First Letter to All Judges (Guidelines for Sentencing)
October 1, 1942
On August 20, 1942, Hitler appointed Otto Thierack, a vehement Nazi, as Reich Minister of Justice, heralding the end of an independent judiciary in Germany. Given free reign by Hitler, Thierack demanded ever more extreme legal measures against Jews and others, increasing the pressure on German judges to render their verdicts according to Nazi principles and ideology. At Theirack's urging and with the compliance of many individuals throughout the legal profession, the Nazi court system became more and more a state vehicle for injustice and persecution from 1942 until the end of the war in 1945.
On October 1, less than six weeks after his appointment, Thierack issued the first in a series of so-called Letters to All Judges, which served as official guidelines to be used in sentencing. Dealing with such varied cases as divorce, legal determination of Jewish descent, treatment of antisocial elements, refusal to give the Nazi salute, and looting, these letters presented the state's position on political questions and on the legal interpretation of Nazi laws. In practice, Thierack's letters pressured judges, who were under public threat of removal from office, to choose the path of least resistance and decide a case according to the examples set out in them, although no judge was ever removed from office for the explicit reason of having failed to do so.
The letters were classified as state secrets because the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst, or “SD”) of the SS was convinced that the public would protest the intensification of state control over the judicial system. In a report on May 30, 1943, the SD declared, “The people want an independent judge. The administration of justice and the state would lose all legitimacy if the people believed judges had to decide in a particular way.”
Thierack's first letter addressed the use of the death penalty for persons convicted under the Decree against Public Enemies (Volksschädlingsverordnung) of September 5, 1939. Under that law's terms, a person could be sentenced to death—regardless of the severity of the accusation—if he or she was found to have exploited the wartime circumstances to commit the crime in question and, additionally, if judges determined that “sound popular judgment” required them to sentence the person to death. Thierack's letter states in no uncertain terms that it was the desire and expectation of the Ministry of Justice that judges would uniformly apply the death penalty in such cases. As Thierack wrote, “Those in the administration of justice must recognize that it is their job to destroy traitors and saboteurs on the home front. […] The home front is responsible for maintaining peace, quiet, and order as support for the war front. This heavy responsibility falls especially to German judges. Every punishment is fundamentally more important in war than in peace.”