Decree against Public Enemies (Folk Pest Law)
September 5, 1939
The Decree against Public Enemies (Volksschädlingsverordnung; literally, “Folk Pest Law”), enacted just four days after Germany invaded Poland and began World War II, was an elastic clause that dramatically expanded the possibilities for criminal prosecution in Nazi Germany. Under the terms of the law, a crime against person or property, or against the community or public security, could carry a death sentence if the accused was charged with exploiting the special conditions of war—such as blackouts or a lack of police supervision—to carry it out. Further, according to the fourth paragraph of the law, death could be imposed “in accordance with the requirements of sound popular judgment [gesundes Volksempfinden] or the need to especially repudiate the criminal act.”
In the Nazi approach to law, offenses and legal determinations were deliberately defined in the vaguest possible terms. This enabled judges to retain the pretense of judicial independence while issuing verdicts that met the desires of the Nazi authorities. In practical terms, the Decree against Public Enemies paved the way for judges to impose the death penalty more freely, even for crimes that would otherwise have carried a lesser sentence. Hitler and the Nazi party used the advent of war—and the claim of rising criminality and “defeatist provocateurs”—to reject lenient sentences and to demand a far more frequent application of the death penalty.
It is worth noting that Volksschädlinge, the key term in the law's title, is translated as “folk pests” or “vermin.” As such, the law equates those exploiting the special conditions of war to carry out crimes with the type of agricultural pests that are destructive and generally outside the sphere of moral responsibility. Just as a gardener attacks the bugs and vermin that threaten his plants, so too, the Nazis believed, the national community had to eliminate those who compromised the health and well-being of the body politic.
The Decree against Public Enemies was perhaps the most frequently used legal basis for the approximately 15,000 death sentences handed down by the courts from 1941 to 1945.