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Germany: Report shows Nazi legacy of postwar prosecutors

Srinivas Mazumdaru
November 18, 2021

Until the 1970s, the Federal Prosecutor's was staffed mostly by former members of the Nazi party, a new study has revealed.

A sign saying 'Generalbundesanwalt beim Bundesgerichtshof' (Attorney General of Germany) can be seen at the entrance of the Federal High Court of Justice in Karlsruhe
In the 1950s, about 75% of staff at the Federal Prosecutor's Office had been members of the Nazi partyImage: Uwe Anspach/dpa/picture alliance

Germany's Office of the Federal Prosecutor in the first couple of decades after World War II was dominated by lawyers associated with the former Nazi party, according to the findings of an extensive study commissioned by German Attorney General Peter Frank in 2018. The results of the study were released on Thursday.

At the presentation, Frank warned that state attorneys should not view the report as confirmation of moral superiority, but rather to remain alert.

The Nazi era in Germany showed like no other period "how manipulative ideologically based legal systems are," according to deputy Justice Minister Margaretha Sudhof. 

What the report said

The report, which shed light on the period between 1950 and 1974, revealed that in the 1950s, about 75% of the staff at the Federal Prosecutor's Office — which organizationally is part of the executive — were formerly members of the Nazi party.

Among federal prosecutors responsible for criminal prosecution in 1966, as many as 10 out of 11 were ex-Nazi party members. By 1974, this figure came down to 6 out of 15.

"Party membership alone says little about actual behavior under National Socialism," say legal scholar Christoph Safferling and historian Friedrich Kiessling, both authors of the report.

There had never been a clear and conscious break with the Nazi past, the researchers said, adding that looking for personnel not tainted by the Nazi past was not a big priority in the initial postwar years. 

The most important criteria were, first and foremost, previous professional and legal experience, they underlined.

Remembering the deportation of Berlin's Jews

The activities of postwar state prosecutors

In the 1950s and early 1960s, those in charge at the Federal Prosecutor's Office devoted themselves primarily to the prosecution of communists.

It was just "seamless continuation of what they had already practiced under National Socialism," the study noted.

The Cold War and the East-West conflict dominated politics at the time. For prosecutors, protecting the state meant above all "protection against communist subversion and infiltration by a threatening East."

The Federal Prosecutor's Office conducted thousands of investigations and obtained hundreds of criminal convictions from the Federal Court of Justice, the study concluded, adding that the prosecution of Nazi perpetrators at the time, however, was rather low.

dpa contributed to this report

Edited by: Rob Turner