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Franz Gurtner (August 26, 1881 - January 29, 1941) was a German Minister of Justice in Adolf Hitler's cabinet, responsible for coordinating jurisprudence in the Third Reich. Detesting the cruel ways of the Gestapo and SA in dealing with prisoners-of-war, he protested unsuccessfully to Hitler, but nevertheless stayed on in the cabinet, hoping to reform the establishment from within. Instead, he found himself providing official sanction and legal grounds for a series of criminal actions under the Hitler administration.
Gurtner was born in Regensburg, the son of a locomotive driver. After high school in Regensburg, he attended the University of Munich where he studied law. During World War I, he served on the western front and in Palestine, receiving the Iron Cross (first and second class).
After the war, Gurtner pursued a successful legal career, being appointed Bavarian Minister of Justice on November 8, 1922, a position he held until his nomination by Franz von Papen as Reich Minister of Justice on June 2, 1932. As a Deutschnationale (German National) Party member, Gurtner was sympathetic to right-wing extremists like Hitler, seeing to it during his trial in 1924, following the Beer Hall Putsch that the judiciary was lenient, and that a light sentence was given to the Nazi Party leader. During the trial, Hitler was allowed to interrupt the proceedings as often as he wished, to cross-examine witnesses at will, and to speak on his own behalf at almost any length. Gurtner obtained Hitler's early release from Landsberg Prison, and later persuaded the Bavarian government to legalize the banned NSDAP, and allow Hitler to speak again in public.
After serving as Minister of Justice in the cabinets of von Papen and Kurt von Schleicher, Gurtner was retained by Hitler in his post, and made responsible for coordinating jurisprudence in the Third Reich. Though a bureaucrat of the old school and a non-Nazi conservative, Gurtner nonetheless merged the association of the German judges with the new National Socialist Lawyers Association, and provided a veil of constitutional legality for the Nazi State.
At first, Gurtner also tried to protect the independence of the judiciary and a remnant of legal norms, especially against the high-handed, arbitrary and brutal methods of the SA, who in the summer of 1933 came into conflict with the police and the administrative organs of the state. The ill-treatment of prisoners at concentration camps in Wuppertal, Bredow and Hohenstein (Saxony), under the jurisdiction of local SA leaders, provoked a sharp protest from the ministry of justice. Gurtner observed that prisoners were being beaten to the point of unconsciousness with whips and blunt instruments, commenting that such treatment "reveals a brutality and cruelty in the perpetrators which are totally alien to German sentiment and feeling. Such cruelty, reminiscent of oriental sadism cannot be explained or excused by militant bitterness however great." The protest proved to be in vain, for Hitler pardoned all those SA leaders and camp guards who were sentenced in the Hohenstein trial. Gurtner also complained about confessions obtained by the Gestapo under torture, but this practice, too, was upheld by Hitler.
Despite these initial efforts to limit the brutality of the Nazi regime, Gurtner also played a role in legitimizing it. In the weeks following the Night of the Long Knives, a purge of SA officers and conservative critics of the regime that resulted in perhaps hundreds of executions, Gurtner demonstrated his loyalty to the Nazi regime by writing a law that added a legal veneer to the purge. Signed into law by both Hitler and Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Frick, the "Law Regarding Measures of State Self-Defense" retrospectively legalized the murders committed during the purge. It met no opposition in the Reichstag. Gurtner even quashed some initial efforts by local prosecutors to take legal action against those who carried out the murders.
Gurtner thus varied his role as Justice Minister by alternately protecting the regime and protesting against it. By the end of 1935, it was already apparent that neither Gurtner nor Frick would be able to impose limitations on the power of the Gestapo, or control the SS camps where thousands of detainees, who had been charged with no crimes, were being held without trial. During World War II, the feeble resistance of the Ministry of Justice was weakened still further, as alleged criminals were increasingly dealt with by the Gestapo and SA, without recourse to any court of law. Gurtner, who may have been genuinely appalled by the summary justice of shooting prisoners in concentration camps on the instructions of the security police, found his objections brushed aside by Hitler.
Instead of resigning, Gurtner stayed on. Although this might have been in the vain hope of preventing the worst, in reality it merely lent his prestige as a conservative bureaucrat to the systematic perversion of justice in the Nazi state. He found himself providing official sanction and legal grounds for a series of criminal actions, beginning with the institution of Standegerichte (drumhead courts-martial) that tried Poles and Jews in the occupied eastern territories, and later for decrees that opened the way for implementing the final solution. Gurtner died on January 29, 1941 in Berlin before the full implications of Nazi criminality had become apparent.
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