Rereading German History: From Unification to Reunification, 1800-1996

By Richard J. Evans | Go to book overview

11

IN SEARCH OF GERMAN SOCIAL DARWINISM

I

At a lunchtime meeting held on 20 August 1942 to mark the occasion of the appointment of Otto-Georg Thierack as Reich Justice Minister and Roland Freisler as President of the ‘People’s Court’, Hitler launched into one of his characteristic monologues. The judicial system, he said, was soft. Criminals were being allowed to get away with far too much on the home front. Looting and petty crime were being punished with mere prison sentences instead of the death penalty. The result of this in the longer term would be disastrous:

Every war leads to a negative selection. The positive elements die in masses. The choice of the most dangerous military service is already a selection: the really brave ones become airmen, or join the U-boats. And even in these services there is always the call: who wants to volunteer? And it’s always the best men who then get killed. All this time, the absolute ne’er-do-well is cared for lovingly in body and spirit. Anyone who ever enters a prison knows with absolute certainty that nothing more is going to happen to him. If you can imagine this going on for another three or four years, then you can see a gradual shift in the balance of the nation taking place: an over-exploitation on the one side; absolute conservation on the other!

In order to re-establish the balance, Hitler declared, the ‘negative’ elements in the German population had to be killed in much larger numbers. 1 In the following months, Thierack and his officials redefined the role of penal policy. Punishment, he told German judges on 1 June 1943, ‘in our time has to carry out the popular-hygienic task of continually cleansing the body of the race by the ruthless elimination of criminals unworthy of life’. 2 The judges did not demur. By the end of the war, more than 16,000 offenders, many of them guilty of extremely trivial misdemeanours, had been sentenced to death by Hitler’s courts; untold thousands more had been handed over to the Gestapo for ‘elimination’, or transferred from Germany’s

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