1942: Ewald Schlitt, performative cruelty

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From Hitler’s Prisons: Legal Terror in Nazi Germany:

Despite the unprecedented legal terror [inside Germany], he [Hitler] continued to attack the legal apparatus as slow and formalistic, comparing it unfavourably with the unrestrained actions of the police. … In the autumn of 1941, he complained repeatedly in his private circle that the German judges passed too lenient sentences … In May 1941, he complained to Goebbels that inmates could emerge from prison ‘fresh and unused’, ready to act once more against the state — a statement which showed Hitler’s disregard for the brutal realities inside penal institutions. He had made a similar point a few months earlier to Himmler, telling him that criminals knew that inside penitentiaries ‘everything is nice, hygienic, nobody will do one any harm, the Minister of Justice vouches for that’.

Hitler’s simmering hostility towards the legal system blew up in spectacular fashion in the spring of 1941. The spark was yet another supposedly lenient court sentence. On 14 March 1942, the district court in Oldenburg found the engineer Ewald Schlitt guilty of having abused his wife so badly that she eventually died. However, the judges decided that Schlitt had not acted in cold blood but was liable to sudden violent fits of temper. Rather than condemning him to death as a ‘violent criminal’, the court sentenced Schlitt to five years in a penitentiary. When Hitler heard about this case, he exploded with rage. Ignorant of the details, he demanded that Schlitt be executed and took the court’s sentence as confirmation of the impotence of the judiciary. If there were any more such sentences, Hitler fumed in his private circle on Sunday 22 March 1942, he would ‘send the Justice Ministry to hell through a Reichstag law’. Hitler made no secret of his fury. On the very same day, he berated the acting Minister of Justice Schlegelberger on the telephone. Highly agitated, Hitler exclaimed that he could not understand why criminals were treated so leniently at a time when the ‘best’ German soldiers were dying at the front. Hitler threatened Schlegelberger with very serious consequences should the legal system fail to change.

The Reich Ministry of Justice immediately engaged in damage limitation, following Hitler’s outburst. Two days after his phone call, Schlegelberger wrote to Hitler to reassure him about the ruthlessness of the legal system: ‘My Fuhrer, I share your desire for the harshest punishment of criminal elements with the greatest conviction.’ To prove his point, Schlegelberger informed Hitler that the Schlitt case would be taken up by the Reich Court. The court duly delivered the desired result. On 31 March 1942, it quashed the original sentence against Schlitt and instead sentenced him to death, a decision which was immediately relayed to Hitler. Ewald Schlitt was guillotined two days later. Schlegelberger did not let the case rest here. He was concerned enough to inform the general state prosecutors, in a meeting on the day of Schlitt’s retrial, about Hitler’s threats. …

In previous protests by Hitler against court sentence he considered too ‘mild’, the file had been closed after the execution of the offender. But not this time. One of the reasons why Hitler did not let matters rest was his growing concern about the home front. In March 1942, the Nazi leadership knew that rations would have to be cut and evidently feared a backlash among the population … The Nazi leaders were convinced that the legal system would be unable to deal with any unrest. Thus, after Hitler had discussed the forthcoming cuts in rations with Goebbels on 19 March 1942, the two men went on to complain about the failures of the judiciary and to talk about the need for tougher measures on the home front. It was at this point that Hitler floated the idea of convening the Reichstag to give himself special powers against ‘evil-doers’, an idea he returned to after the Schlitt case. The cut in rations, the most serious during the entire war, was finally introduced on 6 April 1942, and caused great disquiet. Hitler’s apparent concern about this was betrayed in an extraordinary outburst at dinner on the very next day. Inevitably, his thoughts circled around the 1918 revolution and, with unprecedented ferocity, he vented his homicidal determination to prevent another ‘stab in the back’:

If a mutiny broke out somewhere in the Reich today, then he would answer it with immediate measures. To start with, he would:

a) have all leading men of an oppositional tendency … arrested at home and executed, on the day of the first report;

b) he would have all inmates in concentration camps shot dead within three days;

c) he would also have all criminal elements rounded up for execution within three days on the basis of the available lists, irrespective of whether they were in prison or at liberty at the time.

The shooting of this scum, which comprised a few hundred thousand people, would make other measures appear unnecessary, as the mutiny would break down by itself due to a lack of mutinous elements and fellow-travellers.

Only two weeks later, Hitler rang Goebbels and instructed him to take the very unusual step of summoning the Reichstag.

I also expect that the German jurisprudence understands that the nation is not there for them but they for the nation. That not the entire world is allowed to perish, in which also Germany is included, so that there is a formal right, but that Germany has to live, notwithstanding the formal interpretation of justice.

I have no understanding for it, just to mention an example, that for instance a criminal who married in 1937 and then mistreated his wife that she became mentally deranged and who then died of the results of his last mistreatment, is sentenced to 5 years of hard labor in a moment when 10,000 brave German men have to die in order to save the homeland from Bolshevism, that means to protect their wives and children.

I will take a hand in these cases from now on and direct the order to the judges that they recognize that as right what I order.

What German soldiers, German workers, peasants, our women in city and country and millions of our middle-class etc. do and sacrifice all only with the one thought of victory in their minds, then one can ask a congenial attitude for them who have been called by the people themselves to take care of their interests.

At present there are no self-styled saints with well-earned rights, but we all are only obedient servants in the interests of our people.

-From Hitler’s April 26, 1942 address to the Reichstag

On 26 April 1942, the Reichstag deputies assembled in Berlin, curious as to the purpose of the meeting. … The legal system, Hitler warned [in his address], must have only one thought: German victory. It was high time, he continued, that the legal system realised that it did not exist for its own sake, but for the nation. As an illustration of the inane approach of the judiciary, Hitler pointed to the Schlitt case. … The deputies cheered loudly, broke into chants of ‘Heil’ and then passed a resolution that explicitly exempted Hitler from ‘existing statutes of law’, giving him the right to remove from office and punish anyone ‘failing their duties’. Hitler was officially above the law.

Hitler’s attack in the Reichstag on 26 April 1942 received a mixed reception from the German public. Many Germans, it seems, supported Hitler’s views. But conservatives and members of the bourgeoisie started to voice some concerns about the threat to the rule of law. The German legal officials themselves were stunned … One senior judge exclaimed in private: ‘Out of shame, each judge has to hide his face from the public’. The officials feared that the attack would destroy public confidence int he independence of the judiciary and provide further incentives for the police to interfere in the legal process. To discuss measures which would increase Hitler’s confidence in the judiciary, the Reich Ministry of Justice held two meetings with senior regional officials in early May 1942 in Berlin. The meeting on 6 May was chaired by State Secretary Freisler. Hitler’s speech, he acknowledged, had hit the legal system like a ‘thunderstorm’. Freisler reminded the officials of the lessons which needed to be drawn: the legal officials had to become harder, focusing even more on retribution …

Hitler continued to complain in private about the weakness of the legal system. On 22 July, for example, he once more ranted at length about the judiciary, concluding that nobody resembled the jurist more closely than the criminal.

The Nazi leaders made sure that legal officials knew that Hitler was still unhappy. On the same day as Hitler’s latest private outburst, on 22 July 1942, Goebbels made an explicit speech to the officials at the People’s Courtk outlining the Nazi leaders’ criticism of the judiciary. Goebbels’s comments had special significance because, as he informed his listeners, Hitler had personally approved them. Goebbels began by complaining that many judges still had the wrong attitude, derived in large measure from their legalistic training. After referring in detail to several ‘unbearable’ sentences, Goebbels made crystal clear what was required from the judiciary. During the war, it was not important whether a judgment was fair or unfair; rather, it had to protect the state by eradicating the ‘inner enemies’: ‘The starting point is not the law, but the decision [that] this man has to disappear’.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Murder,Wartime Executions

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