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German Law

Justice Minister Maas eyes reform to Germany's Nazi-era definition of murder

Heiko Maas has told a German daily that he wants to reform the country's legal definiton of murder, which stems from the Nazi era. The Social Democrat wants to abolish references to "base motives" and "treachery."

German Justice Minister Maas told Saturday's edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung that the country's laws defining murder and manslaughter "are in need of legislative regulation," saying he hoped to complete changes within the current term of office.

Adolf Hitler's National Socialists redefined Germany's laws on the matter in 1941, placing more emphasis on the nature of the criminal than that of the crime.

According to German law, a murderer is, "someone who kills a person ... gruesomely or treacherously, out of bloodlust or to sate venereal desires, out of greed, or because of some other base motives." Maas said most lay people would identify instead with the more common international definition of murder as a pre-meditated, planned killing, and manslaughter as an accidental or unintended one.

"Murder and manslaughter, as they are defined in paragraphs 211 and 212, do not represent the classification system used in the German criminal code," Mass told the Süddeutsche.

Those convicted of murder in Germany face life in prison, while manslaughter carries a minimum recommended sentence of five years.

The domestic dilemma

A common example used to demonstrate the weakness in this legal definition is that of domestic violence. Here, the word "Heimtücke," which can translate as treachery or insidiousness, becomes problematic. An abusive husband who beat his wife for decades and on one occasion strikes her dead might stand better chances of a manslaughter conviction than the long-suffering wife who poisons her abuser - because the act of poisoning is more demonstrably treacherous or sneaky than the repeated pattern of violence.

According to Maas, the laws still represent "the constricting definition of a murderer, in the way the Nazis imagined them." The Social Democrat said it was "a credit to the [German] courts, that they have found a way to make this bad law workable whatsoever."

Maas, in his first national ministerial post in Germany's new grand coalition government, having previously served various roles in the eastern state of Saarland, said he would task a panel of experts with forming "a grounded basis" for a parliamentary debate on the laws' definitions.

"Whether we will scrap, change or add to some of them – I'd like to first discuss that with the experts and then with parliament," Maas said.

msh/jlw (dpa)

DW.DE