Roland Freisler (30 October 1893 – 3 February 1945) was a German Nazi jurist, judge, and politician who served as the State Secretary of the Reich Ministry of Justice from 1934 to 1942 and President of the People's Court from 1942 to 1945.
He was a prominent ideologist of Nazism who influenced the Nazification of Germany's legal system as a jurist, and attended the Wannsee Conference which set in motion the Holocaust. He was appointed President of the People's Court in 1942, overseeing the prosecution of notable political crimes as a judge, for which he became infamous for his aggressive personality, humiliation of defendants, and frequent sentencing with the death penalty.
Although the death penalty was abolished with the creation of the Federal Republic, he is also notable as defining murder in German law in 1941, which survives to date in the Strafgesetzbuch § 211.
Roland Freisler was born on 30 October 1893 in Celle, Lower Saxony, the son of Julius Freisler (born 20 August 1862 in Klantendorf, Moravia), an engineer and teacher, and Charlotte Auguste Florentine Schwerdtfeger (born 30 April 1863 in Celle – died 20 March 1932 in Kassel). He was baptized as a Protestant on 13 December 1893. He had a younger brother, Oswald.
World War I
Freisler was attending law school upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914 which interrupted his studies. He saw active service in the German Imperial Army during the war after enlisting as an officer cadet in 1914 with the Ober-Elsässisches Infanterie-Regiment Nr.167 in Kassel, and by 1915 he was a lieutenant. Whilst in the front-line with the 22nd Division, he was awarded the Iron Cross both 2nd and 1st Class for heroism in action. In October 1915, he was wounded in action on the Eastern Front and taken prisoner of war by Russian forces.
While a prisoner, Freisler learned to speak Russian and developed an interest in Marxism after the Russian Revolution had commenced. The Bolshevik provisional authority which took over responsibility for Freisler's prisoner of war camp made use of him as a "Commissar" (as he was described by them in his repatriated prisoner of war paperwork in 1918) administratively organizing the camp's food supplies from 1917 to 1918. It is possible that, after the Russian prisoner of war camps were emptying in 1918, with their internees being repatriated to Germany after the Armistice between Russia and the Central Powers had been signed, Freisler for a brief period became attached in some way to the Red Guards, though this is not supported by any known documentary evidence. Another possibility is that after the Russian Revolution the description "Commissar" was merely an administrative title given by the Bolshevik authority for anyone employed in an administrative post in the prison camps without the political connotations that the title later acquired. However, in the early days of his Nazi Party career in the 1920s, Freisler was a part of the movement's left wing. In the late 1930s, during Joseph Stalin's Great Purge in the Soviet Union, Freisler attended the Moscow Trials to watch the proceedings against the condemned. Freisler later rejected any insinuation that he had ever co-operated with the Soviets, the ideological nemesis of Nazi Germany, but his subsequent career as a political official in Germany was overshadowed by rumours about his time as a "Commissar" with the "Reds".
Post-war legal career
He returned to Germany in 1919 to complete his law studies at the University of Jena, and qualified as a Doctor of Law in 1922. From 1924, he worked as a solicitor in Kassel, and was also elected as a city councillor as a member of the Völkisch-Sozialer Block ("People's Social Block"), an ultranationalist splinter party. He joined the Nazi Party in July 1925 as Member #9679, and gained authority immediately within the organisation by using his legal training to defend members of it who were regularly facing prosecutions for acts of political violence. As the Party transitioned from a fringe political beer-hall and street fighting movement into a genuine political party, Freisler was elected to the Prussian Landtag, and later he became a Member of the Reichstag.
In 1927, Karl Weinrich, a Nazi member of the Prussian Landtag along with Freisler, characterised his then reputation in the rapidly expanding Nazi movement in the late 1920s: "Rhetorically Freisler is equal to our best speakers, if not superior; particularly on the broad masses he has influence, but thinking people mostly reject him. Party Comrade Freisler is usable as only a speaker though and is unsuitable for any position of authority because of his unreliablity and moodiness."
Career in Nazi Germany
In February 1933, after Adolf Hitler had seized power over the German state, Freisler was appointed Director of the Prussian Ministry of Justice. He was Secretary of State in the Prussian Ministry of Justice in 1933–1934, and in the Reich Ministry of Justice from 1934 to 1942.
Freisler's mastery of legal texts, mental agility, dramatic courtroom verbal dexterity and verbal force, in combination with his zealous conversion to Nazi ideology, made him the most feared judge in Germany during the Third Reich, and the personification of Nazism in domestic law. However, despite his talents and loyalty, Adolf Hitler never appointed him to any post beyond the legal system. That might have been because he was a lone figure, lacking support within the senior echelons of the Nazi hierarchy, but he had also been politically compromised by his brother, Oswald Freisler, also a lawyer. Oswald had acted as a defence counsel against the regime's authority several times during the increasingly politically driven trials by which the Nazis sought to enforce their tyrannical control of German society, and he had the habit of wearing his Nazi Party membership badge in court whilst doing so. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels reproached Oswald Freisler and reported his actions to Adolf Hitler who, in response, ordered Freisler's expulsion from the Party. (Oswald Freisler died, allegedly by committing suicide, in 1939.) In 1941 in a discussion at the "Führer Headquarters" about whom to appoint to replace Franz Gürtner, the Reich Justice Minister, who had died, Goebbels suggested Roland Freisler as an option; Hitler's reply, referring to Freisler's alleged "Red" past, was: "That old Bolshevik? No!"
Contribution to the Nazification of the law
Freisler was a committed Nazi ideologist, and used his legal skills to adapt its theories into practical law-making and judicature. He published a paper entitled "Die rassebiologische Aufgabe bei der Neugestaltung des Jugendstrafrechts ("The racial-biological task involved in the reform of juvenile criminal law"). In this document he argued that "racially foreign, racially degenerate, racially incurable or seriously defective juveniles" should be sent to juvenile centres or correctional education centres and segregated from those who are "German and racially valuable".
He strongly advocated the creation of laws to punish Rassenschande ("race defilement", the Nazi term for sexual relations between "Aryans" and "inferior races"), to be classed as "racial treason". Freisler looked to racist laws in the United States as a model for Nazi legislation targeting Jewish people in Germany. Freisler considered American Jim Crow racist legislation "primitive" for failing to provide a legal definition of the term black or negro person. Nevertheless, while some more conservative Nazi lawyers objected to the lack of precision with which a person could be defined as a "Jew," he argued that American judges were able to identify black people for purposes of laws in American states that prohibited "miscegenation" between black and white people, and laws that otherwise codified racial segregation, and, therefore, German laws could similarly target Jews even if the term "Jew" could not be given a precise legal definition.
In 1933 he published a pamphlet calling for the legal prohibition of "mixed-blood" sexual intercourse, which met with expressions of public unease in the dying elements of the German free press and non-Nazi political classes and, at the time, lacked public authorization from the policy of the Nazi Party, which had only just obtained dictatorial control of the state. It also led to a clash with his superior Franz Gürtner, but Freisler's ideological views reflected things to come, as was shown by the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws within two years.
In October 1939, he introduced the concept of 'precocious juvenile criminal' in the "Juvenile Felons Decree". This "provided the legal basis for imposing the death penalty and penitentiary terms on juveniles for the first time in German legal history." Between 1933 and 1945 the Reich's Courts sentenced at least 72 German juveniles to death, among them 17-year-old Helmuth Hübener, found guilty of high treason for distributing anti-war leaflets in 1942.
On the outbreak of World War II Freisler issued a legal "Decree against National Parasites" (September 1939) introducing the term perpetrator type, which was used in combination with another Nazi ideological term, parasite. The adoption of racial biological terminology into law portrayed juvenile criminality as 'parasitical', implying the need for harsher sentences to remedy it. He justified the new concept with: "in times of war, breaches of loyalty and baseness cannot find any leniency and must be met with the full force of the law."
On 20 January 1942 Freisler, representing the Reich Minister Franz Schlegelberger, attended the Wannsee Conference of senior governmental officials in a villa on the southwestern outskirts of Berlin to provide expert legal advice for the planning of the destruction of European Jewry.
Presidency of the People's Court
On 20 August 1942, Hitler promoted Otto Georg Thierack to Reich Justice Minister, replacing the retiring Schlegelberger, and named Freisler to succeed Thierack as president of the People's Court (Volksgerichtshof). This court had jurisdiction over a broad array of political offences, including black marketeering, work slowdowns and defeatism. These actions were viewed by Freisler as Wehrkraftzersetzung (undermining defensive capability) and were punished severely, with many death sentences. The People's Court under Freisler's domination almost always sided with the prosecuting authority, to the point that being brought before it was tantamount to a capital charge. Its separate administrative existence beyond the ordinary judicial system increased its notoriety, and despite its judicial trappings it rapidly turned into an executive execution arm and psychological domestic terror weapon of Nazi Germany's totalitarian regime, in the tradition of a revolutionary tribunal rather than a court of law.
He chaired the First Senate of the People's Court wearing a blood scarlet judicial robe, in a hearing chamber bedecked with scarlet swastika-draped banners and a large black sculpted bust of Adolf Hitler's head upon a high pedestal behind his chair, opening each hearing session with the Nazi salute from the bench. He acted as prosecutor, judge and jury all in one, and also as his own recorder, thereby controlling the record of the written grounds for the sentences that he passed.
The number of death sentences rose sharply under Freisler's rule. Approximately 90% of all cases that came before him ended in guilty verdicts. Between 1942 and 1945, more than 5,000 death sentences were decreed by him, 2,600 of these through the court's First Senate, which Freisler controlled. He was responsible in his three years on the court for as many death sentences as all other senate sessions of the court combined in the court's existence between 1934 and 1945.
Freisler became notorious during this period for berating each member of the steady stream of defendants passing before him. He was known to be interested in Andrei Vyshinsky, the Chief Prosecutor of the Soviet purge trials, and had attended those show-trials to watch Vyshinsky's courtroom performances in a similar capacity in Moscow in 1938.
White Rose show-trials
In 1943, Freisler punished several members of the White Rose resistance group the Gestapo had brought before him by ordering their executions by beheading by the guillotine (Fallbeil).
20 July Plot show-trials
Criminal case against six defendants in the 20 July 1944 plot in the German People's Court
, presided over by Judge Roland Freisler, who were tried and executed 15 August 1944
In August 1944, some of the arrested perpetrators of the failed assassination of Adolf Hitler were taken before Freisler for punishment. The proceedings were filmed in order to be shown to the German public in cinema newsreels, and portray how Freisler ran his court; he would often alternate between questioning the defendants in an analytical manner, then suddenly launch into a furious verbal tirade, even going so far as to shout insults at the accused from the bench. The shift from cold, clinical interrogation to fits of screaming rage was designed to psychologically disarm, torment and humiliate those on trial, while discouraging any attempt on their part to defend or justify their actions. At one point Freisler yelled at Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, who was trying to hold up his trousers after having purposely been given old, oversized and beltless clothing, "You dirty old man, why do you keep fiddling with your trousers?"
One of Freisler's most notorious public appearances came during the trial of defendant Ulrich-Wilhelm Graf Schwerin von Schwanenfeld. The footage taken shows Freisler drowning out Schwerin's weak and muted testimony, prompted by his concern over the Wehrmacht's ""numerous murders in Poland", by roaring at him in an exaggerated and theatrical manner, declaring "Sie sind ja ein schäbiger Lump!" (roughly, "You really are a lousy piece of trash!").
Nearly all of the accused were sentenced to death by hanging, with some of the sentences being carried out within two hours of the verdict.
On the morning of 3 February 1945, Freisler was conducting a Saturday session of the People's Court when United States Army Air Forces bombers attacked Berlin, led by the B-17 of USAAF Lt. Colonel Robert Rosenthal. Government and Nazi Party buildings were hit, including the Reich Chancellery, the Gestapo headquarters, the Party Chancellery and the People's Court. Hearing the air raid sirens, Freisler hastily adjourned the court and ordered that the prisoners before him be taken to an air raid shelter, but stayed behind to gather files before leaving. A hit on the court-building at 11:08 caused a partial internal collapse, with Freisler being crushed by a masonry column and killed while still in the courtroom. Among the files was that of Fabian von Schlabrendorff, a 20 July Plot member who was on trial that day and was facing execution. Freisler's body was found beneath the rubble still clutching the files he had stopped to retrieve. A differing account stated that Freisler "was killed by a bomb fragment while trying to escape from his law court to the air-raid shelter," and "bled to death on the pavement outside the People's Court at Bellevuestrasse 15 in Berlin". Fabian von Schlabrendorff was "standing near Freisler when the latter met his end".[a]
Luise Jodl, then the wife of General Alfred Jodl, recounted more than 25 years later that she had been working at the Lützow Hospital when Freisler's body was brought in, and that a worker commented, "It is God's verdict." According to Mrs. Jodl, "Not one person said a word in reply." His body was buried in the grave of his wife's family at the Waldfriedhof Dahlem Cemetery in Berlin. His name is not recorded on the gravestone.
He married Marion Russegger on 24 March 1928; the marriage produced two sons, Harald and Roland.
Freisler in film and fiction
Freisler appears in fictionalised form in the 1947 Hans Fallada novel Every Man Dies Alone. In 1943 he tried and handed down death penalties to Otto and Elise Hampel, who were both guillotined for distributing anti-Nazi postcards, and whose true story inspired Fallada's novel.
In the novel Fatherland by Robert Harris, which takes place in an alternate 1964 in which Nazi Germany won World War II, Freisler is mentioned as having survived until winter 1954, when he is killed by a maniac with a knife on the steps of the Berlin People's Court. It is implied that his death was actually caused by the Gestapo, to ensure that the Wannsee Conference and the Holocaust remained a secret.
Freisler has been portrayed by screen actors at least six times: by Rainer Steffen in the 1984 German television film Wannseekonferenz, by Roland Schäfer in the 1989 Anglo-French-German film Reunion, by Brian Cox in the British 1996 television film Witness Against Hitler, by Owen Teale in the 2001 BBC/HBO film Conspiracy, by André Hennicke in the 2005 film Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, and by Helmut Stauss in the 2008 film Valkyrie.
- ^ "Digital Archives of the Regional Archives in Opava". digi.archives.cz. Retrieved 8 July 2020.
- ^ a b ""Freisler, Karl Roland" in: Hessische Biografie". 7 September 2012. Retrieved 29 September 2013.
- ^ Koch, H. W. (15 November 1997). In the Name of the Volk: Political Justice in Hitler's Germany. p. 28. ISBN 1860641741. Retrieved 19 March 2014.
- ^ a b c d e f g Hitlers Helfer - Ronald Freisler der Hinrichter (Hitler's Henchmen - Roland Freisler, the Executioner), ZDF Enterprizes (1998), television documentary series, by Guido Knopp.
- ^ a b Hitler's Helfer by Guido Knopp (Pub. Goldmann, 1998).
- ^ Richter in Roter Robe - Freisler, Präsident des Volksgerichtshofes (Judge in a Red Robe - Freisler, President of the People's Court) by Gert Buchheit (Pub. Paul List, 1968).
- ^ a b c d e f Knopp, Guido, Hitler's Hitmen, Sutton Publishing, 2000, pp. 216, 220–222, 228, 250.
- ^ a b c Wesel, Uwe. "Drei Todesurteile pro Tag" (Three death sentences per day), Die Zeit, 3 February 2005. Text in German Uwe Wesel is professor emeritus of Legal History in Berlin's Free University.
- ^ Koch, H. W. In the Name of the Volk: Political Justice in Hitler's Germany, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1997, p. 29.
- ^ 'Freisler, Political Soldier,' 'Der Spiegel' 23 September 1968, review of 'Judge in a Red Robe - Freisler, President of the People's Court' by Gert Buchheit (Pub. Paul List, 1968)
- ^ The Nazi Party 1919 to 1945: A Complete History by Dietrich Orlow (Pub. Enigmas Books, 2007)
- ^ In Monatsschrift für Kriminalbiologie und Strafrechtsreform, 1939, p. 209.
- ^ Cited by Wayne Geerling, see below in the Bibliography.
- ^ James Whitman "Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law" (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2017), pp. 103-106
- ^ James Whitman "Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law" (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2017), pp. 106-110
- ^ Koonz, Claudia, The Nazi Conscience, pp 173-174 ISBN 0-674-01172-4
- ^ a b Wayne Geerling, Id.
- ^ Judge in a Red Robe - Freisler, President of the People's Court, by Gert Buchheit (Paul List, 1968).
- ^ The Hitler Virus by Peter Wyden (Pub. Arcade Publishing, 2002).
- ^ Shirer, William, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Touchstone Edition) (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990)
- ^ "Sophie Scholl and the White Rose" - Annette Dumbach & Jud Newborn - 2018 - ISBN 9781786072504
- ^ Zimmermann, Jacobsen: 20. Juli 1944. 1960, S. 199.
- ^ Chronos Media, Graf Schwerin von Schwanenfeld bleibt standhaft vor Roland Freisler (Count Schwerin von Schwanenfeld stays strong in front of Roland Freisler): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3qsImhAswo.
- ^ "100th Bomb Group Foundation - Personnel - LT COL Robert ROSENTHAL". 100thbg.com. 100th Bomb Group Foundation. Retrieved 5 December 2016.
Dec 1, 1944 – Feb 3, 1945 - 418th BS, 100th BG (H) ETOUSAAF (8AF) Squadron Commander, 55 hours, B-17 Air Leader 5 c/m (combat missions) 45 c/hrs (combat hours) 1 Division Lead (Berlin Feb 3, 1945, shot down, picked up by Russians and returned to England) Acting Command 4 Wing Leads, Pilot Feb 3, 1945 - BERLIN - MACR #12046, - A/C#44 8379
- ^ Granberg, Jerje. AP dispatch from Stockholm, reprinted as "Berlin, Nerves Racked By Air Raids, Fears Russian Army Most," Oakland Tribune, 23 February 1945, p. 1.
- ^ Will, George F. , "Plot failed, but the spirit lived," reprinted in The Anniston Star, 19 July 1974, p. 4.
- ^ Buchanan, William, "Nazi War Criminal's Widow Recalls Nuremberg," Boston Globe report reprinted in The Daily Times-News (Burlington, N.C.), 20 December 1972, p. 1.
- ^ In the same cemetery lies the grave of Ulrich Wilhelm Graf Schwerin von Schwanenfeld, a 20 July conspiracy member executed upon Freisler's court order a few months earlier for the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler.
- ^ Jonas Hubner, Unrechtspflege: Roland Freisler und die hessische Justiz.
- Breuning, Stephan. Roland Freisler: Rechtsideologien im III. Reich. Neuhegelianismus kontra Hegel ("Legal ideologies in the Third Reich. Neo-Hegelianism contra Hegel") Hamburg, Kovac 2002, ISBN 3-8300-0667-5.
- Buchheit, Gert. Richter in roter Robe. Freisler, Präsident des Volksgerichtshofes ("Judges in Red Robes. Freisler, President of the People's Court") München, 1968.
- Geerling, Wayne. "Protecting the National Community From Juvenile Delinquency: Nazification of Juvenile Criminal Law in the Third Reich", a chapter from the author's dissertation Resistance as High Treason: Juvenile Resistance in the Third Reich, Melbourne University, 2001. Read it here
- Knopp, Guido. Hitler's Hitmen (Ch. 4, "The Hanging Judge"). Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing, 2002.
- Koch, H. W. In the Name of the Volk: Political Justice in Hitler's Germany London, 1989.
- Ortner, Helmut. Der Hinrichter. Roland Freisler, Mörder im Dienste Hitlers ("The Executioner. Roland Freisler, Murderer in Hitler's Service") Wien, Zsolnay 1993, ISBN 3-552-04504-X.