student who hunted Nazi judges in postwar Germany
The Allies endeavored to rid postwar Germany of Nazi elites. But many Third Reich judges continued to work in as legal professionals in West Germany — until one brave student shined the spotlight.
Two years after World War II ended, Reinhard Strecker left Germany for Paris, France, with the intention of never again setting foot on German soil. When he did return to Germany in 1954 to fulfill his parents’ express wish, he was shocked to see many judges from the Nazi period still in office.
Speaking to DW, Strecker said he had vowed to only stay if Germany changed. “I thought it was idiotic to build up a democratic system with the help of the former criminals. So I had to do something about it,” he said.
After defeating Hitler, the Allies and Soviet Union launched a denazification program to rid German society of Nazi sympathizers and ideology. About 200,000 individuals deemed dangerous and suspected of having been involved in Nazi crimes were banned from holding public positions of responsibility and placed in internment camps.
The Nuremberg trials and prosecution of Nazi Germany’s major war criminals — resulting in 12 death sentences — were the manifestation of the victors’ determination to severely punish those responsible for the atrocities. Trials targeting individual vocational groups would follow later.
But the thorough denazification program presented a problem for the Allies, as historian Marc von Miquel argues in “Karrieren im Zwielicht” (“Shady Careers”),a book about Nazi elites in post-war Germany. He points out the chronic lack of judges “during a time when scores of refugees were returning home and black markets were booming and crime threatened to become endemic.”
Not enough judges
And because of this shortage of judges, the entry bar was lowered accordingly. “Until the early 1960s, between 1,100 and 1,200 known Nazi judges served as public prosecutors and judges in Allied-occupied Germany,” estimates Klaus-Detlev Godau-Schüttke, who authored the study “Der Bundesgerichtshof. Justiz in Deutschland” (“The Federal Court of Justice. The German Judiciary”). Many of them had previously handed down summary death sentences in Nazi-occupied countries like Poland and Denmark. Some critics for this reason labeled it a de-facto “renazification” of Allied-occupied Germany.
Von Miquel argues that during the 1947 German Jurists’ Conference, when the Nuremberg trials focused on the legal profession, it became evident that German lawyers were unwilling to act against incriminated colleagues. He writes that the conference spokesman, Lindau District Court President Hermann Müllereisert, dismissed the law applied at the Nuremberg trials as “specifically targeted at Germans in order to exact revenge on political opponents.”
Over time, the general mood in West Germany shifted as well. Miquel argues that “while initially there was broad support for the Nuremberg trials, over time this gave away to an aversion against the Allies’ efforts to deliver justice during subsequent trials.
THE MEN WHO LED NAZI GERMANY