May 2008 Journal

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From police chief in Berlin to refugee in Britain

The story of Dr Bernhard Weiß, who was Deputy President of Police in Berlin from 1927 until 1932 - in itself remarkable since he was Jewish - also has an unexpected final chapter. Weiß was one of the rare officials under the Weimar Republic who was actively committed to republican, democratic values; he defended Germany’s young and vulnerable parliamentary democracy vigorously against its political enemies on both left and right and sought to inspire those under his command with the spirit of democratic policing. He ended his days in exile in Britain.

Bernhard Weiß’s grandfather was born in Silesia in 1807, studied medicine and in 1837 moved to Oranienburg, outside Berlin, to practise. Weiß’s father Max amassed a fortune in the grain trade, allowing Bernhard, who was born in Berlin in 1880, to study law and follow the profession of his choice. The family remained proudly conscious of its Jewish origins, but aspired to full assimilation into German society.

Weiß became a member of the Kuratorium (committee of governors) of the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, one of the most distinguished institutions of Jewish learning in Germany. But he also identified closely with the CentralVerein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens (Central Union of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith), which represented the assimilated German Jews who believed that their rightful place was in Germany, on equal terms with their fellow Germans; he was a founder member of the Anti-Zionist Committee.

Weiß remained a convinced German patriot throughout his life. After doing his military service in a Bavarian regiment, he succeeded in becoming an officer in the reserve. Unbaptised Jews could not be commissioned as officers in the pre-1914 Prussian Army. But since one of the concessions granted by Bismarck to the Kingdom of Bavaria in return for its accession to the German Empire in 1871 had been its retention of control over its army – in peacetime only, a typically Bismarckian stroke – it was possible for a handful of Jews to become reserve officers in the Royal Bavarian Army. When the First World War broke out, Weiß, like his three brothers, went straight into the army, where he rose from platoon leader in a medical company to captain in a cavalry unit, a quite exceptional advance.

In summer 1918, Weiß’s talents as a lawyer and an officer led the Prussian Ministry of the Interior to take the extraordinary step of appointing him deputy head of the criminal police (Kripo) in Berlin, the first unbaptised Jew to hold such a position under the Empire. After the war, he presided over the democratisation of the Berlin police, defending and promoting the liberal, republican values of Germany’s first parliamentary democracy and remodelling the Berlin police into a citizens’ police force.

Weiß’s first period of service coincided with the attempts of the radical left to overthrow the new Republic. He fully supported the firm suppression of these insurrectionary activities by the government, which both at national level and in the state of Prussia was dominated by the Social Democrats (SPD). But whereas the SPD-led coalition government at national level lasted only until 1920, in Prussia the coalition of the SPD, the Catholic Centre Party and the Liberals of the Deutsche Demokratische Partei lasted until 1932. As Prussia covered about two thirds of Germany’s territory, with nearly 60 per cent of its population, control over that state, and especially its police force, was a vital lever of power in Germany, where the army had been reduced to a mere 100,000 men by the Treaty of Versailles.

As head of the political police department of the Kripo, Weiß played a key role in countering the threat posed by the radical right to the Weimar Republic. When foreign minister Walther Rathenau, a Jew, was murdered by right-wing extremists in June 1922, in the most notorious political assassination of the Weimar period, it was Weiß’s energetic pursuit that led to the cornering of the two killers; the posters the police put up in the manhunt bore Weiß’s signature. Whatever their ideological differences, left- and right-wing extremists were united in their hostility to militant proponents of democracy like Weiß, for he was even-handed in pursuit of their illegal endeavours. In 1924, when a suspected spy took refuge in the Soviet Trade Mission’s building, Weiß ordered a police search of the premises, ignoring its diplomatic immunity. For this he had to be moved to a position in the Prussian Ministry of the Interior.

Weiß’s career reached its highpoint when he was appointed head of the Kripo in 1925, then Deputy President of the Berlin police force in 1927. A more forceful and energetic figure than his nominal superior, Police President Karl Zörgiebel, Weiß became the public face of the police in the capital; Berliners simply called him ‘ViPoPrä’ (Vizepolizeipräsident), in a characteristic combination of affection and disrespect for authority.

Weiß became involved in a highly personalised conflict with Joseph Goebbels, whom Hitler had sent to Berlin in 1926 to lead the Nazi onslaught on the capital. Weiß stood for everything Goebbels loathed: as a Jew in a position of authority in the hated democratic ‘system’ of Weimar, the Deputy President of Police seemed to symbolise the ‘imposition’ of ‘unGerman’ elements on the German people in the wake of the defeat of 1918. Goebbels tried to smear Weiß by portraying him as a caricature Jew and calling him ‘Isidor’, supposedly a quintessentially Eastern Jewish name. Presumably the irony of a German who himself boasted the Biblical name Joseph foisting a supposedly antisemitic label onto a Jew with the solidly German name Bernhard was lost on Hitler’s future Minister of Propaganda.

Weiß reacted to Goebbels’s depiction of him in Der Angriff and other Nazi publications with a string of lawsuits for defamation; he won his case in court repeatedly, but failed to silence his opponent. As Dietz Bering has shown in his studies Der Name als Stigma and Kampf um Namen: Bernhard Weiß gegen Joseph Goebbels, Goebbels’s use of the name Isidor to stigmatise Weiß was a classic example of the Nazi use of negative stereotypes to marginalise and demonise Jews. More recently, David Irving’s treatment of this episode in his biography of Goebbels made it an issue in the libel case that Irving unsuccessfully brought against Professor Deborah Lipstadt.

Weiß’s fortunes waned with those of the Weimar Republic. The elections of September 1930 brought 108 Nazis into the Reichstag, precipitating the Republic’s terminal crisis. In May 1931 some of these deputies beat up an SPD member, a defector from their ranks, within the Reichstag precincts. When the President of the Reichstag called in the police, Weiß led them in person; he was greeted by cries of ‘Isidor’ from the Nazi benches. It was a measure of the extent to which the political climate had altered that public criticism focused more on the Jew who had led the police intervention in parliament than on the violence that had necessitated it.

The deposition of the Prussian government by Chancellor Franz von Papen on 20 July 1932, an arguably unconstitutional act by a reactionary regime bent on eliminating the last remaining bastion of democracy in Germany, led to Weiß’s immediate removal from office. Faced with the declaration of a state of siege and the threat of army intervention, the democratically elected Prussian ministers bowed to Papen’s show of force and left their posts without resistance. Typically, it was Weiß who convinced Police President Albert Grzesinski at least to issue a written protest contesting the legal grounds for the Preußenschlag. In a few months’ time, after 30 January 1933, control over the Berlin police force was to pass to a new Prussian Minister of the Interior, Hermann Göring, and with it the means of eliminating political opposition to Hitler.

Weiß had to flee Germany once the Nazi regime consolidated its power. He went to Prague in March 1933, then moved to London in January 1934, where he lived with his wife Lotte and their daughter until his death on 29 July 1951. His name was on the first list of those stripped of their German citizenship by the Nazis. Sadly, he was among those who proved unable to adapt to life in exile. Supported by a generous benefactor, he eventually set himself up in the printing trade. He was interned briefly when war broke out, spending two months in a Butlin’s holiday camp at Clacton, which he called ‘the best holiday of his life’.

Otherwise, the 17 years that he spent in Britain passed in obscurity. He made one return visit to Germany after the war, and his dearest wish was to regain German nationality; despite everything, Weiß still regarded Germany as his ‘deutsches Vaterland’. It was perhaps symbolic that news of the return of his German citizenship reached him as he was about to be taken to the hospital where he died of cancer. He is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Pound Lane, Willesden.

Anthony Grenville

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