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Hans von Dohnanyi

Hans von Dohnanyi (born 1 January 1902 in Vienna; died 8 or 9 April 1945 in Sachsenhausen concentration camp) was a German jurist, rescuer of Jews, and resistance fighter against the Nazi Germany régime.


Early life

Hans von Dohnanyi was born to the Hungarian composer Ernő Dohnányi and his wife the pianist Elisabeth Kunwald. After his parents broke up, he grew up in Berlin. He went to the Grunewald Gymnasium there together with Dietrich and Klaus Bonhoeffer. From 1920 to 1924, he studied law in Berlin. In 1925, he received a doctorate in law with a dissertation on "The International Lease Treaty and Czechoslovakia's Claim on the Lease Area in Hamburg Harbour".

After taking the first state exam, he married Christine Bonhoeffer, his schoolfriends' sister, in 1925. Once married, he started putting the stress on the "a" in his last name (which is of Hungarian origin, making stress on the first syllable more usual). With his wife he had three children, Klaus von Dohnanyi (from 1981 to 1988, Hamburg's first mayor) and Christoph von Dohnányi (a musical conductor) and Barbara von Dohnanyi.


After his time as an assistant, his doctorate, and a short time working at the Hamburg Senate, von Dohnanyi began in 1929 his career at the Reichsjustizministerium (Reich Justice Ministry) as a personal consultant with the title Staatsanwalt ("Prosecutor") to several justice ministers. As of 1934, the title had changed to Regierungsrat (Government Adviser). Meanwhile, in 1932, he was the Imperial Court President (Reichsgerichtspräsident) Erwin Bumke's adjutant, and in this capacity, he put together Prussia's lawsuit against the Empire – Germany was still officially the Deutsches Reich at this time – which Prussia had brought after the Preußenschlag, Franz von Papen's dissolution of the Prussian social-democratic government through an emergency decree in 1932.

As an adviser to high government officials, von Dohnanyi actually got to know Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring during the 1930s. He also had access to the justice ministry's most secret documents at this time.


After the so-called Night of the Long Knives in 1934, spurred by the premeditated killing of alleged plotters on government orders without trial or sentence, Dohnanyi began to seek out contacts with resistance circles. He made records for himself of the régime's crimes so that he could have evidence on hand for a proper trial after the Nazis had been overthrown. In 1938, once his critical view of Nazi racial politics became known, he was transferred to the Reichsgericht in Leipzig as a Reichsgericht adviser.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Hans Oster called Dohnanyi into the Abwehr of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, led by Wilhelm Canaris, which quite quickly became a hub of resistance activity against Adolf Hitler.

Dohnanyi made it possible in 1942 for two Berlin lawyers, Friedrich Arnold and Julius Fliess, persecuted as Jews, to flee to Switzerland along with their loved ones disguised as Abwehr agents. All together, 13 persons managed to get out of the country unhindered thanks to Dohnanyi's forgeries in the so-called Operation U-7. On a secret visit to Switzerland, Dohnanyi had arranged for these people to be admitted.

In late February 1943, Dohnanyi was busying himself with Henning von Tresckow's assassination attempt against Hitler and the attendant coup d'Ă©tat. The bomb that was smuggled aboard Hitler's plane in Smolensk, however, failed to go off.

On 5 April 1943, Dohnanyi was seized on charges of alleged breach of monetary exchange laws, among them certain transactions with Jauch & HĂĽbener. The trial against him was deliberately delayed by army judge Karl Sack. In 1944, Dohnanyi was delivered to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. After the failure of the July 20 Plot at the Wolf's Lair in East Prussia, Dohnanyi's involvement in the plans also came to light. On 8 April (or according to other sources, 9 April), 1945, Dohnanyi was brought before an SS drumhead court and, without the slightest regard for his legal rights, he was condemned to death and hanged on piano cords.

Proceedings after the war

The chairman of the drumhead court, Otto Thorbeck, and the prosecutor, Walter Huppenkothen, were accused of being accessories to murder, after the fall of the Nazi régime, in West Germany. After the Bundesgerichtshof had at first quashed a lower court's two acquittals, it changed its mind in 1956 during the third revision of the case, quashed Thorbeck's and Huppenkothen's sentences, and acquitted them of the charges of being accessories to murder by their participation in the drumhead trial, because the drumhead had been duly constituted, and the sentence had been imposed according to the law then in force, without either of the accused having perverted justice. It was particularly incomprehensible that the ruling approved the accused's involvement in carrying out the drumhead's sentence, since the accused had failed to secure the highest legal official's (that is, Hitler's) approval of the sentence before they killed Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wilhelm Canaris and Karl Sack. In the matter of von Dohnanyi's killing (or more precisely, the involvement in carrying out the drumhead's sentence against him), Huppenkothen was acquitted, as there was a reasonable doubt as to whether Hitler did not approve the sentence.

In 2002, the president of the Bundesgerichtshof said, on the occasion of Hans von Dohnanyi's hundredth birthday, that the Bundesgerichtshof's ruling of 1956 was shameful, and that the consequences of this ruling had been devastating, because the crimes committed by the Nazi courts in Hitler's time in power had still not been dealt with.

The State of Israel has honoured Hans von Dohnanyi by recognizing him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations for saving the Arnold and Fliess families at the risk of his own life. His name has been inscribed in the walls at the Holocaust remembrance centre Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

See also



  • Smid, Marikje: Hans Dohnanyi - Christine Bonhoeffer - Eine Ehe im Widerstand gegen Hitler. GĂĽtersloher Verlagshaus, GĂĽtersloh 2002, ISBN 3-579-05382-5


External links

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