädlingsverordnung; literally, Ordinance against Folk Pests): Enacted on September 5, 1939, this law made punishable by death all criminal acts committed by anyone exploiting the special circumstances of war, and it thereby expanded the range of criminal prosecution and culpability.

Freisler, Roland: German jurist and early supporter of the Nazi Party, which he joined in 1925. After 1933, Freisler became Ministerial Director in the Prussian Justice Ministry and then State Secretary in the Reich Justice Ministry. He represented the Justice Ministry at the infamous Wannsee Conference, where German officials discussed the implementation of the so-called Final Solution to the “Jewish question” in Europe. In 1942, Hitler appointed him President of the People's Court in Berlin. Freisler declared to Hitler that he wanted to judge each case as he believed the Führer himself would judge it.

Gestapo/Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei): Police detective force responsible for investigating political crimes and opposition activities.

Gürtner, Franz: German jurist and leading member of the DNVP. Gürtner belonged to the conservative camp that strove to set aside democracy in favor of an authoritarian regime, though he favored a moderate policy of gradual transition. In 1932, Franz von Papen appointed him Reich Justice Minister, a post he held until his death in 1941. Initially believing that the Nazi regime would return to orderly conditions, Gürtner achieved individual successes in the defense of legal principles; for example, in trials against clergymen (1935-39), he was able to ensure relatively fair treatment. But he also signed Nazi laws and mediated between the Nazi regime and conservative jurists to gain their cooperation.

Heydrich, Reinhard: SS General and Chief of the Security Police and SD (RSHA after 1939). In December 1940, he was tasked with developing the so-called Final Solution to the "Jewish question" in Europe. On July 31, 1941, he was given authority to deal with all agencies of the Reich in his capacity as the official responsible for coordinating the implementation of the "Final Solution." : SS General and Chief of the Security Police and SD (RSHA after 1939). In December 1940, he was tasked with developing the so-called Final Solution to the "Jewish question" in Europe. On July 31, 1941, he was given authority to deal with all agencies of the Reich in his capacity as the official responsible for coordinating the implementation of the "Final Solution."

Himmler, Heinrich: Reich Leader of the SS and Chief of the German Police.

Mobile Killing Units (Einsatzgruppen): Special duty units of the Security Police and SD, augmented by the Order Police and Waffen SS personnel. These units followed the German army as it invaded the nations of central and eastern Europe. Their duties included arresting or eliminating political opponents, suppressing potential resistance, securing documentation, and establishing local intelligence networks. In Poland in 1939, these units were assigned to shoot Polish intellectuals and to concentrate the Jewish population into large cities. In the wake of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, they had explicit instructions to kill Jews, Soviet political commissars, and other key officials of the Soviet state apparatus and the Soviet Communist party, Roma (Gypsies), and other real or perceived “racial” and ideological enemies of the German Reich.

National Community (Volksgemeinschaft; literally, Folk Community): Term used by the Nazis for the German people as a whole. It refers to race-conscious “Aryan” Germans who accepted, obeyed, and conformed with Nazi ideology and social norms.

People's Court (Volksgericht): Nazi court with jurisdiction over treason and other politically motivated crimes. It dealt summary justice without right of appeal to all those accused of crimes against the Führer, Adolf Hitler, and against the government of the Third Reich.

Preventive Arrest (Vorbeugungshaft): Legal instrument that permitted criminal police detectives to take persons suspected of criminal activities into custody without warrant or judicial review of any kind. Preventive arrest usually meant indefinite internment in a concentration camp.

Protective Custody (Schutzhaft): Legal instrument that permitted Gestapo detectives to take persons suspected of pursuing activities hostile to state interests into custody without warrant or judicial review of any kind. Protective custody was based on Article 1 of the Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the People and the State of February 28, 1933. Protective custody most often meant indefinite internment in a concentration camp.

Reich Law Gazette (Reichsgesetzblatt): Legal register for the Reich since 1871. Since 1922 the Gazette had two parts: Part I contained laws, decrees, and rulings having the force of law, and Part II contained international treaties and agreements between the German Reich and other states.

Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt; "RSHA"): Headquarters of the Commander of the Security Police and SD. Included the central offices of the Gestapo, the Kripo, and the SD. The RSHA was commanded by Reinhard Heydrich and, later, Ernst Kaltenbrunner.

SA (Sturmabteilung, or Storm Troopers): Nazi paramilitary formation. They served as the street fighters of the Nazi party before Hitler's rise to power in 1933.

“Sound popular judgment” (gesundes Volksempfinden): Slogan used in the nazification of the legal system. On June 28, 1935, the German Penal Code was amended so that courts had the option of deciding cases according to written codes or according to the principle of “sound popular judgment,” which gave judges more flexibility in determining guilt and in sentencing. In judging what constituted “sound popular judgment,” courts were to refer to Hitler's public statements-that is, to the “Führer's will.” As Nazi jurist Roland Freisler said, “Whether the judgment is sound must be tested against the standards and guidelines that the Führer himself has repeatedly given to the people (Volk) in important questions affecting the life of the people.”

Special Court (Sondergericht): Special court or tribunal for minor political crimes established in each Superior Court district by federal law on March 21, 1933. Defendants convicted for offenses before the special courts had no right of appeal.

SS (Schutzstaffel, or Protection Squads): Originally established as a bodyguard for Hitler as Führer of the Nazi political movement, the SS later became not only the elite guard of the Nazi Reich but also the Führer's executive force prepared to carry out all security-related duties, regardless of legal restraint. From the beginning of the Nazi regime, Hitler entrusted the SS first and foremost with the removal and eventual murder of political and so-called racial enemies of the regime. The SS was specifically charged with the leadership of the "Final Solution," the implementation of the murder of European Jews.

Stuckart, Wilhelm: Nazi politician and jurist responsible for the drafting of the Nuremberg Race Laws (1935) and their subsequent implementation. He was a right-wing extremist when he joined the Nazi party in 1922, and in 1926 he became its legal adviser. Stuckart headed the department for constitutional and legislative matters in the Ministry of the Interior.

Supreme Court (Reichsgericht): National Supreme Court of Justice (the highest tribunal in Germany), established in Leipzig, Germany, by the Court Organization Act of 1877.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • Was the judiciary independent in Nazi Germany?
  • Do harsh penalties prevent crime?
  • The Nazi state relied on concentration camps, which were outside the authority of German courts. So why did Nazi Germany have trials at all?
  • Do you agree that offenses during wartime should be punished more severely? Why or why not?

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