Roland Freisler


Roland Freisler : biography

30 October 1893 – 3 February 1945

Freisler is interred in the plot of his wife’s family at the Waldfriedhof Dahlem cemetery in Berlin. His name is not shown on the gravestone.

Career under Hitler

In February 1933, Freisler was appointed department head in 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 1934–1942. He represented the latter at the Wannsee Conference (20 January 1942), where he stood in for Minister Franz Schlegelberger, as regarding the detailed plans of the Final Solution, the murder of all European Jews.

Freisler’s mastery of legal texts, mental agility and overwhelming verbal force combined well with strict adherence to the party line and the corresponding ideology, so that he became the most feared judge and the personification of the Nazis’ "blood justice". Despite his undisputed legal competence, he was never appointed to cabinet. According to Uwe Wesel, this can be attributed to two factors. Firstly, Roland Freisler was regarded as a lone fighter and had no influential patron.

Secondly, he was compromised by his brother Oswald’s actions. Oswald Freisler, though also a Nazi, appeared as the defense counsel in politically significant trials which the Nazis sought to use for propaganda purposes. Oswald even wore his Nazi Party badge in court, which confused the Party’s role in these trials. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels accordingly reproved Roland Freisler and reported the incident to Hitler, who, for his part, decreed the immediate exclusion of Oswald Freisler from the party.

According to Guido Knopp, however, Goebbels was the only Nazi leader well disposed towards Freisler. In 1941, at a round-table discussion in the Führers headquarters, Goebbels proposed Freisler to replace Reich Justice Minister Franz Gürtner, who had died. Allegedly, Hitler’s dismissive retort was: "That old Bolshevik? No!" Uwe Wesel reports a similar remark by Hitler.

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 Schlegelburger, [[Otto Georg Thierack, and Curt Rothenberger.]]

On 20 August 1942, Hitler promoted 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, set up outside the frame of law, had jurisdiction over a rather broad array of "political offences", including black marketeering, work slowdowns, and defeatism. These actions were viewed by Freisler’s court as Wehrkraftzersetzung (undermining defensive capability) and were accordingly punished severely, the death penalty being meted out in numerous cases. The People’s Court almost always sided with the prosecution, to the point that being brought before it was tantamount to a death sentence. Not surprisingly, it was viewed as a kangaroo court.

Freisler chaired the First Senate of the People’s Court, and acted as judge, jury and prosecution embodied into one man. He also acted as court recorder; that way, he was responsible for the composition of the written grounds for the sentences that he wrote up in his own unique fashion, namely in accordance with his own notions of a "National Socialist criminal court".

The number of death sentences rose sharply under Freisler’s stewardship. Approximately 90% of all proceedings ended with 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 handed out, and of these, 2,600 through the court’s First Senate, which Freisler headed. Thus, Freisler alone was responsible, in his three years on the court, for as many death sentences as all other senate sessions of the court together in the entire time the court existed, between 1934 and 1945.

Freisler was known for humiliating defendants and shouting at them. He was known to be an admirer of Andrei Vyshinsky, the chief prosecutor of the Soviet purge trials, and reportedly copied his demeanor.Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Touchstone Edition) (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990) A number of the trials for defendants in the 20 July Plot before the People’s Court were filmed and recorded. In the 1944 trial against Ulrich Wilhelm Graf Schwerin von Schwanenfeld, for example, Freisler shouted so loudly that the technicians who were filming the proceeding had major problems making the defendant’s words audible. Schwerin von Schwanenfeld, like many other defendants in the plot, was sentenced to death by hanging. Among this and other show trials, Freisler headed the 1943 proceedings against the members of the White Rose resistance group, and ordered many of its members to be executed by guillotine.