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Something startling was happening in Bavaria on June 30, 1934. According to reports reaching Bavarian justice minister Hans Frank, Stadelheim prison was filling with leaders of the paramilitary group known as the Sturmabteilung—the SA—who were being arrested by members of another paramilitary group, the Schutzstaffel, or SS. Frank went to the prison and found about 200 SA men who had been rounded up on Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s orders. He was even more surprised later that evening when two aides relayed an order from Hitler himself: 110 of the men were to be shot.

The Führer was purging his own SA in Bavaria. The loyal street thugs who had brawled for him back in the early days— also known as the storm troopers or brownshirts—had outlived their usefulness now that the Nazis ruled Germany.

Initially, Frank was defiant. He told the messengers that the prisoners were in a state facility and they would not be shot. That defiance lasted only until Hitler telephoned the justice minister and demanded that the detainees be turned over immediately for execution. “The legal foundation,” Hitler said bluntly, “is the existence of the Reich. Do you understand?” Just in case Frank didn’t, the Führer posed a question: Should Frank be counted among the prisoners? Intimidated, he turned over all the men Hitler asked for. It was a decisive moment for the early Nazi regime—and for the man who had served as Hitler’s personal legal adviser.

Born May 23, 1900, in Karlsrühe, near the Black Forest, Hans Frank was the son of a lawyer who had been disbarred for embezzlement. In World War I, young Hans joined an infantry regiment but was too late to reach the front. He played a small role in Hitler’s failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, and after earning his law degree in 1926, he became the Nazis’ chief lawyer, defending Hitler in at least 150 lawsuits and other Nazi Party members countless times. Frank mastered the table-pounding, chair-slamming style of lawyering and exploited trials to give Nazis a platform to spout propaganda.

Frank’s greatest case came in September 1930. Three young pro-Nazi army officers from Ulm had been charged with high treason for recruiting other army officers for a second putsch. Representing one of the defendants, Frank seized the spotlight to attack the entire Weimar Republic, referring to one witness as a “representative of a dying system.” And then he called his star witness to the stand: Adolf Hitler.

Hitler spun a dazzling web under Frank’s questioning. He claimed he had launched his 1923 putsch only because he feared Germany was falling into civil war—an utter lie. “We are a purely ideological movement,” Hitler testified. And he assured Germans that he never told the three soldiers to do anything illegal. After all, he said, a revolution wasn’t even necessary since the Nazis were sure to win a great majority in the next couple elections. The three defendants received light prison sentences of 18 months.

The case was a propaganda triumph. Field Marshall Alfred Jodl, a member of Hitler’s inner circle, believed the trial helped jump-start interest in Nazism among Germany’s soldiers.

It was the 1934 purge of the SA in Bavaria that brought Frank to an important crossroads. The political killings violated Frank’s hope that National Socialism was still governed by the rule of law, and he offered his resignation. Hitler summoned Frank to Munich to discuss the matter, counseling him that resigning a post in the Reich was not so easy, and that lawyers should leave politics to others. Frank chose to remain in office.

Frank’s chance at real power came in October 1939, when Hitler appointed him governor general of newly occupied Poland. Frank immediately set to work, transferring the Polish capital from Warsaw to Krakow and moving his family into Wawel Castle. He laid out his vision for the conquered nation at a conference on October 3: “Poland can only be administered by utilizing the country through means of ruthless exploitation, deportation of all supplies….Poland shall be treated as a colony; the Poles shall be the slaves of the Greater German World Empire.”

Frank’s true legacy lies in his decrees, which made those policies “legal.” His fundamental goal in Poland was to create a society based on race. Nearly everything he did flowed from his attitudes toward the three “races” he governed. One example is Frank’s policy regarding daily food rations in Warsaw: For Germans, it was 2,613 calories per day; for Poles 669 calories; and for Jews just 184.

On October 31, 1939, Frank issued an ominous proclamation listing acts that were now crimes in Poland:

  • Committing or attempting to commit violence against German authorities
  • Damaging the property of a German
  • Permitting disobedience of German laws
  • Entering a conspiracy to commit a crime
  • Possessing a gun, ammunition or explosive
  • Receiving conspiracy information and failing to inform authorities immediately

Although he was not a member of the elite circle in Berlin that devised the plan to exterminate the Jewish people, Frank knew of those plans and approved. At a cabinet meeting he told his deputies: “Gentlemen, I must ask you to rid yourselves of all feeling of pity. We must annihilate the Jews.” Frank forced Polish Jews to wear identifying armbands and moved them into ghettos, where they were eventually marked for extermination.

He considered the Slavic Poles inferior beings who were squatting in the living space of the Aryan race. Conversely, he sought to “reclaim” Polish citizens who had some German blood. Called Volksdeutschen (“people of the German race”), they received special privileges, including better food rations, access to some jobs and even an opportunity for German citizenship after the war.

Frank’s master plan to Germanify Poland was spread throughout Polish society. Polish music and patriotic songs were forbidden. Museums, libraries, and book and newspaper publishers were shut down. The government closed all colleges, high schools and middle schools. Even streets were designated by new Teutonic names; on September 1, 1940, the first anniversary of the invasion, Warsaw’s Pilsudski Square was renamed “Adolf Hitler Platz.”

Another of Frank’s goals was to exploit Poland as a vast labor pool for the Reich. Decrees he issued forced all Poles aged 18 to 60 to perform work of “public value.” A May 1942 proclamation extended forced labor to all Poles, regardless of age or gender.

Beginning in 1940, the general government began rounding up civilians. By August 1943, 1.6 million Polish workers were in German factories and farms. By 1945 some 2 million Poles had been shipped to Germany for forced labor.

Other actions that Frank criminalized were possession of a radio, smuggling food, failing to step aside for a German on the sidewalk and even transmitting a venereal disease to a German. The only punishment ever listed was death.

To make the persecution even more effective and fearsome, Frank instituted a new legal principle: collective responsibility. Under that theory, actual guilt was irrelevant; any member of a community could be punished for a crime committed by another member. The commonly followed formula was that 10 Poles could be killed for any attack on one German.

High on Frank’s agenda early on was the liquidation of leaders who might organize resistance in Poland. The most intense attack against the intelligentsia was labeled the “Extraordinary Pacification Action,” or “Operation AB.”

Operation AB started May 8, 1940, when the SS, the Gestapo and even regular German army troops arrested about 6,500 people. The prisoners were either executed or sent to concentration camps, where they were forced to wear the red triangle of political prisoners. By war’s end, Poland had lost 45 percent of its doctors and dentists, 57 percent of its attorneys, 40 percent of its professors and 18 percent of its clergy.

However strict he was at administering his laws on others, Frank exempted himself from any law. He established two warehouses to hold all the luxury items he plundered. He filled his castle with art treasures, including Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt paintings stolen from a Krakow art gallery.

Living like a king, Frank bragged in speeches that his power came directly from Hitler himself and that disobeying him was the same as disobeying the Führer. Over the years, however, Frank learned a troubling fact: The police and SS forces really took their orders from Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler in Berlin, not him.

Privately, Frank was torn by an internal dilemma. In numerous speeches he addressed the majesty of the law. Nazi law, however, only expressed the paranoid rage of one man, the Führer, who was himself above the law. He recognized the absurdity of that contradiction, and it tortured him.

This inner conflict, and perhaps the turf battle with Himmler, led to Frank’s downfall. Speaking at German universities in 1942, he criticized the police state and pleaded for an independent judiciary. He lost his political offices as a result, remaining only as governor general and minister without portfolio.

When Frank’s kingdom finally crumbled in early 1945, he fled to Bavaria. On May 4, he was arrested by American troops. At the Nuremberg Trials, Frank was doomed by his own deeds. But then came a strange twist. Sitting in dingy cell 14, he apparently awoke from his dark dream and converted to Roman Catholicism—before attempting suicide.

Wearing dark sunglasses on the witness stand, Frank confessed his guilt, guardedly, and condemned Hitler for betraying Germany. Proclaiming an apt epitaph for the Nazi empire, he declared, “A thousand years shall pass and this guilt of Germany shall not have been erased.” True to his morally waffling ways, however, he later retracted that statement.

Hans Frank, found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, was hanged on October 16, 1946.

Originally published in the March 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.