The Erfurt Sentence (Das Erfurter Urteil)

Carl von Ossietzky

Fedja: You who are paid a few coins each month for your disgrace now put on your uniform and lord it over those whose little finger is worth more than the whole of you, and who wouldn’t have anything to do with you. You are now in charge, and you are making the best of it.

Judge: Take him down.

(Tolstoy: The Living Dead)

The Erfurt court martial has sentenced three Home Guard soldiers to five years in prison, and a few others to shorter sentences. Their offence: drunk and disorderly. There was no damage other than the disorderliness. Think about what you can have from a civil court for five years prison! Steal hundreds of thousands, do your time, and live from the proceeds. Commit murder in the heat of passion and have it interpreted as manslaughter by a lenient judge. Lenient judge! Military justitia is not only blindfold, she has earplugs and a heart of stone. Drunk and disorderly is really not nice, but as long as Bacchus is a great power, only a hypocritical morality can cast the first stone at a few poor blokes who just had a good time in their own way.

Military sentences have been especially cruel ever since antiquity. Offended justice avenged itself on the countless offences of the wild mercenaries of the Thirty-Years War with running the gauntlet, and hanging and drawing. How many were hanged those days! How many bones were broken by the implements of torture! Military justice was responsible for more cripples than all the battles put together. There’s the story of the old warrior who, as president of a court martial, brought the session to an end by closing the files and calling to the jurors, “Come, let’s start with the executions!”

Justice no longer knows the rack nor the wheel; just laws. But the words of Marshall Monluc quoted above, which are so significant in their crude honesty, should be written over every court martial today. They are symbolic. And there should be a portrait of the old soldier in every courtroom, because he understood, and expressed in classical form, that military justice is not interested in the letter of the law, it’s about punishment. This justice does not want to investigate and weigh up, as civil courts are supposed to do. It also doesn’t want to make good. It overpays. Its job is to remind the subject of the principles of authority and unconditional obedience. To show him the limits of his freedom. Civilian life involves a highly dangerous equality, so it is important to remind everyone that there are still classes. That is the job of the courts martial. The officers are flattered, the subordinates whipped. The pure principle of reaction; naked class egoism! We get indignant because there are still church courts in Russia, with banishment to monasteries, etc. But is it really any better here? Woe betide the citizen who forgets that he is subject to military law one day a year. Woe betide him who gets caught up in the chains of its penal system.

By a strange coincidence, the Erfurt judgement fell at the same time as the Reichstag was called upon to finally approve the biggest military budget ever placed before a parliament. Not even the blackest reactionary dared to defend the judgement. Not even the Minister for War. Even the Liberals became energetic, and demanded an emergency law. Good intentions! But they should have insisted on concessions from the start; the complete re-enactment of martial law would have been the most important. The government would have resisted, even more than in the question of the privilege of the guards[1]. But then the parliament could have simply rejected the military budget.

But it would be foolish to expect so much from our civil politicians. It is only a matter of justice, and who cares about justice? The Socialists and the few stubborn democrats. Tell those who want to save our intellectual life at every opportunity, that we think that the Erfurt judgement is a heavier blow to culture than forbidding ten festivals.

The Minister for War assured us that the judges were only doing their duty, but that’s exactly what we are accusing them of. The law is cruel, and they don’t deviate a finger’s width from its cruelty. Not one of them listens to the more merciful impulses of his heart. Not one of them calls out, „I can’t do that! It may be the law, but my conscience protests against it. I confess!“

The words from Tolstoy‘s play quoted at the beginning of this article, are shouted at his judge by one who is driven to death. We have heard enough victims wailing. We want to hear a judge, overcome by his emotions, speak. That would be a deliverance in our unheroic time. But there’s no danger of that happening. The judges work with the same conscientiousness with which they collect their pay each month. And after a particularly severe sentence, they go home calmly, not without a certain sympathy for the poor devil who was unlucky enough to be born into the class whose fate it is to provide the objects of the law.


[1] Only the sons of the aristocracy could become officers in the guards

Published in:

OssietzkyReader Ossietzky Contemporary Reader

OssietzkyRechenschaft Ossietzky Journalism

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