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Sippenhaft or Sippenhaftung (English: "kin liability") refers to the principle of families sharing the responsibility for a crime committed by one of its members. A relative of the perpetrator could thus be punished in place of or in addition to the perpetrator, depending on the circumstances. As a legal principle, it is derived from Germanic law in the middle ages, there usually in the form of fines and compensations. The same principle is also found in many non-western cultures.

In modern totalitarian states it is one form of collective punishment, often used for harassment or extortion. Examples are communist East Germany and on a larger scale in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia towards the end of the World War II. A contemporary example is North Korea.

The German term "Haft" (although one meaning is "imprisonment") does not necessarily imply a prison sentence, but can refer to any form of punishment or enforcement of a civil liability.

Nazi Germany[edit]

Sippenhaft was a common practice in which relatives of persons accused of crimes against the state were held to share the responsibility for those crimes and subject to arrest and sometimes execution. Many people who had committed no crimes were arrested and punished under Sippenhaft decrees introduced after the failed 20 July plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July 1944.

Examples of Sippenhaft being used as a threat exist within the Wehrmacht from around 1943. Soldiers accused of having 'blood impurities' or soldiers conscripted from areas outside of Germany also began to have their families threatened and punished with Sippenhaft. An example is the case of Panzergrenadier Leiss, who was accused of desertion on the Eastern Front in December 1942. After the Düsseldorf Gestapo discovered supposed 'Polish' links in the Leiss family, in February 1943 his wife, child, two brothers, sister and brother-in-law were arrested and executed at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. By 1944, several general and individual directives were ordered within divisions and corps, threatening troops with consequences against their family. After 20 July 1944 these threats were extended to include all German troops and in particular, German commanders. A decree of February 1945 threatened death to the relatives of military commanders who showed what Hitler regarded as cowardice or defeatism in the face of the enemy. After surrendering Königsberg to the Soviets in April 1945, the family of the German commander General Otto Lasch were arrested. These arrests were publicized in the Völkischer Beobachter.[1]

After the failure of the 20 July plot, the SS chief Heinrich Himmler told a meeting of Gauleiters in Posen that he would "introduce absolute responsibility of kin... a very old custom practiced among our forefathers." According to Himmler, this practice had existed among the ancient Teutons. "When they placed a family under the ban and declared it outlawed or when there was a blood feud in the family, they were utterly consistent.... This man has committed treason; his blood is bad; there is traitor's blood in him; that must be wiped out. And in the blood feud the entire clan was wiped out down to the last member. And so, too, will Count Stauffenberg's family be wiped out down to the last member."[2]

Accordingly, the members of the family of Stauffenberg (the one who had planted the bomb that failed to kill Hitler) were all under suspicion. His wife, Nina Schenk Gräfin von Stauffenberg, was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp (she survived and lived until 2006). His brother Alexander, who knew nothing of the plot and was serving with the Wehrmacht in Greece, was also sent to a concentration camp. Similar punishments were meted out to the relatives of Carl Goerdeler, Henning von Tresckow, Adam von Trott zu Solz and many other conspirators. The fact that most of these families belonged to the old Prussian aristocracy, a class detested by the Nazis, added to the zeal with which they were persecuted.

After the 20 July 1944 as well, numerous families, such as von Seydlitz and Paulus, connected to the Soviet sponsored League of German Officers group made up of German prisoners of war were also arrested. Unlike a number of the 20 July conspirators families, those arrested for connection to the League were not released after a few months but remained in prison until the end of the war. Younger children of arrested plotters were not jailed but sent to orphanages under new names: Stauffenberg's children were renamed "Meister."[3]

Other regimes[edit]

Other totalitarian regimes have used similar practices even if they did not codify them in law. During Joseph Stalin's 1930s Great Purge, many thousands of people were arrested and executed or sent to labour camps as "relatives of the enemies of the people." One well-known example was Anna Larina, the wife of Nikolai Bukharin, who was imprisoned after her husband was accused of treason. Red Army soldiers, particularly before brutal battles such as the one at Stalingrad, were told that relatives of soldiers who surrendered would be killed. Similar practices took place in the People's Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. A prominent example is Deng Pufang, who was arrested and tortured by the Red Guards when his father, Deng Xiaoping, was purged by Mao Zedong.

In North Korea, political prisoners are sent to the Kwan-li-so concentration camps along with their relatives without any fair trial.[4] North Korean citizens convicted of more serious political crimes are sentenced to life imprisonment, and the summary two generations of their family (children and grandchildren) will be born in the camps as part of the "3 generations of punishment" policy instigated by state founder Kim Il-Sung in 1948.[5]

Other examples[edit]

  • Mafia, gangster, and outlaw-motorcycle-club organizations often retaliate against people by committing crimes against their (innocent) family members, or effect intimidation by threatening to do so. In some cases, they may unlawfully attempt to collect a deceased person's debts from the surviving family members, as part of more general unlawful debt collection practices including violence/extortion/racketeering/loansharking. (In many countries including the U.S., it is never lawful to collect a debt from a subject's family members except in co-signing situations as the family members are non-liable third parties.) These kinds of behaviors are also often exemplified in crime dramas.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Loeffel, Robert (2012). Family Punishment in Nazi Germany, Sippenhaft, Terror and Myth. Palgrave. pp. 53–88. ISBN 9780230343054. 
  2. ^ Fest, Joachim (1996). Plotting Hitler's Death. New York: Henry Holt. p. 303. ISBN 0080504213. 
  3. ^ Loeffel, Robert (2007). "Sippenhaft, Terror and Fear in Nazi Germany: Examining One Facet of Terror in the Aftermath of the Plot of 20 July 1944". Contemporary European History 16 (1): 51–69. doi:10.1017/S0960777306003626. 
  4. ^ ""Escapee Tells of Horrors in North Korean Prison Camp", Washington Post, December 11, 2008". The Washington Post. December 11, 2008. Retrieved August 23, 2010. 
  5. ^ Kaechon internment camp