July 30, 1880, was the birthdate of Bernhard Weiss, the Jewish-German lawyer who served as vice president of the Berlin police department in the period just before the Nazis came to power. He was a relentless foe of Nazi lawlessness, and successfully sued Joseph Goebbels for libel for the latter’s verbal anti-Semitic attacks on him.
- 1776: The first Jew to die for the cause of the American Revolution
- Goebbels' estate sues Random House for using diary extracts without paying
Bernhard Weiss was born into a well-off Jewish family in Berlin, during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm I. After training as a lawyer, he volunteered in 1904 for military training, and was commissioned as a reserve officer in the Royal Bavarian Army. During World War I, he received the rank of captain, and commanded a medical company, service for which he received an Iron Cross First Class, a very unusual achievement for a Jew at that time. Weiss’s three brothers also served in the war.
In the war’s final months, Weiss was recalled to the home front, in Berlin, which was in a state of disarray, and appointed deputy head of the capital’s criminal police department, the Kripo. By 1925, he was head of the Kripo, and two years later, was named deputy president of the entire Berlin police department − making him the highest-ranking Jew to that time in the field of German law enforcement.
The Weimar Republic was the short-lived (1919-1933) democratic regime that followed the imperial era and its devastating failure in World War I. Weiss, a member of the liberal German Democratic Party, was a strong defender of the republic, and took seriously his responsibility to battle extremism from both the right and the left.
On the personal level, Weiss had grown up in a family with a strong Jewish identity − his father was a leader of the Reform Fasanenstrasse Synagogue − and he too was openly active in Berlin’s Jewish community. He served on the board of the city’s Reform rabbinical seminary and was a member of the Central Union of German Citizens of Jewish Faith, a rights-defense organization.
After the assassination of German foreign minister Walter Rathenau, himself a Jew, in 1922, Weiss led the successful criminal hunt for his murderers, who were ultra-right wing nationalist terrorists. He also followed the radical activities of communists and the growing National Socialist movement, the brownshirts. In 1927, he ordered the shutting down of the Nazi party branch in Berlin, and also ordered the arrest of 500 of its members.
Weiss’s aggressive activism brought upon him the wrath of Joseph Goebbels, who was during the Weimar years the leader of the Nazi branch in Berlin, and later the Third Reich’s minister of propaganda. Goebbels, who referred to the Weimar Republic as the “Jews’ Republic,” regularly mocked and attacked Weiss, dubbing him with the supposedly insulting and typically Jewish name “Isidore.” He also had Weiss depicted in cartoons in his newspaper, Der Angriff (The Attack), as a monkey, a snake and a jackass.
Weiss sued Goebbels for defamation in court, and won. Goebbels paid his fine, and then went on with his campaign of delegitimization against Weiss. Thus was established a pattern, by which Bernhard Weiss took Goebbels to court, and defeated him, after which the Nazi went back to his libelous behavior − some 60 times.
Weiss held on to the very end of the Weimar Republic. Immediately after Adolf Hitler became chancellor, in early 1933, the police force of which Bernhard Weiss was deputy president was ordered to arrest him. A friend drove him to Czechoslovakia, and from there he fled to England with his family.
Weiss lived out the rest of his life in England, where he opened a printing and stationery shop. After the war, in 1951, West Germany returned to him the citizenship that he had been stripped of after the rise of the Nazis. He received the news while on his way to a London hospital, where he died of cancer a short time later, at the age of 71.
After Bernhard’s death, his widow, Lotte, returned to Berlin, where she died the following year.