Franz Gürtner was Reich Minister of Justice in Adolf Hitler’s first Cabinet. Gürtner was not a member of the Nazi Party’s ‘Old Guard’ (Alte Kämpfer) but Hitler held him in high regard and rewarded Gürtner with a high Cabinet post in early 1933.
Franz Gürtner was born in Regensburg on August 26th 1881. He studied Law at the University of Munich and then served as an officer in World War One both on the Western Front and in Palestine. Gürtner was awarded an Iron Cross (1st and 2nd classes) for bravery.
After the war ended Gürtner resumed a successful legal career and became State Minister for Justice in Bavaria – a post he held from 1922 to 1932. A member of the German Nationalist Party, Gürtner also developed strong nationalist beliefs and like many in Weimar Germany, he was infuriated by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and the 1923 French/Belgian occupation of the Ruhr.
It is said that Gürtner used his influence within the Bavarian judicial system to help Hitler when he was put on trial after the failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. Tried for treason, which could have resulted in the death sentence being passed, Hitler received a five year jail term that was spent in some comfort at Landsberg Prison. In fact, he only served nine months before Gürtner used his judicial pull to get an early release for Hitler despite the fact that the State Attorney’s office opposed it. Gürtner also persuaded the Bavarian state cabinet to allow Hitler to speak in public once again – something that had been banned as part of his sentence. The Nazi Party – also banned after the Beer Hall Putsch – was also given a second life as a result of Gürtner’s pressure on the state cabinet.
In June 1932, Gürtner was appointed Minister of Justice in the cabinet of Franz von Papen. He kept this position in Hitler’s first cabinet in 1933.
Gürtner was charged by Hitler with giving a judicial coating to Gleichshaltung – the coordination of the German people. Gürtner was given huge powers by Hitler. He nominated all judges, public prosecutors and officers of the law. Hitler invariably rubber stamped Gürtner’s nominations and swore the judges in himself.
Gürtner merged the Association of German Judges – an old and respected organisation – with the National Socialist Lawyers’ Association. Anyone who was deemed to oppose Hitler had their legal safeguards removed by Gürtner. He also gave legal status to the murderous actions carried out on the Night of the Long Knives against SA leaders and others by getting the Reichstag to adopt a motion that Hitler’s actions “were justified as a means of State defence”, which culminated with the ‘Law Regarding Measures of State Self-Defence’. However, Gürtner had previously complained to Hitler about the violent excesses committed by the SA especially against those held in concentration camps and his legal justification of the Night of the Long Knives may have had more to it than simply supporting Hitler.
When World War Two started, the Ministry of Justice found that its power was swiftly eroded by internal security forces which did not adhere to formal judicial processes. The Gestapo and SD became judge, jury and executioner in many issues and few in the Ministry were brave enough to query their work. When one judge, Lothar Kreyssig, did complain to Gürtner, he was dismissed after being told that “the will of the Führer is the source of law”.
Gürtner set up a system of courts (Ständegerichte) that tried Jews and Poles in Occupied Poland. He gave legal backing and support to any act carried out on behalf of Hitler – with the normal explanation being that such action was required to defend the Fatherland. Gürtner was effectively required by Hitler to provide legal backing for any actions taken by those organisations that supported him. The usual legal explanation invariably oriented around ‘defence of the Fatherland’ or ‘enemy of the Fatherland’.
Franz Gürtner was still Minister of Justice when died on January 29th 1941.