Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
German Occupation of Europe Timeline
[The Occupied Nations]
Werner Best was a Senior SS and Security Police Leader who became Reich Commissioner for occupied Denmark.
Werner Best was born in Darmstadt on 10 July 1903, his parents moved to Dortmund in 1912 and then to Mainz, where Werner Best completed his education. After the Great War – his father, a senior postmaster, had fallen in France at the outset of the war in 1914 – Best founded the first local group of the German National Youth League and became active in the Mainz group of the German National People’s Party, all before he was twenty.
From 1921 to 1925 he studied law at Frankfurt am Main, Freiburg, Giessen and Heidleberg, where he received his doctorate in 1927. During these years he was strongly influenced by the German youth movement with its return to nature, its Germanic myths and Volkisch world-view.
He was twice imprisoned between the end of 1923 and the spring of 1924 by the French authorities during the nationalist struggle in the Ruhr region. In 1929 he was appointed Gerichtsassessor in the Hessian Department of Justice, but was forced to resign from his position two years later when the so-called Boxheim documents were found in his possession – the name came from the Boxheim estate near Worms, where groups of National Socialists had held meetings to discuss a plan for seizing power after a hypothetical communist revolution.
The tenants of the Boxheim documents:
The documents which bore Best’s signature and contained a blueprint for a Nazi putsch and the subsequent execution of political opponents, embarrassed Hitler at a time when he was seeking power by legal means.
Nevertheless Best was made Police Commissioner in Hessen in March 1933 and by July of the same year he was appointed Governor. Werner Best advanced rapidly in the next six years, becoming the deputy of Heydrich and Himmler.
Werner Best was also chief legal advisor to the Gestapo, as well as holding the position of Chief of the Bureau of the Secret State Police at the Reich Ministry of the Interior.
Werner Best was ambitious, a cool amoral technician of power, used his academic and legal skills to justify the totalitarian practice of the Nazi regime, “which corresponds to the ideological principle of the organically indivisible national community.”
As a leading constitutional theoretician and Nazi jurist in the Third Reich, Best did a great deal to give respectability and legitimacy to the political police and the concentration camps. As long as the Gestapo was carrying out the will of the leadership, it was in his view, “acting legally.”
By 1935 Best was already a Standartenfuhrer – during World War Two he was promoted to SS- Obergruppenfuhrer – and the closest collaborator of Heydrich in building up the Gestapo and the Security Services. Between 27 September 1939 and 12 June 1940 Werner Best was Chief of Section l of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) and it was in this capacity that he was charged and found guilty with complicity in the murder of thousands of Jews and Polish intellectuals.
After leaving the RSHA, Best served for the next two years as Chief of the Civil Administration in occupied France, involved in fighting the French Resistance and in the deportation of Jews, to the death camps in Poland.
The climax of his career came in Denmark, where he was Reich Plenipotentiary from November 1942 to 1945. in spite of his record as a “desk murderer,” there is evidence that in Denmark Best sought to sabotage Himmler’s orders concerning the implementation of the “Final Solution.”
Only 477 out of more than 7,000 Danish Jews were finally rounded up by the Nazis who were forbidden by Best to break into Jewish apartments. Pre-warned the majority of Danish Jews were able, with help, to escape to Sweden and safety.
Werner Best was originally sentenced to death by a Danish court in 1948 following his extradition, but his sentence was commuted to five years and he was granted a clemency release in August 1951. Werner Best also appeared at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial as a witness.
He returned to West Germany, working for a time in a solicitor’s office and then as a lawyer for Stinnes Co, one of the largest German trading concerns.
In 1958 he was fined 70,000 marks by a Berlin de-Nazification court for his past activities as a top SS officer. In March 1969 he was held in detention whilst new investigations concerning his responsibility for mass murders.
He was finally charged in February 1972 but released in the August of the same year on medical grounds though the accusations were not withdrawn.
Werner Best was one of the most illustrious figures of the Third Reich, the author of a famous book on the police, Die Deutsche Polizei 1941, a free-floating intellectual with a blurred sense of morality who devoted his legal talents to the service of a power-mad clique of criminals.
Werner Best’s role remained ambiguous, at least in relation to his period in control of Denmark. A combination of personal ambition, opportunist careerism and ideological inclinations drove him to the apex of the Nazi system, a system of terror, he helped to function smoothly
Yet at the end of his career in National Socialist it would appear that he belatedly began to revert to that respect for law which he had done so much to destroy from within, in his earlier career.
Who’s Who in Nazi Germany by Robert S Wistrich published by Routledge, London and New York 1995
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