TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Many of the judges were the same, but the way they changed their interpretation of the laws may have aided the Nazis and the Holocaust.
William Meinecke, Jr., Ph.D., came to that conclusion in researching the role the German courts played in that chapter of history. His findings were the basis of a presentation he and Marcus Appelbaum gave Thursday morning to nearly 300 judges at the annual Kansas Judicial Conference.
Both Meinecke and Appelbaum work for the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Meinecke says what is interesting is that judges in Germany in the early- to mid-1930s actually seemed to value judicial independence.
"If that holds true, that means their involvement in implementing the Nazi racial agenda was voluntary - and that's very hard," Meinecke said.
Meinecke said judges were tenured, so many were in their positions before the Nazi regime came to power as well as during and after it. What happened, he said, is that, rather than staying close to the letter of the law, they expanded their interpretations, thereby making it easier to persecute people.
"The Holocaust raises moral and ethical concerns that apply to us all as individuals, as citizens and as members of a profession," Meinecke said. "Maybe some of the little steps that we think make us safer and more secure and make our jobs easier are just another step in the direction of dictatorship, and that's the caution."
Appelbaum said the Holocaust Museum first developed this program, titled "Law, Justice and the Holocaust - How the Courts Failed Germany," in 1999 as a tool for law enforcement to examine how officers became perpetrators in this chapter in history. It was refined over the last decade for its application to prosecutors and judges.
Appelbaum said the program helps to understand the compromises that judges and members of the court make on a daily basis by starting with the question of where the German judges failed in history.
"There's no one right answer," he said. "It's just clear that judges failed early and often."
Kansas Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said he felt the discussion was an important reminder to judges to be loyal to their oaths and for the public to be vigilant of the courts.
More than six million Jewish people were killed during the Holocaust.