The Judges’ Trial
The 1961 motion picture Judgment at Nuremberg was loosely based on the Judges’ Trial, in which 16 Nazi lawyers and judges were tried for crimes against humanity by abusing the legal process and the rule of law. Nine of the jurists indicted and tried were former officials of the Reich Ministry of Law, the remaining seven were former justices (if that is the word) and prosecutors of the Special Courts and People’s courts, both set up by order of Adolf Hitler to intimidate resistance to the Nazi regime within Germany. Both operated outside of the law, eliminating the rights which the legal system afforded a defendant.
Accused found guilty before the Special Courts and People’s Courts in Nazi Germany had no recourse to appeal, and the sentence imposed by the judges was usually carried out immediately, or if not, as quickly as possible. The Special Courts, which were also established in the countries occupied by the Germans, were responsible for the execution of 12,000 people in Germany alone, for the crime of opposing the Nazis. In many ways they were similar to the tribunals of the Reign of Terror which sent denounced opponents to the guillotine during the French Revolution. Trials were little more than a formality before sentencing was handed down.
The People’s Courts were even more of a sham in regards to rule of law. Established in 1934, the People’s Courts heard charges against individuals ranging from black market activities to the crime of defeatism. An individual overheard making statements that Germany was losing the war could be brought before the court for committing a crime, and the judges’ had sentencing guidelines which were completely at his discretion. The judge was usually both prosecutor and presiding officer, who would announce the crime, find the accused guilty, and pass sentence without comment from the defense counsel, who ran the risk of being denounced if he objected.
The most senior officials of the German extrajudicial system were not tried by the NMT, having died before or shortly after the end of the war. Those which did appear were charged in a four count indictment, with the first count of conspiring to commit war crimes dropped during the trial. Those jurists, who had been members of the SS or other organizations, deemed to be criminal by the International Tribunal were so charged, which applied to seven of the accused. All sixteen of the defendants pleaded not guilty to all charges, claiming that they were upholding German law as properly established by the government.
The trial ran from January to December 1947. One of the defendants committed suicide prior to the trial beginning, another was released after his case was declared a mistrial. Of the remaining fourteen, ten were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from five years to life in prison. By the mid 1950s, all except those who died in prison had been released. The reaction to the Judges’ Trial was for the most part critical of the relative lenience of the sentences handed down. The People’s Courts and Special Courts remain a little known part of the Nazi killing machine which terrorized Europe during the Third Reich, giving a pretense of legality to what was wholesale murder.