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Werner Best

Werner Best
Werner Best 1942.jpg
Best in uniform, 1942
Reich's Plenipotentiary in Denmark
In office
November 1942 – 8 May 1945
Preceded byCécil von Renthe-Fink
Succeeded byOffice abolished
Personal details
Karl Rudolf Werner Best

(1903-07-10)10 July 1903
Darmstadt, Grand Duchy of Hesse, German Empire
Died23 June 1989(1989-06-23) (aged 85)
Mülheim, North Rhine-Westphalia, West Germany
Alma materUniversity of Heidelberg
Military service
Allegiance Nazi Germany
Branch/service Schutzstaffel
Years of service1931–1945
CommandsAmt I, RSHA
Battles/warsWorld War II

Karl Rudolf Werner Best (10 July 1903 – 23 June 1989) was a German jurist, police chief, SS-Obergruppenführer, and Nazi Party leader and theoretician from Darmstadt. He was the first chief of Department 1 of the Gestapo, Nazi Germany's secret police, and initiated a registry of all Jews in Germany. As a deputy of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, he organized the World War II SS-Einsatzgruppen paramilitary death squads that were responsible for mass killings.

Best served in the German military occupation administration of France (1940–1942), and then became the civilian administrator of occupied Denmark (1942–1945). Convicted of war crimes in Denmark, Best was released in 1951. He escaped further prosecution in West Germany in 1972 due to ill health and died in 1989, aged 85.

Early life

Werner Best was born on 10 July 1903 in Darmstadt, Hesse, but his parents moved to Dortmund when he was nine before settling in Mainz, where he completed his education. His father was a postmaster who was killed in France at the outset of World War I. In his younger years, Best founded the German National Youth League and joined the National People's Party of Mainz. Between 1921 and 1925, he studied law at Frankfurt, Freiburg, Giessen, and the University of Heidelberg, where in 1927, he obtained his doctorate.

Owing to his political resistance activities against the French occupation of the Ruhr, Best was arrested and briefly imprisoned. In 1930, he joined the Nazi Party (NSDAP) and by 1931—before the Nazis assumed power—he was already a member of the SS. Sometime in 1931, he was forced out of judicial service in the German federal state of Hesse following the discovery of the Boxheim Documents, which were blueprints for a Nazi putsch he had written.

The Nazi state and World War II

Best participating in the commemoration for fallen members of the Schalburg Corps, Copenhagen 17 October 1943

As a trained lawyer, Heydrich and Himmler counted on Best throughout the 1930s for his skills in conceptualizing and justifying Nazi law, which helped provide the SS-police apparatus with its nearly unrestricted power over German society. Best became a member of the Academy for German Law and the chairman of its Committee on Police Law. Dedicated to the national-racial cause of the Nazis and typifying the ideal administrator for its terror apparatus, Best quickly rose to the rank of SS-Brigadeführer and became chief of Department 1 of the Gestapo, which was in charge of organization, administration, and legal affairs. He was a deputy to Reinhard Heydrich. Both men saw the Gestapo as actually working on "behalf of the German people" through both "ethnic and political purification". During 1934, Ernst Röhm pushed for greater political influence for his already powerful Nazi paramilitary organisation, the Sturmabteilung (SA). Hitler decided that the SA had to be eliminated as an independent political force. On 30 June 1934 the SS and Gestapo acted in coordinated mass arrests that continued for two days. While Heydrich coordinated the operation from Berlin, Best was sent to Munich to "oversee a wave of arrests" in the southern part of Germany. The purge became known as the Night of the Long Knives. Up to 200 people, including Röhm, were killed in the action.

Even though Canadian historian Robert Gellately wrote that most Gestapo men were not Nazis, at the same time they were not opposed to the Nazi regime, which they were willing to serve, in whatever task they were called upon to perform. Over time, membership in the Gestapo included ideological indoctrination, particularly once Best assumed a leading role for training in April 1936. Employing biological metaphors, Best emphasized a doctrine which encouraged members of the Gestapo to view themselves as 'doctors' to the national body in the struggle against "pathogens" and "diseases"; among the implied sicknesses were "communists, Freemasons, and the churches—and above and behind all these stood the Jews." Heydrich thought along similar lines and advocated both defensive and offensive measures on the part of the Gestapo, so as to prevent any subversion or destruction of the Nazi body.

On 27 September 1939, the SD and SiPo (made up of the Gestapo and the Kripo) were folded into the new Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt; RSHA), which was placed under Heydrich's control. Best was made head of Amt I (Department I) of the RSHA: Administration and Legal. That department dealt with the legal and personnel issues/matters of the SS and security police. Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler relied on Best to develop and explain legally the activities against enemies of the state and in relation to the Nazi Jewish policy. In 1939 Best became one of the directors of Heydrich's foundation, the Stiftung Nordhav, and was placed in command of choosing leaders for the Einsatzgruppen task forces and their subgroups (the Einsatzkommandos) from among educated people with military experience; many of them former members of the Freikorps.

Werner Best lost a power struggle within the RSHA, and had to leave Berlin in 1940. With the military grade of War Administration Chief (Kriegsverwaltungschef), Best was appointed chief of the Section "Administration" (Abteilung Verwaltung) of the Administration Staff (Verwaltungsstab, Dr Schmid) under then (Militärbefehlshaber in Frankreich or MBF) "Military Commander in France", General Otto von Stülpnagel in occupied France. Best held this position until 1942.

In his efforts as the RSHA emissary in France, Best's unit drew up radical plans for a total reorganization of Western Europe based on racial principles: he sought to unite Netherlands, Flanders and French territory north of the river Loire into the Reich, turn Wallonia and Brittany into German protectorates, merge Northern Ireland with the Irish Free State, create a decentralized British federation and break Spain into independent entities of Galicia, Basque Country and Catalonia.

After the November 1942 Telegram Crisis, Best was appointed the Third Reich's Plenipotentiary (Reichsbevollmächtigter) in occupied Denmark, which gave him supervisory control of civilian affairs there. Meanwhile, King Christian X, unlike most heads of state under Nazi German occupation, remained in power, along with the Danish Parliament, cabinet (a coalition of national unity) and courts. When the Nazis attempted to deport Denmark's Jews, the cabinet and Christian X objected.

Best kept his position in Denmark until the end of the war in May 1945, even after the German military commander, Hermann von Hanneken—who had been encouraged by Hitler to rule Denmark with an iron hand—had assumed direct control over its administration on 29 August 1943.

Best's 1944 carbon promotion document from his personal SS file

Administration by the Permanent Secretaries

Best (right) with Erik Scavenius, Danish PM 1942-1943

In compliance with the Danish cabinet's decision on 9 April 1940 to accept cooperation with German authorities, the Danish police did cooperate with German occupation forces. This arrangement remained in effect even after the Danish government resigned on 29 August 1943. On 12 May 1944, Best demanded that the Danish police should assume responsibility for protection of 57 enterprises the Germans deemed at risk of sabotage by the Danish resistance movement, which was growing in strength. Should the Danish civil administration not do so, total Danish police strength would be reduced to 3,000 men. Nils Svenningsen, who functioned as de facto head of the Danish civil administration in the absence of a Danish government, was inclined to accept this demand, but the organizations of the Danish police opposed it.

Following rejection of the German request, a state of emergency was declared in Denmark on 29 August 1943. Then on 19 September 1944, the German army began arresting members of the Danish police forces; 1,984 policemen out of 10,000 were arrested and deported to German concentration and prisoner-of-war camps, most of them to Buchenwald.

To avoid deportation of Danes to German concentration camps, the permanent secretary of the ministry of foreign affairs, Nils Svenningsen, in January 1944 proposed establishment of an internment camp within Denmark. Best accepted this proposal, but on condition that the camp be built close to the German border. Frøslev Prison Camp was opened in August 1944.

Best also possibly sabotaged the rounding up of the Jewish population in Denmark in order to avoid agitating the general Danish population. In the Rescue of the Danish Jews, the primary escape route was to cross Øresund to Sweden by boat. At the most critical time, all German patrol boats of the area were ordered into harbor for three weeks for new paint jobs. Best may have tipped off his Jewish tailor about this development—but Danish authorities credit Best's right-hand man, Georg Duckwitz—which contributed to the escape of a number of Jews. During his trial before Danish courts, Best insisted that the Jews were able to escape because he provided the dates to Duckwitz.

In deliberations on 3 May 1945 about preparation for the impending German defeat, Best fought to avoid implementation of a scorched earth policy in Denmark.


After the war, Best testified as a witness at the Nuremberg Trial of the Major War Criminals, during which he attempted to present the Gestapo as a harmless state organization that was subordinated to state leaders and was nearly undifferentiated from Germany's criminal police. Historian Frank McDonough characterized Best's testimony as a "revisionist interpretation of the Gestapo". For instance, Best claimed that the Gestapo primarily instituted investigations in response to reports from the general public and that only serious cases of treason warranted "enhanced interrogations" under strict guidelines, during which no confessions were ever extorted from the accused.

In 1948, Best was sentenced to death by a Danish court, but his sentence was reduced to 12 years on appeal. Best was released in 1951 as part of a Danish amnesty program for Nazi war criminals. In 1958 Best was fined 70,000 marks by a Berlin de-Nazification court for his actions as an SS officer during the war. In March 1969, Best was held in detention and in February 1972 he was charged again, when further war crimes allegations arose, but he was released in August 1972 on grounds that he was medically unfit to stand trial. After that, Best was part of a network that helped former Nazis and spent his time "campaigning for a general amnesty". He died in Mülheim, North Rhine-Westphalia, on 23 June 1989.

See also

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