Like other fascist regimes, the rulers of Nazi Germany were obsessed about social order. Nazi law and order policies were based on the belief that individuals should be law-abiding and obedient. The rights of individuals were seen as subordinate to the state and national priorities. Over time, the Nazi regime created or adapted a network of police agencies and courts to enforce its strict law and order policies.
Dealing with opposition
Initially, Nazi law and order policies were focused on minimising and eradicating opposition. On coming to power, Hitler was acutely aware that most Germans had not voted for him or the National Socialists (NSDAP). He wanted strict laws to prohibit political opposition and to deal with dissidents and resistors.
Hitler also wanted to reduce crime and eliminate what he viewed as ‘anti-social behaviours’, including alcoholism, begging, promiscuity, prostitution and homosexuality.
Later, Hitler supported radical measures since adopted by modern governments, such as gun control and bans on smoking in public places. These were not socially progressive policies but were intended to consolidate or minimise threats to Nazi power.
The process of crafting a Nazi society was called Gleichschaltung, which translates as ‘moulding into shape’ or ‘forced co-ordination’. While many Nazi policies came under the umbrella of Gleichschaltung, law and order policies were particularly important.
Over time, Nazi Germany was transformed into a true police state. This was achieved by establishing law enforcement and investigative agencies, each with wide-ranging powers. Some of these organisations, like the Gestapo, were notorious for their use of intimidation, torture and extra-legal killing. Others, like the Sicherheitsdienst, are less well known but were no less fearsome.
As with the Nazi bureaucracy, the responsibilities and jurisdictions of these police agencies were not well defined. There was considerable overlap between police organisations, meaning they often co-operated with, and sometimes even competed against each other.
Formed by Hermann Goering in April 1933, the early Gestapo was recruited from the Prussian police service. A year later it was absorbed into the Schutzstaffel (SS) and placed under the command of Heinrich Himmler.
When Himmler was made chief of all German police in 1936, the Gestapo became a national agency. Its function was to identify, investigate and eliminate major threats to the state, such as treason, espionage and assassination plots against Nazi leaders.
The Gestapo was given wide-ranging powers and could operate ‘outside’ the courts. It could search without a warrant, interrogate without restraint and detain without trial. Initially, the Gestapo was quite small, employing barely 5,000 agents before 1939. During the war, its ranks would number more than 45,000 agents.
The Kripo (an abbreviation of Kriminalpolizei or ‘criminal police’) were plain-clothed detectives who investigated serious criminal offences, such as murder, manslaughter, sexual assault, arson, fraud and major theft. The Kripo was not formed by the Nazis (it had existed under the Weimar government) nor did it deal with ‘political crimes’.
The Nazis absorbed the Kripo into the SS in 1933 and infiltrated it to some extent. Kripo detectives with anti-Nazi views were pressured into resignation or retirement, while many loyal Nazis were drafted into the ranks of the Kripo.
Unlike the Gestapo, the Kripo and its actions could be reviewed by the courts. This meant that Kripo agents generally used conventional policing methods and procedures.
Collectively, the Gestapo and the Kripo were known as the Sicherhietspolizei (‘security police’) or SiPo. Both agencies were merged into the SiPo in 1936, though they continued to operate separately. Himmler was appointed the commander-in-chief of the SiPo, giving him control of Germany’s highest political and criminal police forces.
The Sicherheitsdienst or SD
The Sicherheitsdienst (‘Security Service’) or SD was a uniformed division of the SS. It was responsible for gathering intelligence for the SS and the NSDAP at large.
Formed in 1931, the SD was later commanded by Reinhard Heydrich, one of the SS’s most ruthless and efficient officers. Its main function was to identify and deal with opponents of the regime, so it often worked closely with the Gestapo.
After 1940, the SD was influential in Nazi-occupied Europe. It was charged with maintaining security in Jewish camps and ghettos, labour camps and military installations. SD agents infiltrated Jewish populations, uncovering escape plots, investigating black market rings and locating other agents or hidden persons. It was the SD in Amsterdam, for instance, which raided the hiding place of teenage diarist Anne Frank and her family.
Short for Ordnungspolizei or ‘ordinary police’, the Orpo was the regular uniformed police force of Nazi Germany.
Prior to 1936, uniformed police had been managed by state and local governments. Control passed to the SS after Himmler took control of all German police later that year. Himmler expanded and reorganised the Orpo to deal with a wider range of tasks, including emergency response situations.
Orpo battalions were deployed to manage traffic, water safety and public transport; to provide fire safety and response; to organise air raid precautions, guard infrastructure and communications facilities, even serve as nightwatchmen for important factories. Some Orpo battalions were also trained to act as a home guard or reservist military force.
The judicial system
Nazi law and order policies also focused extensively on the courts. Before 1933, NSDAP leaders had talked tough about German courts, accusing them of being too liberal and soft on crime, with conventions that favoured criminals rather than their victims. The NSDAP’s 25-point plan even talked of scrapping the entire court system and replacing it with new National Socialist courts.
Mindful of these implied threats, Germany’s judges, lawyers and legal experts caved into Nazi demands and expectations. The Nazis did not have to change the court system; rather, the system changed for them.
Judges were at the heart of this transformation, upholding and enforcing Nazi legislation, even their dubious racial and eugenics policies. Judges tended not to question or criticise the Gestapo, which acted beyond the reach of the courts. They submitted to Nazi demands for tougher sentences for certain crimes.
In one example, a Nazi editorial raging against petty crime prompted a Cologne judge to sentence a middle-aged woman to death for the theft of some curtains, clothes and three tins of coffee. There were occasional flashes of judicial independence – such as the 1937 release of an ageing grandmother who had called Hitler an “arschficker” (homosexual) – but this was rare.
New Nazi courts
Two ‘Nazi courts’ were set up to deal with political crimes: the Sondergerichte (the ‘Special Court’) and the Volksgerichtshof (‘People’s Court’). The Sondergerichte was formed in 1933, while the Volksgerichtshof was formed the following year by Hitler, infuriated that trials of the Reichstag fire had produced numerous acquittals.
Both Nazi courts were formed under the auspices of the Enabling Act, so they operated outside existing court systems and legal jurisdictions. Both dealt with so-called ‘political crimes’, deemed by Nazi judges to be Wehrkraftzersetzung (‘incapable of a defence’). These ‘political crimes’ ranged from minor offences – like trading on the black market, criticising Hitler or the government, or protesting about work conditions – through to treason, espionage and sabotage.
The Nazi courts did not employ standard legal procedures or principles, such as the presumption of innocence, trial by peers, the right to cross-examine witnesses or the right to review and appeal. In some Volksgerichtshof trials, one man alone acted as judge, jury and court recorder.
The conduct of the Nazi courts worsened after the outbreak of World War II. From 1942, the Volksgerichtshof was headed by Roland Freisler, a legal theorist who was utterly loyal to Nazism.
Freisler was notorious for insulting and abusing defendants during trials, a practice that earned him the nickname ‘Raving Roland’. Under Freisler’s management, the Volksgerichtshof sent more than 5,000 Germans to their death without a fair trial.
Some Volksgerichtshof hearings moved at an astonishing pace. An example of this was the treatment of the ‘White Rose’ movement. On the morning of February 22nd 1943, a group of students were arrested for distributing anti-war leaflets at the University of Munich. Three of them, including 21-year-old Sophie Scholl, were tried and found guilty in less than an hour. They were guillotined just six hours after their arrest.
Freisler also instigated reforms that allowed the Volksgerichtshof to detain and execute children. In 1942, 16-year-old Helmuth Hubener was arrested in Hamburg, also for distributing anti-war pamphlets. The Volksgerichtshof found Hubener guilty of treason and he was also beheaded.
1. Nazi law and order was based on a fascination with social order and discipline, and the belief that individuals were subordinate to the state and to national interests.
2. Nazi law and order policies were imposed through a systematic takeover of German police and legal institutions, as well as the formation of new police agencies like the Gestapo.
3. Another important agency was the Sicherheitsdienst or SD, the intelligence-gathering arm of the SS, which like the Gestapo operated with considerable extra-legal powers.
4. Other civilian police agencies and courts were ‘Nazified’: infiltrated with Nazi supporters or coerced into embracing Nazi legal reforms.
5. The Nazis also set up their own courts, such as the notorious Volksgerichtshof or ‘People’s Court’, led by chief judge Roland Freisler.