"Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Is Martin Luther King right? Was Hitler "clean" (cannot be charged under the then-law) in the eyes of the law?

If the question is too broad (if "everything" includes reckless youth behaviour) , were his actions perfectly legal while he was the ruler of Germany? Were his schemes of acquiring power afoul of any law?

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    Isn't killing youself against the law? Jul 4, 2013 at 11:22
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    Full quote: "We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany." I don't think it is clear from this quote which timeframe he meant, and if it only applies after he came to power or even before that.
    – Mad Scientist
    Jul 4, 2013 at 11:23
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    @hunter2 Actually, at least for most of his actions, he could not be tried in an international court. The whole premise of the Nuremberg Trials was that prior international laws were insufficient to grapple with the crimes of the Nazis, and the trials explicitly rejected the so-called Nuremberg defence, i.e. the refusal to take responsibility because (lawful) orders were followed. Jul 4, 2013 at 14:33
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    @hunter2 My point is that the formal proceeding of the Nuremberg trials was created after WW2. Before Nuremberg, no international court could/would have convicted Hitler for many of his crimes. International courts existed before but didn’t have that power. And such an international court could only be created because Germany lost the war. Jul 4, 2013 at 14:48
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    I think MLK's point was whether Hitler's actions, at the time they were taken, and according to German law at that time, were legal or illegal. And if they were both evil but at the same time legal, then we can today not take "legal" vs. "illegal" as the only guideline for our own actions. And of course what is considered "legal" will change over time.
    – gnasher729
    May 31, 2014 at 0:27

3 Answers 3


Given that he spent time in prison, for the Nazi's unsuccessful "Beer Hall Putsch" in the German state of Bavaria. During his time in jail he famously wrote Mein Kampf, it is known that not everything he did was legal.

Of course that's not the period during Mr. Hitler's life that Dr. King intended to refe :)

You'll also have to define under which law. Under the terms of surrender of the Versaille Accords, the remilitarisation of Germany was certainly not legal, though it was intended to as much as possible be performed within the letter of the surrender document (e.g. the He-111 bomber was nominally a passenger and cargo aircraft for Lufthansa.)

As we know, Germany was not allowed to have a military air force under the terms of the Versialles Treaty, so many aircraft were being built under strict secrecy, often under the guise of Lufthansa Airlines. The He 111 was no exception. The Luftwaffe had requested that a large commercial airliner be constructed way back in 1934, but it should be designed in such a way that it could be easily and cheaply converted into a bomber adhering to German military specifications.

Same was true with other systems, like tanks, which were explicitly designed to stay within the letter of the treaty text.

In 1933, the Heereswaffenamt ordered the development of Kleintraktor – an armored vehicle between 4 and 7 tons in weight. It was designated La.S (Landwirtschaftlicher Schlepper / LaS – agricultural tractor) to hide its true purpose from the Treaty of Versailles

Again, a military system officially designed as a civilian one to circumvent the treaty.

The rest is from memory, based on my reading of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer (good book)

Hitler and the NSDAP gained power legally, then used subterfuge to force a situation in which they could institute emergency measures (think Reichstag fire), effectively meaning an end to the Weimar Republic and its laws.

From that moment on of course, they made the law so anything they did was effectively legal.

And that's no doubt what Dr. King meant. When someone with absolute power wants to do harm, whatever he does is by definition legal as there is no law left under which he can be held liable.

  • Very good summary. You could mention why he spent time in jail (Hitlerputsch), especially since that experience explicitly led him to conclude that the way to power was to be sought by legal means rather than by trying to putsch again. Jul 4, 2013 at 14:27
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    Agreed that this is a good answer, especially the last paragraph. And presumably, the great point of Nuremberg was a backstop against that; to say that the world is watching, and that even if you make your actions 'legal', "It was the law" (or "I was following orders") is not a valid defense. Which is why we haven't had any 'crimes against humanity' or state-sponsored violations of human rights since then. No wait, none that have gone unpunished. No, wait ... damn.
    – hunter2
    Jul 4, 2013 at 15:09
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    Did Hitler or the NSDAP do any illegal violence or intimidation during Hitler's rise to power?
    – Golden Cuy
    Jul 5, 2013 at 3:23
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    @andrewgrimm Almost certainly, yes -- look up 'brownshirts' and especially the "Night of the Long Knives" -- but then, technically a whole lot of things the Ku Klux Klan routinely did by way of a family outing was also illegal, and almost none of them ever did prison time for it (because if a good ol' white upstanding citizen did it to a no-good uppity black, it wasn't considered a crime worth investigating -- especially when the local police commissioner was often a member in good standing) Dec 4, 2013 at 12:22
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    @AndrewGrimm Hitler? Not after entering politics, at least nothing to my knowledge he was ever arrested for or charged with. The Partei? Probably the same. "Independent" people or bodies associated with them (like the SA)? Sure, and many ended up in prison. But all were charged as individuals. The NSDAP learned its lessons from the Beerhall Putsch and kept its official record clean.
    – jwenting
    Dec 6, 2013 at 6:37


In addition to the obvious (Beer Hall Putsch), he also violated the Enabling Act.

Article 2 states, "Laws enacted by the government of the Reich may deviate from the constitution as long as they do not affect the institutions of the Reichstag and the Reichsrat. The rights of the President remain undisturbed."

However, in 1934, Hitler abused the Enabling Act to violate both parts. First, he abolished the Reichsrat (February 1934), then later he took the President's powers. See Wikipedia.

The Night of the Long Knives (on Hitler's orders) is also an obvious illegal example. They rounded up enemies. Some they simply shot dead. But they hacked Gustav Ritter von Kahr to death with pickaxes.

I'm not sure what law (if any) it violates the letter of. However, it's legally extremely dubious to arrest some legislators, then surround the rest with SA troops to intimidate them while they vote (as they did during the passage of the Enabling Act).

Finally, treaties are also considered law. In 1939, Germany and the USSR agreed to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, which provided, "Both High Contracting Parties obligate themselves to desist from any act of violence, any aggressive action, and any attack on each other, either individually or jointly with other Powers." The duration was ten years.

In 1941 (only two years later), Hitler ordered the invasion of the USSR in Operation Barbarossa, a clear violation.


Through a combination of coercion and persuasion, the Nazis managed to pass the so-called Enabling Act with the necessary two-thirds "supermajority" in the Reichstag.

The key features of the Act were that with very few exceptions,

"...laws of the Reich may also be enacted by the government of the Reich... Laws enacted by the Reich government shall be issued by the Chancellor [Hitler] and announced in the Reich Gazette. They shall take effect on the day following the announcement, unless they prescribe a different date."

Hitler had basically given himself the power to write Germany's laws, effective one day after publication. Therefore, everything he did while Chancellor after the passage of the law (March 23, 1933) was legal, or could be made legal.

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    I suspect there's some things the nazi government did that they wouldn't want written about in the Reich Gazette.
    – Golden Cuy
    Sep 27, 2013 at 3:31
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    @AndrewGrimm sure. But then they'd write something that sounded innocious and made the act technically legal without having to explicitly mention it. E.g. the extermination of Jews was part of a "resettlement program" for "undesirables". Same with the large scale euthenasia of mental health patients, which were deemed "mercy killings" legally which were legal (legally, mental health patients and many invalids had "no quality of life" so killing them was considered a kindness, not just in Nazi Germany but in many nations at the time including the US and UK).
    – jwenting
    Dec 6, 2013 at 6:40

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