Mild mannered, maybe. But beneath the bookish looks this guy was tough enough to become the most famous cop in Germany.
Born in 1880 under the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm I, Bernhard Weiss was a patriotic Jew who served in the imperial army during the Great War of 1914-18, achieving the extremely rare (for a Jew) rank of officer and even rarer award of the nation’s highest military honor, Iron Cross First Class. In the war’s last months, when Germany’s home front was in worse shape than her battle lines, Weiss’ superiors took the unprecedented step of yanking him from the army and appointing him deputy head of Berlin’s criminal police (Kripo) to try and stabilize the capital. He was the first Jew ever to hold such a position.
With the collapse of Imperial Germany and the establishment of a constitutional republic Weiss became chief architect in turning the Berlin police from the tool of iron-fisted dictatorship into a model “citizens” force, defending and promoting the values of Germany’s first ever parliamentary democracy, and suppressing attempts by both radical left and right to overthrow the new republic.
An extremely forceful, energetic figure this unassuming-looking man became the public face of the Berlin police during the 1920s. He greeted celebrities, gave speeches, edited a police magazine, wrote articles all designed to improve the popular image of law enforcement.
It wasn’t all PR though. Weiss developed one of the first modern crime labs, employing all the latest advancements in microscopes, polygraphs and hematology, and created the first mobile crime lab, known as the White (Weiss) Wagon, that could travel directly to crime scenes to conduct forensic analysis. Berlin’s Kripo soon rivaled Scotland Yard as one of the premier police agencies in Europe. In 1925 Weiss was promoted to head Kripo and 1927 advanced again to Deputy President of the Berlin police. He became the highest ranking Jew ever in German law enforcement and one of the best known official figures in Weimar era Berlin. That era though soon came to a crashing halt.
In the early 1930s, with unemployment skyrocketing and political radicalism spiraling out of control, Weiss used the police to put down rioting units of brown-shirted storm troopers, throwing many in jail. Until the creation of the State of Israel it proved to be the one time a Jew would wield state power against Nazis. And it brought Weiss into direct conflict with the leader of the National Socialists in Berlin, a young firebrand named Joseph Goebbels. Their highly personal confrontation provided a tragic template for the fate of Germany’s Jews.
Goebbels, a brilliant agent provocateur, seized upon Weiss as a symbol of all that was wrong with the Weimar Republic—a Jew put into a position of power in the wake of the 1918 defeat, a “foreigner” shoving liberal democratic ideas down the throats of legitimate (aryan) Germans. In his newspaper Der Angriff, (The Attack) Goebbels began a relentless campaign to delegitimize the popular Deputy President of Police, depicting him in cartoons as a big-nosed monkey, a jackass, a snake, and ridiculing him by continuously referring to Weiss with the supposedly humiliating “Jew-name” Isidore.
Weiss didn’t take it lying down. He fought back in the courts, suing Goebbels for defamation, and winning. But it didn’t silence the future propaganda minister of the Third Reich. Like a pit bull Goebbels only chomped harder, mysteriously managing to come up with money to pay the fines and then launching another round of attacks. Weiss sued again, and won. Sixty times Weiss sued Goebbels, and sixty times he won. In the end it didn’t matter. Weiss could not hold back the rising tide of Nazism. In early 1933 shortly after Hitler was named chancellor, Bernhard Weiss was stripped of his German citizenship and fled his homeland, never to return. Goebbels, a top player in perhaps the greatest gangster regime in history, had bested the great officer of the law. But the story is not without an epilogue.
In the final hours of World War Two, of course, Goebbels killed himself along with his wife and six children in the Fuhrer Bunker. By contrast, before he died in London in 1951, Bernhard Weiss was honored by the post-war government of West Germany, which gave him back his citizenship. Today he is rightfully acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of modern German law enforcement.
Goebbels’s propaganda assault against Weiss, in particular his use of the stigmatizing name “Isidore,” is studied today as a classic example of how negative stereotypes can be used to marginalize and demonize others.
The staunch, even-minded figure of Bernhard Weiss on the other hand provided a major inspiration not only for generations of real life cops but also for the hero of my own detective series, Willi Kraus. And soon he is to live again, fictionally at least, making his first appearance as a major supporting character in my upcoming thriller, Children of Wrath.
Paul Grossman is the critically acclaimed author of two novels, with a third on the way. The Sleepwalkers, was published in 2010. His second, Children of Wrath released in February, 2012. He is also a long-time teacher of writing and literature at the City University of New York.