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Sippenhaft or Sippenhaftung (German: [ˈzɪpənˌhaft(ʊŋ)], kin liability[1]) refers to the principle of a family sharing the responsibility for a crime committed by one of its members, a form of guilt by association. 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 historically found in many pre-Christian European cultures, and in non-Western cultures such as that of China and Japan. In the modern era kin guilt is rarely given legal basis, though it remains common in clan-based societies. In exceptional cases, Sippenhaft-like punishments are used as a deterrent against terrorism, such as in the Russian Federation.

Another form of Sippenhaft distinct from traditional kin liability is the practice of kin punishment, often used in totalitarian states as a form of extortion or harassment, most associated with Nazi Germany towards the end of World War II, but also used by the East German communist regime e.g. in the form of imprisonment, and by many other authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Contemporary examples of this form of Sippenhaft include North Korea.[2]



In traditional Germanic law, the law of germanic peoples before the widespread adoption of Roman canon law, it was accepted that the clan of a criminal was liable for offenses committed by one of its members. The law of Germanic (including Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian) peoples distinguished between two forms of justice for severe crimes such as murder: blood revenge, the right to extrajudicially kill a Germanic free-man in the context of clan feuds[3] and blood money, called the weregild, the obligatory pecuniary restitution given to the kin of the victim in accordance with the nature of the crime and the social status of those affected. In adherence to the principle of Sippenhaft (kin liability) the kin of the offender was liable to pay the weregild in addition to or in substitution for the member that committed the crime. Similar laws were also implemented by Celtic peoples.

Nazi Germany[edit]

In Nazi Germany, the term was given a new meaning: the punishment of kin (relatives, spouse) for the offense of a family member. In this form of Sippenhaft the 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 Wenzeslaus 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, two-year-old daughter, 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.[4]

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."[5]

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. Erwin Rommel opted to commit suicide rather than be tried for his suspected role in the plot in part because he knew that his wife and children would suffer well before his own all-but-certain conviction and execution.

After the 20 July plot, numerous families connected to the Soviet sponsored League of German Officers made up of German prisoners of war, such as those of von Seydlitz and Paulus, 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."[6] Sippenhoft as implemented in Nazi Germany (and later in other authoritarian regimes such as North Korea) is distinguished from the medieval Sippenhaft.

Federal Republic of Germany[edit]

The principle of Sippenhaftung is considered incompatible with German Basic Law, and therefore has no legal definition. Implementation of Sippenhaft-like policies by governmental institutions is prosecuted by the courts.[7]

Other examples of Sippenhaft[edit]

  • Traditional Irish law required the payment of a tribute (Éraic) in reparation for murder or other major crimes. In the case of homicide, if the attacker fled, the fine had to be paid by the tribe to which he belonged.[8]
  • An analogous concept to Germanic Sippenhaft is found in medieval Welsh law where the kin of an offender was liable to make compensation for his wrongful act. This penalty (called Galanas) was generally limited to murder.[9]
  • The medieval Polish Główszczyzna fine functioned similarly to the Anglo-Saxon and Scandic weregild.
  • Traditional Arab society, which is clan-based, strongly adheres to the concept of collective responsibility. Bedouins recognize two main forms of penalty for a crime against a member. These are blood revenge, referred to as Qisas (قصا, "revenge") and blood money, Diyya (دية, "blood money"/"ransom"). In cases of severe crimes such as murder and rape, blood revenge is the proscribed punishment. If a murder occurs, clansmen of the victim have the right to kill the murderer or one of his male clansmen with impunity. Certain crimes are liable for multiple acts of revenge, for example, the murder of women and children is avenged fourfold. Crimes considered treacherous, such as the murder of a guest, are also avenged fourfold. Alternatively, a crime punishable by blood revenge can be commuted to a severe fine if the family of the offended party agrees to it. Blood money is paid jointly by the clan of the offending member to the clan of the victimized member. Bedouins differentiate between crimes in which the group must pay as a standing obligation without reimbursement from the perpetrator of the offense, and crimes where the latter must reimburse them. Crimes where the clan is obligated to pay a joint fee without any reimbursement are murder, violent assault, or insults and other offenses committed during a violent conflict. The collective payment of fines for such crimes is viewed as a justified contribution to the welfare of the injured party, rather than a penalty to the perpetrator. Other offenses given a blood-price are crimes against property and crimes against honor.[10] Concepts based on the Arabian laws of blood revenge and blood money are found in Islamic Sharia law, and are thus variously adhered to in Islamic states.
  • China historically adhered to the concept of liability among blood relatives, called luzuo (緑座). During the Qin and Han dynasties, families were subject to various punishments according to the punishment of the offending member. When the offense was punishable by death by severing the body at the waist, the offender's parents, siblings, spouse, and child were executed, when the offense was punishable by death and public display of the body, the offender's family was subject to imprisonment with hard labor, when the offender's sentence was exile, their kin was exiled along with them.[11] The most severe punishment, given for capital offenses, was the Nine familial exterminations, implemented by tyrannical rulers. This punishment entailed the execution of all the close and extended kin of the individual, categorized into nine groups: four generations of the paternal line, three from the maternal line, and two from the wife's. In the case of Confucian scholar Fang Xiaoru, his students and peers were uniquely included as a tenth group.
  • 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", using the Repression of Family Members of Traitors of the Motherland clause as a basis. 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. The NKVD Order No. 00689, signed in 1938, rolled back some of the more extreme measures, as such that only spouses who were informed of their partner's political activities were arrested.
  • 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.[12] 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.[13]
  • In November 2013 the Russian Federation legalized Sippenhaft-like punishments against the family of an individual convicted or suspected of committing terrorist acts. These laws were passed under Vladimir Putin in advance of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, located in the embattled Caucasus region. Under these laws property can be seized even under the mere suspicion that a relative was involved in terrorism. When threats were made by Chechnyan militants against the games, terrorist "affiliated" persons were arrested. The number of terrorist attacks has declined since then.[14]
  • Israel implemented Sippenhaft-like punishments during the Second Intifada. In 2002, the Supreme Court of Israel issued an order for families of terrorists from the West Bank to be deported to the Gaza Strip.[15][16] In addition family members of Palestinian terrorists may be detained, and the house of the terrorist may be destroyed despite others living in it.[17][18]
  • In the United States, Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed killing the family members of terrorists.[19][20]

Further reading (German)[edit]

  • Dagmar Albrecht: Mit meinem Schicksal kann ich nicht hadern. Sippenhaft in der Familie Albrecht von Hagen. Dietz, Berlin 2001, ISBN 3-320-02018-8.
  • Harald Maihold: Die Sippenhaft: Begründete Zweifel an einem Grundsatz des „deutschen Rechts“. In: Mediaevistik. Band 18, 2005, S. 99–126 (PDF; 152 KB)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ ""Escapee Tells of Horrors in North Korean Prison Camp", Washington Post, December 11, 2008". The Washington Post. December 11, 2008. Retrieved August 23, 2010. 
  3. ^ [1],
  4. ^ Loeffel, Robert (2012). Family Punishment in Nazi Germany, Sippenhaft, Terror and Myth. Palgrave. pp. 53–88. ISBN 9780230343054. 
  5. ^ Fest, Joachim (1996). Plotting Hitler's Death. New York: Henry Holt. p. 303. ISBN 0080504213. 
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ No Sippenhaft Retrieved December 31, 2013.
  8. ^ [2]
  9. ^ Welsh tribal law
  10. ^ Bedouin Law from Sinai and the Negev: Justice Without Government
  11. ^ Historical Studies in Japan
  12. ^ ""Escapee Tells of Horrors in North Korean Prison Camp", Washington Post, December 11, 2008". The Washington Post. December 11, 2008. Retrieved August 23, 2010. 
  13. ^ Kaechon internment camp
  14. ^ Sippenhaft wie zu Zeiten Stalins (German)
  15. ^ ""Israels Gerichtshof erlaubt Sippenhaft", Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, September 3, 2002". Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. September 30, 2002. Retrieved January 6, 2016. 
  16. ^ ""Court Says Israel Can Expel 2 of Militant's Kin to Gaza", New York Times, September 4, 2002". New York Times. September 4, 2002. Retrieved February 23, 2016. 
  17. ^ ""Oppression wird um Sippenhaft angereichert", Süddeutsche Zeitung, November 20, 2014". Süddeutsche Zeitung. November 20, 2014. Retrieved January 6, 2016. 
  18. ^ ""Israel Destroys Homes to Deter Terrorists", ABC News, January 6, 2006". ABC News. September 30, 2002. Retrieved February 23, 2016. 
  19. ^ "Trump's call to kill families of terrorists is quarter baked". The National Review. December 18, 2015. Retrieved December 30, 2015. 
  20. ^ "Donald Trump: I'd kill family members of terrorists to beat Isis". The Belfast Telegraph. December 16, 2015. Retrieved December 30, 2015.