German Police: From Democracy to Dictatorship

Among the most important duties of the police in any society are the maintenance of public order and the enforcement of the law. These duties can be especially problematic during a major change in the political organization of society.

The Nazis came to power in Germany in January 1933 and established a dictatorship, ending the 12-year German experiment with democracy, the Weimar Republic. Yet the police, who had been charged with defending the Weimar Republic, were integrated relatively easily into the Nazi regime. There was neither a wholesale purge nor a wholesale resignation of policemen.

Most policemen in 1933 were not Nazis, though they were overwhelmingly conservative. They thought of themselves as neutral professionals and as impartial servants of the law. Their personal politics were supposed to be irrelevant to their duties. Yet members of the police proved willing to support a Nazi government that destroyed democracy in Germany. The police in particular and conservatives in general supported the Nazis in 1933. Conservatives came to view a Nazi dictatorship as a solution not just to the weaknesses of the Weimar Republic but to a whole series of professional difficulties peculiar to the police.

The greatest weaknesses of the Weimar Republic stemmed from its origins. Germany lost World War I, which seriously weakened the monarchy and led to the declaration of the Weimar Republic in 1918. In spite of the responsibility of the monarchy for World War I, many Germans blamed democratic parties for both the defeat and the humiliating peace treaty that followed it. Policemen were especially suspicious of democratic parties (the Social Democrats, Center, Liberals) because they had been trained under the monarchy to regard these parties as enemies of the state. In the Weimar Republic, these parties dominated. Policemen continued to serve the state, in part, because they saw themselves as professionals bound to apply the law, regardless of their personal feelings. Most of them were not convinced democrats.

Economic dislocation from World War I along with the destabilization of the economy brought on by war reparations meant that the governments of the Weimar Republic were always short of money. The police faced funding cuts in hiring, training, promotions, and raises. Nor was there money for modernization, such as buying new forensic equipment or firearms. This loss of funding was made more urgent by the reduction in opportunities for advancement and appointments brought on by the influx of policemen from territories ceded by Germany to neighboring countries after World War I. Positions had to be found for these policemen even as operating costs were cut to the bone. The resulting lack of professional advancement demoralized young trainees and new policemen.

Even as police manpower suffered from budgetary cuts, the economic distress endemic to the Weimar Republic contributed to a rapid increase in crime. Criminal gangs involved in prostitution, narcotics, gambling, pornography, robbery, and burglary developed and flourished. These gangs were well organized and often operated across state lines, frustrating police investigations. There was no national police force during the Weimar Republic. Each state in the German federation had its own police forces and followed its own police policies. Lack of police coordination hampered criminal investigations across state lines. The police of the Weimar Republic were not a match for these gangs.

Just as normal crime expanded in the Weimar Republic, political crimes skyrocketed during the ongoing political instability. Thousands of armed veterans and paramilitary units associated with radical political parties on both the right and the left engaged in riots and attacks on the state. Some of these paramilitary forces had heavy weapons and a mass following, and the police were sometimes outnumbered and outgunned. Rampant crime and political unrest stretched police manpower to the breaking point.

Despite their professionalism, policemen had difficulty adjusting to the new democratic order of the Weimar Republic. Policemen were frustrated by restrictions on police authority. Some criminal cases were dismissed because the police failed to safeguard the rights of the accused or because important evidence was excluded because of improper police procedures. The emergence of a free press highly critical of police operations exacerbated these police failures. Public criticism fostered a siege mentality among the policemen, who were resentful that the public blamed them when constitutional restraints and lack of funding tied their hands.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • How did the role of law enforcement change during 1933–1945? Why?
  • What pressures and motivations may have influenced the choices of individual policemen?
  • Why is the changing role of law enforcement a possible warning sign for mass atrocity?

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