Roland Freisler

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"Freisler" redirects here. For other people with the surname Freisler or Freissler, see Freisler (surname).
Roland Freisler
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-J03238, Roland Freisler.jpg
Judge President of the People's Court
In office
20 August 1942 – 3 February 1945
Nominated by Adolf Hitler
Appointed by Heinrich Himmler
Preceded by Otto Thierack
Succeeded by Harry Haffner
Personal details
Born (1893-10-30)30 October 1893
Celle, Lower Saxony, German Empire
Died 3 February 1945(1945-02-03) (aged 51)
Berlin, Nazi Germany
Nationality German
Political party National Socialist Workers' Party
Other political
Völkisch-Sozialer Block
Spouse(s) Marion Russegger (m. 1928)
Relations Oswald Freisler (brother)
Children 2
Alma mater University of Jena
Occupation Judge
Profession Lawyer
Awards Iron Cross 1st Class & 2nd Class
Military service
Allegiance  German Empire
Service/branch Prussian Army
Years of service 1914–1918
Battles/wars World War I

Roland Freisler (30 October 1893 – 3 February 1945) was a jurist and judge of Nazi Germany. He was State Secretary of the Reich Ministry of Justice, and President of the People's Court. He was also an attendee at the Conference at Wannsee in 1942 which set in motion the administrative planning for the destruction of European Jewry.

Early life[edit]

Roland Freisler was born in Celle, Lower Saxony, on 30 October 1893. He was the son of Julius Freisler (born 20 August 1862 in Klantendorf, Moravia), an engineer and teacher, and Charlotte Auguste Florentine Schwerdtfeger (born 30 April 1863 in Celle – died 20 March 1932 in Kassel).[1] He was baptised as a Protestant on 13 December 1893.[2] He had a younger brother, Oswald. In 1914 he was at law school when the outbreak of war interrupted his studies.[3]

World War I[edit]

Freisler saw active service during World War I. He enlisted as an officer cadet in 1914 with the Ober-Elsassiches Infanterie Regiment Nr.167 in Kassel,[4] and by 1915 he was a lieutenant.[1] Whilst in the front-line with the German Imperial Army's 22nd Division he was awarded the Iron Cross both 2nd and 1st Class for heroism in action.[4] In October 1915 he was wounded in action on the Eastern Front and taken prisoner of war by Russian forces.[5]

Whilst a prisoner Freisler learned to speak Russian, and developed an interest in Marxism after the Russian Revolution had commenced. The Bolshevik provisional authority which took over responsibility for Freisler's prisoner of war camp made use of him as a 'Commissar' (as he was described by them in his repatriated prisoner of war paperwork in 1918) administratively organising the camp's food supplies in 1917-1918.[6] It is possible that after the Russian prisoner of war camps were emptying in 1918, with their internees being repatriated to Germany after the Armistice between Russia and the Central Powers had been signed, Freisler for a brief period became attached in some way to the Red Guards, though this is not supported by any known documentary evidence.[7] Another possibility is that after the Russian Revolution the description "Commissar" was merely an administrative title given by the Bolshevik authority for anyone employed in an administrative post in the prison camps without the political connotations that the title later acquired, though in the early days of his National Socialist German Workers' Party career in the 1920s Freisler was a part of the movement's left wing,[8] and in the late 1930s he attended the Soviet Moscow Trials to watch the proceedings. Freisler later rejected any insinuation that he had ever co-operated with the Nazi Regime's ideological enemy, but his subsequent career as a political official in Germany was overshadowed by rumours about his time as a "Commissar" with the "Reds".[6]

Post-war legal career[edit]

He returned to Germany in 1919 to complete his law studies at the University of Jena, and qualified as a Doctor of Law in 1922. From 1924 he worked as a solicitor in Kassel. He was also elected a city councillor as a member of the Völkisch-Sozialer Block ("People's Social Block"), an extreme nationalist splinter party.[9] Freisler joined the National Socialist German Workers' Party in July 1925 as Member #9679.[6] and gained authority immediately within the organisation by using his legal training to defend members of it who were regularly facing prosecutions for acts of political violence. As the Party transitioned from a fringe political beer-hall and street fighting movement into a political one, Freisler was elected for it to the Prussian Landtag, and later he became a Member of the Reichstag.

In 1927 Karl Weinrich, a Nazi member of the Prussian Landtag along with Freisler, characterised his then reputation in the rapidly expanding Nazi movement in the late 1920s: "Rhetorically Freisler is equal to our best speakers, if not superior; particularly on the broad masses he has influence, but thinking people mostly reject him. Party Comrade Freisler is only usable as a speaker though and is unsuitable for any position of authority because of his unreliablity and moodiness." [10]

Career in Nazi Germany[edit]

In February 1933, after the revolutionary take-over of the German state by Adolf Hitler with the Enabling Act of 1933, Freisler was appointed as the Director of 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 to 1942.

Freisler's mastery of legal texts, mental agility, dramatic court-room verbal dexterity and verbal force, in combination with his zealous conversion to National Socialist ideology, made him the most feared judge in Germany during the Third Reich, and the personification of Nazism in domestic Law. However, despite his talents and loyalty, Adolf Hitler never appointed him to a government post beyond the legal system. This might have been attributable to the fact of him being a lone figure lacking support within the senior echelons of the Nazi hierarchy, and also partly that he had been politically compromised through family association with his brother Oswald Freisler, who was also a lawyer, and who had appeared as the defence counsel in court against the Regime's authority several times in its programme of increasingly politically-driven trials with which it sought to enforce its tyrannical control of German society, and who had a habit of wearing his Nazi Party membership badge in court whilst doing so. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels reproved Oswald Freisler and reported his actions to Adolf Hitler, who in response ordered the expulsion of him from the Party. (Oswald Freisler committed suicide in 1939).[7] In 1941 in a discussion at the "Führer Headquarters" about who to appoint to replace Franz Gürtner, the Reich Justice Minister, who had died, Joseph Goebbels suggested Freisler as an option; Hitler's reply in an echo of the "Red" past of Freisler was: "That old Bolshevik? No!"[6][7]

Contribution to the Nazification of the law[edit]

Freisler was a committed National Socialist ideologist, and used his legal skills to adapt its theories into practical law making and judicature. He published a paper entitled "Die rassebiologische Aufgabe bei der Neugestaltung des Jugendstrafrechts ("The racial-biological task involved in the reform of Juvenile Criminal Law").[11] In this document he argued that "racially foreign, racially degenerate, racially incurable or seriously defective juveniles" should be sent to juvenile centres or correctional education centres and segregated from those who are "German and racially valuable."[12]

He strongly advocated the creation of laws to punish Rassenschande ("race defilement", the Nazi term for sexual relations between "Aryans" and "inferior races"), to be classed as 'racial treason'. In 1933 he published a pamphlet calling for the legal prohibition of "mixed-blood" sexual intercourse, which faced expressions of public unease in the dying elements of the German free press and non-Nazi political classes and, at the time, lacked the public authorization from Nazi Party public policy which had only just obtained dictatorial control of the state. It also led to a clash with his superior Franz Gürtner,[13] but Freisler's ideological views reflected things to come, as was shown by the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws within two years.

In October 1939 Freisler introduced the concept of 'precocious juvenile criminal' in the "Juvenile Felons Decree". This "provided the legal basis for imposing the death penalty and penitentiary terms on juveniles for the first time in German legal history".[14] From the period 1933 to 1945 the Reich's Courts sentenced at least 72 German juveniles to death, among them 17-year-old Helmuth Hübener, found guilty of high treason for distributing anti-war leaflets in 1942.

On the outbreak of World War II Freisler issued a legal "Decree against National Parasites" (September 1939) introducing the term perpetrator type, which was used in combination with another National Socialist ideological term parasite. The adoption of racial biological terminology into law portrayed juvenile criminality as 'parasitical', implying the need for harsher sentences to remedy it. He justified the new concept with: "In times of war, breaches of loyalty and baseness cannot find any leniency and must be met with the full force of the law."[14]

The Wannsee Conference[edit]

On 20 January 1942 Freisler, representing the Reich Minister Franz Schlegelberger, attended the Wannsee Conference of senior governmental officials in a villa on the outskirts of the South-West of Berlin to provide expert legal advice for the planning of the destruction of European Jewry.[15]

Presidency of the People's Court[edit]

A meeting of the four Nazis who imposed Nazi ideology on the legal system of Germany. From left to right: Roland Freisler, Franz Schlegelberger, Otto Georg Thierack and Curt Rothenberger.
Roland Freisler, 1944

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 had jurisdiction over a broad array of political offences, including black marketeering, work slowdowns and defeatism. These actions were viewed by Freisler as Wehrkraftzersetzung (undermining defensive capability) and were punished severely, with many death sentences. The People's Court under Freisler's domination almost always sided with the Prosecuting authority, to the point that being brought before it was tantamount to a capital charge. Its separate administrative existence beyond the ordinary judicial system increased its notoriety, and despite its judicial trappings it rapidly turned into an executive execution arm and psychological domestic terror weapon of Nazi Germany's totalitarian regime, in the tradition of the Revolutionary Tribunal more than a court of law.[16][additional citation needed]

Freisler chaired the First Senate of the People's Court wearing a blood scarlet judicial robe, in a hearing chamber bedecked with scarlet Swastika draped banners and a large black sculpted bust of Adolf Hitler's head upon a high pedestal behind his chair, opening each hearing session with the Nazi salute from the bench.[17] He acted as prosecutor, judge and jury embodied into one role, and his own recorder, thereby controlling the record of the written grounds for the sentences that he passed[citation needed].

The number of death sentences rose sharply under Freisler's rule. Approximately 90% of all proceedings that came before him received 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 decreed by him, and of these 2,600 through the court's First Senate, which Freisler controlled. He was responsible in his three years on the court for as many death sentences as all other senate sessions of the court put together in the court's existence between 1934 and 1945.[18]

Freisler became in this period notorious for berating in a personalized injudicial manner from the bench the steady stream of defendants passing before him on their way to their deaths, often shouting and occasionally yelling at them – particularly in cases of resistance to the authority of the Nazi state – in an enraged, glaringly clarion, but dramatically controlled harsh voice, using a mastery of the art of court-room performance artifice. He was known to be interested in Andrei Vyshinsky, the Chief Prosecutor of the Soviet purge trials, and Freisler attended those show-trials to watch Vyshinsky's performances when he had been engaged in the same work in Moscow in 1938.[19][20]

White Rose show-trials[edit]

In 1943 Freisler punished several members of the White Rose resistance group that the Gestapo brought before him by ordering their execution by beheading using the Fallbeil (Guillotine).

20th July Plot show-trials[edit]

In August 1944 a number of the arrested perpetrators of the failed assassination of Adolf Hitler were taken before Freisler for punishment, with the proceedings being recorded by film camera with the intention of displaying it to the German public in cinema newsreels. In the multiple hearings the atmosphere with which Freisler ran his court was revealed, showing him alternating between engaging the prisoners in a cerebral manner, with clinical interrogations to prove their guilt of the charges; verbally and psychologically toying with them, or yelling personalized theatrical enraged abuse at them from the bench. Nearly all were sentenced to death by hanging, the sentences being carried out within 2 hours of the verdicts being passed.[21]


On the morning of 3 February 1945 Freisler was conducting a Saturday session of the People's Court when United States Army Air Forces bombers attacked Berlin. Government and Nazi Party buildings were hit, including the Reich Chancellery, the Gestapo headquarters, the Party Chancellery and the People's Court. Hearing the air-raid sirens Freisler hastily adjourned the court and ordered that the prisoners before him be taken to an air-raid shelter, but paused himself to gather files before following. A sudden direct hit on the court-building at 11.08 A.M.[22] caused a partial internal collapse, with Freisler being crushed by a masonry column and killed whilst still in the court-room.[23] His body was found beneath the rubble still clutching the files that he had stopped to retrieve.[6][24][25]

Freisler's body was buried in the grave of his wife's family at the Waldfriedhof Dahlem Cemetery in Berlin.[26] His name is not recorded on the gravestone.[27]

Personal life[edit]

Freisler married Marion Russegger on 24 March 1928; the marriage produced two sons, Harald and Roland.[28]

Cultural references[edit]

Freisler appears in fictionalised form in the 1947 Hans Fallada novel Every Man Dies Alone. In 1943 he tried and handed down death penalties to Otto and Elise Hampel, whose true story inspired Fallada's novel.

In the novel Fatherland, which takes place in an alternate 1964 in which Nazi Germany won World War II, Freisler is mentioned as having survived until winter 1954, when he is killed by a maniac with a knife on the steps of the Berlin People's Court. It is implied that his death was actually caused by the Gestapo, to ensure that the Wanssee Conference and the Holocaust remained a secret.

Freisler has been portrayed by screen actors at least five times: by Rainer Steffen in the 1984 German television film Wannseekonferenz, by Roland Schäfer in the 1989 Anglo-French-German film Reunion, by Brian Cox in the British 1996 television film Witness Against Hitler, by Owen Teale in the 2001 BBC/HBO film Conspiracy, by André Hennicke in the 2005 film Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, and by Helmut Stauss in the 2008 film Valkyrie.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b ""Freisler, Karl Roland", in: Hessische Biografie". 2012-09-07. Retrieved 2013-09-29. 
  2. ^ Koch, H. W. (15 November 1997). In the Name of the Volk: Political Justice in Hitler's Germany. p. 28. ISBN 1860641741. Retrieved 19 March 2014. 
  3. ^ 'Hitler's Hilfer - Roland Freisler' ('Hitler's Henchmen') television documentary series, by Guido Knopp, ZDF Enterprizes (1998).
  4. ^ a b 'Hitler's Helfer' by Guido Knopp (Pub. Goldmann, 1998).
  5. ^ 'Richter in Roter Robe - Freisler, Prasident des Volkgerichtshofes' (Judge in a Red Robe - Freisler, President of the People's Court) by Gert Buchheit (Pub. Paul List, 1968).
  6. ^ a b c d e Knopp, Guido. Hitler's Hitmen, Sutton Publishing, 2000, pp. 216, 220–222, 228, 250.
  7. ^ a b c Wesel, Uwe. "Drei Todesurteile pro Tag" (Three death sentences per day), Die Zeit, 3 February 2005. Text in German Uwe Wesel is professor emeritus of Legal History in Berlin's Free University.
  8. ^ Koch, H. W. In the Name of the Volk: Political Justice in Hitler's Germany, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1997, p. 29.
  9. ^ 'Freisler, Political Soldier,' 'Der Spiegel' 23.9.1968, review of 'Judge in a Red Robe - Freisler, President of the People's Court' by Gert Buchheit (Pub. Paul List, 1968)
  10. ^ 'The Nazi Party 1919 to 1945: A Complete History' by Dietrich Orlow (Pub. Enigmas Books, 2007)
  11. ^ In Monatsschrift für Kriminalbiologie und Strafrechtsreform, 1939, p. 209.
  12. ^ Cited by Wayne Geerling, see below the Bibliography.
  13. ^ Koonz, Claudia The Nazi Conscience pp 173-174 ISBN 0-674-01172-4
  14. ^ a b Wayne Geerling, Id.
  15. ^ 'Hitler's Helfer - Roland Freisler' ('Hitler's Henchmen'), television documentary by Guido Knopp (ZDF Enterprizes, 1998).
  16. ^ 'Judge in a Red Robe - Freisler, President of the People's Court', by Gert Buchheit (Pub. Paul List, 1968).
  17. ^ 'Hitler's Helfer - Ronald Freisler der Hinrichter' (Hitler's Henchmen - Roland Freisler), ZDF Enterprizes (1998) television documentary series, by Guido Knopp.
  18. ^ 'The Hitler Virus' by Peter Wyden (Pub. Arcade Publishing, 2002).
  19. ^ 'Hitler's Helfer - Roland Freisler' (Hitler's Henchmen - Roland Freisler), television documentary series by Guido Knopp, ZDF Enterprizes (1998).
  20. ^ Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Touchstone Edition) (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990)
  21. ^ 'Hitler's Helfer - Roland Freisler', television documentary, by Guido Knopp, ZDF Enterprizes (1998).
  22. ^ 'Hitler's Helfer - Roland Freisler' (Hitler's Henchmen - Roland Freisler) television documentary, by Guido Knopp, (ZDF Enterprizes, 1998)
  23. ^ Granberg, Jerje. AP dispatch from Stockholm, reprinted as "Berlin, Nerves Racked By Air Raids, Fears Russian Army Most," Oakland Tribune, 23 February 1945, p. 1.
  24. ^ A differing account stated that Freisler "was killed by a bomb fragment while trying to escape from his law court to the air-raid shelter", and he "bled to death on the pavement outside the People's Court at Bellevuestrasse 15 in Berlin."
  25. ^ Another version of Freisler's death states that he was killed by a British bomb that came through the ceiling of his courtroom as he was trying two women, who survived the explosion. Davies, Norman. Europe at War 1939–1945: No Simple Victory (New York: Viking Penguin, 2007), p. 308.
  26. ^ In the same cemetery lies the grave of Ulrich Wilhelm Graf Schwerin von Schwanenfeld, a 20 July conspiracy member executed upon Freisler's court order a few months earlier for the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler.
  27. ^ 'Hitler's Helfer - Roland Freisler', television documentary by Guido Knopp (1998).
  28. ^ Jonas Hubner: 'Unrechtspflege. Roland Freisler und die hessische justiz'.


  • Breuning, Stephan. Roland Freisler: Rechtsideologien im III. Reich. Neuhegelianismus kontra Hegel ("Legal ideologies in the Third Reich. Neo-Hegelianism contra Hegel") Hamburg, Kovac 2002, ISBN 3-8300-0667-5.
  • Buchheit, Gert. Richter in roter Robe. Freisler, Präsident des Volksgerichtshofes ("Judges in red robes. Freisler, president of the People's Court") München, 1968.
  • Geerling, Wayne. "Protecting the National Community From Juvenile Delinquency: Nazification of Juvenile Criminal Law in the Third Reich", a chapter from the author's dissertation Resistance as High Treason: Juvenile Resistance in the Third Reich, Melbourne University, 2001. Read it here
  • Knopp, Guido. Hitler's Hitmen (Chp. 4, "The Hanging Judge"). Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing, 2002.
  • Koch, H. W. In the Name of the Volk: Political Justice in Hitler's Germany London, 1989.
  • Ortner, Helmut. Der Hinrichter. Roland Freisler, Mörder im Dienste Hitlers ("The executioner. Roland Freisler, Assassin in Hitler's service") Wien, Zsolnay 1993, ISBN 3-552-04504-X.

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Otto Thierack
Judge President of the People's Court
20 August 1942 – 3 February 1945
Succeeded by
Harry Haffner