The Police in the Weimar Republic
In 1918, Germany transitioned from a semi-authoritarian empire to the Weimar Republic, a democracy that protected individual rights and limited police power. During the Weimar Republic, police struggled to respond to a rise in crime, political violence, and high unemployment. The Nazis promised to fix these problems, which helped policemen to eventually accept the new Nazi regime in 1933.
The creation of the democratic Weimar Republic (1918-1933) changed the political context in which German police forces operated.
Beginning in 1929, the Great Depression created new economic and political circumstances that made it difficult for police to maintain public order and solve crimes.
Most German policemen were not members of the Nazi Party prior to 1933.
In 1918, the German defeat in World War I caused the collapse of the German Empire (known as the Kaiserreich) and helped inspire a revolution. The new German government, the Weimar Republic, was a parliamentary democracy. This meant that the constitution guaranteed equality before the law and such civil liberties as freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly. It also enacted universal suffrage: adult citizens, men and women, had the right to vote. In the new government, political parties played a much bigger role than they had ever played before.
Policing as a Political Issue
Policing became an important political issue in the Weimar Republic. Political parties competed for influence over Germany’s police forces. The political parties that supported the Weimar Republic and parliamentary democracy wanted to remake the police forces as democratic institutions. But right-wing nationalistic political parties that rejected democracy wanted a militarized police force to defend Germany from left-wing revolutionaries, especially Germany’s new Communist Party.
Because Germany’s police forces were decentralized at this time and subordinate to state and city governments, these political conflicts varied throughout the country.
One of the best examples of how politics influenced policing is the case of the police in Prussia. As Germany’s largest and most populous state, Prussia played an important role in Germany’s political landscape, including in the area of policing. Home to the capital city of Berlin, Prussia made up more than 60 percent of German territory and population. With 85,000 officials, the Prussian police forces accounted for more than 50 percent of all of Germany’s policemen.
Before the 1918 revolution, Prussia had been known for its authoritarianism and limited political freedoms. But during the Weimar Republic, it was a stronghold of democracy. A political coalition led by the Social Democratic Party controlled the Prussian state government and thus the state’s police organizations.
The Social Democratic Party was a moderate, pro-democracy, leftist party popular with Germany’s industrial working class. Social Democratic police chiefs tried to change the police from enforcers of authoritarianism into servants of the people. In addition to modernizing police technology and improving training, they used public relations campaigns and events to help improve the image of the police.
Policing a New Democracy, 1918-1923
The earliest years of the Weimar Republic were chaotic. German soldiers returned home from World War I with guns and a new experience of violence. Economic distress caused by wartime deprivation and postwar economic policies drove many people to begging, looting, theft, and rioting. Strikes and demonstrations demanding better living and working conditions became common throughout the country. Policemen also suffered dire economic conditions.
New political movements attempted to channel public grievances. Radical left- and right-wing movements inspired crowds to gather in the streets. Some of these political groups attempted to use violence to seize power and overthrow the new government. It was the responsibility of the police to protect the government, stop the public disorder, and arrest criminals. This was a situation they could not handle, so the government chose to rely on the German military and right-wing paramilitaries (non-state organizations in uniforms with weapons) rather than the country’s police forces.
Policing during the “Golden Years,” 1924-1929
By 1924, the economy stabilized, political unrest largely subsided, and crime began to decline. This era, known as the “Golden Years” of Weimar, saw a cultural and commercial explosion, especially in Berlin.
The police continued to face unaccustomed challenges, however. In the German Empire, the right of citizens to assemble and demonstrate had been limited, and censorship had protected the police from public criticism. But in the Weimar Republic, citizens could demonstrate and speak much more freely. By law, the police could not stop them from publicly expressing their opinions. Political parties took advantage of these changes by staging regular marches and rallies. Even when these events were peaceful, they required a significant police presence for crowd control.
The Years of Crisis, 1930-1933
Beginning in late 1929, the Great Depression brought economic prosperity and political stability to a crashing end. Crime rates rose again. The government ceased to function properly. The numbers of unemployed individuals grew. Begging and bread lines became familiar sights on city streets. Criminal gangs involved in prostitution, narcotics, gambling, pornography, robbery, and burglary flourished. The police tried to respond to the accompanying rise in property crime. But, they could do nothing to alleviate the economic problems at their root. Sometimes police efforts seemed futile, especially because the popular press delighted in covering stories about crime and criminals (see Sass Brothers case study; PDF). The public criticized and mocked the police for their failures.
Economic downturn made radical political ideas, such as Nazism and Communism, more appealing to many disillusioned Germans. For most of the 1920s, the Nazi Party was a fairly insignificant organization. But the Great Depression changed German politics. In the national parliamentary elections of September 1930, the Nazis won a surprisingly large 18 percent of the vote. This was a big jump from 1928 when they had won less than 3 percent. The Nazis were suddenly an important national political party. Their main ideological enemy, the German Communist Party, also grew during this time.
Because the Nazis and the Communists rejected parliamentary democracy, their presence in parliament was disruptive. They deliberately kept the government from functioning. Both parties were a visible presence on German streets, where they battled each other and policemen. Political rallies, demonstrations, and marches defined the political atmosphere at this time. The police were responsible for making sure these were orderly and safe events.
Politically-inspired street brawls became a regular feature of German life. Paramilitaries associated with German political parties battled in the streets. Hundreds of Germans died in the violence. The Nazi paramilitary, the SA (Sturmabteilung), was particularly infamous. The SA men did not limit their attacks to their political opponents, but also vandalized businesses they considered Jewish, and attacked unarmed Jews in the streets. They often used explosives and tear gas.
The inability of the police to effectively control the paramilitary groups and stop the assaults further undermined police authority.
Police Attitudes Towards the Nazi Movement
In the years of the Weimar Republic, most active policemen were not Nazis, meaning they were not members of the Nazi Party or of Nazi organizations. Many policemen saw themselves as professionals, whose personal politics were not supposed to affect their work. In some cases, regulations limited police involvement in politics. Nonetheless, there were also some policemen who aided the Nazi movement by passing along important information about upcoming police raids and other police measures to the Nazis.
While not members of the far-right Nazi Pary, many Weimar policemen were more inclined towards nationalist, right-wing political parties. They sympathized with some Nazi ideas, especially anti-communism. They also rejected parliamentary democracy and the Weimar Republic and wanted a return to authoritarianism. An authoritarian state would bring the extension of police power, a strong centralized state, and the end of factional party politics. The Nazi Party promised all of this and more.
The End of Democracy
When Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, many Germans, including many policemen, hoped that he would solve the problems of the Weimar Republic. This made it easy for policemen to eventually accept, if not welcome, the new Nazi regime.
Series: German police
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?