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A Right to Beat a Child? Corporal Punishment and the Law in Wilhelmine Germany

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 May 2014

Sace Elder
Eastern Illinois University


In 1903, Elisabeth von Oertzen, a widely read author and one of the founders of the Society for the Protection of Children from Mistreatment and Exploitation, exhorted her fellow protectionists in the pages of her organization's newsletter to push for greater legal protections for children from abusive adults. The occasion for her admonition was the infamous Bavarian child abuse case in which a young male tutor, Andreas Dippold, had beaten his young charges so badly that one had succumbed to his mistreatment. The case demonstrated, von Oertzen wrote, that while torture had been abolished for adults, it was still widely practiced on children. One of the chief causes of child abuse, according to von Oertzen, was the claim to the so-called Züchtigungsrecht, the right to use corporal punishment. “Because of [the] defenselessness of children it has become customary to exercise on them the right to use corporal punishment, even where it does not exist,” she wrote. A host of people, including tutors, governesses, and babysitters claim the right, but “how far the right to corporal punishment is transferrable is entirely an open question!” Curiously, von Oertzen asserted both that there was an objectively existing “right” to use corporal punishment and that there was no consensus on where that right lay.

Copyright © Central European History Society of the American Historical Association 2014 

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1 On the Dippold case, see Hagner, Michael, Der Hauslehrer, Geschichte eines Kriminalfalls: Erziehung, Sexualität, Medien um 1900 (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010)Google Scholar.

2 E[lisabeth] v. Oertzen, “Zum Prozeß Dippold,” Mitteilungen des Vereins zum Schutz der Kinder vor Ausnutzung u. Mißhandlung 5, no. 11 (1903): 84Google Scholar.

3 Ibid.


4 Lawrence Friedman, who pioneered the concept of “legal culture,” defines it simply as “ideas, attitudes, values, and opinions about law held by people in a society.” Lawrence Friedman, Total Justice (1985), 30–31; Friedman, “Legal Culture and Social Development” Law and Society Review 4, n. 1 (1969): 2944CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Robertson, Stephen, Crimes Against Children: Sexual Violence and Legal Culture in New York City, 1880–1960 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 45Google Scholar.

5 Schumann, Dirk, “Legislation and Liberalization: The Debate About Corporal Punishment in Schools in Postwar West Germany, 1945–1975,” German History 25, no. 2 (2007): 193CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Hett, Benjamin Carter, Death in the Tiergarten : Murder and Criminal Justice in the Kaiser's Berlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004)Google Scholar; Müller, Philipp, Auf der Suche nach dem Täter. Die öffentliche Dramatisierung von Verbrechen im Berlin des Kaiserreichs (Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 2005)Google Scholar.

7 On popular legal cultures, see Yngvesson, Barbara, “Inventing Law in Local Settings: Rethinking Popular Legal Culture,” The Yale Law Journal 98, no. 8 (1989): 16891709CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Dickinson, Edward Ross, The politics of German Child Welfare from the Empire to the Federal Republic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 74Google Scholar.

9 Ibid., 76–77.


10 For example, Entscheidungen des Reichsgerichts in Strafsachen (hereafter RGSt) 33 (1900), 32–35. The same year the Reichsgericht also ruled that ignorance of one's right was not exculpatory. In other words, believing one had a right to exercise corporal punishment when no such right existed was no defense against transgression of the criminal code. RGSt, 33 (1900), 72–74.

11 Koselleck, Reinhard, Preußen zwischen Reform und Revolution (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981). 641659Google Scholar.

12 Evans, Richard J., Tales from the German Underworld: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 122132Google Scholar.

13 Herget, James E. and Wallace, Stephen, “The German Free Law Movement as the Source of American Legal Realism,” Virginia Law Review 73, no. 2 (1987): 401417CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hett, Death in the Tiergarten, 20–21; Wetzell, Richard, Inventing the Criminal: A History of German Criminology (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 33–38Google Scholar.

14 One recent example is Haneke's film Das weisse Band (2009), which the harsh, authoritarian child rearing of a North German village just prior to World War I. The classic argument linking harsh child rearing and the rise of fascism can be found in Miller, Alice, Am Anfang war Erziehung (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1980)Google Scholar, published in English as For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty and the Roots of Violence. Other examples include Chamberlain, Sigrid, “The Nurture and Care of the Master Race,” Journal of Psychohistory 31, no. 3 (2004): 367394Google Scholar; deMause, Lloyd, “The Childhood Origins of World War II and the Holocaust.,” Journal of Psychohistory 36, no. 1 (2008): 230Google ScholarPubMed; Ende, Aurel, “Battering and Neglect: Children in Germany, 1860–1978 ” Journal of Psychohistory 7, no. 3 (1980): 249279.Google Scholar

15 To date, little has been written on the social and cultural history of corporal punishment of children in imperial Germany. Wolfgang Scheibe's excellent survey of the pedagogical history of corporal punishment focuses on the arguments of philosophers and pedagogues and traces the changing arguments for and against the use of physical correction by parents and teachers. Scheibe, Wolfgang, Die Strafe als Problem der Erziehung. Eine historische und systematische paedagogische Untersuchung (Weinheim: Beltz, 1967)Google Scholar. More recently Michael Hagner has investigated the case of Andreas Dippold, the tutor who in 1903 was tried for beating to death one of his young charges; Hagner examines popular and medical discourses that diagnosed Dippold's crime in terms of sexual deviance. Michael Hagner, Der Hauslehrer. On corporal punishment and sexuality, see also Evans, Richard, Tales of the German Underworld: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth-Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998)Google Scholar, 125–33.

16 See, for example, Maguire, Moira and Cinnéide, Séamus Ó, “'A Good Beating Never Hurt Anyone': The Punishment and Abuse of Children in Twentieth Century Ireland,” Journal of Social History 38, no. 3 (2005): 635652CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Middleton, Jacob, “The Experience of Corporal Punishment in Schools, 1890–1940,” History of Education 37(2008): 253275CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Kay, Carolyn, “How Should We Raise Our Son Benjamin?' Advice Literature for Mothers in Early Twentieth-Century Germany,” in Raising Citizens in the Century of the Child: The United States and German Central Europe in Comparative Perspective, ed. Schumann, Dirk (New York, NY: Berghahn, 2011), 113114Google Scholar; Gebhardt, Miriam, Die Angst vor dem kindlichen Tyrannen: Eine Geschichte der Erziehung im 20. Jahrhundert (Munich: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2009), 20Google Scholar. Gebhardt also observes that the “National Socialist” early child develoment, which emphasized rationalization, routinization, and subordination of the child's will to that of the parent, was typical of the influence of Taylorization and could be found the United States and Britain as well as Germany. Gebhardt, Angst, 81–84.

18 Kay, “How Should We Raise Our Son Benjamin,” 115–117; Scheibe, Die Strafe als Problem der Erziehung, 219–38; Key, Ellen, Century of the Child, (New York, NY: Putnam, 1909)Google Scholar. The book appeared in Germany as Das Jahrhundert des Kindes in 1902. See also Schreiber, Adele, Das Buch vom Kinde. Ein Sammelwerk für die wichtigsten Fragen der Kindheit unter Mitarbeit hervorragender Fachleute (Leipzig: Teubner, 1907), 7077Google Scholar; Foerster, Friedrich Wilhelm, Jugendlehre. Ein Buch für Eltern, Lehrer und Geistliche (Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1910; 1904)Google Scholar.

19 Berlin courts, for example, saw fewer than 7 percent of its cases appealed to the Reichsgericht between 1901 and 1915. Hett, Death in the Tiergarten, 29. Between 1881, shortly after its establishment, and 1914, the Criminal Division of the Reichsgericht heard more than thirty-eight cases involving Züchtigungsrecht.

20 Hubrich, Eduard, “Das Zuechtigungsrecht in seiner strafrechtlichen Bedeutung,” Der Gerichtssaal v. 46 (1892): 161Google Scholar. Kaufmann, Joseph, Das Züchtigungsrecht der Eltern und Erzieher (Stuttgart: Union Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaften, 1909), 14Google Scholar.

21 Hubrich, “Das Züchtigungsrecht,” 161–162.

22 Kaufmann, Züchtigungsrecht, 15.

23 “Denn alle schrifft von gott eingegeben, ist nütz zur lere, zur straffe, zur besserung, zur Züchtigung in der gerechtigkeit.”

24 ALR II 2 §86.

25 §1631 BGB. specifically gave fathers this right; §1634 extended this right to married mothers, as long as the marriage was intact; if opinions differed, however, the father's will overrode that of the mother.

26 Polligkeit, Wilhelm, Das Recht des Kindes auf Erziehung (Dresden: Päßler, 1908), 29Google Scholar.

27 Allen, Ann Taylor, Feminism and Motherhood in Western Europe, 1890–1970 (New York, NY: Palgrave, 2005), 4244CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 §§1626, 1627, 1684 BGB. See also Kaufmann, Züchtigungsrecht, 72–73.

29 “StGB. §223 i.V. mit BGB. Züchtigungsrecht der unehelichen Mutter sowie des Stiefvaters” in Goltdammer's Archiv für Strafrecht, 48 (1901): 134.

30 Kaufmann, Züchtigungsrecht, 75

31 Kaufmann, Züchtigungsrecht, 14.

32 [Paul] Havenstein, “Das Züchtigungsrecht der Lehrer,” Goldthammer's Archiv für Strafrecht, v. 51 (1904): 259Google Scholar.

33 Stenographische Berichte über die Verhandlungen des Reichstags, 265 (1911): 3853Google Scholar.

34 Lipp, Martin, “"Vaeterliche Gewalt: und ‘Person’—zur Dogmenengeschichte der elterlichen Sorge in der Pandektistik der 19. Jahrhundert,” Zeitschrift fuer Neuere Rechtsgeschichte 15, no. 3/4 (1993): 129145Google Scholar.

35 Kaufmann, Züchitgungsrecht, 76. A. Zweigart's fifth edition of Justus Olshausen's Kommentar zum Strafgesetzbuch (p. 832, note 10) insisted that stepparents possessed no such right.

36 StGB. §223 i.V. mit BGB. Züchtigungsrecht der unehelichen Mutter sowie des Stiefvaters,” Goltdammer's Archiv für Strafrecht, v. 48 (1901): 134Google Scholar.

37 RGSt 41 (1909): 98–102.

38 ALR II 12 §§50, 53

39 RGSt 5 (1882): 98–101.

40 RGSt 5 (1882): 99.

41 Joseph Kaufmann, Die Züchtigungsrecht der Eltern und Erzieher, 96.

42 RGSt 5 (1882): 99.

43 Ibid., 100–101.


44 “This Züchtigungsrecht is no subjective right of the teacher in the sense of civil law, no authorization of the teacher specified through objective right in relation to a point of his private sphere of rights which can be transferred from him or taken from or limited only with compensation, rather it is an attribute of his office, his person as the bearer of an office, an official authorization.” RGSt 15 (1887): 381.

45 RGSt 15 (1887): 381.

46 RGSt 33 (1900): 32–35.

47 Havenstein, “Das Züchtigungsrecht der Lehrer,” 241.

48 RGSt 20 (1890): 371–372

49 von Aretin, Felicitas, “Die Reichsländische Schulpolitik während des Kulturkampfes, 1872–1873” Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 32(1992): 184189Google Scholar.

50 RGSt 20 (1890): 372, emphasis added.

51 Ibid., 371. The court made a similar ruling the following year regarding a private school teacher in Hessen. The courts reasoned that private teachers do have the right to corporal punishment because of state regulations that by implication grant it to them. RGSt 34 (1901): 118–121.


52 RGSt 20 (1900): 371.

53 On school policy in Alsace-Lorraine during the Kulturkampf, see Aretin, “Die Reichsländische Schulpolitik während des Kulturkampfes, 1872–1873.” On school policy in Prussia, Lamberti, Marjorie, State, Society, and the Elementary School in Imperial Germany (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989). 40108Google Scholar.

54 Binding, Karl, Handbuch des Strafrechts, v. 1 (Leipzig: Duncker und Humblot, 1885), 800Google Scholar.

55 Keßler, B. von, “Das Reichsgericht und das Zuchtigungsrecht der Lehrer,” Der Gerichtssaal. Zeitschrift für die gesamte Strafrechtswissenschaft 41 (1889): 171Google Scholar.

56 Ibid.


57 Havenstein, “Züchtigungsrecht der Lehrer,” 249.

58 Ibid., 251.


59 Ibid. 259.


60 RGSt 41 (1909): 182.

61 Hett, Benjamin Carter, “The ‘Captain of Köpenick’ and the Transformation of German Criminal Justice, 1891–1914,” Central European History 36, no. 1 (2003): 143CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

62 Grenze für das dem Lehrer zustehende Züchtigungsrecht” Centralblatt für die gesamte Unterrichtsverwaltung in Preussen no. 5/6 (June 2, 1888): 422429Google Scholar. In response to the decision, the Prussian Kultusminister vacated all local ordinances to avoid criminal prosecution of teachers, and later issued a decree reminding teachers that punishment was to be based on “reasonable paternal discipline,” according to the Kabinetts-Ordre of 1824. Kretzschmar, Fr., Handbuch des preussischen Schulrechts (Leipzig: C.E.M. Pfeffer, 1899), 195Google Scholar.

63 Von Keßler, “Das Reichsgericht und das Züchtigungsrecht,” 171.

64 Johnson, Eric A., Urbanization and Crime: Germany, 1871–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 53108CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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66 On the use of corporal punishment in reformatories, see Dickinson, Edward Ross, “‘Until the Stubborn Will Is Broken: Crisis and Reform in Prussian Reformatory Education, 1900–34,” European History Quarterly, v. 32 (2002): 166181Google Scholar.

67 Binding, Karl and Hoche, Alfred, Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens (Leipzig, 1920)Google Scholar. On the influence of Binding's writings on eugenics, see Burleigh, Michael, Death and Deliverance : “Euthanasia” in Germany c. 1900–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 1526Google Scholar; Friedlander, Henry, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 1416Google Scholar.

68 Binding, Handbuch des Strafrechts, v. 1, 800; Binding, Grundriß des deutschen Strafrechts, Allgemeiner Teil, 6th ed. (Leipzig: Wilhelm Edelmann, 1902), 160.

69 von Liszt, Franz, Lehrbuch des deutschen Strafrechts, 10th ed. (Berlin: J. Guttentag, 1900), 132Google Scholar.

70 Joseph Kaufmann, Züchtigungsrecht, 102; Hubrisch, “Das Züchtigungsrecht,” 223.

71 v. Falkenberg, “Oberlandesgericht Braunschweig, Strafsachen,” Deutsche Juristen-Zeitung v. 10, no. 15 (1905): 752Google Scholar.

72 Eckstein, Ernst, “Die Züchtigung fremder Kinder in strafrechtlicher Beziehung,” Archiv für Strafrecht und Strafprozess 56 (1909): 281Google Scholar.

73 “Der Richter hilft sich dann zuweilen mit allen möglichen juristischen Ausflüchten, um zu einer Freisprechung zu kommen, die aber alle schwerlich einer Kritik standhalten.” Eckstein, “Die Züchtigung fremder Kinder,” 281.

74 Self-defense or emergency measures were excluded from prosecution under §223, even when the putative victim was a child. See the discussion in Fr. Kretzschmar, Handbuch des preussischen Schulrechts, 198.

75 Klein, Peter, “Recht zur Züchtigung fremder Kinder,” Dr. J. A. Seuffert's Blätter für Rechtsanwendung zunächst in Bayern 78 (1913): 206208Google Scholar.

76 Ahlers, “Das Recht zur Zuechtigung fremder Kinder,” Der Gerichtssaal 84 (1916): 236–38Google Scholar.

77 Ibid., 238. These decisions, although directly contradicting an earlier Reichsgericht decision, were never appealed to the highest court. See also Eckstein, “Die Züchtigung fremder Kinder,” 281–285.


78 Klein, “Recht zur Züchtigung fremder Kinder,” 207.

79 Ibid.


80 Hahne (Obrlandesgerichtsrat Hamm), “Das Zuechtigungsrecht gegenüber fremder Kinder,” Das Recht. Rundschau für den deutschen Juristenstand v. 20 no. 3/4 (1916): 69Google Scholar.

81 Ibid. 70.


82 Duensing, Frieda, Verletzung der Fuersorgerecht gegenueber Minderjaehrigen. Ein Versuch zu ihrer strafgesetzlichen Behandlung (Munich: J. Schweitzer Verlag, 1903), 14Google Scholar

83 Ibid., 12–13.


84 Wilhelm Polligkeit, Das Recht des Kindes auf Erziehung, 13–14. See Dickinson's discussion of Polligkeit: Dickinson, The Politics of Child Welfare, 74–75; and Detlev Peukert, Grenzen, 128–139.

85 Polligkeit, Das Recht des Kindes, 52; Duensing, Verletzung, 5.

86 Article 120 of the Weimar Constitution also indicated that the state supervised parents' exercise of this “natural right.” See Schumann, Dirk, “Asserting Their ‘Natural Right’: Parents and Public Schooling in Post-1945 Germany,” in Raising Citizens in the Century of the Child: The United States and German Central Europe in Comparative Perspective, ed. Schumann, Dirk (New York, NY: Berghahn, 2010), 209211Google Scholar.

87 Hartmann, Willi, Die Züchtigung fremder Kinder: ein Versuch der Straffreilassung des Zuchtigenden (Gräfinhainichen: C. Schulze, 1931), 23Google Scholar; Endemann, Friedrich, “Zuechtigungrecht Erwachener gegenber fremden Kindern,” Juristische Wochenschrift 53, 21/22 (1924): 17881789Google Scholar.

88 Meynig, Wilfried, Wie laeßt sich eine Zuechtigung Dritter an fremden Kindern rechtfertigen? (Erlangen: Max Doeres, 1935)Google Scholar; Heinrich Möhring, “Die Zuechtigung fremder Kinder in dogmatischer und rechtsvergleichender Darstellung” (PhD. diss., Friedrich-Schiller-Universitaet, 1938).

89 Foerster, Jugendlehre, 707–708.

90 Key, The Century of the Child, 141.

91 Schwerhoff, Gerd, “Criminalized Violence and the process of civilisation: a reappraisal,” Crime, Histoire & Societes/Crime, History and Society 6, no. 2 (2001)Google Scholar.

92 Johansen, Anja, “A Process of Civilisation? Legitimisation of Violent Policing in Prussian and French Police Manuals and Instructions, 1880–1914,” European Review of History 14, no. 1 (2007): 4971CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On police violence in the maintenance of public order and suppression of working-class politics in Germany, see Lindenberger, Thomas, Straßenpolitik. Zur Geschichte der öffentlichen Ordnung in Berlin 1900 bis 1914 (Bonn: Dietz, 1995)Google Scholar.

93 Richard J. Evans, Tales, 125–132.

94 Wildenthal, Lora, German Women for Empire, 1884–1945 (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On corporal punishment in the colonies, see Schröder, Martin, Prügelstrafe und Züchtigungsrecht in den deutschen Schutzgebiete Schwarzafrikas (Münster: Lit-Verlag, 1997)Google Scholar; and Schwirck, Harry, “Law's Violence and the Boundary Between Corporal Discipline and Abuse in German South West Africa,” Akron Law Review 36(2002): 8791Google Scholar.

95 Frevert, Ehrenmänner: Das Duell in der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft (Munich: C. H. Beck); Frevert, Ute, “Taming the Male Ruffian: Male Violence and Dueling in Early Modern and Modern Germany,” in Men and Violence: Gender, Honor, and Rituals in Modern Europe and America, ed. Spierenburg, Pieter (Athens, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 1998), 3663Google Scholar.

96 Evans, Tales, 124–125.

97 Ibid, 132.

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