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Video: Criminal Justice Professionals during the Holocaust

Lessons in Leadership: Criminal Justice Approaches for Preventing Mass Atrocities

This video examines the choices and motivations of various criminal justice professionals – judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers – during the Holocaust and the impact of their actions on Jews living in Germany between 1933 and 1945.


- [Narrator] The Holocaust was the systematic state-sponsored persecution and murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators before and during World War II. Many people know the role that Nazi leaders such as Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Eichmann played in the genocide of the Jews. But less well known is the contribution of ordinary professionals throughout German society.

- [Dr. Lindsay MacNeill] We know that it required millions of ordinary people to carry out. This was a huge systematic undertaking. It was mass murder on a huge scale. It required people from all sorts of different professions. Doctors, lawyers, policemen, judges, military professionals, people who were just civil servants who worked in banks: all sorts of different people in European society were involved in carrying out the Holocaust.

- [Narrator] Criminal justice professionals played a key role in the Holocaust. Judges and prosecutors enabled the machinery of legal persecution targeting Jews within Germany, while police carried out anti-Jewish policies, including deportations. During the war, policemen actively participated in mass shootings of Jewish people. But most criminal justice professionals were not passionate believers in Nazi ideas.

Why then did existing police, prosecutors, and judges support the Nazi regime in 1933 when Hitler came to power? And why did so many become complicit in the Holocaust?

First and foremost, most criminal justice professionals believed Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany legitimately. The Nazi regime achieved their power through the constitutionally-mandated process, not through revolution. The Nazis campaigned for votes in free elections, becoming the largest political party in the German Parliament in 1932. While they never achieved a majority, President Hindenburg appointed Hitler to head a coalition government on January 30th, 1933. 

Hitler and the Nazis thus came to power through Germany's legal political process. Criminal justice professionals accepted the new government as legitimate and, as such, followed its directives and enforced its laws. They also swore a new oath of loyalty to Hitler.

- [Dr. Lindsay MacNeill] We do know of one example of a prosecutor named Martin Gauger who refuses to sign the oath. He says, "I will not sign an oath to someone who is not bound by the rule of law." And he loses his job, but he's not arrested. He's not shot. He's not even really harassed in any way.

- [Narrator] However, Gauger's actions were an exception. Most German prosecutors, police, and judges swore the oath and went on to serve under the Nazi regime.

Secondly, many criminal justice professionals and others agreed with the Nazi goal of establishing a strong authoritarian state. Many saw the existing democratic government as unstable, weak, and unable to maintain public order. They viewed a strong authoritarian state as necessary to counteract growing street violence and bring stability to Germany. The new Nazi regime moved quickly to transform Germany.

In early 1933, the Nazis justified the suspension of civil liberties and creation of a police state by citing the Communist danger to state and society. For example, the Nazis blamed Communists for the arson attack on the German parliament building, the Reichstag, in Berlin in late February, 1933. The government declared a state of emergency, which vastly expanded police authority.

Many criminal justice officials welcomed these anti-communist actions because they both feared the spread of communism and blamed the Communists for street violence.

Finally, criminal justice professionals applauded some of the changes that the Nazis made to the legal system, such as simplifying criminal trials, giving prosecutors expanded authority over court procedures, and instituting political oversight over dangerous prisoners.

They welcomed the new expansion of police powers, the creation of a strong centralized state, and the end of warring political parties that were common in Weimar Germany. This support from criminal justice officials had far-reaching consequences for the main targets of Nazi persecution: Jews.

From the very beginning of the Nazi regime, the Nazis depicted Jews as an alien and hostile race living in Germany.

- [Dr. Lindsay MacNeill] The Nazis promised Germans that they would create a unified German society, that people would stop fighting with each other, that all Germans would be valued together, that all Germans would have jobs and houses and would be successful and flourish. But the basis of this was Nazi racial ideology, this idea that only certain Germans counted as members of this Nazi racial community.

- [Narrator] Hatred of Jews was a central part of the Nazi Party platform, published in 1920. Antisemitism and the persecution of Jews were key tenets of Nazi racist ideology, an ideology which promoted the purity of the so-called Aryan race by excluding those deemed racially inferior. The Nazis openly proclaimed their intention to segregate Jews and to rescind their political, legal, and civil rights.

Between 1933 and the outbreak of war in 1939, the Nazi regime issued more than 400 decrees and regulations that restricted all aspects of the private and public lives of Jews in Germany. For example, the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service on April 7th, 1933 excluded Jews and those the Nazis regarded as politically unreliable from the civil service.

- [Fritz Glückstein] 1933, I remember my father lost his job as judge. And they told him, you'll have to leave the court. But look, there is a demonstration of Nazis outside. Why don't you go out the back door? You never know what's going to happen. Well, he said, "I came in by the front door and I will leave by the front door." And so he did. But that was the beginning that the good times receded actually, right away.

- [Narrator] Later, the Nuremberg Race Laws of September 15th, 1935 stripped Jews of their rights as German citizens and banned sexual relationships between those defined as Jews and those defined as German under the law.

Subsequent legislation stripped Jews of their property, as well as any opportunity to earn a living in Germany. Having publicly identified Jews as a hostile enemy population, the Nazis relied upon and received the cooperation of criminal justice officials in their persecution, thus setting the stage for the systematic mass murder of Jews in the Holocaust.

- [Dr. Lindsay MacNeill] The actions of criminal justice system professionals, when taken together, resulted in dire consequences. Put simply, the Holocaust could not have happened without them.