The Weimar Republic - Germany’s first democracy



The November Revolution left the judiciary of the German Empire (Kaiserreich) largely intact. Almost all public prosecutors and judges stayed in office, which proved catastrophic as events unfolded. The SPD leadership’s hopes that the judiciary would evolve, becoming more democratic within the new republic and supporting it, were in vain. Instead, the Weimar Republic was characterized by harsh rulings against the left and at times ridiculously mild punishments of the right. Even laws did not help at all here, as they were predominantly turned against the left when interpreted by judges. One example of this is the 1922 Law for the Protection of the Republic.

Franz Gürtner

(© Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H13466 / Foto: Heinscher)


  • Jurist
  • Bavarian Minister of Justice
  • Reich Minister of Justice 1931-1941

After completing secondary education, Gürtner studied law at the University of Munich. In 1911, he became public prosecutor for the Munich I Land Court. He was then appointed Munich District Court judge in 1912. After serving in the war as a reserve officer, he took back on the position of public prosecutor and, later, became a Land Court director. In 1922, he was appointed Bavarian State Minister of Justice. In this function, he was often lenient in the prosecution of politically motivated crimes committed by right-wing extremists. In this vein, he played a key role in the early pardoning of Adolf Hitler in December 1924. In 1932, he joined Chancellor Franz von Papen’s cabinet as Minister of Justice - an office he was to stay in under Schleicher and Hitler. In the Third Reich, he strived to uphold the principles of the rule of law. Despite his critical attitude towards the regime’s law-breaking practices, he did support the system in the end, as demonstrated by his work in the government.

More information available in Wikipedia

Curt Joël

(© unbekannt, gemeinfrei)


  • Jurist
  • State Secretary in the Ministry of Justice 1920-1931
  • Minister of Justice 1931-1932

Joël grew up in a Jewish family. After secondary schooling, he studied law in Jena, Freiburg and Berlin. While in Jena, he joined the Teutonia Jena fraternity. Joël obtained a doctoral degree in law. In the Kaiserreich, he started working as a public prosecutor in 1899; then, in 1908, he was appointed to the Reichsjustizamt (Office for National Justice). From the start of 1915 to 1917, he served as a captain in charge of a unit in occupied Belgium (known as the Generalgouvernement), where he also headed the police headquarters’ counter-intelligence unit. After the war and the revolution, he became state secretary in the Ministry of Justice in 1920. Throughout his many years of service there, he inspired a great deal of trust; both Majority Socialist (SPD) and conservative chancellors and ministers felt they could count on him. Moreover, given his key position within the Ministry, he was seen as a gray eminence of the German justice system. However, his attitude towards the republic was ambivalent. On the one hand, his refused any cooperation with Kapp during the putsch of March 1920 and declared his strong support for the constitutional, legitimate government. On the other hand, he helped opponents of the republic obtain powerful posts; for example, the Oberreichsanwalt (highest-level public prosecutor), Karl August Werner.  He served as Minister of Justice in the Brüning cabinet from 1931 to 1932, yet rejected the possibility of continuing in this function in Papen’s government. He retired instead. Despite his Jewish background, the Nazis did not persecute him after they seized power. He died in 1945 in Berlin just before the war ended.

See Wikipedia for more information

Wilhelm Hoegner

(© unbekannt, gemeinfrei via Wikimedia)


  • Jurist
  • Member of the Reichstag 1930-1933
  • Bavarian Minister-President 1945-1946 und 1954-1957

Hoegner studied law at the University of Munich, obtaining a doctoral degree in 1911. After the war broke out, he volunteered to fight in 1914. However, he was judged unfit to fight, for health reasons. He worked as an assessor and lawyer for a short period starting in 1918. He was then appointed a public prosecutor in 1920. From 1925, he worked as circuit judge on the bench of the Munich district court. Hoegner was one of the few figures of the judiciary who supported the republic. At the same time, alongside his work, he was also an active member of the SPD and the Black-Red-Gold Banner of the Realm. As such, it was at his prompting that the Bavarian Landtag (state parliament) set up a committee to investigate the events of 1 May 1923 in Munich as well as the efforts to undermine the Reich’s and the state’s constitutions undertaken in Bavaria from 26 September to 9 November 1923. Although the committee was still reticent in its report, there was a special vote of the SPD that clearly stated that in this matter, the Bavarian judiciary had failed. After the Nazi Party seized power, Hoegner went into exile. Yet in 1945, he returned to Germany and became one of post-war Bavaria’s most significant historical figures as the Bavarian Minister-President.

See Wikipedia for more information

Paul Jorns

(© unbekannt, gemeinfrei via Wikimedia)


  • Jurist
  • Public prosecutor

Jorns worked as a Kriegsgerichtsrat (higher-level court-martial judge) during the Kaiserreich, after having studied law with a specialization in military jurisdiction. He stayed in this function after the collapse of the Kaiserreich, within the Guards Cavalry Troopers Division. In 1919, when he was charged with investigating the murders of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, his conservative attitude became apparent. Jorns did little, if anything at all, to stop the crime’s circumstances from being covered up. He also released suspects who were being held in custody. Therefore, Jorns played a key role in ensuring that it was never possible to shed light on the murder of the two Communist Party (KPD) leaders. All the more striking is the fact that after that case, his career took off, with him winding up as a public prosecutor. In 1928, together with a colleague, Jorns brought a lawsuit against a journalist, accusing him of libel. The journal had accused Jorns of having demonstrated a lack of competence as a judge in his handling of the Liebknecht-Luxemburg case. The trial attracted a great deal of attention, with Paul Levi as the defense lawyer. The accused was acquitted, yet still fined 500 marks, after having multiple appeals. Jorns continued the climb the career ladder during the Third Reich. In 1933, he joined the Nazi Party; in 1934, he was appointed to the People’s Court and in 1936, he moved up to the rank of Oberreichsanwalt (highest-level public prosecutor).

Max Alsberg

(© Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R99757 / o. Ang.)


  • Jurist and author

Alsberg studied law in Munich, Berlin, Leipzig and Bonn, obtaining a doctoral degree (“Dr. jur. ab”). In 1906, he set up law office in Berlin; later on, he gained a license as a notary public as well. He became very well known as a criminal defense lawyer for a lot of celebrities. Among other clients, he defended the deposed Kaiser Wilhelm II and the businessman Hugo Stinnes. In 1920, he defended the German National People’s Party’s (DNVP) politician Karl Helfferich against Finance Minister Matthias Erzberger, who was accusing Helfferich of defamation. The lawsuit attracted a great deal of attention. In 1931, together with other criminal defense lawyers, he defended Carl von Ossietzky, the editor of Die Weltbühne, against the accusation of high treason. In the same year, Alsberg was appointed honorary professor at the University of Berlin. Yet when the Nazis seized power in 1933, his career ended abruptly. Due to his Jewish background, he was stripped of his license as a notary public and was about to lose his job as a professor. Fleeing racial persecution, Alsberg emigrated to Switzerland. With his life ruined, he committed suicide in an act of desperation in September 1933.

See Wikipedia for more information

Show glossary
A project of Weimarer Republik e.V., with generous support from


Abkürzungs- und Siglenverzeichnis der verwendeten Literatur:

ADGBFederation of German General Trade Unions
AEGGeneral Electricity Company
AfA-BundGeneral Free Federation of Employees
AVUSAutomobile Traffic and Training Road
BMWBavarian Motor Works
BRTgross register tons
BVPBavarian People’s Party
CenterCenter Party
DAPGerman Workers’ Party
DDPGerman Democratic Party
DNTGerman National Theater
DNVPGerman National People’s Party
DVPGerman People’s Party
GmbHLimited (form of company)
KominternCommunist International
KPDCommunist Party of Germany
KVPConservative People’s Party
MSPDMajority Social Democratic Party of Germany; the Majority Socialists
NSnational socialism (Nazi)
NSDAPNational Socialist German Workers’ Party; Nazi party
NVNational Assembly
O.C.Organization Consul
OHLArmy High Command
SASturmabteilung; Brownshirts
SPDSocial Democratic Party of Germany
StGBPenal Code
UfAUniversum Film Aktiengesellschaft
USPDIndependent Social Democratic Party of Germany
VKPDUnited Communist Party of Germany
ZentrumCenter Party
[AB]August Baudert: Sachsen-Weimars Ende. Historische Tatsachen aus sturmbewegter Zeit, Weimar 1923.
[AS]Axel Schildt: Die Republik von Weimar. Deutschland zwischen Kaiserreich und „Drittem Reich“ (1918-1933), hrsg. von der Landeszentrale für politische Bildung Thüringen, Erfurt 2009.
[BauerBauer, Kurt, Nationalsozialismus. Ursprünge, Anfänge, Aufstieg und Fall, u.a. Wien 2008.
[BihlBihl, Wolfdieter, Der Erste Weltkrieg 1914 - 1918. Chronik - Daten - Fakten, Wien 2010.
[BüttnerBüttner, Ursula, Weimar. Die überforderte Republik 1918-1933, Stuttgart 2008.
[DNV]Die Deutsche Nationalversammlung im Jahre 1919 in ihrer Arbeit für den Aufbau des neuen deutschen Volksstaates, hrsg. v. Ed.[uard] Heilfron, Bd. 1 bis 6, Berlin [1919].
[Ebert/Wienecke-JanzEbert, Johannes/Wienecke-Janz, Detlef, Die Chronik. Geschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts bis heute, Gütersloh/München 2006.
[EK]Eberhard Kolb: Die Weimarer Republik, 3. überarb. u. erw. Aufl., München 1993.
[EtzoldEtzold, Hans-Rüdiger, Der Käfer II. Die Käfer-Entwicklung von 1934 bis 1982 vom Urmodell zum Weltmeister, Stuttgart 1989.
[GG]Gitta Günther: Weimar-Chronik. Stadtgeschichte in Daten. Dritte Folge: März 1850 bis April 1945 (Weimarer Schriften, Heft 33), Weimar 1987.
[GrüttnerGrüttner, Michael, Das Dritte Reich 1933-1945 (= Bd. 19, Gebhardt. Handbuch der deutschen Geschichte), Stuttgart 2014.
[HildebrandHildebrand, Klaus, Das Dritte Reich, 7. Aufl., München 2010.
[Kessler Tgbb]Harry Graf Kessler. Tagebücher 1918-1937, hrsg. von Wolfgang Pfeiffer-Belli, Frankfurt a. M und Leipzig 1996.
[KittelKittel, Erich, Novembersturz 1918. Bemerkungen zu einer vergleichenden Revolutionsgeschichte der deutschen Länder, in: Blätter für deutsche Landesgeschichte 104 (1968), S. 42-108.
[KolbKolb, Eberhard, Die Weimarer Republik, 7. durchges. und erw. Aufl., München 2010.
[NiedhartNiedhart, Gottfried, Die Außenpolitik der Weimarer Republik, 2. aktualisierte Aufl., München 2010.
[O/S]Manfred Overesch/ Friedrich Wilhelm Saal: Die Weimarer Republik. Eine Tageschronik der Politik, Wirtschaft, Kultur, Düsseldorf 1992.
[Overesch/SaalOveresch, Manfred/Saal, Friedrich Wilhelm, Die Weimarer Republik, Eine Tageschronik der Politik, Wissenschaft Kultur, Augsburg 1992.
[PeukertPeukert, Detlef, Die Weimarer Republik. Krisenjahre der Klassischen Moderne, Frankfurt a.M. 1987.
[PK]Paul Kaiser: Die Nationalversammlung 1919 und die Stadt Weimar (Weimarer Schriften, Heft 16), Weimar 1969.
[PM]Paul Messner: Das Deutsche Nationaltheater Weimar. Ein Abriß seiner Geschichte. Von den Anfängen bis Februar 1945 (Weimarer Schriften, Heft 17), Weimar 1985.
[ThHB]Thüringen-Handbuch. Territorium, Verfassung, Parlament, Regierung und Verwaltung in Thüringen 1920 bis 1995, hrsg. von Bernhard Post und Volker Wahl, Redaktion Dieter Marek (Veröffentlichungen aus Thüringischen Staatsarchiven, Bd. 1), Weimar 1999.
[TofahrnTofahrn, Klaus W., Chronologie des Dritten Reiches. Ereignisse, Personen, Begriffe, Darmstadt 2003.
[UB]Ursula Büttner: Weimar. Die überforderte Republik 1918-1933. Leistungen und Versagen in Staat, Gesellschaft, Wirtschaft und Kultur, Stuttgart 2008.
[VU]Volker Ullrich: Die Revolution von 1918/19, München 2009.
[WinklerWinkler, Heinrich-August, Weimar 1918-1933. Die Geschichte der Ersten deutschen Demokratie, München 1993.
[WirschingWirsching, Andreas, Die Weimarer Republik. Politik und Gesellschaft, 2. erw. Aufl., München 2010.

(zusammengestellt von Dr. Jens Riederer und Christine Rost, bearbeitet von Stephan Zänker)