Private Lives in the Courtroom


Staff: Annemone Christians (currently NS-Documentation Center of the City of Cologne)

Project description:

The tension between people’s private lives and state regulatory power rarely emerges as clearly as it does in court hearings. In legal proceedings, private matters are required to be disclosed, while judicial investigations and decisions can restrict, abolish, or uphold individual interests and spaces. The way in which the Nazi legal system dealt with this reveals the relationship of the dictatorship with privacy and self-determination.

Annemone Christians examines concrete judicial negotiations of private matters as a means of sounding out the depth of penetration and the limits of National Socialist ideas, both those set by the state itself and those practiced by society. The project thus analyses the significance of the private sphere in relation with the construct of the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft (“People’s Community”). To this end, the study examines whether, where, and how the party legislators intervened in existing procedural, civil, and criminal law in order to rule on conflicting private and public interests.

The study focuses primarily on three areas of private life as subjects of negotiation in Nazi legal practice:

Divorce proceedings form one central element of the study. With the National Socialist Law on Marriage and Divorce, introduced in 1938, the regime’s public policy (ordre public) found its way into family law. The view that marriage was useful for the ethnically delineated Volksgemeinschaft came to dominate. While the principle of the irretrievable breakdown of marriages as a cause for divorce was afforded greater weight than a fault-based principle, this was itself completely removed from its individualistic-liberal tradition. And yet, this constituted the response of Nazi legislators to processes of social upheaval that were bringing about new realities in partnership and family life.

Secondly, the involvement of the regime in private property is examined, focusing mainly on seizure and foreclosure proceedings. The regime had always been committed to upholding the right to private property, and the provisions for its protection in the Civil Code remained in place and were even expanded in some areas. The interpretation of the law could, however, also be massively distorted or effectively invalidated. The project investigates which possessions were considered untouchable – such as the Volksempfänger radios, used by the regime for propagandistic purposes and which were confiscated in the name of the “interests of the Volksgemeinschaft”.

Thirdly, the project deals with the private expression of opinion as an offence in the politicized Nazi justice system. This aspect of individual action was treated most restrictively and suppressed most rigorously from the beginning of the regime’s rise to power. At the same time, it was in fact such forms of individual expression that were able to evade punishment by the regime. How far did National Socialist encroachment on private spaces and individual thought truly extend? At what point were people’s personal opinions criminalized as a potential threat to the Nazi regime and the Volksgemeinschaft? This project explores these questions with a focus on the prosecution of violations under the Treachery Act of 1934 (Heimtückegesetz), of treasonous statements, and of “crimes” relating to radio listening prohibitions.

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