How the Courts Failed Germany

by Nancy Smith, Pima County Superior Court, Tucson

On Tuesday, August 5, Dr. William Meinecke and Mr. Marcus Appelbaum of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum presented a thought provoking session on Nazi history as it applied to Germany’s judicial system before and during WWII. They asked some difficult ethical questions to prompt participants to understand that we in the judicial branch must be vigilant against abuses to our legal system, to our rule of law, and to our individual liberties in order to avoid horrors like the Holocaust.

Dr. Meinecke’s history lesson took judicial educators back to Germany after WWI, and guided them though the political upheaval that engendered the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s. He presented evidence that the adoption of Nazi policies as they pertain to the legal system was largely voluntary by judges—in many cases they enthusiastically supported Nazi laws. Dr. Meinecke argued that judges used weaknesses in the German constitution under the Weimar government to reinterpret the law—in effect, that judges obeyed Nazi edicts because they interpreted these laws as constitutional. The laws deemed “constitutional” by German jurists included the infamous Nuremburg laws, which outlined racial purity standards and institutionalized the Holocaust, as well as the decree against public enemies, which demanded harsh penalties for petty crimes like theft that “threatened” German society.

After the history lesson, Mr. Appelbaum asked learners to reflect on and discuss questions such as “Where did members of the judiciary in Nazi Germany fail in their role?” and “What are the safeguards in our system to ensure a fair and impartial system of justice today?”

Finally, he asked the audience to consider whether the safeguards it came up with in the discussion are enough to ensure a fair and impartial system of justice. These are tough questions with tough answers.

Dr. Meinecke and Mr. Appelbaum take their presentation on the road regularly and have spoken to many groups of judges around the country. A gift to the museum allows them to continue to travel and present their session at low cost. If your state would like to have them at a conference for judges, administrators and possibly for staff, contact program coordinator Ms. Ann Weber at aweber@ushmm.org.