Hans Frank was an early adherent to the Nazi movement. A lawyer by profession, he spent more than a decade in Hitler’s service in that capacity. He is best known, however, for his harsh and corrupt rule in Poland after the war began.
Frank finished his studies in 1926, and soon joined the Nazi movement as a member of the SA. Before long, it was determined that he could perform more useful services than marching in the street; Hitler was convinced that if he were to take power, he would have to do so within the law, and so he had constant need of solid legal advice. Frank was the man to give it.
In 1929, Frank was placed in charge of the Nazi legal department. Such a position ensured that he would not be overlooked after Hitler came to power. In 1933, he was appointed Minister of Justice in the Bavarian government. By 1934, he had risen to national prominence as Reich Commissioner of Justice. He was also made a Minister in the Nazi government, without portfolio, and established the Law Academy, serving as its president.
In these capacities, Hans Frank played a strong role in creating the legal underpinnings of Nazi rule, or more accurately, the illusion of legal underpinnings. Hitler wished for a system that recognized his will as the only true law, and so there were few substantial theoretical changes. Practical changes were made to ensure that Hitler and his subordinates could direct society more easily, but broad legal declarations were usually shunned, as they often tied the hands of political leaders.
Two major developments that occurred under Frank’s legal oversight were the transformation of the judiciary and the replacement of the primacy of law by the primacy of national priorities. In the former case, judges were offered a greater measure of prestige and independence from precedent and procedural nuances, but they were also expected to take the expectations of society into consideration in all cases. In other words, they were not to be the unbiased interpreters of law, but rather, to advance the priorities of the government, as presented through the Ministry of Justice.
In the second case, the protection of individual rights, as demonstrated in such principles as the rights of the accused in a criminal case, was replaced with the advancement of the community’s rights alone, and such rights were to be interpreted according to the dictates of the Führer. Essentially, the prosecution and defense were to work as a team, with the political priorities of the Ministry of Justice providing the goals toward which they worked. With actions such as these, the Ministry was able to overturn the entire legal system without promulgating a new, official set of laws. Rather, they enabled themselves to act independently of any firm legal guidance.
The arrival of war in 1939 changed the career paths of many in the Nazi hierarchy. Poland was conquered with the aid of the Soviet Union in the fall of that year. The eastern third fell to Stalin’s regime, while the western two-thirds spent about a month under a German military government. Hitler had delayed making a final decision about the disposition of his share of Poland, in part because he wanted to see if there were any room for negotiation with France and Britain. Deciding at last that there was none, he annexed half of his share into the Reich proper, and declared the rest to be an occupied territory administered through a Government General. Hans Frank was appointed the head of this government.
Frank set up his administration in the city of Krakow, ruling from Wavel Castle like a medieval lord. Following the racial priorities set in Berlin, he undertook the marginalization of Jews in ghettos, and the exploitation of Poles as a semi-free work force. In practice, corruption was high, and the most direct beneficiaries of this exploitation were Frank and his subordinates.
Frank was not the sole master the Government General, nor was he particularly free to act within it. Himmler ensured that the SS had a powerful presence there, and as the war developed, the SS used this territory to pioneer new developments in concentration camps and the mass transportation of ethnic minorities. When war with the Soviet Union brought large numbers of additional ethnic minorities under German control, Frank was very unhappy to see his domain used as a clearing house for such people.
This was not the only challenge that the SS posed to him, however, nor was it the most dangerous one. The SS famously functioned like a state of its own wherever it had substantial numbers; this ensured that Himmler and Frank were rivals for power in the Government General. The SS accused Frank of corruption, and convened a trial before Himmler on March 5, 1942. The case was well-proven, if hypocritical, and Hitler expelled Frank from all Party leadership positions. For the moment, however, Frank remained in charge of the Government General, and his own correspondence with Hitler kept himself in play until August, 1944.
In part, Frank buoyed himself on a change in ethnic policy. In 1943, victory no longer seemed assured. Winning the war became more important than exploiting conquered territory. Goebbels signaled the change in policy in February of that year; henceforth, inasmuch as it were possible, securing the assistance of conquered, “inferior” peoples became a priority. Frank was able to use this shift in priority to present the SS as the problem, and his own office as the solution. While Himmler largely laughed off Frank’s insinuations, Frank tried to create the illusion that he was still relevant by developing plans to win the compliance of the Poles. This effort failed in August 1944, in the context of the second Warsaw Uprising, and he was removed.
After the war, he was prosecuted for war crimes at Nuremberg. Pleading guilty, he was condemned to death by hanging. He was executed in October, 1946.
Burleigh, Michael. The Third Reich: A New History. Hill and Wang, 2000.
Dear, I.C.B. The Oxford Guide to World War II. Oxford, 1995.
Parrish, Thomas ed. The Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. Simon and Schuster, 1978.
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