Module C: The Nazi Judiciary: Room for Manoeuvre in the Penal System

Christoph Bitterberg


Target groups
Groups of adults working in the penal system or who are training to become prison officers, junior lawyers or judiciary officials


Themes and goals
This module focuses on the conduct and chances to act differently of employees of the Nazi penal system. Participants of this seminar look at how prison officers at different levels – from personnel who worked with prisoners directly (officers and supervisors), to physicians, all the way up to the directorial level (prison directors and presidents of penitentiary offices) – dealt with their role as part of the Nazi policy of persecution.


We talk about just how widespread anti-Semitism was in prisons and how much the everyday work of public officials and employees was characterised by the discourse on race and racial hygiene. In front of this backdrop, we explore what chances employees in the penal system had to act differently under these circumstances and how they used these chances. For example, while prison officers were not forced to mistreat prisoners, cases of brutality and unfavourable prisoner evaluations still occurred. However, there were also people who acted humanely.


Everyday work in the penal system was, and still is, heavily defined by rules and service regulations. Using the chances available to prison personnel to act differently under the Nazis as a starting point, participants discuss the basic conditions of their work within the penal system today. For example, they can talk about how their work is dictated by rules, service regulations and practical constraints and discuss what they can do to alter the situation. What is their responsibility as individuals, even when they are only “following regulations”? To what extent are prisoners’ rights meant to protect them from injustices during imprisonment? Using history as a backdrop, we explore new perspectives to these questions.