Since the end of World War 2, Germany has made some seriously impressive strides when it comes to owning up and coming to terms with its past. Not only was the country forced to pay millions of dollars in reparations to Allied powers after it lost, it has also worked hard to show the world that it has moved on beyond its racist past and towards a future of inclusivity and collaboration between all Germans, regardless of racial or religious background. However, while Germany may have done admirably well in this respect, there is still one holdover from the Nazi regime that is causing tension and controversy in the country. While I’ll be the first to say that, as far as Nazi remnants go, this isn’t a big one, it’s still interesting to see the country grapple with one of the last remaining Nazi influences over the country and culture.
The issue Germany is facing has to do with one of its laws. It turns out that 70 years after Hitler died and the Nazis lost, they still have influence over the German legal code, especially when it comes to murder. In 1941, a Nazi lawyer named Roland Freisler rewrote Germany’s legal code so that it was more inline with Nazi beliefs and terminology. As he did so, he changed the law regarding murder so that it took a distinctly Nazi-esque bent to it; it no longer describe the act of murder and what was being destroyed, namely life, it instead uses classically Nazi terminology to describe the type of person who would kill. While it may not seem like a lot, this is a distinctly Nazi way of looking at things and was used to divide populations and promote the Nazi ideology that can be boiled down to an “Us vs Them” philosophy. Still, to this day, a murderer is defined not as someone who has killed, but someone who has killed “because of bloodlust, sexual gratification from killing, greed, or otherwise base motives.” The language used in this law is distinctly meant to illustrate the type of person who would commit these crimes — base, disgusting, uncontrollable monsters who were very different from the good and upstanding German people. The wording goes to point out that those who commit murder are sneaky and do murder by surprise — those who kill in the open are simply committing manslaughter and deserve a lighter sentence. The law has been applied to abusive relationships as well — abusive husbands who kill their wives are charged with manslaughter while wives who kill their abusive husbands are charged with murder because the husband didn’t expect it. With situations like this occurring, it only makes sense that the law is being revisited.
Now, as German government officials revisit this law and are looking to change it, they’re running into a surprising amount of both support and trouble from within the country. German Justice Minister Heiko Maas has proposed rewriting the current law and is currently drafting that rewrite. Maas already has support from the Central Council of Jews in Germany, an umbrella organization that is meant to organize all of the Jewish groups within Germany, with council president Josef Schuster saying “”Formulations introduced into our codes of law by the Nazis should certainly have no place there”. But even with the support of an organization like this, there are still people who have spoken out against the changing of the law.
There are many arguments coming out against the rewriting of this law, no matter how well-intentioned or legally relevant and necessary the rewrite may be. One of the arguments being used is simply that not all of the things the Nazi’s created or had a hand in were bad, such as the Autobahn. Obviously this isn’t a reasonable argument when it comes to legal language that is meant to define what it means to be a murderer (as in one who takes a life without reasonable justification, such as self-defense), but it goes to show even now how intrinsically tied modern-day Germany is to its Nazi past. There are also calls coming from conservative politicians that changing this law would be showing weakness to terrorists, with Christian Democratic Union parliamentarian Wolfgang Strobl saying “When I see these days the terrible dimension that terrorist violence has taken on, I think we have much more important issues to solve”. While the fear of extremism is understandable, I don’t think that changing the language of the law regarding murder so that it actively describe the act as the ending of a life is going to have much of an effect on how terrorists view Germany or the West as a whole.
Other arguments coming out for and against this change are more reasonable and based more in logic and law than on feelings, hyperbolic ideology, and the convenience of of the Autobahn. Legal scholars and analysts say that the change is less about getting rid of the Nazi language and what it entails, but more about allowing judges to consider extenuating circumstances in murder trials and apply the law in a more just and fair manner than before. Up until now, judges have been required to give life sentences to people who have committed murder while under the influence of “bloodlust”, leading many judges to disregard the law because of how unreasonably harsh it is. An example used to describe how this law is unjust is the case of a man who was accused of murdering his wife’s rapist because the man was mocking and humiliating him. While he was technically under the influence of what would be considered in German law as “bloodlust”, judges gave him a much lighter sentence due to the circumstances leading to the murder and how he had been more or less emotionally tortured before it happened.
Regardless of the argument, it seems as though this change is going to be happening sooner rather than later. Whether framed under the guise of getting rid of the final vestige of Naz influences on German government, law, and society or framed as a way to reintroduce some sort of flexibility in the German legal system and to protect those who need it, the law seems to have only a limited amount of time left before its reworded and reintroduced. With the strongest push in favor for the new law coming from legal professionals who say that this new law would get rid of confusion and avoid future legal problems, it seems as though one more remnant of the Third Reich is about to be consigned to the history books where people will be able to learn from it and avoid it for the rest of time.
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