Roland Freisler was the most senior and infamous judge at Hitler’s People’s Court. Freisler gained a reputation for humiliating those on trial in his court and it seemed that Freisler had no boundaries when it came to accomplishing this objective.
Roland Freisler was born on October 30th 1893 in Celle. Little is known about his early life. But it is known that Freisler served as a cadet during World War One, was promoted to lieutenant, was decorated for bravery before being captured and held as a prisoner by the Russians. With the success of the Bolshevik Revolution, all German POW’s were repatriated. After World War One ended, Freisler studied Law at the University of Jena. He became a Doctor of Law in 1922 and like so many others in Weimar Germany turned to nationalism believing that Stresemann’s government had let down the country – especially after the French and Belgians had entered the Ruhr in 1923 and the government had done nothing about it.
In July 1925, Freisler joined the Nazi Party. He defended members of the party who had been arrested for a variety of offences. Those who saw Freisler as a defence lawyer in court recognised that he had skill and this was recognised by the party’s hierarchy.
Just one month after Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933, Freisler was appointed Department Head in the Prussian Ministry of Justice. In 1934, he was appointed to the Reich Ministry of Justice. He remained in this position until 1942. Freisler was one of the few people selected who attended the notorious Wannsee Conference on January 20th 1942 where the ‘Final Solution’ of the Jews was discussed.
However, it was as a judge at the People’s Court that Freisler gained infamy. When he sat on one of the trials held there, the defendant had little chance of even defending himself. Freisler combined his vocal skills with his bullying manner as a judge, which involved shouting over a defendant and verbally abusing them, someone on trial for their life had little chance. The People’s Court tried “political offences”, which, in effect, meant just about anything. Most crimes oriented around ‘defeatism’. Freisler had few qualms about sentencing juveniles to death so most, though not all, of those who faced him in court received the death sentence – in the region of 90%. Not only was Freisler judge, jury and prosecutor in the proceedings, he was also the recorder of sentences of the trials he oversaw. When he explained his decisions on paper, he phrased his sentences with as much Nazi ideology as was required. Most explanations of his decisions revolved around defeatism, undermining morale and assisting the enemy as a result of the previous two.
On August 20th 1942, Freisler was made President of the Court. In total, he sentenced 2,600 people to death, including Sophie and Hans Scholl and other members of the White Rose movement. Freisler also presided over some of the many defendants arrested after the failed plot to assassinate Hitler – the July Bomb Plot of 1944. During these trials, those who faced him were charged, in the mind of Freisler, with the most heinous of crimes – an attempt to murder Hitler. These defendants had no chance and many were made to stand through the proceedings with no belt for their trousers, so that they had to stand holding up their trousers. Freisler allowed just about anything to humiliate those on trial. Their guilt was sealed even before their trial had begun.
On February 3rd 1945, Freisler was presiding over a trial in the People’s Court in Berlin. During this trial, the building was bombed during an Allied raid. No one is quite sure how he died. Some witnesses claim that he was crushed to death by falling masonry while others claim that he bled to death outside of the bombed court house.