All legal systems tend to be rather organic in nature, building a framework of law through evolution and amendment rather than abrupt, wholesale change. And, surprisingly perhaps, given its turbulent history, Germany is not so different in this respect.
Though much has been made of the Stunde Null or ‘Year Zero’ represented by the final defeat of Nazism in 1945 and the fresh political start that followed, there is an element of continuity in the German legal system, which spans both the Nazi period and the wider 20th century. Most notably perhaps, the German Nationality Law, or Staatsbürgerschaftsrecht, was first drawn up in 1913 and was only revised into its current form in 2000.
Regarding the Third Reich specifically, a thorough purging of the German legal structure was carried out under the supervision of the Allied Control Commission in 1945, resulting in the repeal of all legislation that was deemed to demonstrate Nazi characteristics or that was considered to have been used to construct and maintain Nazi rule or implement Nazi policies.
Yet, there is a difference between what one might call ‘Nazi law’ and ‘Nazi-era law’, so there were a few pieces of legislation from the Nazi period that were considered sufficiently uncontroversial and free of the ideological taint of Nazism to be left on the statute books – for example, the Credit Law of 1934 and the Energy Law of 1935. Though subject to later revisions, amendments and modernisations, both are still in force today.
So, though we are rightly accustomed to regarding the postwar re-emergence of the German Federal Republic as a political new beginning, the legal situation is rather more complex. As a result some aspects of the current German legal code date back to the Nazi period and even beyond.
Answered by Roger Moorhouse, author of Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital 1939-45 (Vintage, 2011).
This Q&A was first published in the March 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine