ROLAND FREISLER (30 October 1893 – 3 February 1945) was a jurist
and judge of
Nazi Germany . He was State Secretary of the Reich
Ministry of Justice , and President of the People\'s Court . He was
also an attendee at the
Wansee Conference in 1942, which set in motion
the Holocaust .
* 1 Early life
World War I
World War I
* 3 Post-war legal career
* 4 Career in
* 5 Contribution to the Nazification of the law
* 7 Presidency of the People\'s Court
White Rose show-trials
* 9 20th July Plot show-trials
* 10 Death
* 11 Personal life
* 12 Cultural references
* 13 See also
* 14 Notes
* 15 Bibliography
* 16 External links
Roland Freisler was born in
Lower Saxony , on 30 October
1893. He was the son of Julius Freisler (born 20 August 1862 in
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
World War I . He enlisted as an
officer cadet in 1914 with the Ober-Elsässisches Infanterie-Regiment
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 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 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 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 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
Prussian Landtag , and later he became a Member of the Reichstag .
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
CAREER IN NAZI GERMANY
In February 1933, after the revolutionary take-over of the German
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 the
Reich Ministry of Justice from 1934 to 1942.
Freisler's mastery of legal texts, mental agility, dramatic
court-room verbal dexterity and verbal force, in combination with his
zealous conversion to
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 wearing his
Nazi Party membership badge in court whilst
doing so. Propaganda minister
Joseph Goebbels reproved 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 years.
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
On 20 January 1942 Freisler, representing the Reich Minister Franz
Schlegelberger , attended the
Wannsee Conference of senior
governmental officials in a villa on the outskirts of the South-West
Berlin to provide expert legal advice for the planning of the
destruction of European Jewry .
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 .
Roland Freisler, 1944
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 the Revolutionary Tribunal
more than a court of law.
Freisler chaired the First Senate of the People's Court wearing a
blood scarlet judicial robe, in a hearing chamber bedecked with
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 embodied into one role, and his own
recorder, 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, and of these 2,600
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 put together 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 court-room performance artifice. He was known to
be interested in
Andrei Vyshinsky , the Chief Prosecutor of the Soviet
purge trials , and Freisler attended those show-trials to watch
Vyshinsky's performances when he had been engaged in the same work in
Moscow in 1938.
WHITE ROSE SHOW-TRIALS
In 1943 Freisler punished several members of the White Rose
resistance group that the
Gestapo brought before him by ordering their
execution by beheading using the
20TH JULY PLOT SHOW-TRIALS
In August 1944 a number of the arrested perpetrators of the failed
Adolf Hitler were taken before Freisler for
punishment, with the proceedings being recorded by film camera with
the intention of displaying it to the German public in cinema
newsreels. In the multiple hearings the atmosphere with which Freisler
ran his court was revealed, showing him alternating between engaging
the prisoners in a cerebral manner, with clinical interrogations to
prove their guilt of the charges; verbally and psychologically toying
with them, or yelling personalized theatrical enraged abuse at them
from the bench. At one point he yelled at Field Marshal Erwin von
Witzleben , who was trying to hold his pants up after being given old,
oversized clothing to wear without a belt, "You dirty old man, why do
you keep fiddling with your pants?" Nearly all were sentenced to death
by hanging, the sentences being carried out within 2 hours of the
verdicts being passed.
On the morning of 3 February 1945 Freisler was conducting a Saturday
session of the People's Court when United States Army Air Forces
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 paused himself to
gather files before following. A sudden direct hit on the
court-building at 11.08 A.M. caused a partial internal collapse, with
Freisler being crushed by a masonry column and killed whilst still in
the court-room. His body was found beneath the rubble still clutching
the files that he had stopped to retrieve.
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
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
Otto and Elise Hampel , whose true story inspired
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,
Owen Teale in the 2001
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. Retrieved 2013-09-29.
* ^ 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 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
* ^ 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)
* ^ 'The
Nazi Party 1919 to 1945: A Complete History' by Dietrich
Orlow (Pub. Enigmas Books, 2007)
* ^ In Monatsschrift für Kriminalbiologie und Strafrechtsreform,
1939, p. 209.
* ^ Cited by Wayne Geerling, see below the Bibliography.
* ^ Koonz, Claudia The
Nazi Conscience pp 173-174 ISBN
* ^ 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 (Pub. Paul List, 1968).
* ^ 'Hitler's 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,
* ^ '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)
* ^ 'Hitler's 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.
* ^ 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 he "bled to death on the pavement outside the People's
Court at Bellevuestrasse 15 in Berlin."
* ^ 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. 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 Adolf Hitler.
* ^ 'Hitler's Helfer - Roland Freisler', television documentary by
Guido Knopp (1998).
* ^ Jonas Hubner: 'Unrechtspflege.
Roland Freisler und die
* Breuning, Stephan. Roland Freisler: Rechtsideologien im III.
Reich. Neuhegelianismus kontra Hegel ("Legal ideologies in the Third
Reich. Neo-Hegelianism contra Hegel") Hamburg, Kovac 2002, ISBN
* 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,