Holocaust Remembrance Day – When Nazis Ran the Courts

[Holocaust Remembrance Day began at sunset last night and continues through today. Here is a post from the archives to help us remember.]

When Nazis Were Judges

Judges, even the best of judges, sometimes make the wrong decisions. And then there are courts where the wrong decision is unavoidable because wrong decisions are intentionally woven into the process.

In Law, Justice, and the Holocaust (2009, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), William F. Meinecke and Alexandra Zapruder explore the role of the German judiciary in supporting and enforcing Nazi policies from 1933 to 1945. From the beginning of the Third Reich right up to its collapse, German courts followed laws passed by the Nazi government that deprived people of basic human rights while furthering the stated aims of Adolf Hitler and his top aides.

The judges who sat in those courtrooms were not hand-picked Nazis just waiting for an opportunity to serve their Fuhrer, though. Almost all of them were hold-overs from the previous regime. Yet when told to take a new oath of office, one which explicitly elevated Hitler as the supreme object of their allegiance over the rule of law, they did so with alacrity.

Nazi leadership quickly passed laws – some signed by Hitler personally – criminalizing  free assembly and free speech, as well as providing harsher penalties for what would otherwise be minor crimes. Jews, of course, were not only specified in some of these laws as under particular restrictions, but were also singled out for that harsher punishment.

Attorney Michael Siegel paraded through Munich in 1933 with a sign reading "I am a Jew but I will never again complain to the police"

Attorney Michael Siegel paraded through Munich in 1933 with a sign reading “I am a Jew but I will never again complain to the police”

One of the most insidious laws concerned the Nazi efforts to preserve the “purity” of the nation. The national purity laws prohibited sexual relations between those the Nazis considered desirable citizens and those who were not desirable. Jews headed the list of those considered not desirable, and this law criminalized sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews. As Meinecke and Zapruder describe these laws in their book, even non-sexual relationships led to convictions. The death penalty (but only for the Jewish person in the relationship) was swiftly carried out.

Standing Up For The Oppressed

You might wonder how many judges resisted these laws, perhaps even resigned in protest over them.


One judge in all of Germany quietly resigned rather than sit on the bench enforcing the laws passed in furtherance of Nazi policies. The rest stayed on the job.

When the war crimes trials came following the war, their defense sounded much like the military officers who said they were only following orders. The judges insisted they were only enforcing the laws passed by the government. Many of them were convicted.

They had forgotten some of the most basic principles of judging:

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. (Leviticus 19:15.)

Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31:9.)

Hear the disputes between your people and judge fairly, whether the case is between two Israelites or between an Israelite and a foreigner residing among you. (Deuteronomy 1:16.)

The Nazi judges forgot that courts are not tools for promoting the government’s agenda.

They forgot that everyone is to be treated the same under the law, whether a citizen of the chosen nation or a foreigner, whether rich or poor, whether needy or not.

They forgot how to judge fairly, as the verses above repeatedly require.

The Nazi judges forgot that courts are a forum for providing equal justice under the law.


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9 Responses to Holocaust Remembrance Day – When Nazis Ran the Courts

  1. David says:

    Tim, a worldview of relativism (no absolute transcendent truth) makes it frighteningly possible for this to happen again. When you describe the absolute criteria for judging fairly, I see the character of God reflected there. David

  2. keriwyattkent says:

    Thank you for being a judge who gets this very important truth.

  3. Pastor Bob says:

    Can a judge set aside ALL personal convictions (no pun intended) and rule impartially in ALL cases? After reading some modern day decisions, and actions of a few judges we have to say no. Does the judge rule for or against an unjust law? Where does the legality, the support for the law let alone decision rest? Some is complex, some is simple.
    ——– I believe it was Hamilton who stated that our constitution is powerless against an immoral people.

    The first poses ethical dilemmas for all, the second is warning. (Can’t wait to see the repsonse to the first,,,,)
    Blessings to the one with a tough job –

    • Tim says:

      It depends on what you mean by impartial. If you mean a judge is not to be imparting her own preferences over the rule of law, then I thing it is possible. If you mean a judge’s life experience should never be imparted into the judging process, then I think it’s not possible. The latter, though, is what we actually want from judges: people who have wisdom and experience to know how to apply the law fairly in a given case.

      After all, courts of law are not decision-making factories. They are neutral forums for resolving society’s disputes, both civil and criminal.

      • Pastor Bob says:

        Actually both – for some ascend the bench with an agenda that has made many question the person as well as the decision. There are those who have a contrasting opinion to mine, yet will listen to what I had to present. These college professors were true models of clear thinking, suspending judgement, using all analytical processes to develop a sound opinion-decision. This intellectual neutrality is what I look for – opinions are one thing, but when one deviates form the letter and the spirit of the law, are these judges right or wrong?

        Intellectually one can understand the position of these Nazi judges, but – contrast this to the judge who presided over the trail of Saddam Hussein – if I remember he was a Hussein appointee.

        To me, those who wear the robes of the judiciary with honor and integrity are worthy of high honor. The mental candlepower is truly astounding.

  4. Pingback: Holocaust Remembrance Day | Keri Wyatt Kent

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