Special court Hanover

Special courts, including the Special Court of Hanover, developed during the 12 years of National Socialist rule from special criminal chambers for the prosecution of political Nazi opponents into “armoured troops of criminal justice” to keep the entire (wartime) society compliant with draconian threats of punishment.

Paper label that was attached to radios ("Volksempfängern") in the Third Reich. It warns the population against listening to so-called "enemy stations". Author unknown. Wikimedia Commons
Paper label that was attached to radios ("Volksempfängern") in the Third Reich. It warns the population against listening to so-called "enemy stations". Author unknown. Wikimedia Commons

Legal protection of the Nazi regime

Immediately after the transfer of power to the National Socialists, special special courts are introduced in each of the then higher regional court districts on 21 March 1933. In the transition to total rule, they primarily serve to persecute Social Democrats and Communists and try offences listed in the “Reichstag Fire Ordinance” of 28 February 1933 and the “Insidious Acts Ordinance” of 21 March 1933. What they have in common is the indefinite suspension of fundamental rights (such as freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, protection of the home and more) and the curtailment of the rights of defendants in court. This makes the state of emergency indefinite. Special courts are created to literally “make short work of it”; their judgements cannot be appealed.

After its consolidation, the regime extends the tasks of the special courts to punishing all critical statements against the party and the state – all it takes is an insinuating joke. Cases of organised political resistance (“high treason”) are taken over by the Berlin People’s Court [Volksgerichtshof] or special criminal senates, for example, the trials of members of the Socialist Front of Hanover after the waves of arrests in 1935-37 are brought before the competent Higher Regional Court of Hamm. After the beginning of the war, the special courts punish with draconian sentences all offences against the newly promulgated ordinances [Verordnungen = VO], such as the “Ordinance against pests of the people” [VolksschädlingsVO] or the Broadcasting Ordinance [RundfunkVO].

Special court Hanover

The special court for the area of the Celle Higher Regional Court is responsible for the area of the present-day state of Lower Saxony (without the then independent states of Oldenburg and Braunschweig). It is located at the Regional Court of Hanover in the “Old Justice Building” on Raschplatz, which was acquired in 1882. After its destruction in 1943, it operates in the “New Justice Building” on Volgersweg, today’s Local Court. However, in the later course of the war, the “travel chamber” of the special court also adjudicates away from Hanover. Between 1933 and 1945 it conducted an estimated 4,200 trials with indictments, the majority of which took place during the war. The number of death sentences passed also reached a peak in 1943 with 59.

Before the start of the war, cases punished under the Reichstag Fire Decree [ReichstagsbrandVO] and Malicious Practices Act [Heimtückegesetz] dominate. It was not always the political left that was targeted. With the transition to open military armament, proceedings against members of the “Jehovah’s Witnesses” (“International Bible Students Association”) for violations of the ban on organisation and activity issued in June 1933 began to increase in 1936. For “Jehovah’s Witnesses” consistently and with great courage refuse not only military service but also barracks construction and activities in the armaments industry. In the first half of 1937, the special court in Hanover imposes sentences of up to two years in prison on a total of 98 members of the “Jehovah’s Witnesses”.

Attitude justice

The actual muzzle paragraphs, however, are provisions of the Malicious Practices Act [Heimtücke-Gesetz, before 1934: “HeimtückeVO”], which sanction “hateful, inflammatory, or low-minded allegations about leading figures of the state or the NSDAP”. Even statements of fact can now be punishable if the court deems their effect to be detrimental to the state. For example, the public statement that patients in Hanover were forcibly prevented from visiting Jewish doctors during the first boycott on 1 April 1933 earns a 71-year-old Jewish woman six months in prison. The NSDAP newspaper in Hanover stated that “of course not a word of this talk is true”. Yet the actions took place in full view of everyone – which was precisely their purpose.

During the war, the number of “treason trials” is surpassed by trials against alleged “pests of the people”. But they continue to occur – because of doubts about the final victory, gloating about “Nazi bigwigs”, pity towards the persecuted. Remarks critical of the system or telling “whisper jokes” are a high risk because of omnipresent denunciators. Examples: Because of the assertion that people are freer abroad than in Germany, “You can’t say what you think”, the Special Court of Hanover sentences a former Social Democrat to be committed to a mental hospital – thus confirming its finding. And for regretting the failure of the assassination attempt on Hitler in the Munich Bürgerbräukeller in November 1939, the Special Court imposes the draconian sentences of five years in prison on each of two defendants.

Radicalisation during war

Immediately after the start of the war, numerous decrees are issued “to protect the inner front”, the violation of which leads directly to a special court. In order to maintain propaganda sovereignty, the Nazi regime makes listening to enemy radio stations punishable by severe penalties (“RundfunkVO”). In unpleasant memory of the hunger strikes in the First World War, a War Economy Ordinance [KriegswirtschaftsVO] regulates the all-round state control of economic life and the rationing of goods; offences such as failing to declare goods, black slaughter, forging ration coupons such as food stamps can lead to heavy prison sentences and even the death penalty. The same applies to previously minor offences such as simple theft if they were “committed by taking advantage of the special circumstances of the war”, i.e. during bomb alerts (“blackout crime”) or as a false grab in burning houses or ruins (“looting”). Here, the “Ordinance against pests of the people” [VolksschädlingsVO] is regularly applied.

In the second half of the war, it often affects men and women from the army of millions of forced labourers and prisoners of war who toil in the transport sector at the Reichsbahn or Reichspost and are driven by constant hunger to open or embezzle (field post) parcels. In December 1943, the Special Court of Hanover sentences a French goods worker to one year in prison for stealing two cans of fish. A Czech shunting worker receives 10 years in prison for stealing 40 parcels in October 1942. Of the 210 known death sentences handed down by the Special Court of Hanover (of which 170 are carried out), 99 are pronounced in accordance with the “Volksschädlings-VO”.

Additional online information

Wikipedia-Beitrag: Sondergericht
Wikipedia-Beitrag Aufhebung von NS-Unrechtsurteilen [german]
Wikipedia-Beitrag Feindsender
Wikipedia entry Law of Nazi Germany

Further reading: Click here

Texts and images: Michael Pechel