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Opinion: As lawyers, we believe it’s time to face the legal profession’s role in the horrors of the Holocaust

It is not easy to look critically at one’s own professional group identity, but it is necessary out of respect for our ancestors and in service to our profession.

The story of the Holocaust has for decades been told by those who survived the crimes of the German Nazi State.  However, as the sands of time take these brave and courageous souls from us, the responsibility for telling the story – and keeping the flame alive for those who died at the hands of the Nazis – must now be assumed by new generations whose families were touched by the Holocaust.

This is especially true in 2021 as we regularly witness acts of white supremacy, and all of its innate hatred, flashed across TV screens and reported in newspapers and magazines.  

Don Smith and Rachael Kamlet

Just a few weeks ago, the Anti-Defamation League reported that white supremacist propaganda hit an all-time high in 2020.  Moreover, only a few years ago, Americans heard former President Trump’s assertion that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the neo-Nazi parade that culminated in violence and death in Charlottesville.  The list of despicable behavior is endless.

While we will never fully understand what life in German concentration camps was like or what the Allies found when liberating the camps in the early months of 1945, working together we are trying to give voice to all those who cannot now speak for themselves.  

We are from different generations, with different family histories and different  life experiences.  Yet from those differences we draw our own strength and benefit from our shared commitment to tell the stories of the oppressed and the liberators who can no longer speak for themselves.

Specifically, in the “Holocaust Seminar” we teach to University of Denver law students, Ms. Kamlet shares the history of her ancestors who fled Poland in the late 1930s and others who were not so fortunate.  Meanwhile, Mr. Smith’s father was a member of the storied U.S. 82nd Airborne Division that liberated the Wöbbelin, Germany, concentration camp on May 2, 1945. 

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As befitting our lives in the law, we are telling the Holocaust story through the prism of the law in Nazi Germany.  Why law?  Put succinctly, the Holocaust would never have happened without the complicity of the German legal profession.  The Nazi State’s credibility depended on the cloak of legality, and sadly the legal profession assisted every step of the way.

At its core, Holocaust scholar Michael J. Bazyler has written, it “was the legalized barbarism in Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied territories … that made the massive killings of the Holocaust possible.”

Examples of the legal profession’s complicity are found throughout the Nazi State.  Nazi lawyers codified discriminatory edicts almost immediately after Hitler assumed power.  Many high ranking SS officers were lawyers or trained in law.  

Most of the generals leading the Nazi Einsatzgruppen killing squads in eastern Europe were lawyers.  Of the 15 men who participated in the “Final Solution” conference at Wannsee in January 1942, eight were lawyers.  

As if this wasn’t enough, many German judges, who early on could have challenged the Nazi State, considered Hitler’s government legitimate and its objectives permissible. 

In the post-war “Justice Trial,” which found 16 Nazi legal professionals on trial, a primary defense was “we could not have broken the law because we were simply following the law.”  

That argument was not entirely outlandish since the Nazi state had created laws to persecute Jews and other groups despised by the Nazis.  In the defendants’ eyes at Nuremburg, they were simply carrying out the desires of Führer Adolf Hitler, who they considered to embody the law.

In early April the world marked Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Memorial Day, and in the coming weeks many commemorations will take place across Germany to recognize the liberation of the camps 76 years ago.  However, commemorations of the past must be accompanied in our country with realizations today of the challenges that lie ahead in the effort to stamp out hatred and bigotry. 

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It is now up to new generations to step up, to remember the past and in particular the reprehensible role that many professions – not least of which the legal profession – played in the horrors of the Holocaust. 

Speaking recently at the 40th annual Colorado Governor’s Holocaust Remembrance event, a survivor uttered these prophetic words: “I think that every one of us needs to take a stand,” noting further, “Over the last several years, I have become very, very concerned and frightened by the significant increase in anti-Semitism around the world and certainly also in our own country.” 

It is not easy to look critically at one’s own professional group identity, but it is necessary.  We do so out of respect for our ancestors and in service to our profession.


Don C. Smith is a professor of the practice of law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Rachael Kamlet is a Colorado attorney.  Together they teach the “Holocaust Seminar” to DU law students.


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