Deconstructing a Nazi Death Sentence











Most readers will have at least heard of the anti-Nazi resistance movement known as The White Rose, which was centered around the University of Munich.

On February 22, 1943, three leading members of the group–Hans Scholl, his sister Sophie Scholl, and their friend Christoph Probst–were tried by a “People’s Court” and sentenced to death. The sentences were carried out that same day.

The transcript of the People’s Court’s verdict provides useful insight into the totalitarian mind. It can be found here.

I have some comments on this document, but before posting them I’ll wait to see what others have to say.

What, if anything, particularly strikes you about the transcript?

27 thoughts on “Deconstructing a Nazi Death Sentence”

  1. I am actually struck by a similarity – in the forward to RLS’s Kidnapped, he writes that the inspiration for the novel came from finding a particular lawyer from that period and reading all of his briefs, in which they found the famous trial and characters for the novel. So just who was this Dr. Freisler, and is there a library of his rulings from which a potential novel could be made (say of a mans descent into the totalitarian mindset?)

    Just a thought. It reads like a bad movie script.

  2. No defense. But I don’t know how German courts operated/operate, nor whether the court was civil or military or whether there was a distinction at the time. But to me, it sounded like a military court in a time of war when all are considered to be under military rules. The whole German population at that time could be considered as soldiers, which is how I suppose the Nazis thought of it. The reference to 1918 caught my eye, the ‘stab in the back’, together with the reference to Stalingrad and defaming the Fuhrer. Requiring the defendants to pay court costs was a low blow, rather like requiring people about to be executed to dig their own graves. It is the sort of degradation that is something of a common theme in these stories from totalitarian countries.

  3. Defeatism was a capital crime by 1943 and a period spent at the eastern front would certainly contribute to that feeling.

    “raises the dagger for a stab in the back of the Front!”

    Nazi logic.

    Rommel was allowed to commit suicide rather than suffer the fate of other generals who were not directly involved in Count von Stauffenberg’s bombing attempt but who knew of it. The others were hung by piano wire from meat hooks. This included Admiral Canaris who is suspected but never proved to be in touch with Allan Dulles in Switzerland.

  4. The neverending fear in the totalitarian mind that if anyone opposed the leader, or questioned the ideology of the party, that such doubt would become pervasive, and corrosive, within the populace and undercut its rule.

    And, of course, they were right.

    It is ironic that the two specific counts, that the defeat at Stalingrad showed hitler was not a competent military leasder, and that the party was leading the country to a disastrous defeat which would destroy the nation, were both proved to be utterly correct and valid.

    It always seems so astounding to us that these leaders had to be deified and declared perfect in all things, and still do today, for that matter, but the reason is fundamental—if they can be wrong, or questioned openly, then perhaps there is another option than their decision, perhaps there are alternatives.

    The consideration and evaluation of alternatives is, of course, the definition of how an independent mind functions, and that type of mind is the greatest enemy of the totalitarian, the most feared and hated of anything they might encounter.

    That’s what this trial was really all about. Some young people saw what they saw, experienced what they experienced, and came to their own conclusions about what was really going on.

    In a totalitarian society, coming to your own conclusions is punishable by death, as it must be. The anti-mind is the anti-life, and this is just one example, nicely distilled down to the basics.

  5. James Augustine…Freisler…he was a member of the Nazi Party very early, from 1927, so his descent into totalitarianism had basically already been done by the time he became a judge.

    It’s interesting to note that Hitler referred to him as “our Vyshinsky,” a reference to Stalin’s purge-trial prosecutor, and Freisler apparently modeled his courtroom demeanor on that prototype.

    It is pleasant to record that Freisler was killed by an American or British bomb, in a direct hit on his “courtroom,” in 1945.

  6. It is only the solicitude of the Reich that permits people have a professional life or a family, and everyone is required to be political, which means wholly supporting the Reich.

    Our leftists think the same way.

  7. Things that particularly struck me in the transcript:

    “In his capacity as soldier – on assignment to medical study — he has a special duty of loyalty to the Fuhrer.” Note the personalization…the duty asserted is not to the country, nor even to the State, but to a particular individual.

    “This and the assistance which he was expressly granted by the Reich did not deter him in the first half of the summer of 1942 from writing, duplicating, and distributing leaflets of the “White Rose.””…ie, we paid for your education, so we own you.

    “the German people would be deprived of the National Socialist way of life”…the language of manufactured “rights” and victimization.

    “plutocratic enemies of National Socialism”…hostility to “the rich,” as one would expect to find in a sentence promulgated by a Marxist government.

    “He is a “nonpolitical man” — hence no man at all!”…this said about Christoph Probst. The implication being that manhood and humanity are only to be found via participation in (approved) political activity. Not unrelated to “the personal is political” line promulgated by 1960s-to-present-day leftists/feminists and to the whole phenomenon of “political correctness.”

    “it was only the National Socialist demographic policy which made it possible for him to have a family”…again about Probst. Of course, people were having families in Germany and its predecessor states for centuries and millenia before anyone ever heard of such a thing as National Socialism. Again, the attitude is “we paid for you, we own you.”

    “the first links of a chain whose end — in an earlier time — was 1918.” The “stab in the back” legend, and especially the assertion that Jews were responsible for Germany’s defeat in the earlier war, was an example of successful mythmaking. In reality, Jews fought and died in the Kaiser’s army in proportion to their numbers in the population.

  8. “. . . . The implication being that manhood and humanity are only to be found via participation in (approved) political activity. Not unrelated to “the personal is political” line promulgated by 1960s-to-present-day leftists/feminists and to the whole phenomenon of “political correctness.”

    This I despise more than any aspect of contemporary Left/Liberalism. Extinguishes the independent conscience and submits all aspects of personality to political truth. It is profoundly – Illiberal.

  9. Lex,

    It is only the solicitude of the Reich that permits people have a professional life or a family…

    Yes, that was what jumped out at me also. The Nazis were busy destroying Germany while simultaneously taking credit for anything good and decent that managed to survive despite them.

    Sounds all too familiar.

  10. Sounds like a typical day at an Ivy league college. Just swap in anything to do with “Global warming” or “diversity”.

  11. ” he has a special duty of loyalty to the Fuhrer”

    IIRC, every member of the armed forces swore loyalty to Hitler. Somewhere around my library I have a book that made a big deal of the change in oaths from loyalty to Germany (or the Republic, I don’t recall which right now) to loyalty to Hitler personally.

    It was a different age in which people might take such oaths seriously. IIRC, members of Goerdeler’s group were worried that if they broke their oaths to Hitler they would be seen by the German people as traitors.

    I doubt any Ayersian leftist who happened to swear to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic has a trouble conscience. Should Obamunism succeed, neither would I.

  12. There have been two excellent movies made about this resistance group: “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” released in 2005, and “The White Rose,” from 1982. The more recent film, as the title suggests, is focused on Sophie and her interrogation by the Gestapo. The earlier movie is more broadly focused to include the other members of the group and its earlier history. It shows them not as plaster saints but as lively, life-loving, sometimes silly kids, who nonetheless felt strong the pull of conscience that led them to take extreme risks. The acting is excellent, and some of the actors–I’m thinking particularly of Lena Stolze as Sophie and Anja Kruse as Traute Lafrenz–look very much like their real-life prototypes. Unfortunately this film was never released on DVD and the VHS copies are fairly rare.

    BTW, Traute Lafrenz (who was Hans Scholl’s girlfriend and was arrested for leaflet distribution but was released after 1 year and then re-arrested) moved to the U.S. after the war, became a physician, and is now retired in South Carolina.

  13. The only thing that I found odd was the fact that the judge felt that had they allowed them to live they would have been a danger to Nazi Rule – which, at the time, was all-encompassing. Which on it face, seemed ludicrous.

    @David – to me the courage of those students was amazing. I had watch Downfall , the excellent German movie about the last days of Hitler, based in part on one of his secretaries’ (Traudl Junge) memoirs.

    Traudl, by her admission, was apolitical (although how she got to be in Hitler’s inner circle and not a rabid Nazi stretches credulity) – but the point is, she never felt responsible for the Nazi’s horrible role. She was a 22 year old Sekretarin in search of a job and adventure.

    She had this attitude though until the 70s, when, as a Munich resident, she came across a plaque commemorating Sophie Scholl, and she had an epiphany.

    They were both Munich residents at the time.

    That was, Sophie was the same age as her when looking for a job – and Sophie decided to fight the Nazis.

    Then, she knew.

    @Mike – I found Rommel interesting – one of the few in the Wehrmacht who had the respect of the allies. He treated the British POWs humanely and his only tie to the conspiracy was that he was tho be the liaison to the allies when Hitler was killed.

    IMO, he was a German Robert E Lee. If the Nazis hadn’t invaded Russia and he had gotten the supplies he needed….

  14. Bill, if Rommel had gotten Hitler to release the panzers on D-Day, we might have a very different history. That was not a very big beach head and, until St Lo, we were in great danger, not least because our tanks were inferior. Very Inferior. Michael Wittmann showed how inferior.

  15. How is this different than what exists currently in the United States? These folks were put to death for subversion during a time of war. If a person were to advocate the destruction of us military equipment today under a declared war, it is very likely those same people would meet the same fate.

    That said, what I think you are really looking for is, you don’t belong to you. The notion of all that you are comes from the fatherland and the party, and how dare you suggest otherwise. Individualism has no place in the larger community and all should rally around the one true giver, the fuhrer. Does this sound familiar today?

  16. Michael – Rommel pleaded (to no avail) for fuel and supplies but the new Eastern Front was taking all of that – the Afrika Korps was essentially considered expendable and expected to “fight to the death”.

    Lots of wonderful stories of Rommel in North Africa – my favorite was – with the rapidly shifting lines – the desert was compared by one author as more of a sea battle – Armies going back and forth 100s of miles – but Rommel was visiting his field hospital – only once there his staff quickly learned that it was not under British control and they’d better get out of there.

    Rommel was no Nazi – almost unique among generals – a professional soldier known for his audaciousness.

    Motto of the Afrika Korps – Ritterlich im Kriege, wachsam für den Frieden
    (“Chivalrous in War, Vigilant for Peace”) – he fought ferociously but treated the vanquished humanely.

    And you are right about D-Day.

  17. ” He is a “nonpolitical man” — hence no man at all!

    Meaning that there can be no respite from the totalitarian state. Under such a system your choices are align every aspect of your very being with the state or await your inevitable demise.

  18. I am reading an interesting book (working down the list)

    About an American family in Nazi Berlin, 1933 as the Nazis are consolidating power. And I came across a passage – that if anyone’s interested I will reproduce here but in essence it was if anyone goes outside the wishes of “the people” they are a non entity and deserve no help. That was the socialism part “National Socialists”

  19. Bill, sure, share it. I have that book. A Christmas gift, but I haven’t started it yet (my list keeps growing).

  20. Grurray –

    The passage in question concerns a vote that Hitler wanted – in 1933 – a referendum on Germany’s leaving the League of Nations and seeking arms parity – they (the Nazis) are really beating the bushes getting people out and voting “yes” ) – even went through a hospital and took people on stretchers to the polling station)

    In an editorial from the official Nazi newspaper, the Volkischer Beobachter ,
    “In order to bring abour clarity it must be repeated again. He who does not attach himself to us today, he who does not vote and vote “yes” today, shows that he is, if not our bloody enemy, at least a product of destruction and that he is no more to be helped.

    It would be better for him and it would be better for us if he no longer existed”

  21. A very pertinent account of the whole resistance against the nazis by little people is in a novel by a German author Hans Fallada about a couple who try to arouse the feelings of the populace of Berlin by a series of handwritten postcards dropped around the city over a period of about two years after a son is killed in France and the couple want to ensure his death is not in vain . This is treason and they are arrested by the Gestapo, tried by the Peoples Court and sentenced to death. The book is called Alone In Berlinand is available from Amazon. The real-life couple portrayed were Otto Hampel and his wife who were guillotined in plotzensee Prison in 1943. See wikipedia

  22. Further to this is that the author, Fallada, himself fell foul of the nazis and lived through the war, dying in 1947 fortunate that he didn’t cross the threshold of being seen to actively resist whilst the nazis were stillin power.

  23. Jesse…”How is this different than what exists currently in the United States? These folks were put to death for subversion during a time of war. If a person were to advocate the destruction of us military equipment today under a declared war, it is very likely those same people would meet the same fate.”

    Most likely, if someone had ADVOCATED sabotage in the U.S. during WWII, he would have been sentenced to a long prison term but not executed. If he had actually succeeded in conducting sabotage, then he indeed would have likely been executed.

    A British subject, John Amery, was hanged for treason based on his attempts to recruit British volunteers for German forces. (Very sadly, he was the son of noted anti-appeasement leader Leo Amery.) He did not defend himself at the trial, pleading guilty even knowing that there was no other possible sentence for this crime. (And shook hands with the hangman!) I don’t know what the outcome would have been if he’d chosen to defend himself in court, it might or might not have turned out the same way.

    What is most noteworthy about the White Rose verdict is not the sentence, but the rationales provided for it, which are quite different from anything one would expect from an American or British court (and, I suspect, for a pre-Hitler German court.)

  24. “Individualism has no place in the larger community and all should rally around the one true giver, the fuhrer. Does this sound familiar today?”

    Yes. Edward Kennedy denounced individualism quite stridently, IIRC. No doubt similar quotes could be found from Hillary Clinton, Obama, etc. What’s your point?

  25. Friesler was one of the more odious personalities in a Nazi leadership constellation noted for it’s unusually high number of thugs, crackpots, addicts, grafters and sinister sociopaths. His People’s Court was used in cases where the Fuhrer would be aggravated by the normal (and thoroughly Nazified) judiciary wasting time with evidence and testimony. It was a special Nazi court, really a political administrative hearing, to conduct brief show trials that consisted of Friesler shouting abuse before sentencing almost every defendant to death

  26. A mix of German secret agents and their German-American Nazi sympathizer accomplices were arrested in WWII and sentenced to death by a special military tribunal for sabotage under the Hague Convention. The defendants appealed to the US Supreme Court which upheld both the tribunal and the death sentences in Ex Parte Quirin.The decision was an important one is well worth the time to read:

    Had Bush II followed Ex Parte Quirin with AQ detainees we would have rid the world of a fair number of monsters in short order while being in complete compliance with the Constitution and international law. The hangings would have been an effective lesson for the world and we would not be stuck now with the ridiculous charade of Guantanamo

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