"Lawyers without Rights" is the name of a travelling exhibit dealing with the fate of Jewish lawyers in Germany after the Nazis came to power in 1933.
The exhibit, which will be at Toronto's Beth Tzedec synagogue from Nov. 1 to 12, gives biographical details of some of these lawyers, showing the extent of the personal and professional loss because of their religion.
German Jewish lawyers considered themselves German, with being Jewish irrelevant to their profession. The stories and the pictures in the exhibit show the tragic circumstances for German Jews in general, but lawyers in particular, and helps to emphasize the importance of the rule of law. We are reminded of its fragility, showing us when the system cracks, how easily it can crumble.
When the Nazis came to power on Jan. 30, 1933, there was a well-established legal system in place, with an honest and capable judiciary and an independent bar. Yet in mere months, an apparently strong and established legal system cracked and then collapsed in only a few short years.
One of the first attacks on the system came from lawyers themselves. At a meeting of the League of National-Socialist German Jurists (the Nazi lawyers' association) early in March 1933, one speaker demanded that no lawyer, notary. or judge who was Jewish should be allowed to practise. There followed a thunderous applause.
Shortly after, the Nazis organized rallies advocating the curtailment of Jewish Germans in the legal profession. At the end of March, the minister of justice for the state of Prussia issued a directive to the presidents of the supreme courts of the various states that Jewish judges resign immediately.
At the Justice Building in Munich there was an announcement that to "safeguard the prestige of the administration of justice," it was to become off limits to Jewish lawyers on April 1, 1933. At this point, no laws had been passed against Jews practising law and the directives had no legal effect.
The Nazis planned April 1, 1933, as a day of public action, emphasizing a boycott. SA guards were placed in front of Jewish law offices across the country and the word "Jew" was smeared across the fronts of many offices where Jews practised.
Later, clients of Jewish lawyers were threatened, often physically, if they continued to go to their lawyers. Sometimes the names of Jewish lawyers and some of their clients were published in newspapers to increase the threat.
Most shocking, there began to be attacks in court buildings. In Dresden, a large number of Nazi followers entered the court building and went into a courtroom where they knew there was a Jewish lawyer present and a Jewish judge presiding. They seized both the lawyer and judge, dragged them out into the street, and beat them.
By April 7, 1933, a law was passed taking away the right of German Jewish lawyers to practise or be judges. Exceptions were made for German Jews who had been frontline soldiers in the German army in the First World War, for those who had lost sons or fathers in this war, or had been lawyers since 1914.
Following this, approximately 25 per cent of the German Jewish lawyers lost their right to practise, a number that was much lower than the Nazis expected, as they did not realize the extent to which German Jews had fought in the war. By 1938, with additional laws, there were no remaining Jewish lawyers and judges.
What did the German lawyers, judges, and the bar associations do when the Jewish lawyers and the legal system itself were under attack? Lawyers often were abandoned by their partners. Judges were not protected by their fellow judges.
Ironically, it was clients of Jewish lawyers who most often came to their defence. Many of them wrote to the minister of justice asking for an exception for their own lawyer. But these were ultimately small cries in the plea for justice. The presiding judge in Magdeburg, who was Jewish, was driven out of his office. He begged his association for help. He received a letter acknowledging that the situation was unfortunate but no help was offered.
To carry out the policy of removing the judges, the Nazi government needed the co-operation of the governing body of lawyers, the bar associations. The Berlin Bar Association on May 23, 1933, decided that Jewish and non-Jewish lawyers were no longer to set up law partnerships. This was not even a requirement of the law, yet the association went beyond the law to further restrict Jewish lawyers.
In June 1933, the Berlin Bar Association decreed that every lawyer now had to produce proof of Aryan descent, thus excluding Jewish lawyers. By this decree, it was carrying out the Nazi policy of identifying who was Jewish. If a Jewish lawyer claimed he had fought in the First World War and was thus exempt, then he was put to strict proof to show this exemption.
The Jewish lawyers who remained "lost any illusions about the policy of their professional organization, from which they no longer expected any assistance."
Although no Jewish woman lawyer fit into the exemption, the Nazi government was faced with a dilemma. Hanna Katz was a Jewish lawyer who would have been disbarred. However, she was the only German member of the trademark committee of the International Law Association. If she were disbarred, Germany would lose its seat on this committee. An exception was made for her to remain as a lawyer, albeit temporarily.
There are many examples of ways judges did not try to help their colleagues. Criminal lawyers often depended on legal aid. Judges in courts often had the authority to direct which lawyer would get the case. Many judges stopped referring these clients to Jewish lawyers. This, for many lawyers, was financially crippling.
Hermann Lehmann, who had been a lawyer for five years, lost his right to practise law. He had worked for one judge as a trainee and recollects, "As a lawyer, I had pleaded before his court and we knew each other well. I met him in the morning and greeted him respectfully, he being the senior. He recognized me immediately. He looked through me as if I were air and did not return my greeting. It painfully dawned on me how deeply I must have already sunk in the appreciation of my fellow beings."
When the first attacks on the Jewish lawyers and judges happened, many thought they were just Nazi excesses and were not taken seriously. Many thought such excesses would pass. It was only in retrospect that we can pinpoint that these excesses marked the complete collapse of the legal structure.
As terrifying as the boycotts, acts of violence, and laws eventually were, it was the willing or tacit acceptance of these policies by lawyers, judges, and the legal system that is most frightening. These actions, and inactions, are what not only sealed the fate of German Jewish jurists, but saw the complete dismantling of the rule of law in Germany.
Howard S. Simmons has been a lawyer for more than 35 years and is a partner at Simmons daSilva & Sinton LLP in Brampton, Ont. Samuel J. Simmons is finishing his PhD in English literature at the University of Edinburgh, studying fascism, anti-semitism, and modernist literature.