People's Court (Germany): Wikis


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Judge Roland Freisler (centre) at the People's Court

The People's Court (German: Volksgerichtshof) was a court established in 1934 by German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, who had been dissatisfied with the outcome of the Reichstag Fire Trial (all but one of the accused were acquitted). The "People's Court" was set up outside the operations of the constitutional frame of law. The court had jurisdiction over a rather broad array of "political offenses", which included crimes like black marketeering, work slowdowns, defeatism and treason against the Third Reich. These crimes were viewed by the court as Wehrkraftzersetzung ("disintegration of defensive capability") and were accordingly punished severely. The death penalty was meted out in numerous cases in this court.

The Court handed down an enormous number of death sentences while led by Judge-President Roland Freisler, including those which followed the 1944 July 20 Plot to kill Hitler. Many of those found guilty by the Court died in the Plötzensee prison. The proceedings of the court were often even less than show trials in that some cases, such as that of Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans Scholl and fellow White Rose activists concluded in less than an hour, without evidence being presented or arguments made by either side. The president of the court often acted as prosecutor, denouncing defendants, then pronouncing his verdict and sentence without objection from defense counsel, who usually remained silent throughout. Unsurprisingly, it did not follow the laws and procedures of regular German trials, being easily characterized as a "kangaroo court"


The trials of August 1944

Erwin von Witzleben appears before the People's Court.
Helmuth Stieff at the court.

The most high profile and well known People's Court trials began on 7 August 1944 in the aftermath of the July 20 Plot. The first eight accused were Erwin von Witzleben, Erich Hoepner, Paul von Hase, Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, Helmuth Stieff, Robert Bernardis, Friedrich Klausing and Albrecht von Hagen. The trials were held in the imposing Great Hall of the Berlin Chamber Court on Elseholzstrasse[1] which was bedecked with swastikas for the occasion and there were around 300 spectators including Ernst Kaltenbrunner and selected civil servants, party functionaries, military officers and journalists. A film camera was running behind the red robed Roland Friesler so that Hitler would be able to view the proceedings and the trial could be used in newsreels and a documentary entitled Traitors before the People's Court that was not shown at the time.

The accused were forced to wear shabby clothes and denied neck ties and they were marched into the courtroom handcuffed to policemen. The proceedings began with Freisler announcing that he would be ruling on 'the most horrific charges ever brought in the history of the German people'. The 62 year old Field Marshal von Witzleben was the first to be summoned to stand in front of a desk before Freisler and he was immediately bawled at for giving a brief Nazi salute; he then faced further humiliating insults whilst holding onto his trouser waistband, having been deprived of braces or a belt. Former Colonel-General Erich Hoepner was summoned next to face Freisler’s scorn dressed in a cardigan and was addressed as a 'Schweinehund'. When he said that he was not a 'Schweinehund', Friesler asked him what zoological category he thought he fitted into.

The accused were unable to consult their lawyers who were not seated near to them. None of them were allowed to address the court at length and any attempts to do so were interrupted by Freisler. However Major General Helmuth Stieff attempted to raise the issue of his motives before being shouted down and Witzleben managed to call out 'You can hand us over to the hangman. In 3 months the enraged and tormented people will drag you alive through the muck of the streets'. All were condemned to death by hanging and the sentences were carried out shortly afterwards in Plötzensee prison.[2][3]

Another trial of plotters was held on 10 August. On that occasion the accused were Erich Fellgiebel, Alfred Kranzfelder, Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, Georg Hansen and Berthold Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg.

On 15 August it was the turn of Wolf-Heinrich Graf von Helldorf, Egbert Hayessen, Hans Bernd von Haeften and Adam von Trott zu Solz to be condemned to death by Freisler.

On 21 August the accused were Fritz Thiele, Friedrich Gustav Jaeger and Ulrich Wilhelm Graf Schwerin von Schwanenfeld who was able to mention the 'many murders committed at home and abroad' as a motivation for his actions.

On 30 August Colonel-General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel who had blinded himself in a suicide attempt was led into the court to be condemned to death along with Caesar von Hofacker, Hans Otfried von Linstow and Eberhard Finckh.

Notable people sentenced to death by the Volksgerichtshof

  • 1942 - Helmuth Hübener. At the age of 17, he was the youngest opponent of the Third Reich to be executed as a result of a trial by the Volksgerichtshof.
  • 1943 - Members of the White Rose resistance movement: Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl, Alex Schmorell, Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, and Kurt Huber.
  • 1943 - Julius Fučík. A Czechoslovakian journalist, Communist Party of Czechoslovakia leader, and a leader in the forefront of the anti-Nazi resistance. On August 25, 1943, in Berlin, he was accused of high treason in connection with his political activities. He was found guilty and beheaded two weeks later on September 8, 1943.
  • 1943 - Karlrobert Kreiten. A German pianist. Nazi Ellen Ott-Monecke notified the Gestapo of Kreiten's negative remarks about Adolf Hitler and the war effort. Kreiten was indicted at the Volksgerichtshof, with Freisler presiding, and condemned to death. Friends and family frantically tried to save his life to no avail. The family was never notified officially about the judgment. They only accidentally learned that Kreiten had been executed with one hundred and eighty-five other inmates in Plötzensee Prison.
  • 1944 - Max Josef Metzger. A German Catholic priest. Metzger was the founder in 1938 of the "Una Sancta Brotherhood," an ecumenical movement for bringing Catholics and Protestants to unity. During the trial Freisler said that people (meaning clergy) like Metzger should be "eradicated."
  • 1944 - Erwin von Witzleben. A German Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall). Witzleben was a German Army (Wehrmacht) conspirator in the July 20 Bomb Plot to kill Hitler. Witzleben, who would have been Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht in the planned post-coup government, arrived at Army Headquarters (OKH-HQ) in Berlin on July 20 to assume command of the coup forces. He was arrested the next day and tried by the People's Court on August 8. Witzleben was sentenced to death and hanged the same day in Plötzensee Prison.
  • 1944 - Johanna "Hanna" Kirchner. A member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD).
  • 1944 - Lieutenant-Colonel Caesar von Hofacker. A member of a resistance group in Nazi Germany. Hofacker's goal was to overthrow Hitler.
  • 1944 - Carl Friedrich Goerdeler - Conservative German politician, economist, civil servant and opponent of the Nazi regime, who would have served as the Chancellor of the new government had the 20 July plot of 1944 succeeded.
  • 1944 - Otto Kiep - the Chief of the Reich Press Office (Reichspresseamts) which became involved in resistance.
  • 1944 - Elisabeth von Thadden, as well as other members of anti-Nazi Solf Circle.
  • 1944 - Julius Leber - German politician of the SPD and a member of the German Resistance against the Nazi régime.
  • 1944 - Johannes Popitz - Prussian finance minister and a member of the German Resistance against Nazi Germany.
  • 1945 - Helmuth James Graf von Moltke - German jurist, a member of the opposition against Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, and a founding member of the Kreisau Circle resistance group.
  • 1945 - Klaus Bonhoeffer and Rüdiger Schleicher - German resistance fighters.
  • 1945 - Erwin Planck. Politician, businessman, resistance fighter and son of physicist Max Planck. Planck was an alleged conspirator in the July 20 plot.
  • 1945- Artur Nebe. An SS-General (Gruppenführer). Nebe was a conspirator in the July 20 Bomb Plot to kill Hitler. He was the head of the Kriminalpolizei, or Kripo, and the commander of Einsatzgruppe B. Nebe oversaw massacres on the Russian Front, and at other locations as he was commanded to do by his superiors in the SS. After the failure to assassinate Hitler, Nebe hid on an island in the Wannsee until he was betrayed by one of his mistresses. On March 21, 1945, Nebe was hanged, allegedly with piano wire (Hitler wanted members of the plot to be "hanged like cattle"[4]) at Plötzensee Prison.

Judge-Presidents of the People's Court

See also


  1. ^ H.W.Koch (1997). In the Name of the Volk: Political justice in Hitler's Germany. I B Tauris & Co Ltd. ISBN 978-1860641749.  
  2. ^ Ian Kershaw (2000). Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis. Penguin Press. ISBN 0-393-32252-1.  
  3. ^ Joachim Fest (1994). Plotting Hitler's Death: The German Resistance to Hitler, 1933-1945. Weidenfield & Nicholson. ISBN 0-297-81774-4.  
  4. ^ William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,pp 1393

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