Important Provisions of Military Law during the »Third Reich«
New Military Law for a New War
After coming to power in 1933, the new Reich government under Adolf Hitler began destroying the constitutional independence of the judiciary. At the same time, the regime and its leading jurists set out to change the legal norms in force. Military justice was reintroduced in May 1933 and adapted to the new set of conditions. The objective was to create a new criminal law that would be stricter and harsher than the provisions in force between 1914 and 1918 – the Nazis partly blamed a supposedly lax military judiciary for the German defeat in World War I. This is why military jurists developed legal principles geared towards the »Führer state«. Adolf Hitler’s will was to be the »highest legal asset«. The ultimate goal was not finding the truth, but winning the war. Nazi criminal law theory no longer considered an offense the wrongdoing of an individual, but damage to the community. One of the questions to be considered before court was whether the defendant could remain part of the »national (völkisch) defense community«.
The »Wartime Special Criminal Law Decree«
In January 1936, experts presented the draft of a new military penal code; it was to replace the one that had been in force since 1898. This undertaking was later abandoned, as the code was considered not National Socialist enough, despite the fact that there were leading Nazi jurists on the responsible committee in the »Academy for German Law«. Instead, the Wehrmacht armed forces high command had a new abbreviated wartime criminal law written in the course of preparations for the invasion of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1938, the »Wartime Special Criminal Law Decree«. At the same time, another decree significantly modified wartime criminal proceedings. Both decrees, makeshift at first, made military law radically harsher. The decrees remained confidential while Germany prepared mobilization and entered into force, just prior to the invasion of Poland, on August 26, 1939 – both in Germany and »annexed« Austria.
»Undermining the Military Forces«
One of the central provisions of the Wartime Special Criminal Law Decree pertained to the offense outlined in paragraph 5: »undermining the military forces«. It ruled on how to deal with criminal offenses that, according to the German leadership, had been punished too laxly during World War I, contributing to the »signs of disintegration« in 1918. The new provisions on »undermining the military forces« contained regulations previously found under »inducement to desertion«, »incitement to insubordination«, »insubordination or defiance«, »self-mutilation« and »evasion of service through deceit« in the military penal code. Previously, these offenses were penalized with prison or death sentences, as long as they had taken place »in the field« – however, death sentences were not meted out as a regular punishment. The new Wartime Special Criminal Law Decree now introduced the threat of a death sentence as a general rule. The personal motivations of the defendant were considered marginal, the »maintenance of discipline« and apparent needs of the »national community« came into focus. The paragraph was made more stringent even further during the war. Beginning in March 1943, for example, the regular penalty range could be exceeded if the »healthy national sentiment« called for it.
Adolf Hitler’s Directive from April 14, 1940
Shortly before the military campaign against France and the Benelux countries, the »Führer« and commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht Adolf Hitler issued new guidelines for the punishment of deserters and those »undermining the military forces«. They defined under which circumstances a death sentence could be handed down, but also stated when mitigating circumstances should be taken into account. Countless verdicts speak to the importance of this directive, at the same time showing the leeway available to judges. The judges could decide whether »youthful injudiciousness« or »difficult domestic circumstances« were applicable as mitigating circumstances. Legal commentaries and instructions required that the »personality indicators« of a defendant be examined to establish whether the case at hand involved »criminal activity«. If defendants were considered »asocial« in the National Socialist meaning, they would frequently be sentenced to death. In such cases in particular, not just the offense but the »offender personality« was judged.
Further Increases of Punishments in the Face of »Total War«: The »Dönitz Decree«
Adolf Hitler’s guidelines for dealing with desertion crimes were made even more stringent three years later by a decree issued by supreme commander of the navy, Fleet Admiral Karl Dönitz, on April 27, 1943. Desertion was now considered a »failure of treacherous weaklings«. Dönitz informed the navy judges’ corps that he would »reject all acts of grace towards deserters«. This was probably the navy’s reaction to the situation following the German defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943: While Reich Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels called for a »total war«, the Wehrmacht began to take even more brutal measures against »signs of disintegration«. The »Dönitz Decree« manifests the Wehrmacht’s proactive stance towards shaping their judicial practice of deterrence. The interests and aims of the leadership in the various branches of the armed forces were very close to those of the Nazi leadership – up until the end of the war.
Terror Unleashed in the Last Days of War
As Germany’s defeat seemed ever closer, the military leadership reacted to the uncertainty, desperation and combat fatigue with a wave of threats and arrest orders. Soldiers and civilians no longer prepared to risk their lives in a hopeless war were declared to be »weaklings« and »traitors«, threatening »final victory« with their actions. How many lives were lost in this judicially sanctioned terror – in summary courts as well as through arbitrary killings by secret military police units, the SS and other formations – is not known to this day. The rights of the defendants, already vastly restricted by the Wartime Special Criminal Law Decree, were reduced to an absolute minimum; at the end of the war, even the right of pardon was voided.