Marcel Krueger visits Berlin’s former Reichskriegsgericht (military court) to pay tribute to a murdered family member…
I exit Sophie-Charlotte-Platz U-Bahn-station to find myself on Kaiserdamm on a lovely morning in late July. This two-kilometre boulevard in Charlottenburg, which connects Ernst-Reuter-Platz with the Messe (Berlin trade fair), was built in 1906 and named after Emperor Wilhelm II, though there’s little imperial splendour to be found here today; just the usual Berlin mix of Turkish fast-food joints and barbershops, cafes and pharmacies.
The loud thrum of the street’s six lanes of traffic recedes slightly as I turn off at Witzlebenplatz to reach Lietzenseepark, a small park set around a picturesque lake with a boathouse terrace that’s already busy at this early hour. It’s a pleasant contrast to the bustling boulevard.
Opposite the lake and lining Witzlebenplatz next to a modern apartment building, looms the former Reichskriegsgericht, the highest military court of both Prussia and Nazi Germany, whose grey granite façade, imposing neoclassical columns and bulky balconies were designed precisely to intimidate and punish anyone who dared challenge the highest authority of the Prussian state—its army.
It was here, in 1942, that my grand-uncle Franz Nerowski was sentenced to death as a double spy and sent off to Brandenburg prison, where he was beheaded.
Franz Nerowski arrived in Berlin in the summer of 1937, when he was 26. A gentle, friendly man from the small village of Lengainen in East Prussia, he had a reputation for always being impeccably dressed and—having just served in the Wehrmacht for two years—brought a somewhat optimistic perspective with him to the German capital.
But looks can be deceptive: Franz had also been working as a spy for the second Polish Republic and had provided details of his units and copies of military documents to his superiors at “Bombaj”, his network in Stettin (Szczecin).
Franz was born in Warmia, a Catholic area in mainly Protestant East Prussia where Germans and Poles lived alongside each other. From a young age had been active in the cultural activities of the Polish minority there, in particular in the “Association of Poles in Germany” that was founded in 1922.
He worked at the Polish cooperative bank in Allenstein, the provincial capital, and in his free time organised and performed in poetry and song contests, as well as gathering local Polish folklore for a book that was put together by Polish folklorist Augustyn Steffen. He self-identified as Polish, and it was because of his cultural activities that the Polish secret service recruited him.
After his military service, he was transferred to the Berlin headquarters of the Polish Bank on Potsdamer Straße in Schöneberg, and took lodgings at Nettelbeckstr. 24 (An der Urania today). He continued his espionage activity in Berlin, meeting fellow Polish agents and investigating the preparations of the city for the coming war against Poland.
However, in 1939 he was re-drafted into the Wehrmacht and had to serve during the invasion of France as well as his own homeland. It was during the Polish campaign that German forces captured the files of the Polish secret service, which included details about Franz‘s activity, and in 1941 he was subsequently arrested while on home leave and brought to Tegel prison.
He waited at Tegel there for over a year for his trial at the Reichskriegsgericht, which occurred in July, 1942. The history books are uncertain about whether he actually attended the trial, but what is unequivocal is that he was sentenced to death for treason on July 10th. His possessions and savings were confiscated and he was transported to Brandenburg prison, the main execution site in Nazi Germany after Plötzensee in Berlin.
There, on August 21st, he was brought from his cell into a long corridor, where he waited in a short line with four other prisoners for a guard to call out “Next!” and be led into the execution chamber. In the execution chamber, a clerk read Franz’s verdict, confirming that he was a spy and traitor, and allowed him a prayer with a local priest. Still shackled, he was then put under the prison’s guillotine and beheaded. He was 31 years old.
Planned by architects Heinrich Kayser and Karl von Großheim, the ostentatious Reichskriegsgericht building was developed around three courtyards, and had enough room for hundreds of clerks, prosecutors and judges and even a spacious ballroom.
The court began its work in 1910 after being opened by Wilhelm II. During World War One, its military courts tried not only soldiers but also civilians held to have violated military law. Between 1919-1933, this separate jurisdiction for military personnel was abolished and the building housed a Reichswirtschaftsgericht (Reich Economic Court) and smaller Kammergericht (civilian court).
As so often, the administration of Nazi Germany adapted what the Kaiserreich and Weimar Republic had left behind, and as part of the German re-armament, the Reichskriegsgericht was re-established as supreme court of the Wehrmacht in October 1936.
It had jurisdictional competence over acts of high treason, treason, and aiding the enemy (Kriegsverrat), as well as sole responsibility for all legal proceedings against the highest Wehrmacht officers serving in the rank of general or admiral. For all cases of Wehrkraftzersetzung (undermining military force), including conscientious objection, the court was the first (and last) instance. The court consisted of three and later four senates, each with four military judges and three officers as assessors.
Between 1939 to 1945, the Reichskriegsgericht passed 1,189 such death sentences, including 313 for treason, 96 for high treason, 24 for treason, 340 for espionage and 251 for refusal and military degradation. A total of 1,049 of these death sentences were carried out. It didn’t cease its activities until April 15, 1945, after brief spells in Potsdam and Torgau in order to avoid Allied bombing.
From 1951 on, the West Berlin Court of Appeal resided here, and from 1997 on the building stood empty. There were plans to transform it into an upscale hotel, but in 2005 a Dutch investor bought the building and converted it into a housing complex with around 100 luxury rental apartments. Hence the lawn today is strewn with innocent toys and family bikes are lined up in an orderly fashion behind the large metal fence that surrounds it.
But the imperial Reichsmilitaergericht is still carved into the main entrance, and although local activist campaigns for a memorial or documentation centre to be erected here didn’t gain traction—and although some unofficial memorials dedicated to the Jewish lawyers and judges that worked in the Berlin courts before 1933 were moved to the Court of Appeal building in Kleistpark during the conversion—several are still dotted around the public grounds.
The memorials feel like a fitting representation of the resistance of Franz and others: nothing loud or pompous, just quiet tributes to small, individual actions. The oldest is a plaque from 1948, fixed to the fence and dedicated to resistance fighter Dr. Karl Sack (1896 – 1945), a judge at the court and one of the conspirators that helped Claus von Stauffenberg.
Another, from 1997, is dedicated to the memory of another Franz, the Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter (1907 – 1943), who was executed in Brandenburg a year after my grand-uncle (and the subject of Terrence Malick’s 2019 movie “A Hidden Life”). The largest plaque sits right in front of the main entrance. It features the following words:
In this house, Witzlebenstraße 4-10
was the Reich Military Court from 1936-1943.
The highest authority of the Wehrmacht justice
260 conscientious objectors
and countless women and men of the resistance,
because of their stand against National Socialism and war,
and had them executed.