West Berlin justice officials announced today they have decided against prosecuting members of the Nazis’ infamous People’s Court, which sentenced more than 5,000 people to death during the Third Reich.
Rupert Scholz, West Berlin city justice minister, said that evidence against the former People’s Court officials was weak because of the passage of time, and that West German authorities were negligent in failing to prosecute them earlier.
Volker Kaehne, spokesman for West Berlin’s Justice Ministry, said the main reason the investigation is being closed is that the surviving prosecutors and justices of the People’s Court are “unfit for trial” because of illness or old age. He said a lack of evidence is another reason.
Authorities believe 83 former justices and prosecutors from the People’s Court are living in West Germany or Austria, Kaehne said.
Opening of Case Unlikely
He said the decision means none of the former court officials will be charged with Nazi crimes in West Berlin. Technically, another criminal investigation could be opened against them in West Germany, although that is considered unlikely.
Scholz issued a statement criticizing earlier handling of the case by West German officials.
“Partly because of negligence by (federal) justice authorities, there was never a valid judgment (against the People’s Court) by a German court. This must disappoint everyone who believes in justice,” Scholz said.
He added that when West Berlin prosecutors took up the prosecution in 1979, the evidence already was “full of holes.”
Legal, Factual Difficulties
“The prosecutors in (West) Berlin undertook intensive efforts on this darkest chapter of German justice history. But they faced considerable legal and factual difficulties,” his statement said.
Robert Kempner, a U.S. lawyer and former deputy chief counsel at the Allied powers’ Nuremberg trials convened after World War II, called the decision not to prosecute the former People’s Court officials a “travesty of justice.”
The West Berlin prosecutors’ probe was the first general West German investigation into alleged crimes committed by the court’s members.
The People’s Court, opened in Berlin in 1934 and based there, was the Nazi tribunal for trying cases of treason, espionage and “demoralization” of the Nazi war effort.
Among those the court sentenced to death were the conspirators who attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944.
One Official Served Time
Only one of the court’s former 577 officials, chief prosecutor Ernst Lautz, served time in prison. He was convicted by the Nuremberg tribunal and sentenced to 10 years.
Lautz was released on parole on Jan. 31, 1951, after serving a little more than three years.
West Berlin prosecutors charged Paul Reimer, a former judge of the court, in 1984, but he committed suicide the same year and was never tried.
In July, 1967, Hans-Joachim Rehse, an associate justice for the People’s Court, was sentenced by a West Berlin court to five years in prison for aiding and abetting murder during the Third Reich.
But the West German Supreme Court overturned the judgment a year later, saying Rehse and other judges of the People’s Court had only been abiding by the laws of the time.