Third Reich's other houses of horror brutalised 'incorrigible' criminals

Hitler's Prisons

February 11, 2005

Among our images of the Third Reich, its prisons - which held more inmates than the concentration camps during much of Hitler's rule - are not particularly prominent. This may be due to the difficulty in portraying prisoners as innocent victims. Many were, but others had committed serious offences - assault, rape, robbery, murder - and it is not easy to draw moral conclusions about the criminal mistreatment of a child molester, for example. Yet, as Nikolaus Wachsmann rightly points out, "crimes against criminals are still crimes".

Hitler's Prisons is a catalogue of those crimes. But before going into the gory details (and there are many), Wachsmann offers a valuable account of the prison system during the Weimar era. Well before Hitler took power, the belief had spread that many criminals were "incorrigible" and that the alleged liberalism of the Weimar prison regime had to be corrected. Not surprisingly, the Nazi takeover was welcomed by many in the prison service.

They served their new masters well. Alongside Patrick Wagner's groundbreaking study of the criminal police, Wachsmann's book shows how the courts and prisons competed with the police to demonstrate to Hitler which of them could be more brutal towards those who allegedly might harm the "national community".

The prisons certainly held their own in this competition. Prisoners were beaten and forced to work in often terrible conditions; "incorrigible" criminals found themselves placed in "security confinement"; and paedophiles were castrated. It was not just the concentration camps that participated in murdering "inferiors" and "asocials" to contribute to "balancing the biological scales".

Wachsmann's book is not for those with a weak stomach. The most horrific chapters describe what happened during the war, when the already brutal criminal-justice system descended even deeper into inhumanity, subjecting prisoners to hunger and dreadful overcrowding, making liberal use of the death penalty, viciously exploiting prisoners' labour and working many to death, and aiding "the systematic mass extermination of tens of thousands of prisoners" by transferring them to concentration camps.

The depths of depravity were reached in the chaos, death marches and massacres of the last weeks of the war, when many in the prison service - like so many other officials of the crumbling Third Reich - played their part in the desperate campaign of terror aimed at preventing a repetition of the German collapse in 1918. This book should leave no one in any doubt that Germany's courts and prisons formed an integral part of the Nazi system of terror.

Wachsmann qualifies the influential notion, first articulated in 1941 by Ernst Frankel, that the Third Reich was a "dual state", in which a conventional "normative" state existed alongside a "prerogative" state acting outside the legal framework, and that the latter undermined and overwhelmed the former. The lines, in fact, were often blurred. For example, the prison system proved willing and able to accommodate prisoners put by the police into "security confinement" - prisoners who had not been sentenced by the courts for anything. Prison authorities denounced their prisoners to the police and supplied inmates to the concentration camps; thus many prisoners found themselves sent to concentration camp the moment that their prison terms had been completed.

Hitler's Prisons does much more than fill a major gap in our otherwise voluminous knowledge of Nazi Germany. It also provides a superb discussion of a central theme in the history of the Third Reich: the step-by-step destruction of the rule of law to a point where Hitler gave his wartime Justice Minister, Otto-Georg Thierack, express authority to "disregard existing law". The erosion of the rule of law was not a simple matter of Nazi fanatics such as Thierack seizing control of the legal system. Pillars of the pre-existing criminal-justice system - from prison warders and judges to Hitler's first Justice Minister, Franz Gurtner, and State Secretary Franz Schlegelberger - played major parts in the process as well.

Gurtner died in 1941, but Schlegelberger survived the war and his postwar trial to serve five years of a life sentence and subsequently to draw a generous pension. More generally, in West Germany most Nazi judges were back at work by 1949, as was a large proportion of the prison governors and warders who had served under Hitler. In East Germany, by contrast, there was a thorough clean-out of the legal and prison system, but that was followed by a renewed perversion of justice, the reintroduction of strict military discipline in prisons and a systematic exploitation of prison labour in the land of "real-existing socialism".

Unfortunately, many Nazi justifications for a harsh prison regime have a disturbingly familiar ring. Would the assertion that "punishment can only protect and deter by being harmful" be out of place in today's tabloid press or a speech by a contemporary politician eager to demonstrate tough law-and-order credentials? In fact, the statement came from Hermann Goring.

The Habitual Criminals Law of November 1933, which made long sentencing mandatory for people previously sentenced twice to at least six months' imprisonment, bears an uncomfortable similarity to the American penal policy of "three strikes and you're out".

And while one hopes that few would echo Roland Freisler's recommendation that prison should become a "house of horror", more might agree with Hans Frank that the state "does not negotiate with criminals, it knocks them to the ground".

Before people glibly echo such rhetoric, they should read Wachsmann's fine book.

Richard Bessel is professor of 20th-century history, York University.

Hitler's Prisons: Legal Terror in Nazi Germany

Author - Nikolaus Wachsmann
Pages - 538
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 300 10250 X

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.