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Franz Gürtner with Golden Party Badge (Goldenes Parteiabzeichen), 1938
|Reich Minister of Justice|
1 June 1932 – 29 January 1941
|President||Paul von Hindenburg|
(1934–1941; as Führer)
|Chancellor||Franz von Papen|
Kurt von Schleicher
|Preceded by||Curt Joël|
|Succeeded by||Franz Schlegelberger (acting)|
|Born||26 August 1881|
Regensburg, Kingdom of Bavaria, German Empire
|Died||29 January 1941 (aged 59)|
Berlin, Nazi Germany
|Political party||German National People's Party (until 1933)|
National Socialist German Workers' Party (from 1937)
|Alma mater||University of Munich|
Franz Gürtner (26 August 1881 – 29 January 1941) was a German Minister of Justice in Adolf Hitler's cabinet, responsible for coordinating jurisprudence in the Third Reich. He provided official sanction and legal grounds for a series of actions under the governments of Franz von Papen, Kurt von Schleicher and Hitler from 1932 until his death in 1941.
Early life and career
Gürtner was the son of Franz Gürtner (locomotive engineer) and Marie Gürtner, née Weinzierl. After the graduating from the gymnasium in 1900 in Regensburg, he studied law at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. After eight semesters he passed in 1904 his university examination. His preparation for Bavarian civil service was interrupted for the military service in the Königlich Bayerisches 11. Infanterie-Regiment „von der Tann“. After passing his second Staatsexamen in 1908 he worked as syndic for a Munich brewery association. On 1 October 1909, he entered the higher civil service of the Bavarian ministry of justice. On 7 August 1914 Gürtner was drafted as a reserve officer for military service in First World War. He served with the 11th Infantry Regiment on the Western Front. He rose to deputy battalion commander and received the Iron Cross II and I. Class and the Military Merit Order (Bavaria) IV class with swords. From September 1917 he took part with the Bavarian Infantry Battalion 702 (as Expeditionary Force) in the campaign in Palestine region of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, he received the House Order of Hohenzollern with swords and the Gallipoli Star. His appointment as battalion commander on 31 October 1918 was the day of the surrender of the Ottoman Empire. He led the battalion back to Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) and arrived on 17 March 1919 in Wilhelmshaven, where he was demobilized.
After the war, Gürtner pursued a successful legal career, being appointed Bavarian Minister of Justice on 8 November 1922, a position he held until 1932. Through a Roman Catholic, Gürtner joined the largely Protestant German National People's Party (Deutschnationale Volkspartei, DNVP), which was unusual as German Catholics usually supported the Centre Party or its Bavarian counterpart, the Bavarian People's Party. However, Gürtner was a staunch conservative and nationalist who rejected the Weimar Republic, as he associated democracy with "weakness", which led him into the radical conservative DNVP.
Gürtner's nationalist sympathies made him sympathetic to right-wing extremists such as Hitler. During the 1924 Beer Hall Putsch trial, Hitler was allowed to interrupt the proceedings as often as he wished, to cross-examine witnesses at will, and to speak on his own behalf at almost any length. Gürtner obtained Hitler's early release from Landsberg Prison, and later persuaded the Bavarian government to legalize the banned NSDAP, and allow Hitler to speak again in public.
Minister of Justice
On 2 June 1932, Gürtner was nominated as Reich Minister of Justice under Chancellor Franz von Papen. After serving in the cabinets of Papen and Kurt von Schleicher, Gürtner was retained by Hitler in his post, and made responsible for coordinating jurisprudence in the Third Reich. Although Gürtner was not a Nazi, as mentioned above he was an authoritarian by inclination (as was the case with most of his DNVP colleagues by this time). He fully supported the Reichstag Fire Decree, which effectively wiped out civil liberties in Germany. Indeed, on the day before the Reichstag fire, he proposed a bill that was almost as heavy-handed as the Reichstag Fire Decree; it would have instituted severe restrictions on civil liberties under the pretense of keeping the Communists from launching a general strike. He also merged the German judges' association with the new National Socialist Lawyers Association (Nationalsozialistischer Rechtswahrerbund), and provided a veil of constitutional legality for the Nazi State.
At first, Gürtner also tried to protect the independence of the judiciary and at least a facade of legal norms. He sought to curb the SA and SS' growing tendency to engage in extrajudicial punishments. Although no democrat, Gürtner believed in the rechtsstaat ("law state"), and sought to protect the turf of his ministry. He was most insistent that only the courts could inflict punishments on opponents of the Nazi regime. The ill-treatment of prisoners at concentration camps in Wuppertal (Kemna), Bredow and Hohnstein (in Saxony), under the jurisdiction of local SA leaders, provoked a sharp protest from the Ministry of Justice. Gürtner observed that prisoners were being beaten to the point of unconsciousness with whips and blunt instruments, commenting that such treatment
"reveals a brutality and cruelty in the perpetrators which are totally alien to German sentiment and feeling. Such cruelty, reminiscent of oriental sadism cannot be explained or excused by militant bitterness however great."
In 1933, Gürtner came into conflict with one of his subordinates, Roland Freisler, over the issues of Rassenschande (literally: "racial disgrace"), or sexual relationship between an "Aryan" and a "non-Aryan", which Freisler wanted immediately criminalized. Gürtner, in a meeting, pointed out many practical difficulties with Freisler's proposal. This did not, however, stop the passage of the Nuremberg Laws two years later, criminalizing Rassenschande.
In the weeks following the Night of the Long Knives, a purge of SA officers and conservative critics of the regime that resulted in perhaps hundreds of executions, he demonstrated his loyalty to the Nazi regime by writing a law that added a legal veneer to the purge. Signed into law by both Hitler and Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Frick, the "Law Regarding Measures of State Self-Defense" retrospectively legalized the murders committed during the purge. Gürtner even quashed some initial efforts by local prosecutors to take legal action against those who carried out the murders. As a part of bid to retain a role for the judiciary in the repression of enemies of the state and to protect the rechtsstaat, Gürtner opened the first session of the People's Court on 14 July 1934. The People's Court was a special court for trying those accused of being enemies of the state, whose procedures were meant to ensure the conviction of the accused. Starting in 1933, Gürtner found himself uneasily attempting to maintain the rule of law in Germany by bending the rules of the laws to suit Hitler, a process that steadily involved him and the rest of the German judiciary into excusing and justifying terror.
In July 1935, Gürtner amended Paragraph 175 of the German penal code to extend its scope and increased the penalties. By the end of 1935, it was already apparent that neither Gürtner nor Frick would be able to impose limitations on the power of the Gestapo, or control the SS camps where thousands of detainees were being held without judicial review. During World War II, the feeble protestation of the Ministry of Justice was weakened still further, as alleged criminals were increasingly handled by the Gestapo and SS, without recourse to any court of law.
Instead of resigning, Gürtner stayed on, even going as far as joining the Nazi Party in 1937. He provided official sanction and legal grounds for a series of repressive actions, beginning with the institution of Ständegerichte (drumhead courts-martial) that tried Poles and Jews in the occupied eastern territories, and later for decrees that opened the way for implementing the Final Solution. A district judge and member of the Confessing Church, Lothar Kreyssig, wrote to Gürtner protesting (correctly) that the T4 program was illegal (since no law or formal decree from Hitler had authorised it); Gürtner promptly dismissed Kreyssig from his post, telling him, "If you cannot recognise the will of the Führer as a source of law, then you cannot remain a judge."
Gürtner died on 29 January 1941 in Berlin.
- David Nicholls, Adolf Hitler: a biographical companion ABC-Clio, Inc. (10/2000) ISBN 0-87436-965-7 Retrieved 12 May 2010
- Reichshandbuch der deutschen Gesellschaft. Band I, Deutscher Wirtschaftsverlag, Berlin 1930, S. 398.
- Grimm 2017, p. 267.
- William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich Touchstone Edition, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990
- Evans, Richard J. (2003). The Coming of the Third Reich. New York City: Penguin Press. ISBN 978-0141009759.
- Austin Cline, "When National Interests Take Precedence Over the Rule of Law" (PDF) Website on the rule of law. Retrieved 12 May 2010
- Wistrich 2002, p. 92-93.
- Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience, p. 173 ISBN 0-674-01172-4
- Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience, pp. 175–6 ISBN 0-674-01172-4
- Evans (2005), p. 72. "After the 'Night of the Long Knives,' [Reich Minister for Justice Franz Gürtner] nipped in the bud the attempts of some local state prosecutors to initiate proceedings against the killers."
- Grimm 2017, p. 268.
- Charles W. Sydnor, Jr., Soldiers of destruction: the SS Death's Head Division, 1933–1945 See footnote, p. 20. Princeton University Press (1977) ISBN 0-691-05255-7
- "Concentration Camps 1933–1939" United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, official website. Retrieved 13 May 2010
- Kershaw, II, 254
- Wistrich, Robert S. (2002). Who's Who in Nazi Germany. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-26038-1. Retrieved 20 January 2014.
- Grimm, Eve (2017). "Franz Gürtner". In Bartrop, Paul R.; Dickerman, Michael (eds.). The Holocaust: An Encyclopedia and Document Collection. Santa Monica: ABC-CLIO. pp. 267–268. ISBN 1440840849.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Franz Gürtner.|
- Franz Gürtner in the German National Library catalogue
- Franz Gürtner in the files of the Reichskanzlei (in German)
- Franz Gürtner in the Haus der Bayerischen Geschichte (in German)
- Biographie des Deutschen Historischen Museums (in German)
- Newspaper clippings about Franz Gürtner in the 20th Century Press Archives of the ZBW