Jewish Police Chief in Pre-War Berlin: Bernhard Weiss

He created the first modern forensics lab.

Bernhard Weiss was the Jewish police chief of Berlin who modernized German law enforcement while Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, tried to destroy him.

Born in 1880 to a prominent Jewish family, Bernhard was short and mild-mannered but smart and tough. He went to law school, and then volunteered for the military and served in World War I, one of only a few Jewish officers in the German army. For his bravery he received the nation’s highest military honor, the Iron Cross First Class. Bernhard considered himself a proud Jew and a German patriot.

Towards the end of the war, Berlin descended into chaos and lawlessness. Bernhard Weiss was considered such an effective leader that he was pulled away from the front lines and appointed as deputy head of Berlin’s police department to restore order to the capital. Bernhard was the highest ranking Jewish law enforcement officer in German history.

In 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated, marking the end of Imperial Germany, and the Weimar Constitutional Republic was established. During the years of the Weimar Republic (1918 to 1933) Bernhard led the effort to transform the Berlin police department into an effective and humane “citizens force.” He created the first modern forensics department, using the latest technology in microscopes, polygraphs and hematology. The first mobile crime lab was known as the Weiss Wagon and could analyze forensic evidence at crime scenes.

Bernhard transformed the German police department into a state-of-the-art crime fighting force to rival Scotland Yard. He was particularly proud of the rate of murders solved: 97%.

Meanwhile, Germany struggled to recover economically from World War I, and many people blamed their problems on the Weimar Republic leadership. As police chief, Bernhard had to suppress repeated organized efforts by the radical left and the radical right to overthrow the republic.

During the 1920’s, Bernhard became the public face of German law enforcement. He gave speeches and wrote articles to improve the police department’s image, making him the most famous cop in Germany.

Bernhard Weiss was active in the Jewish community and served on the board of a rabbinical school. He led the Central Union of German Citizens of Jewish Faith, an organization that advocated for equal rights for Jews in Germany. He and his wife Lottie were art lovers and they were involved in many cultural activities in Berlin.

As the National Socialist (Nazi) party rose to power in the late 1920’s, Bernhard refused to tolerate their bullying behavior and violent rallies. He sent officers to Nazi meetings to confiscate weapons. He shut down their fundraising schemes, and destroyed their hateful propaganda.

After a Nazi riot at Nuremberg, Bernhard arrested and jailed 500 Nazi party members for belonging to an illegal organization. Joseph Goebbels, the top Nazi propagandist, was infuriated by the mass arrests. He became obsessed with the Jewish police chief and determined to destroy his reputation and career.

Goebbels used the full weight of his daily propaganda platform, the newspaper Der Angriff (The Attack), to belch out a stream of lies to mock and vilify Bernhard Weiss. The police chief became the personification of Germany’s biggest problem: the dirty murderous Jew, a hideous animal sucking the blood of the superior Aryan race.

Bernhard fought Goebbels in court, suing him for slander an astounding forty times. He won every single suit, but each time Goebbels found money to pay the fines and went right back to smearing the police chief.

Meanwhile, Anti-semitic violence was increasing rapidly in Berlin. Concerned that the Jews had no way to defend themselves, Bernhard supported an illegal group called the Jewish Defense Service and provided them with weapons.

Hitler came to power in 1933, and Bernhard Weiss – a German war hero – immediately lost his job and his German citizenship. Hermann Goering issued a warrant for his arrest, and offered a generous reward for anybody who helped capture him. Bernhard’s family hid him under a pile of coal in the basement while storm troopers searched their house. When the coast was clear, Weiss and his family were driven to Czechoslovakia by a friend. They then moved to the UK where Weiss opened a printing business.

In 1951, the post-war German government remembered Bernhard, and honored him by giving him back his citizenship. Soon after his German citizenship was restored, Weiss died of cancer at his home in London.

Bernhard Weiss is now widely acknowledged as the creator of the modern German police department.

For his groundbreaking contributions to the field of forensics, and for standing up to Nazi bullies, we honor Dr. Bernhard Weiss, the Jewish police chief of Berlin, as this week’s Thursday Hero.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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