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The prison in the Weimar Republic

At the beginning of the Weimar Republic, the prison system and thus also the ‘everyday prison life’ in the Klapperfeld changed in various ways.

In contrast to previous centuries, the prison system was “not intended to break the will of the prisoner, to wear the prisoner down mentally and physically, but on the contrary to strengthen the will of the prisoner and to steer it in the right direction” (Starke). Punishment was seen as a pedagogical tool to educate a prisoner to become a ‘good citizen’.

On the one hand, the resocialisation principle found its way into the German penal system, but at the same time the type of ‘incorrigible offender’ was developed. This category included those who evaded resocialisation measures and were thus considered unfit for society. This was justified with biologistic explanations.

In contrast, the resocialisation principle provided for a tier system for prisoners with longer sentences (at least 1 year). A system of benefits was intended to guide the prisoners in their behaviour. This approach also fulfilled a repressive function. The fear of losing privileges constituted the disciplinary means of pressure here.

The definition of the “incorrigible offender” testifies to the reduction of so-called socially deviant behaviour to biological factors.

But a basic problem of the Weimar Republic was also evident in the prison: large sections of the staff in the administration and the judiciary were hostile to democracy. Most prison guards continued to rely on strict military order and discipline and refused to accept the new ideals.

In addition, the Weimar welfare state was dismantled in the course of the economic crisis. State subsidies for prisons were cut and with them the basic provision of clothing, food and medical care.

Quite apart from the hardly enforceable ideal ideas of a more humanitarian prison, the penal system of the Weimar Republic continued to form a good basis for the National Socialist state. In particular, the idea of the “incorrigible criminal” could be flawlessly integrated into the National Socialist ideology.

Sources: Jürgen Simon: Kriminalbiologie und Zwangssterilisation. Eugenischer Rassismus 1920-1945, München 2001 | Starke: Die ­Behandlung der Gefangenen, in: Erwin Bumke: Deutsches ­Gefängniswesen. Ein Handbuch, Berlin 1928 | Nikolaus Wachsmann: Gefangen unter Hitler. Justizterror und Strafvollzug im NS‑Staat, München 2006