Lothar Kreyssig

In my post Thinking like a federal trial judge I asserted: “You will think like a real federal trial judge if you understand that: (1) there is no justice or injustice; (2) there is only the law, and that is more than enough.”* A reader commented in response: “Sounds like a recipe for getting executed after a Nuremberg Trial.” I responded that “Denying that the job of a trial judge is to do justice does not mean that the judge lacks moral sensibilities.” I cited as an example Lothar Kreyssig. In this post, I briefly elaborate on Judge Kreyssig and his commitment to the rule of law during Hitler’s reign in Germany.

In October, 1939, the Third Reich created what came to be known as the “Action T4” program. In furtherance of what the Nazis called “racial hygiene,” Reich bureaucrats, working with doctors, were authorized to identify and kill those deemed to be “unworthy of life,” that is, institutionalized patients with “severe disabilities.” Hitler called for at least 70,000 people to be killed under this program, so doctors and officials set about meeting the Fuhrer’s quotas. Fearing domestic and international reaction, the Nazis tried to hide what was going on: they lied to patients’ families and, fore-shadowing Auschwitz, they disguised the gas chambers as showers.

Dr. Lothar Kreyssig, was a judge at the Court of Guardianship in the town of Brandenburg, on the Havel River. Since his appointment in 1928, Kreyssig’s superiors considered him to be a good judge–until he began a series of minor insubordinations such as slipping out of a ceremony in his court when a bust of Hitler was unveiled and publicly protesting the suspension of three judges who failed to follow the interpretation of “Aryan laws” favored by Nazi authorities. In 1933, Kreyssig was pressured to join the Nazi party, but refused.

Hitler, and his functionaries, had decreed that the Führer was the font of law. That is, whatever Hitler said became the law. Kreyssig was having none of it. That was definitely not the rule of law.

After an increase in the number of death certificates of his wards began to accumulate on his desk, Kreyssig came to suspect that the deaths were connected to the “mercy killing” that had begun. He reported his suspicions in a letter to Minister of Justice Franz Gürtner, dated July 8, 1940. He pilloried the Nazi’s T4 euthanasia program. He also addressed the disenfranchisement of prisoners in concentration camps, making all his arguments on German legal principles. He wrote:

What is right is what benefits the people. In the name of this frightful doctrine — as yet, uncontradicted by any guardian of rights in Germany — entire sectors of communal living are excluded from [having] rights, for example, all the concentration camps, and now, all hospitals and sanatoriums.

Kreyssig then filed a charge against Reichsleiter Philipp Bouhler for murder. He filed an injunction against the institutions in which he had housed his wards, prohibiting them from transferring the wards without his consent.

On November 13, 1940, Kreyssig was summoned by Gürtner, who laid before Kreyssig Hitler’s personal letter that had started the euthanasia program and which constituted the sole legal basis for it. Kreyssig replied, “The Führer’s word does not create a right,” clearly signifying that German law did not authorize Hitler to kill his fellow Germans. (Emphasis added.) Gürtner then told Kreyssig, “If you cannot recognise the will of the Führer as a source of law, then you cannot remain a judge.” In December 1940, Kreyssig was suspended. Efforts by the Gestapo to send him to a concentration camp failed probably because of the fear that the T4 program would be revealed. Two years later, in March 1942, Hitler forced Kreyssig to retire.

Kreyssig returned to his farm and lived there until the end of the war. Unknown to the Nazis, Kreyssig hid two Jewish women on his property till the end of the war.  

In his book, Hitler’s Justice: The Courts of the Third Reich, Ingo Muller writes of the courageous judge of Brandenburg: “No matter how hard one searches for stout-hearted men among the judges of the Third Reich, for judges who refused to serve the regime from the bench, there remains a grand total of one: Dr. Lothar Kreyssig.”**

After the war,  Kreyssig founded Action Reconciliation Service for Peace. In 1958, he said that young Germans should go to former enemy countries and to Israel to ask for forgiveness and by volunteering to do good deeds to atone for the crimes of World War II. As a result, thousands of Germans have volunteered in numerous countries through the organization that Judge Kreyssig founded. This brave man died on July 6, 1986.

In summary, while I continue to believe that doing “justice” is far beyond the abilities of even the smartest federal trial judge, I also believe that the rule of law in the hands of intellectually honest judges is sufficient to combat barbarity. Judge Lothar Kreyssig is a good example.


*If you want to understand the meaning of “justice,” I suggest you start with Otto A. Bird, The Idea of Justice, Concepts in Western Thought, Institute for Philosophical Research, Frederick A Praeger Publishers (1966). In that wonderful book, Professor Bird surveys and categorizes the various concepts of “justice.” For me: “Justice is a wider notion than that of law, inasmuch as questions of justice arise independent of questions of law.” Id. at 156.

**For information on the Nuremberg trial of German judges, and Lothar Kreyssig, the University of Missouri at Kansas City law school has a wonderful online collection. See here.

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