Germany still has an awkward Nazi law and some don't want to let it go

GlobalPost
Hitler
Adolf Hitler, 1939.

BERLIN, Germany — Most Germans have consigned Hitler's Third Reich to history.

But 70 years since the Fuhrer's demise, his crude ideology still exerts a hold on public life in unexpected ways.

Part of Germany’s legal code in particular still has a strong whiff of Nazi thinking — especially the section about murder.

Written in 1941 by Nazi lawyer Roland Freisler, Germany's criminal code defines a murderer as someone who kills “because of bloodlust, sexual gratification from killing, greed, or otherwise base motives.”

Sheesh, do lawyers cringe at that passage.

“Unlike other sections of Germany's criminal code, the paragraph on murder does not describe the deed and what should be protected, namely life. Instead, it illustrates the type of person who could kill,” said Hamburg criminal law attorney Pinar Gul. “That is typical of Nazi ideology.”

Recently, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas proposed overhauling the criminal code and expunging traces of Nazism. He’s now drafting a new law.

That should be simple enough, right? It’s actually proving pretty divisive.

The Central Council of Jews agrees it’s time to officially erase Nazi terminology from German laws. "Formulations introduced into our codes of law by the Nazis should certainly have no place there," said council President Josef Schuster.

"It's not like anyone is trying to tear away the Autobahn, which was built by Hitler."

But elsewhere, some Germans question whether the murder charge language is so bad, despite its origins.

"It's not like anyone is trying to tear away the Autobahn, which was built by Hitler," said Henny Jahn, a 47-year-old organist from Dortmund, a city in North Rhine-Westphalia state. "Quite the opposite. People use [the highways] and they do so quite happily."

Conservative politicians here have also warned that questioning the definition of murder would send the wrong signal to terrorists.

"When I see these days the terrible dimension that terrorist violence has taken on, I think we have much more important issues to solve," parliamentarian Wolfgang Strobl, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat Union, told Die Welt.

Legal analysts point out that changing the murder code isn’t just about cleansing German law of Nazi-inspired language, however.

Director Dieter Dolling of Heidelberg University's Criminology Institute said the justice minister’s proposed reforms would allow judges to consider extenuating circumstances when sentencing convicted murderers.

Books on the German penal code.

Currently, the law compels judges to issue life sentences to those convicted of succumbing to "bloodlust" and committing murder. But judges sometimes flout the law because it's unreasonably harsh, said Dolling.

"For example, there was a case in the 1980s where a man murdered his wife's rapist after he had been making fun of him," Dolling said. "Here, the German Supreme Court decided that a life sentence was excessive because the perpetrator had been so humiliated by the victim. So the court then invented a new reason to justify a lighter sentence."

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Amending the law to reflect how judges mete out justice isn’t a waste of time, said Dolling. It’s crucial to avoiding future legal problems.

"While German courts have found ways to issue reasonably just sentences in murder convictions, there is legal uncertainty if those solutions aren't compatible with the law," he continued. "That's why we really need reform."