Roland Freisler (30 October 1893 – 3 February 1945) was a jurist and
Nazi Germany. He was State Secretary of the Reich Ministry of
Justice, and President of the People's Court. He was also an attendee
Wannsee Conference in 1942, which set in motion the Holocaust.
1 Early life
2 World War I
3 Post-war legal career
4 Career in
5 Contribution to the Nazification of the law
6 Wannsee Conference
7 Presidency of the People's Court
White Rose show-trials
9 20th July Plot show-trials
11 Personal life
12 Cultural references
13 See also
16 External links
Roland Freisler was born in Celle, Lower Saxony, on 30 October 1893.
He was the son of Julius Freisler (born 20 August 1862 in Klantendorf,
Moravia), an engineer and teacher, and Charlotte Auguste Florentine
Schwerdtfeger (born 30 April 1863 in
Celle – died 20 March 1932 in
Kassel). He was baptised as a Protestant on 13 December 1893. He
had a younger brother, Oswald. In 1914 he was at law school when the
outbreak of war interrupted his studies.
World War I
Freisler saw active service during World War I. He enlisted as an
officer cadet in 1914 with the Ober-Elsässisches Infanterie-Regiment
Nr.167 in Kassel, and by 1915 he was a lieutenant. Whilst in the
front-line with the German Imperial Army's 22nd Division he was
Iron Cross both 2nd and 1st Class for heroism in
action. In October 1915 he was wounded in action on the Eastern
Front and taken prisoner of war by Russian forces.
Whilst a prisoner Freisler learned to speak Russian, and developed an
Marxism after the
Russian Revolution had commenced. The
Bolshevik provisional authority which took over responsibility for
Freisler's prisoner of war camp made use of him as a 'Commissar' (as
he was described by them in his repatriated prisoner of war paperwork
in 1918) administratively organising the camp's food supplies in
1917-1918. It is possible that after the Russian prisoner of war
camps were emptying in 1918, with their internees being repatriated to
Germany after the
Armistice between Russia and the Central Powers
Armistice between Russia and the Central Powers had
been signed, Freisler for a brief period became attached in some way
to the Red Guards, though this is not supported by any known
documentary evidence. Another possibility is that after the Russian
Revolution the description "Commissar" was merely an administrative
title given by the
Bolshevik authority for anyone employed in an
administrative post in the prison camps without the political
connotations that the title later acquired, though in the early days
National Socialist German Workers' Party
National Socialist German Workers' Party career in the 1920s
Freisler was a part of the movement's left wing, and in the late
1930s he attended the Soviet
Moscow Trials to watch the proceedings.
Freisler later rejected any insinuation that he had ever co-operated
Nazi regime's ideological enemy, but his subsequent career as
a political official in Germany was overshadowed by rumours about his
time as a "Commissar" with the "Reds".
Post-war legal career
He returned to Germany in 1919 to complete his law studies at the
University of Jena, and qualified as a
Doctor of Law
Doctor of Law in 1922. From
1924 he worked as a solicitor in Kassel. He was also elected a city
councillor as a member of the Völkisch-Sozialer Block ("People's
Social Block"), an extreme nationalist splinter party. Freisler
National Socialist German Workers' Party
National Socialist German Workers' Party in July 1925 as
Member #9679. and gained authority immediately within the
organisation by using his legal training to defend members of it who
were regularly facing prosecutions for acts of political violence. As
the Party transitioned from a fringe political beer-hall and street
fighting movement into a political one, Freisler was elected for it to
the Prussian Landtag, and later he became a Member of the Reichstag.
In 1927 Karl Weinrich, a
Nazi member of the
Prussian Landtag along
with Freisler, characterised his then reputation in the rapidly
Nazi movement in the late 1920s: "Rhetorically Freisler is
equal to our best speakers, if not superior; particularly on the broad
masses he has influence, but thinking people mostly reject him. Party
Comrade Freisler is only usable as a speaker though and is unsuitable
for any position of authority because of his unreliablity and
In February 1933, after the revolutionary takeover of the German state
Adolf Hitler with the Enabling Act of 1933, Freisler was appointed
as the Director of the Prussian Ministry of Justice. He was Secretary
of State in the Prussian Ministry of Justice in 1933–1934, and in
Reich Ministry of Justice
Reich Ministry of Justice from 1934 to 1942.
Freisler's mastery of legal texts, mental agility, dramatic courtroom
verbal dexterity and verbal force, in combination with his zealous
National Socialist ideology, made him the most feared
judge in Germany during the Third Reich, and the personification of
Nazism in domestic law. However, despite his talents and loyalty,
Adolf Hitler never appointed him to a government post beyond the legal
system. This might have been attributable to the fact that he was a
lone figure lacking support within the senior echelons of the Nazi
hierarchy, and also partly that he had been politically compromised
through family association with his brother Oswald Freisler, who was
also a lawyer, who had appeared as the defence counsel in court
against the Regime's authority several times in its programme of
increasingly politically-driven trials with which it sought to enforce
its tyrannical control of German society, and who had a habit of
Nazi Party membership badge in court whilst doing so.
Joseph Goebbels reproached
Oswald Freisler and
reported his actions to Adolf Hitler, who in response ordered
Freisler's expulsion from the Party. (
Oswald Freisler committed
suicide in 1939.) In 1941 in a discussion at the "Führer
Headquarters" about whom to appoint to replace Franz Gürtner, the
Reich Justice Minister, who had died, Goebbels suggested Roland
Freisler as an option; Hitler's reply, in an echo of Freisler's "Red"
past, was: "That old Bolshevik? No!"
Contribution to the Nazification of the law
Freisler was a committed
National Socialist ideologist, and used his
legal skills to adapt its theories into practical law-making and
judicature. He published a paper entitled "Die rassebiologische
Aufgabe bei der Neugestaltung des Jugendstrafrechts ("The
racial-biological task involved in the reform of juvenile criminal
law"). In this document he argued that "racially foreign, racially
degenerate, racially incurable or seriously defective juveniles"
should be sent to juvenile centres or correctional education centres
and segregated from those who are "German and racially valuable."
He strongly advocated the creation of laws to punish Rassenschande
("race defilement", the
Nazi term for sexual relations between
"Aryans" and "inferior races"), to be classed as 'racial treason'. In
1933 he published a pamphlet calling for the legal prohibition of
"mixed-blood" sexual intercourse, which met with expressions of public
unease in the dying elements of the German free press and non-Nazi
political classes and, at the time, lacked public authorization from
the policy of the
Nazi Party, which had only just obtained dictatorial
control of the state. It also led to a clash with his superior Franz
Gürtner, but Freisler's ideological views reflected things to
come, as was shown by the enactment of the
Nuremberg Laws within two
In October 1939, Freisler introduced the concept of 'precocious
juvenile criminal' in the "Juvenile Felons Decree". This "provided the
legal basis for imposing the death penalty and penitentiary terms on
juveniles for the first time in German legal history." Between
1933 and 1945 the Reich's Courts sentenced at least 72 German
juveniles to death, among them 17-year-old Helmuth Hübener, found
guilty of high treason for distributing anti-war leaflets in 1942.
On the outbreak of
World War II
World War II Freisler issued a legal "Decree
against National Parasites" (September 1939) introducing the term
perpetrator type, which was used in combination with another National
Socialist ideological term, parasite. The adoption of racial
biological terminology into law portrayed juvenile criminality as
'parasitical', implying the need for harsher sentences to remedy it.
He justified the new concept with: "In times of war, breaches of
loyalty and baseness cannot find any leniency and must be met with the
full force of the law."
On 20 January 1942 Freisler, representing the Reich Minister Franz
Schlegelberger, attended the
Wannsee Conference of senior governmental
officials in a villa on the southwestern outskirts of
provide expert legal advice for the planning of the destruction of
Presidency of the People's Court
A meeting of the four Nazis who imposed
Nazi ideology on the legal
system of Germany. From left to right: Roland Freisler, Franz
Otto Georg Thierack
Otto Georg Thierack and Curt Rothenberger.
On 20 August 1942, Hitler promoted
Otto Georg Thierack
Otto Georg Thierack to Reich
Justice Minister, replacing the retiring Schlegelberger, and named
Freisler to succeed Thierack as president of the People's Court
(Volksgerichtshof). This court had jurisdiction over a broad array of
political offences, including black marketeering, work slowdowns and
defeatism. These actions were viewed by Freisler as
Wehrkraftzersetzung (undermining defensive capability) and were
punished severely, with many death sentences. The People's Court under
Freisler's domination almost always sided with the prosecuting
authority, to the point that being brought before it was tantamount to
a capital charge. Its separate administrative existence beyond the
ordinary judicial system increased its notoriety, and despite its
judicial trappings it rapidly turned into an executive execution arm
and psychological domestic terror weapon of
totalitarian regime, in the tradition of a revolutionary tribunal more
than a court of law.[additional citation(s) needed]
Roland Freisler, 1944
Freisler chaired the First Senate of the People's Court wearing a
blood scarlet judicial robe, in a hearing chamber bedecked with
scarlet swastika-draped banners and a large black sculpted bust of
Adolf Hitler's head upon a high pedestal behind his chair, opening
each hearing session with the
Nazi salute from the bench. He acted
as prosecutor, judge and jury all in one, and his own recorder as
well, thereby controlling the record of the written grounds for the
sentences that he passed.
The number of death sentences rose sharply under Freisler's rule.
Approximately 90% of all proceedings that came before him received
sentences of death or life imprisonment, the sentences frequently
having been determined before the trial. Between 1942 and 1945, more
than 5,000 death sentences were decreed by him, 2,600 of these through
the court's First Senate, which Freisler controlled. He was
responsible in his three years on the court for as many death
sentences as all other senate sessions of the court combined in the
court's existence between 1934 and 1945.
Freisler became in this period notorious for berating in a
personalized injudicial manner from the bench the steady stream of
defendants passing before him on their way to their deaths, often
shouting and occasionally yelling at them – particularly in cases of
resistance to the authority of the
Nazi state – in an enraged,
glaringly clarion but dramatically controlled harsh voice, using a
mastery of the art of courtroom performance artifice. He was known to
be interested in Andrei Vyshinsky, the Chief Prosecutor of the Soviet
purge trials, and had attended those show-trials to watch Vyshinsky's
courtroom performances in a similar capacity in Moscow in
White Rose show-trials
In 1943, Freisler punished several members of the White Rose
resistance group the
Gestapo had brought before him by ordering their
executions by beheading by
20th July Plot show-trials
In August 1944, some of the arrested perpetrators of the failed
Adolf Hitler were taken before Freisler for
punishment. The proceedings were filmed to be seen by the German
public in cinema newsreels, portraying how Freisler ran his court,
showing him alternating between cerebral questioning of the
defendants, with clinical interrogations to prove their guilt of the
charges, and verbally and psychologically toying with them to the
point of enraged yelling of personal abuse at them from the bench. At
one point he yelled at Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, who was
trying to hold his trousers up after being given old oversized and
beltless clothing, "You dirty old man, why do you keep fiddling with
your trousers?" Nearly all were sentenced to death by hanging, the
sentences being carried out within 2 hours of the verdicts.
On the morning of 3 February 1945, Freisler was conducting a Saturday
session of the People's Court when United States Army Air Forces
bombers attacked Berlin. Government and
Nazi Party buildings were hit,
including the Reich Chancellery, the
Gestapo headquarters, the Party
Chancellery and the People's Court. Hearing the air-raid sirens,
Freisler hastily adjourned the court and ordered that the prisoners
before him be taken to an air-raid shelter, but stayed behind to
gather files before leaving. A sudden direct hit on the court-building
at 11:08 caused a partial internal collapse, with Freisler being
crushed by a masonry column and killed while still in the
courtroom. Among the files was that of Fabian von Schlabrendorff,
20 July Plot
20 July Plot member who was on trial that day and was facing
execution. Freisler's body was found beneath the rubble still
clutching the files he had stopped to retrieve. A differing account
stated that Freisler "was killed by a bomb fragment while trying to
escape from his law court to the air-raid shelter," and "bled to death
on the pavement outside the People's Court at Bellevuestrasse 15 in
Fabian von Schlabrendorff
Fabian von Schlabrendorff was "standing near Freisler when
the latter met his end". Freisler's death saved Schlabrendorff, who
after the war became a judge of the Constitutional Court of the
Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesverfassungsgericht). Another
version of Freisler's death states that he was killed by a British
bomb that came through the ceiling of his courtroom as he was trying
two women, who survived the explosion.
A foreign correspondent reported, "Apparently nobody regretted his
death." Luise Jodl, then the wife of General Alfred Jodl,
recounted more than 25 years later that she had been working at the
Lützow Hospital when Freisler's body was brought in, and that a
worker commented, "It is God's verdict." According to Mrs. Jodl, "Not
one person said a word in reply."
Freisler's body was buried in the grave of his wife's family at the
Waldfriedhof Dahlem Cemetery in Berlin. His name is not recorded
on the gravestone.
Freisler married Marion Russegger on 24 March 1928; the marriage
produced two sons, Harald and Roland.
Freisler appears in fictionalised form in the 1947
Hans Fallada novel
Every Man Dies Alone. In 1943 he tried and handed down death penalties
to Otto and Elise Hampel, whose true story inspired Fallada's novel.
In the novel Fatherland, which takes place in an alternate 1964 in
Nazi Germany won World War II, Freisler is mentioned as having
survived until winter 1954, when he is killed by a maniac with a knife
on the steps of the
Berlin People's Court. It is implied that his
death was actually caused by the Gestapo, to ensure that the Wannsee
Conference and the Holocaust remained a secret.
Freisler has been portrayed by screen actors at least five times: by
Rainer Steffen in the 1984 German television film Wannseekonferenz, by
Roland Schäfer in the 1989 Anglo-French-German film Reunion, by Brian
Cox in the British 1996 television film Witness Against Hitler, by
Owen Teale in the 2001 BBC/
HBO film Conspiracy, by
André Hennicke in
the 2005 film Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, and by Helmut Stauss
in the 2008 film Valkyrie.
Lt. Col. Robert Rosenthal
Helmuth James Graf von Moltke
^ a b ""Freisler, Karl Roland", in: Hessische Biografie". 2012-09-07.
^ Koch, H. W. (15 November 1997). In the Name of the Volk: Political
Justice in Hitler's Germany. p. 28. ISBN 1860641741.
Retrieved 19 March 2014.
^ 'Hitler's Hilfer - Roland Freisler' ('Hitler's Henchmen') television
documentary series, by Guido Knopp, ZDF Enterprizes (1998).
^ a b 'Hitler's Helfer' by Guido Knopp (Pub. Goldmann, 1998).
^ 'Richter in Roter Robe - Freisler, Prasident des Volkgerichtshofes'
(Judge in a Red Robe - Freisler, President of the People's Court) by
Gert Buchheit (Pub. Paul List, 1968).
^ a b c d e f Knopp, Guido. Hitler's Hitmen, Sutton Publishing, 2000,
pp. 216, 220–222, 228, 250.
^ a b c Wesel, Uwe. "Drei Todesurteile pro Tag" (Three death sentences
per day), Die Zeit, 3 February 2005. Text in German Uwe Wesel is
professor emeritus of Legal History in Berlin's Free University.
^ Koch, H. W. In the Name of the Volk: Political Justice in Hitler's
Germany, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1997, p. 29.
^ 'Freisler, Political Soldier,' 'Der Spiegel' 23.9.1968, review of
'Judge in a Red Robe - Freisler, President of the People's Court' by
Gert Buchheit (Pub. Paul List, 1968)
Nazi Party 1919 to 1945: A Complete History' by Dietrich Orlow
(Pub. Enigmas Books, 2007)
^ In Monatsschrift für Kriminalbiologie und Strafrechtsreform, 1939,
^ Cited by Wayne Geerling, see below in the Bibliography.
^ Koonz, Claudia The
Nazi Conscience pp 173-174
^ a b Wayne Geerling, Id.
^ 'Hitler's Helfer - Roland Freisler' ('Hitler's Henchmen'),
television documentary by Guido Knopp (ZDF Enterprizes, 1998).
^ 'Judge in a Red Robe - Freisler, President of the People's Court',
by Gert Buchheit (Paul List, 1968).
^ 'Hitlers Helfer - Ronald Freisler der Hinrichter' (Hitler's Henchmen
- Roland Freisler), ZDF Enterprizes (1998) television documentary
series, by Guido Knopp.
^ 'The Hitler Virus' by Peter Wyden (Pub. Arcade Publishing, 2002).
^ 'Hitler's Helfer - Roland Freisler' (Hitler's Henchmen - Roland
Freisler), television documentary series by Guido Knopp, ZDF
^ Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the
Third Reich (Touchstone
Edition) (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990)
^ 'Hitlers Helfer - Roland Freisler', television documentary, by Guido
Knopp, ZDF Enterprizes (1998).
^ 'Hitler's Helfer - Roland Freisler' (Hitler's Henchmen - Roland
Freisler) television documentary, by Guido Knopp, (ZDF Enterprizes,
^ a b Granberg, Jerje. AP dispatch from Stockholm, reprinted as
"Berlin, Nerves Racked By Air Raids, Fears Russian Army Most," Oakland
Tribune, 23 February 1945, p. 1.
^ Will, George F. , "Plot failed, but the spirit lived," reprinted in
The Anniston Star, 19 July 1974, p. 4.
^ Davies, Norman. Europe at War 1939–1945: No Simple Victory (New
York: Viking Penguin, 2007), p. 308.
^ Buchanan, William, "
Nazi War Criminal's Widow Recalls Nuremberg,"
Boston Globe report reprinted in The Daily Times-News (Burlington,
N.C.), 20 December 1972, p. 1.
^ In the same cemetery lies the grave of Ulrich Wilhelm Graf Schwerin
von Schwanenfeld, a 20 July conspiracy member executed upon Freisler's
court order a few months earlier for the attempted assassination of
^ 'Hitlers Helfer - Roland Freisler', television documentary by Guido
^ Jonas Hubner: 'Unrechtspflege.
Roland Freisler und die hessische
Breuning, Stephan. Roland Freisler: Rechtsideologien im III. Reich.
Neuhegelianismus kontra Hegel ("Legal ideologies in the Third Reich.
Neo-Hegelianism contra Hegel") Hamburg, Kovac 2002,
Buchheit, Gert. Richter in roter Robe. Freisler, Präsident des
Volksgerichtshofes ("Judges in red robes. Freisler, president of the
People's Court") München, 1968.
Geerling, Wayne. "Protecting the National Community From Juvenile
Delinquency: Nazification of Juvenile Criminal Law in the Third
Reich", a chapter from the author's dissertation Resistance as High
Treason: Juvenile Resistance in the Third Reich, Melbourne University,
2001. Read it here
Knopp, Guido. Hitler's Hitmen (Chp. 4, "The Hanging Judge"). Stroud,
UK: Sutton Publishing, 2002.
Koch, H. W. In the Name of the Volk: Political Justice in Hitler's
Germany London, 1989.
Ortner, Helmut. Der Hinrichter. Roland Freisler, Mörder im Dienste
Hitlers ("The executioner. Roland Freisler, Assassin in Hitler's
service") Wien, Zsolnay 1993, ISBN 3-552-04504-X.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Roland Freisler.
20 July 1944 plot—Trials before the People's Court
(Volksgerichtshof) -- YouTube video in German—Shows Roland Freisler
in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQfW6hHWWuM
"Death of a
Nazi Judge". New York Times. 1994-12-17. Retrieved
Director Jochen Bauer, Producer Bengt Muehlen (2009). "The Top Secret
Trial of the Third Reich, documentary". First Run Features. Retrieved
2010-03-18. - actual footage of Freisler trying a resistance
Judge President of the People's Court
20 August 1942 – 3 February 1945
ISNI: 0000 0001 1059 4373
BNF: cb123979271 (data)