History is full of incidents that have lessons for later times, provided they are not forgotten. One key aspect is the interface between politics and the judiciary. In a time where the courts are moved for all sorts of agendas, verdicts may bow to dictates of public opinion or extraneous considerations, or regimes may prefer a committed judiciary, it may be worth remembering a courageous revolutionary who took on a totalitarian regime’s attempts to demonise the opposition through law.
Georgi Dimitrov may not be remembered by diehard communists but the Bulgarian communist leader’s defiance in a German court in the early days of Nazi rule is a spirited example of how regimes, or any other vested interests, may seek to advance their cause through courts to lend it legitimacy, and how they can be countered.
Dimitrov (1882-1949), whose 134th birth anniversary falls on Saturday, was along with three other communists – two compatriots and a German, plus a Dutch anarchist held from the spot, arrested and put on trial for the Reichstag fire of February 1933. The fire, which came less than a month after Adolf Hitler became German chancellor, was according to the Nazis, the signal for a Communist putsch, and led to suspension of all civil and political liberties and a massive crackdown on the opposition.
While all this failed to ensure the Nazis won a majority in the March 1933 parliamentary elections (they only got 44 per cent of the vote), the expulsion of the elected 81 Communist Party members, most already arrested, ensured that there was no legislative opposition.
The trial of the five men was part of the Nazis’ aim to prove the Communist plot through “fair” judicial proceedings – but they were anything but that. In the preliminary inquiry, a judge, perceived as anti-Nazi, was replaced by one more amenable, and in the court proceedings, the “right” Supreme Court judge was chosen.
This however made no difference to Dimitrov, who realised it was a political trial, made the most of it to expose the regime. Defending himself, he dominated the proceedings – well described in American journalist William L. Shirer’s magisterial “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” as well as more colourfully in his colleague John Gunther’s “Inside Europe” (1936 edition).
As Gunther recounts, Dimitrov, speaking in his Balkan-accented German, was unforgettable. Pointing once to Van Der Lubbe, he exclaimed: “This miserable Faust! I wonder who is his Mephistopheles”. But the high-point was his confrontation with Nazi strongman Herman Goering, whom he made lose his cool unforgettably during his cross-questioning.
When the judge rebuked him for making “Communist propaganda”, Dimitrov dramatically gestured to him and said: “But he is making National Socialist propaganda.”
As Goering said: “Look here, I will tell you what the German people know. They know you are behaving in a disgraceful fashion .I did not come here to be accused by you”, Dimitrov replied: “You are a witness.” This infuriated Goering, who burst out: “In my eyes you are nothing but a scoundrel, a crook who belongs on the gallows.” The cool response was: “Very well, I am most satisfied.”
As the judge intervened to stop the cross-questioning, Dimitrov let go one parting shot: “You are greatly afraid of my questions, are you not, Herr Minister?” and a thoroughly angry Goering burst out: “You will be afraid when I catch you. You wait until I get you out of the power of this Court, you crook.”
Though Dimitrov and the other communists were acquitted, the trial did nothing to restore the state of liberties in Germany but helped to show part of the Nazi regime’s true, and unwholesome face – though too many chose to ignore it till they led the continent – and the world into another ruinous war.
But the true significance of the episode is in the importance of a free judicial process, which used capably, can help counter even the most insidious political machinations. That is why Dimitrov, and his courageous but skilful performance, must not be forgotten.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )