Law and Disorder in Weimar Germany

Law and Disorder

Read about the Weimar Republic’s responses to two political uprisings–a left-wing rebellion in Bavaria and a conservative uprising by paramilitary group the Freikorps.  
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At a Glance

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English — US


  • History
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • The Holocaust

Continual disorder and crisis marked the first four years (1919–1923) of the new Weimar Republic. Challenges from both the Communist left, which urged abolition of private property and control of the government by the workers, and the ultra-conservative forces of the right, who were angered by the Treaty of Versailles (see readings, Rumors of Betrayal and Negotiating Peace) and blamed a “Jewish-Bolshevik” conspiracy for its signing, led to frequent outbreaks of violence. 

The new constitution left the German military, civil service, and judiciary relatively unchanged. Judges who had been appointed by the kaiser kept their jobs, even though many of them opposed the idea of a republic and often placed the need for order and security above the law. As one judge explained, just as the army protects Germany from enemies beyond the nation’s borders, it is the court’s duty to protect the nation within those borders.

That spirit was reflected in the way judges handled two political upheavals immediately after the war. The first took place in April 1919 in the German state of Bavaria, where left-wing councils of soldiers and workers (similar to soviets in Russia; see reading, Russia Quits the War in Chapter 3) took over the state government with the aim of creating a socialist republic. There were tensions between different rebelling groups, and the revolt was quickly and violently ended with the help of the conservative Freikorps (Free Corps). More than 1,000 people were killed in massacres and battles in the streets. And more than 2,000 other rebels, including revolutionary socialist Ernst Toller, were tried and convicted of treason; almost all of them served long prison terms.

On March 12, 1920, another uprising occurred, the Kapp Putsch (see reading, In Search of Meaning). This time, conservative Free Corps units led by Wolfgang Kapp attempted to overthrow the national government and restore a monarchy in Germany. The uprising ended within days after supporters of the national government went on strike, bringing the city of Berlin to a standstill.

One might have expected the German government to treat the leaders of this uprising the same way they had treated the left-wing uprising in Bavaria a year earlier. The German government did not. Only a few of those involved in this conservative revolt were arrested, and most were never brought to trial. In fact, only one participant served a short prison sentence. Kapp fled to Sweden, where he was arrested and eventually returned to Germany. He died of cancer while awaiting trial.

The courts clearly did not consider all uprisings equal, and some judges had other biases as well. In 1923, the German Supreme Court allowed the use of the term "Jew Republic" to describe the Weimar government on the grounds that “it can denote the new legal and social order in Germany which was brought about in significant measure by German and foreign Jews.” 1   At the same time, a worker who carried a communist banner saying, “Workers, burst your chains!” was arrested for inciting class warfare. So all speech was not equal. Neither were all murders. 

Between 1919 and 1922, the Free Corps and other conservative paramilitary groups were responsible for over 2,000 assaults and 354 political assassinations. A paramilitary group is a private army often associated with a political party or movement. Although 50 Free Corps killers confessed, over half were acquitted. The 24 found guilty spent an average of just four months in jail. Communist groups were responsible for 22 political assassinations during the same period. All of those cases went to trial, and ten of the murderers were executed. The other 12 received an average prison term of 15 years.

Many judges had come to believe that “defense of the state” justified breaking the law. A German legal scholar was horrified at the idea that murder could be justified by a “national emergency.” He wrote: “Such a decision does more than merely damage legal order which judges are called upon to protect. This decision destroys it.” 2 The Social Democrats agreed. In 1924, they warned that “administration of justice in this manner presents a danger to the republic, insofar as it enables subversive and monarchist organizations to amass weapons without giving that part of the population which supports democracy the possibility to defend itself or to insist on respect for the law.” 3

Connection Questions

  1. What were some main similarities and differences between the two uprisings described in this reading? What were the aims of each? How did each end? What do the different fates of the Communist and conservative rebels suggest about Weimar society? 
  2. What is the role of judges and courts in a democracy? What is the significance of the fact that the judges in Weimar were held over from the monarchy? 
  3. What could be the consequences when the courts in a democracy treat groups differently?
  4. The Weimar Constitution granted many new freedoms to individuals and groups, but it left some basic institutions like the judiciary and the educational system untouched. How much change can society endure at once? During such times of transition, is it better to leave some parts of society alone?
  • 1Quoted in Ingo Müller, Hitler’s Justice: The Courts of the Third Reich, trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 18.
  • 2Quoted in Ingo Müller, Hitler’s Justice: The Courts of the Third Reich, trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 23.
  • 3Quoted in Ingo Müller, Hitler’s Justice: The Courts of the Third Reich, trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 22–23.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Law and Disorder," last updated August 2, 2016.

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