The Judge Who Stood Up to the Nazis

KreyssigLothar Kreyssig was the only German judge to oppose the Nazi’s Action T4 euthanasia program, which targeted those with mental and physical disabilities and other “undesirables”.

Appointed a district court judge in 1928 during the Weimar Republic, Kreyssig opposed the Nazis from the start: he resisted pressure to join the Nazi Party—citing his need to maintain judicial independence—and joined the Confessing Church, which opposed Nazi-backed efforts to form a “Protestant Reich Church”. He consistently displayed contempt and insubordination toward the regime, including slipping out of a ceremony in his court when a bust of Hitler was unveiled; openly protesting the suspension of three judges who failed to enforce “Aryan laws”; and referring to Nazi church policies as “injustice masquerading in the form of law”.

In 1937, Kreyssig was transferred to a lower district court in Brandenburg, likely a demotion for his attitudes towards the government. He nonetheless continued to be a thorn in the Nazi side. As a guardianship judge in a mental health court, he was responsible for the well-being and legal rights of several hundred children and adults with mental disabilities. It was in this capacity that he noticed a suspiciously high number of death certificates among his wards.

Correctly suspecting this had something to do with Hitler’s letter prescribing “mercy killings” to those deemed “incurably sick”, Kreyssig wrote to Nazi Minister of Justice Franz Gürtner complaining about these actions. He grounded his arguments in both legal and moral terms, noting that there is no law or formal decree authorizing these killings, and that they were contrary to the will and well-being of the people. By the same token he also attacked the treatment of prisoners in concentration camps.

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.

Immediately after sending his defiant letter, Kreyssig then dared to target Reichsleiter Philipp Bouhler—among the highest ranking members of the Nazi Party, and the primary initiator of the T4 euthanasia program—charging him with murder. He also filed an injunction against the hospitals and asylums that housed his wards, prohibiting them from transferring anyone without his consent.

Needless to say, all this got the attention of the Nazi authorities, who in November 1940 summoned Kreyssig before Justice Minister Gürtner. The defiant judge was presented with Hitler’s personal letter ordering the euthanasia program and told to withdraw his injunctions preventing the “mercy killings”. Kreyssig refused to comply, again grounding his arguments on German legal principles that had been abandoned in practice, stating that “The Führer’s word does not create a right”. Gürtner told Kreyssig that if he could not “recognize the will of the Führer as a source of law”, then he could not remain a judge, and the next month Kreyssig was subsequently suspended from being a judge; two years later, in March 1942, Hitler forced Kreyssig to retire altogether.

Despite a criminal investigation opened against him by the Gestapo, Kreyssig was never prosecuted. For the remainder of the war, he devoted himself to farming and his church, and was said to have hid two Jewish women on his property. After the war, Kreyssig continued his dedication to fighting Nazism, this time with respect to the horrific legacy of their actions. In 1958, he founded the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, calling for young Germans to go to former enemy countries and Israel to ask for forgiveness and atonement through charitable work and rebuilding. The organization exists to this day, thousands of Germans have volunteered through the organization in numerous countries.

Kreyssig otherwise lived a low-key life until his death in 1986. His legacy as the sole judge to oppose the T4 Program—and to have done so to the faces of high-ranking Nazis—remains largely unknown.

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