‘I was never afraid of the big shots’: A conversation with German lawyer Friedrich Wolff

By Frank Schumann
junge Welt, July 23

Workers World makes excerpts from this interview available in English, as it gives a historical view from a senior legal expert in the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany), Friedrich Wolff.* The parts selected counter the Big Lie promulgated by U.S. and German imperialism, exposes individual Nazis’ roles in West German politics and, in passing, provides some information for understanding the historical role of the Bandera fascist organization now playing a prominent role in the pro-NATO Ukraine regime. Translation: John Catalinotto

Friedrich Wolff, top defense lawyer in the German Democratic Republic.  Credit: Frank Schumann, junge Welt

junge Welt: You will be 100 years old on July 30. Congratulations on this rare anniversary!

Friedrich Wolff: Please don’t congratulate me before it happens.

jW: What has always fascinated me about you is your humor — detached, self-deprecating, ambiguous wit.

FW: Conditions in the world are sad enough. You don’t change them by lamenting them or reacting depressively. Or, as Marx says, by putting one’s face into the prescribed creases. No, that was never my thing. One must try to stand above things, otherwise one sinks with one’s nose in every muck.

. . .

jW: Were you always so poised and serene? Or did such serenity only develop in old age?

FW: I don’t know. Well, I can remember phases when I was very emotional.

jW: When, for example?

FW: In the spring of 1960, when I defended Theodor Oberländer, the Federal Minister for Displaced Persons [under West Germany)]. The Supreme Court of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had indicted him for his involvement in war crimes.

As a first lieutenant, Oberländer had been involved in negotiations with the Ukrainian nationalists under Stepan Bandera on behalf of the High Command of the Wehrmacht in 1941. He was in the “Nightingale Battalion” . . .

jW: . . . consisting of Ukrainian nationalists, who had become prisoners of war, and which was under the control of [Hitler’s German] fascist secret service.

FW: Oberländer was the liaison officer for the “Abwehr [military intelligence service].” The unit entered Lviv [in western Ukraine] even before the Wehrmacht and, together with Ukrainian collaborators, massacred “Jewish Bolsheviks.” The exact number of victims could never be determined, but it was in the thousands. So the charge was generally: “for murder.” And I was assigned to the accused “as a public defender.”

jW: So the socialist was supposed to defend a Nazi?!

FW: Even for a suspected war criminal, the presumption of innocence applies first. Every defendant must be treated fairly in court, even if he himself did not act legally. I know that this is sometimes difficult to understand, especially when the facts are conclusive.

jW: Did the Nazi federal minister appear at the court hearing in Berlin?

FW: No, the trial was held in absentia. Together with my colleague Gerhard Rinck, I had tried to contact our client beforehand. But our letter came back from Bonn [capital of West Germany] after it had been opened and resealed there. The envelope bore the handwritten note: “Acceptance subsequently refused. Caretaker has no power of attorney for Federal Minister for Displaced Persons, Refugees and War-Affected Persons.”

jW: You said earlier that you had been emotional. Because of the prominence of the client? Because of the international attention?

FW: Well, I was never afraid of big shots. It was the trial as such. Never before had a West German former Nazi, especially one with government responsibility, been indicted by a GDR court for his war crimes. The trial was not only aimed at the specific person but at the political leadership of the Federal Republic of Germany as a whole. The trial had great symbolic significance.

jW: In the West, people still speak of a “show trial” today.

FW: Of course it was a show trial. The GDR thus proved the continuity of the Nazi dictatorship in the West German state, the ally of the U.S. and its anti-communist bulwark against the East. So the scope of defense was limited.

Nevertheless, we defense lawyers declared that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction. First, the acts had not been committed on our territory; second, the criminal law of the GDR had not applied to Oberländer when he committed the acts. And thirdly, Oberländer was protected by the immunity of the German Bundestag.

The application was rejected. On April 29, 1960, Oberländer was sentenced to life in prison for the shooting of several thousand Jews and Poles in Lemberg. This did not even take into account the murderous acts he later committed with the [Nazi] German-Caucasian “Sonderverband Bergmann” in the Soviet Union.

jW: Oberländer probably did not spend a day in jail.

FW: No, but he had to resign six days later, although he remained politically active. In 1981, for example, he was one of the co-signers of a “Heidelberg Manifesto” that spoke out against the “infiltration of the German people” and the “alienation” of the German language and culture.

jW: Let me guess: Oberländer was rehabilitated after 1990 [German “reunification”]?

FW: Yes, he was. In April 1990, fellow lawyer Wolfgang Vogel let me know that 85-year-old Prof. Dr. Theodor Oberländer had asked him to instruct me as his defense counsel at the time to apply for the dismissal of the Supreme Court’s verdict. Oberländer was rehabilitated by the Berlin Regional Court on Nov. 24, 1993.

Without examining the accusations of the prosecution, the verdict was annulled on technical grounds “because the main hearing was unlawfully conducted in the absence of the person concerned.”

jW: In 1993, when Oberländer was rehabilitated, the historian Götz Aly called him a “mastermind of extermination.”

FW: Which he most certainly was.

jW: Two years later, you defended another Nazi, Hans Maria Globke. He had not only contributed to the so-called Nuremberg Race Laws but had also formulated anti-Semitic laws himself. For example, [requiring] that Jewish women had “Sara” and men “Israel” entered in their papers. Globke was not simply a pen-pusher but also significantly involved in the deportation of about 20,000 Jews from Greece to the gas chambers of Auschwitz . . .

FW: . . . and since 1953 he was [West German Chancellor Konrad] Adenauer’s left and right hand in Bonn, the “gray eminence” responsible for personnel policy, for the work of the cabinet, for the establishment and control of BND and Constitutional Protection [political police organizations].

Not to be forgotten: He also pulled the strings in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). It was not for this, however, but because of his incriminated Nazi past that the GDR put him in the dock.

The GDR’s attorney general charged Globke with “acting in concert to commit crimes against humanity and war crimes in Berlin and other places from November 1932 until the crushing of fascist tyranny in 1945.” Globke was, you’re right, the classic pen-pusher in the Nazi empire. And now his desk was in the Federal Chancellery.

jW: But weren’t there the same problems with Globke as in the Oberländer trial?

FW: The GDR had learned its lesson. The indictment and the opening decision were based on Article 6 of the London Statute for the International Military Tribunal in conjunction with Article 5(1) of the GDR Constitution. That paragraph read: “The generally recognized rules of international law bind the state authority and every citizen.”

Globke fit the category “every citizen,” and international law applied equally to the two German states. The GDR expressly submitted to it in its constitution. One should see this calmly also in connection with the mendacious statement of the “unjust state GDR.”

State Secretary Globke received a life sentence in prison on July 23, 1963. A quarter of a year later, he resigned as head of the Federal Chancellery, was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and wanted to move to Switzerland as a pensioner.

In the 1950s, his spouse had purchased a property on Lake Geneva in the canton of Vaud. However, after Globke’s intention became known, the cantonal parliament declared that it would not grant the former [West German] minister a residence permit. This showed very clearly how Globke was viewed abroad — and how right the GDR was in putting such pillars of the West German state on trial.

This was not propaganda, as is still claimed today, but a principled political confrontation with the fascist dictatorship and its protagonists. In other words, coming to terms with the past [“Vergangenheitsbewältigung” in German]. This was not something that was only invented after 1990.

‘Coming to terms with the past’ 

FW: I first believed that this was a word created by the West Germans when they wanted to get at our past and our biographies. No. In fact, when I looked through my documents from the Oberländer trial, I repeatedly read this term “coming to terms with the past” on my sheets from 1960.

The GDR was clearly a pioneer in both the public and the legal discussion of fascism, of the perpetrators and the victims. The first Auschwitz trials in the West took place in Frankfurt am Main only in 1963.

At that time, there had already been discussions in the Federal Republic of [West] Germany (FRG) for years about whether Nazi and war crimes should not be considered time-barred. In 1965, the Bundestag discussed the “final stroke.” Even after the U.N. had determined in a resolution in 1968 that war crimes and crimes against humanity were not subject to a statute of limitations, discussions in the Federal Republic continued to stall.

It was not until 1979 that the Bundestag — after 30 years of debate! — decided to lift the statute of limitations for murder crimes committed during the Nazi era. By 255 votes to 222!

jW: And that is why today there are show trials, for example, against 100 year olds who stood guard in extermination camps almost 80 years ago.

FW: I think that there is a serious difference between our trials and these trials today. At that time, we wanted to draw the public’s attention to certain facts, and, in doing so, we also made a political and moral judgment, which is not usually the task of the judiciary.

So these were show trials in the sense of enlightenment and social ostracism. They were a political tool in the GDR’s anti-fascist struggle against Nazis who were actively involved in the reorganization of a part of Germany.

*Friedrich Wolff, born in Berlin-Neukölln in 1922, son of a Jewish doctor and a Protestant mother, joined the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1945. After studying law at Humboldt University from 1946 to 1949, he was “judge by order of the court,” from April 1951 trainee in the Justice Department of the Berlin Magistrate’s Office; lawyer since 1953 and chairman of the Berlin Bar Association from 1954 to 1970, from 1984 to 1988 and in 1990. He served as defense attorney in various political trials, including of Nazi and war criminals; of June 17, 1953, demonstrators; and of Erich Honecker and other members of the Politburo in the 1990s. Wolff has authored several books published by Edition Ost in Berlin. 

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