After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government came up with the idea of instituting military tribunals for trying suspected terrorists as a possible alternative to prosecuting them under the U.S. Code in regular federal courts. Since then, some terrorist suspects have been accorded the federal court route, others have been accorded the tribunal route, and at least one has been treated as both a criminal defendant and an “enemy combatant.”
I’ll bet lots of Americans think that this idea to establish a special tribunal to try suspected terrorists was an original one. Not so. Some 80 years ago, German chancellor Adolf Hitler did the same thing.
The German special tribunal for trying terrorists was established in 1934, the year after Hitler became chancellor. What had precipitated it was a major terrorist attack on the German Reichstag by suspected communists.
Pursuant to established German legal procedures, the government prosecuted the Reichstag Fire defendants in the regular German courts, which proceeded to acquit some of the defendants.
Hitler was outraged. How could any court acquit people who were obviously guilty of that major terrorist attack on the German government? How could any court permit terrorists to go free, enabling them to commit more acts of terrorism?
It was obvious to Hitler that the German courts could no longer be entrusted with terrorist cases or, for that matter, cases involving treason. Terrorists are terrorists, and traitors are traitors. They need to be punished, not acquitted. The regular German courts were obviously not equipped to do the job properly. It was obvious that Germany needed a special court for trying terrorists and traitors, one where the outcome would not be in doubt.
So, Hitler established a special tribunal for trying terrorism cases and treason cases. It was called the “People’s Court.” Interestingly, Hitler chose not to turn the matter over to the German military but instead kept the People’s Court under civilian control. Nonetheless, it was a special tribunal that would operate independently of the German judicial system and answer directly to Hitler.
The outcome of trials in the People’s Court was never in doubt. But German officials felt good about the process because at least people were being accorded trials before they were found guilty and punished.
The People’s Court was where German college students Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose advocates were brought to trial. Why were they prosecuted in the People’s Court instead of the regular German courts? Because as German citizens, they were being charged with treason, which was encompassed within the jurisdiction of the People’s Court.
What had the Scholls and their White Rose friends done? They had published pamphlets criticizing the government’s policies, both in domestic affairs and foreign affairs. The pamphlets called on the German people to oppose their government and to restore a legitimate government to Germany.
The German authorities considered such conduct treasonous, especially since the pamphlets were published and distributed during the middle of World War II, when German citizens were being exhorted to support the troops and the war effort.
The German authorities did give the Scholl siblings a speedy trial, one that took place within a couple of days of their arrest. The trial was conducted in secret, apparently out of national-security concerns. The last thing that the authorities wanted was for Germans to hear what had been printed in the White Rose pamphlets.
In fact, the trial was so secret that when Hans’ and Sophie’s parents tried to enter the courtroom, they were refused admittance. When their mother said to a guard, “I’m the mother of two of the accused.” He responded, “You should have raised them better.”
The guard’s mindset was not unusual. It was held by the presiding judge of the People’ Court, Roland Freisler, and, in fact, by most Germans. They took the position that the Scholl siblings and their friends were bad people — traitors — for criticizing and opposing their government during time of war.
Hans and Sophie Scholl and several of their friends received the death penalty and were quickly executed by guillotine. Just before he was executed, 24-year-old Hans yelled, “Long live freedom!”
In a fascinating end to the movie Downfall, which depicted Hitler’s last days in the bunker, his secretary Traudl Junge, who had been one of the many “loyal” Germans who had failed to question their government’s policies, stated,
….I was satisfied that I wasn’t personally to blame and that I hadn’t known about those things. I wasn’t aware of the extent. But one day I went past the memorial plaque which had been put up for Sophie Scholl in Franz Josef Strasse, and I saw that she was born the same year as me, and she was executed the same year I started working for Hitler. And at that moment I actually sensed that it was no excuse to be young, and that it would have been possible to find things out.”
To learn more about how Hitler’s People’s Court operated and about the White Rose, see:
The White Rose: A Lesson in Dissent” by Jacob G. Hornberger