Built on tribal, Roman, Holy Roman Empire, feudal, Napoleonic, and church law, the German legal system is over the centuries integrated into formal codes in the different principalities and territories. Some laws, such as commercial laws, are increasing integrated as political unity progresses.
The Weimar Constitution enshrines key rights in law, although state-of-emergency provisions are used locally in 1920 and 1921. Hitler will later draw on these precedents on a larger scale. The constitution is also under threat from extremists willing to use force to end the republic. Uneven handling of illegal actions by the left and right sends a signal that rightist power grabs will be tolerated.
Jewish properties are arbitrarily confiscated and widespread human rights abuses sanctioned by a broadened Criminal Code. Special courts, some imposing the death penalty, spring up with no clear legal basis. Internal security bodies such as the Gestapo and the SS brutally enforce Nazi policies. Police and courts may ignore rule of law whenever deemed necessary.
Nazi control is enforced by fear, the Gestapo secret police, and an extensive network of police informers. Mass murder of unwanted racial and cultural groups becomes state policy, carried out in concentration and extermination camps. Inmates are subjected to endless abuses and are used as slave labor in factories.
Germany's division into four zones leads to differing applications of law in each sector. The Nuremberg trials mark a watershed in accountability for war crimes, although inconsistent prosecution and denazification measures allow some high-ranking Nazis to escape punishment.
The constitution ensures rule of law (Rechtsstaat) through judicial independence, equality before the law, and freedom of speech, assembly, press, and religion. Experience with fascism leads to limits on anti-democratic extremism, and neo-Nazi and communist parties are soon banned. The constitution guarantees property and inheritance and permits expropriation only for the public welfare.
Student protests and far-left violence begins in the late '60s and '70s, as the Baader-Meinhof Gang carries out kidnappings and a hijacking. After the killing of Israeli athletes by terrorists at the Munich Olympics, a special counter-terrorist unit is formed, successfully storming a hijacked Lufthansa jet in 1977.
Political party scandals undermine the public's view of the parties, contributing to a fall-off in membership and voting. Terrorist activities wane as radical groups lose support.
Reunification brings complex legal issues, such as millions of claims on expropriated property. Accountability for past crimes remains problematic: East German border guards are tried for shooting escapees, but higher-ups are not brought to justice. Right-wing violence increases as extremists firebomb foreign worker hostels and attack others.
Once tax-deductible, overseas bribes are now criminalized. The defense minister resigns in 2002 under accusations of unethical private-sector payments; the justice minister is forced out after comparing George W. Bush's tactics to Hitler's. Germany won't furnish evidence in the U.S. trial of alleged terrorist Zacharias Moussaoui because he may face the death penalty, which Europeans oppose.
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