Jurists' Trial Verdict (US v. Josef Alstötter, et al.)
December 4, 1947
From 1946 through 1949, under the aegis of the International Military Tribunal, American occupying authorities carried out a series of 12 subsequent trials in Nuremberg against surviving members of the military, political, economic, medical, and juridical leadership cadres of Nazi Germany.
In the case of the US v. Josef Altstötter, et al., an American military tribunal tried members of the Reich Ministry of Justice as well as jurists and prosecutors of the People's Court [Volksgericht] and Special Court [Sondergericht].
The highest ranking officials of the Nazi judicial system could not be tried. Franz Gürtner, the Nazi regime's first Minister of Justice, had died in 1941. Otto Thierack, Justice Minister since 1942, had committed suicide in 1946. Roland Freisler, the infamous president of the People's Court, died in a bombing raid in Berlin in February 1945.
In what came to be called the “Jurists' Trial,” surviving high-ranking jurists and prosecutors stood accused of “judicial murder and other atrocities, which they committed by destroying law and justice in Germany and then utilizing the emptied forms of legal process for the persecution, enslavement, and extermination on a large scale.”
In describing the crimes of the judicial system, prosecutor Telford Taylor remarked: “The dagger of the assassin was concealed beneath the robe of the jurist.”
Justice Oswald Rothaug—the chief of the Special Court before whom Leo Katzenberger's case was heard—was tried and found guilty. In the words of the judgment against him, “The trial itself, as testified to by many witnesses, was in the nature of a political demonstration. High party officials attended […] During the proceedings, Rothaug tried with all his power to encourage the witnesses to make incriminating statements against the defendants. Both defendants were hardly heard by the court. Their statements were passed over or disregarded. During the course of the trial, Rothaug took the opportunity to give the audience a National Socialist lecture on the subject of the Jewish question. […] Because of the way the trial was conducted, it was apparent that the sentence that would be imposed was the death sentence.” The facts as established in the verdict show the ways in which Rothaug perverted legal norms and manipulated the process to ensure that Katzenberger would be found guilty and put to death.
The judgment did not stop there, however. The tribunal made a more general statement concerning the use of the German legal system in carrying out the Nazi program of persecution and murder, and, in so doing, took a step in attempting to at least nominally right the legal wrongs of that era. Their condemnation of Rothaug and all that he represented was unequivocal. “One undisputed fact,” the judgment stated, “is sufficient to establish this case as being an act in furtherance of the Nazi program to persecute and exterminate Jews. That fact is that nobody but a Jew could have been tried for racial pollution. […] Katzenberger was tried and executed only because he was a Jew. […] [His] execution was in conformity with the policy of the Nazi state of persecution, torture, and extermination of these races. The defendant Rothaug was the knowing and willing instrument in that program of persecution and extermination.” There were countless judges, prosecutors, and lawyers who acted as “willing instruments” of the Nazi agenda. There were others who struggled to maintain their ethical center of gravity amid a swarm of social and political pressures. Some succeeded more than others.
In the end, the American Military Tribunal prosecuted 16 defendants: ten were convicted, four were acquitted, and two did not stand trial. [One defendant committed suicide before the trial convened and the other was dismissed due to poor health.] Of those convicted, six received five to ten years in prison and four, including Oswald Rothaug, were given life sentences in jail. Rothaug was released in December 1956 and died in 1967.