Max Merten had been a loyal employee of Hitler’s Third Reich. Yet a few years later, he became an esteemed official in the new German Democracy’s Justice Ministry. In fact, more than half of Germany’s jurists and legislators after World War ll had been Nazis just a few years previously.
To Merten’s astonishment, he was arrested during a visit to Greece. He was sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment for war crimes he had perpetrated in that country. But not in his own, where he was an official of the Justice Ministry.
How could this have happened?
Merton had worked in Nazi-occupied Greece during the war, and afterwards fictionalized his past, styling himself as the rescuer of some 13,000 Greek Jews. The truth was, rather than saving them, he had extorted considerable assets from Greek Jews by making promises for their safety, and shortly thereafter ordered 50,000 of them to be “resettled” to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, where most were murdered.
The German government actually assigned an attorney to defend Merten while he was imprisoned in Greece. And just eight months later, Merten was handed over to Germany, where he was quickly released by the German judiciary and then faced no criminal charges whatsoever in his own country.
Merten was not the only former Nazi employed by the Justice Ministry and exonerated for his heinous actions. From the beginning of Germany’s new democracy in 1949, over half the jurists employed by young Federal Republic’s Justice Ministry had previously worked in the Nazi judicial system, and another 29% had been Reich storm troopers. Oddly, the number of Nazis grew as the years passed — by 1973, the figures had risen to 76% and 33%. In 1963, the percentages were still as high as 55% and 22%, and it was these former Nazis who were largely positioned in leadership posts.
“The Rosenburg – The Federal Ministry of Justice in the Shadow of the Nazi Past” is a cleverly designed, compact and compelling exhibit about the years 1949 through 1967, when members of the National Socialist Party resumed their former jobs as jurists and legislators, continuing their persecution of minorities and delaying critical examination of Nazi injustice. The exhibit opened on May 13 inside the NY State Supreme Court building in lower Manhattan, at 60 Centre Street.
It’s a powerful example of the German government shining a spotlight on its ugly past. Former Nazis made up a significant percentage of its Justice Department from the end of World War II through the 1960s. These were brilliant lawyers and judges with dark pasts, who engaged in a quest to create statutes of limitations for murder and other war crimes, and to cover up the past.
The Justice Ministry was housed the fancy Rosenburg villa in Bonn, then the nation’s capital. “The Rosenburg” became synonymous with the constitutional ministry department where all laws for the country were drafted, enacted and enforced (similar to how Americans refer to “the Pentagon” instead of the Department of Defense).
German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who took office in 1949, deliberately planned to integrate the Third Reich’s civil servants into the new state, and this went into effect in 1951. All former civil servants of the Nazi state were given the right to reemployment, which extended even to those who were part of the Gestapo or Waffen SS.
Adenauer and his Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, Walter Strauss, felt that employing people with proper qualifications, regardless of their past affiliations and actions, was a desperately needed way to build a new governmental framework. He paid lip service to vetting former Nazis, but no vetting actually took place in the 1950s. Only after Strauss had left the Ministry in 1965 was an inquiry held, 20 years after the war ended.
Initially following the lead of the Allies, Germany quickly lost the will to deal self-critically with its past. The Ministry of Justice found ways to exonerate and grant amnesty to all its members with Nazi pasts. Prison terms and heavy fines for perpetrators were cancelled in 1949, In 1954, amnesty was granted to all who had prison sentences. They cleared anyone of wrongdoing who had become Nazis for “political reasons,” which protected members of the SS, the Gestapo, the SD, and Fuhrerkorps. In 1960, the Justice Ministry enacted a statute of limitations for Nazi crimes.
This statute of limitations was not changed until 2011, only eight years ago. It was determined at that time that anyone who had kept the death machinery operating during the holocaust was an accessory to murder, which is how Oskar Groning and Reinhold Hanning were convicted, in their extreme old age, for their activities at Auschwitz.
How did these criminals get away with serving as German jurists? How did they justify themselves? Here are some quotes from the exhibit: “The war was an exceptional situation.” “I was only involved to prevent worse things from happening.” “As a young person, I had no influence on my superiors.” “It would have been futile to try to persuade Hitler to give up his euthanasia programs.”
The exhibit makes clear that the Federal Republic of Germany’s legislators continued to follow the laws and guidelines of the Nazi regime. Upon opening of the Justice Ministry in 1940, they invoked “the tradition of the Reich court” as their role model. Not surprisingly, persecution of Romani people, homosexuals, and those with significant brain disorders continued through the 1970s.
The German government deserves much praise for researching the Rosenburg files and making them public, bringing this evidence to light and developing this exhibit to present these shameful findings.
“The Rosenberg — The Federal Ministry of Justice in the Shadow of the Nazi Past” is free and open to the public through June, when it will move to Boston, and then Poland. It is in the rotunda of the NY Supreme Court, 60 Centre St. in lower Manhattan.