Franz Gürtner

Attempts to answer the great, universal questions can be provided by two disciplines – science and religion. The former produces a list of details on ‘how’, the latter offers theoretical options on ‘why’, in which one can place one’s faith. Or not. 

The same can be said about historians and the questions of the Third Reich. The ‘why’ is still both debated and often obscene.  But there is a significant and forgotten ‘how’.  And its name is Franz Gürtner.

Gürtner enabled Hitler, at several crucial junctures on his road to power, to survive.  Without him, Hitler would not have become Hitler.

Hindsight history is full of ‘if only’.  If only more back-bone had been shown against Nazi Germany’s risky aggression during the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936.  If only Stauffenberg’s bomb had killed Hitler in 1944 and so on.  Surrounding all these hypotheticals are explanations, provisions of context and mitigating circumstances, even caveats of what futures these events might have produced had the ‘right’ thing been done at the time. All this adds to the merry-go-round of historical debate.

These examples look back and identify alternative courses of action that would have produced a better world. But at the time, there was already a mechanism that could have kept the name Hitler to just a footnote of history. It was the state institution that collates rules to regulate society, behaviour and punishment for the good of the whole: The Law.  If it’s clear statutes had been followed in the 1920s, Hitler would have sunk with little trace. 

But in those turbulent years of Hitler’s early political career, the law wasn’t obeyed.  By 1933 it was too late.  Soon after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, Germany became a county where the fair rule of law ceased to apply.   Swathes of citizens whose choice of political views, or simply their ethnic heritage, clashed with the Nazis views, now fell outside its protection.  

The law was now subject to Hitler’s whim.  In August 1940, the German Minister for Justice himself said, in response to a local judge objecting to what was simply illegal, government sanctioned mass murder: “If you cannot recognise the will of the Führer as a source of law, then you cannot remain a judge”.  This minister’s name was Franz Gürtner, the mass murder the Nazi Euthanasia program that began in September of 1939.

Gürtner was Bavarian civil servant who initially worked in the state’s Justice Ministry.  In his early 30s he served with distinction in the German army during WWI.   Upon his demobilization, he was absorbed back into the Justice Ministry in Munich. The political aftermath of WWII here was chaotic.  His nationalist sympathies saw him become a member of the German National Peoples Party, the DNVP.  Revolution in Bavaria in 1919 produced the ‘Republic of the councils’, a short lived left-wing government.  This was violently over thrown by an independent army of ‘freikorps’ forces. One of the common soldiers supporting the left-wing regime was in reality a stool pigeon, who betrayed his comrades in the aftermath of the right-wing take over.  This soldiers name was Adolf Hitler.

For many like Gürtner and Hitler, WWI didn’t end in 1918/19.  The war continued against the young democracy – the Weimar Republic. Brutalised ex-soldiers with nothing to lose perpetrated murder after murder in their struggle against what they saw as the betrayers of Germany.   The 1922 drive-by shooting of Foreign Minister Rathenow in a wealthy Berlin suburb perhaps the most well-known of these assassinations. These crimes could not go unpunished. So, in Bavaria, an official was commissioned to investigate the murders, and in a secret protocol told not to solve them.  The murderers would go unpunished.  This officials name was Franz Gürtner.

Hitler’s role during this chaos was as a local political celebrity, agitator and provocateur of violence.  Many times, after Hitler spoke, people died.   Often he had been called to account by the Bavarian state wanting to censure him for his law breaking.  Hitler would grab second chances by swearing he would stop illegal activities.  The dilemma was that Hitler’s party represented views that were broadly shared by the anti-democratic ‘secret army’ of demobilized soldiers now serving in positions of power in Bavaria.  It was these same men that had deliberately failed to mete out justice for the political murders they silently supported.  

In 1924 they had another important court case to judge in Munich, an event that had left 16 men dead.

In 1923, the traumas of the lost war and inflation was finally subsiding.  Foreign financial investment was to produce several ‘good’ years. Hitler, desperate to grab a chance to increase the fear and chaos on which he thrived politically, launched his ill-fated coup d’étatin Munich in November 1923.

It failed, and as the shooting started Hitler was the first to run away.  He was arrested.  During the trial the prosecution had trouble looking the treasonous defendants in the eye.  This is because they knew each other, worked together and supported each other.  The result was a lenient sentence for Hitler. Five years.  And no deportation from Germany – a fate that would have befallen any other foreigner who had behaved as Hitler had done in the years before.

The name of the man who allowed Hitler to take over the trial with his defence, and whose gavel sealed his light sentence, was Franz Gürtner. 

The defendants after the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ in 1923

Nine months later, Hitler was released.  Whilst in prison he had become forgotten by most of his colleagues, and his movement had disintegrated.  The Nazi party had been outlawed and Hitler had been banned from public speaking.  But by 1926 both these bans too had been lifted. Working behind the scenes to lift both of these prohibitions, successfully, was Bavarian Justice Minister, Franz Gürtner. 

By 1932 both Gürtner’s and Hitler’s stars had risen.  Gürtner was now national Minister for Justice, a positon he retained when Hitler became chancellor in January 1933.  He was instrumental in creating the sweeping laws for dictatorial power after the Reichstag fire, and in 1935 the infamous racial/legal code known as the Nuremberg laws.  Though he did eventually attempt to mitigate against the most embarrassing and obvious Nazi perversions of law, he served in his position until his death in 1941.

Gürtner and many others believed that Germany could alleviate the shame of defeat in 1918 and reassert its destiny as a world power by ridding itself of ‘weak’ democracy and replacing it with a strong dictatorship to correct the national course. To achieve this quickly they were prepared that the law, something they had studied and represented, might have to be bent in the short term.

Alas, it was this deal that Gürtner and millions of other Germans were prepared to accept to assuage their adolescent rage at the realities resulting from national hubris and stupidity before and after WWI.  Even though Gürtner died before witnessing the full harvest of what he had helped sow, he must have realized that the bargain had turned sour.  WWII itself was part of this deal.  It was during this phase that Gürtner’s actions led to his country and huge swathes of the world being turned into a charred hell-scape, where millions died. 

Gürtner and others were familiar, I’m sure, with the work of enlightenment philosopher John Locke.  He wrote: ‘Wherever law ends, Tyranny begins’.   Men like Gürtners willingness, particularly those that represented the law and the Justice Ministry of the German government, to ‘work towards the Fuhrer’ after 1933, bear a special responsibility for the horrors that they went out of their way to enable.

No Hitler – no Holocaust.  

No Gürtner – No Hitler.

Wehrmacht Bullet Casings on the Stalingrad Plain

#OTD in 1941 the German Wehrmacht attacked the Soviet Union.  With around 3.3 million troops, and 6.6 thousand tanks and aircraft, and supported by over a million horses and other vehicles, it was the most powerful military force the world had yet witnessed.  

This titanic struggle was to decide the fate of Nazi attempts to conquer Europe.  It would be called Operation Barbarossa.  One of the few large-scale German military campaigns of WWII to not be code-named after a colour, Barbarossa raged across thousands of miles of Russia, until it foundered on the borders of Asia, at Stalingrad, on the Volga river.

Strangely – for me it connects four places I have worked in – Concentration Camp Sachsenhausen north of Berlin, southern Turkey, Lebanon and what today is Volgograd.

Operation Barbarossa 1941

The Barbarossa campaign reduced:

Avoid a two-front war, and don’t invade Russia were two cardinal military rules broken by Hitler in June of 1941.   So why do it?

The drive behind the campaign were myriad:  

Knocking out Russia as a continental ally of the UK, thus hastening a peace deal in the west.  This offer had long been a hope of Hitler’s foreign policy – his offer was leaving Britain’s over-seas empire intact in return for their non-interference with Nazi hegemony in Europe.  

More pressingly, the Soviet Union’s military strength and long term policy goals, though held temporarily in check by a pact with Hitler over the invasion of Poland in 1939, would only increase and threaten Germany so to attack sooner was better than later. 

Resources for the war effort (particularly oil) would be a Nazi gain upon Soviet defeat.  

And much longer term, the dream of creating an agricultural paradise with Nazi warrior settler families controlling huge estates exploiting local slave labour. This would produce food in abundance, sustaining the population of the huge post-war German empire.   This program would also help support Hitler’s ultimate goal – a war against the US. Interestingly, during Barbarossa, Hitler spoke of this agricultural theme more than any other during his ‘down-time’ meal ‘conversations’ (generally monologues) at his HQs.

Barbarossa group think:

This dream was underpinned by a fatal hubris – the assumption that the Soviet military and the nation’s resources would eventually collapse under a maximum pressure Blitzkrieg.  Amazingly – no one in Wehrmacht command applied these hypothetical conditions or outcomes to their own side.

So, by the winter of 1942/3, the attacks had stalled in the southern sphere at Stalingrad.

American lease-lend materials, the vast manpower reserves the Soviet Union could muster, the burning desire for revenge as defenders of their ravaged motherland, and a spectacularly flexible repositioned armaments sector all contributed to the turnaround.

The army with no manpower reserves, and supply deficits was now the Wehrmacht.

From 1943, the eastern front moved westwards, two years later closing, like a steel tsunami, over the Nazi capital Berlin, where it had all begun, and now came to a fiery end.

Einsatzgruppen Trial 1947

Barbarossa exposed:

After 1945, study of Operation Barbarossa revealed its terrible secrets.  It was behind the smoke-screen of this campaign that one of the three phases of Holocaust occurred. The work of ‘Einzatzgruppen’ – ‘Task Forces’ murdered 1.5 million Jews in the occupied territories. Over 3 million Soviet POWs died in captivity of the German Army, countless thousands of civilians died or were dragged off west into slave labour.

But how does this campaign connect all the places listed above?

My Barbarossa:

Firstly, the name.  1941 Operation Barbarossa was named after 12thC Holy Roman Emperor Frederic 1st.  Nicknamed in German ‘Rotbart’– Redbeard – it is the Italian version of this nickname that stuck – Barbarossa.  

Silifke castle and the Göksu River – site of Emperor Barbarossa’s death.

He died in 1190, ( in June too weirdly), drowning in the Göksu river near today Turkish town of Silifke.  It was near here where I worked on an archaeological excavation for several seasons.  On one of our days off we floated down the Göksu river in tractor inner tubes.  We didn’t drown, and we named our day out ‘Barbarossa’ in Frederic’s honour.

My archaeological lecture tour circuit took me elsewhere connected with Emperor Barbarossa.  After his death, many legends grew up around his mythical return.  The most enduring is the story that Barbarossa sleeps under several mountains waiting to return and lead Germany to glory.  The first German emperor Wilhelm I was trumpeted as his reincarnation in 1871.

What actually happened to Barbarossa was that he was pickled.  His body was put in vinegar and buried in the Crusader cathedral in the ancient city a Tyre in Lebanon.  His flesh was moved to Constantinople, but his bones are said to still rest in Tyre.  I often visit the ruins of this cathedral.  The bones have never been found despite excavation.

Cathedral of Tyre – Barbarossa’s resting place

All those interested in military history must visit Stalingrad.  On the flat plains to the west are vast cemeteries filled with the victims of this bloodiest of battles.  Bones are found regularly and reburied.  The plain is still strewn with battle debris.

This is the casing of a 7.92 x 57 P25 Mauser cartridge from 1939 found on the Stalingrad battlefield. It was manufactured by Metallwarenfabrik Treuenbritzen, a place south west of Berlin.  This company had manufactured munitions from the beginning of the 20thC.   The Treuenbritzen munitions factory ‘Werk Selterhof’was a satellite of Concentration camp Sachsenhausen, we I often guide too.  Sachsenhausen also served as the main command centre (the inspectorate) of the entire camp system from 1936.  

Prisoners of war and other labourers from occupied territories worked to make these cartridges, that once spent, lay on the plains of the Volga, where the tide turned against Operation Barbarossa and changed history.