- The Criminal Underworld in Weimar and Nazi Berlin
On 21 June 1944, three years after Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer SS and Chef der Deutschen Polizei (Head of the SS and Chief of the German Police), gave a lecture to Wehrmacht generals. Himmler praised himself and the SS for cleansing Germany of the Jews and insisted that there must never be another 1918 – referring to the German revolution of that year, allegedly brought about by a coalition of Jews, Bolsheviks and criminals.1 This speech came weeks after the Allied landing in Normandy, when a German victory in the war was increasingly unlikely and the Nazi regime had begun to escalate its persecution of racial and social outsiders. Gangs of organized criminals, the so-called Ringvereine, supposedly dominated by Jews and Communists, were said to be subverting German society and undermining the war effort. According to Himmler:
When a man was released from the penitentiary, an organization was already available to him, organized by a comrade who had been released from the penitentiary two or three months earlier. They would agree then: we will do a big job because we must make some more money again.2
Himmler’s speech reinforced a powerful Nazi myth about the criminal underworld, that it was part of a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy which had crippled Germany under the Weimar Republic until the Nazis destroyed it in 1933.3
Concern with law and order was not exclusive to the Nazis, but to a greater extent than many other modern regimes, perhaps,4 they believed that the repression of crime was central to their gaining and maintaining popular support. Many Germans had been worrying about dramatically rising crime rates since the end of the First World War. Eliminating crime and thereby restoring the state’s authority was a Nazi priority, one of the chief reasons why the Nazis appealed to large sections of German society, as Detlev Peukert has shown. Even fifty years after the end of the Third Reich, according to oral history interviews conducted by Eric Johnson and [End Page 58] Karl-Heinz Reuband, many Germans still believed that whatever bad things Hitler and the Nazis had done, they did at least clamp down on criminality.5
In this article, I dismantle and challenge the Nazi myth about crime through a critical examination of the Berlin Ringvereine, which were central in German debates on the criminal underworld. Little evidence has survived on Ringvereine activity. Such records as there are, significantly, were put into an archival collection on crimes and political offences committed during the Weimar Republic, following a decree by the Reich Ministry of Justice which conformed to the official Nazi view that the Weimar Republic was undermined by crime and social decay.6 With the exception of Patrick Wagner’s work, the few existing accounts rely too much on anecdotal rather than archival material and overlook the Nazi impact on the Ringvereine’s history. Furthermore, the existing studies agree that the Nazis successfully repressed the Ringvereine upon coming to power.7 In reality, underworld syndicates continued to operate beyond the Nazi capture of power in 1933 – despite Nazi claims about the total elimination of crime. There is no evidence that the Nazis ever arrested all Ringvereine members; indeed, documents point to their survival beyond 1933. Therefore the history of these underworld syndicates raises questions about the limits of Nazi control of German everyday life, prompting reflections on the limits of the Nazi state’s monopoly of violence, the role of crime in German political culture and continuities between the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich.
A pub brawl that turned into a street fight on the cold night of 28 December 1928 brought German crime syndicates to public attention. Between eleven o’clock and midnight, nine well-dressed men with top hats entered a pub near Berlin’s Silesian Station, an area notorious for crime and prostitution. Their leader ordered a round of drinks. People in the pub knew him and his men: they were members of the Immertreu (‘Always Loyal’) and Norden (‘North’) crime syndicates. After ordering another round, the leader of...