On this day 93 years ago, the German weekly Die Weltbühne, considered the mouthpiece of the radical democratic left, published the article Windiges aus der deutschen Luftfahrt. The ensuing trial was one of the most spectacular criminal proceedings against critical journalism in the Weimar Republic.
The article dealt with the so-called black Reichswehr and especially the establishment of a secret air force. The Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany to rearm heavily after the end of World War I, and the army had to be limited to a maximum of 100,000 men. The formation of an air force was explicitly forbidden. Nevertheless, the Reich government and the Reichswehr systematically attempted to circumvent the provisions of the treaty and supported the creation of paramilitary units and established illegal weapons stockpiles. The journalist and aircraft designer Walter Kreiser, who had great insight into what was happening in the aviation industry, laid out in said article the Reichswehr’s connections with that very industry. It was clear from these remarks that the Reichswehr was obviously building up an air force in secret, bypassing the Treaty of Versailles.
The article did not remain without effect; immediately after its publication, investigations began against the author Kreiser and the editor of Weltbühne Carl von Ossietzky. The apartments of both were searched and Ossietzky was questioned. However, no charges were brought directly because the Reich government was in a dilemma as a result of the article. If they denied or ignored the article, they risked further publications. But a harsh trial against the journalists would have been tantamount to an admission of guilt. After more than 2 years, the decision was made to prosecute and to charge Kreiser and Ossietzky with treason. On the side of the public prosecutor’s office and the Reichsgericht, well-known jurists were involved. Prosecutor Paul Jorns had already been involved in the murder investigations in the cases of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg and had covered tracks there. All 19 witnesses as well as the defense’s central request for evidence were rejected; these should have proved that the events described in the article were already known to foreign countries and therefore there was no treason.
The sentence was proclaimed on November 23, 1931, and was 18 months imprisonment. In its reasoning, the court stated that the citizen had to remain loyal to his country and could not arbitrarily denounce the violation of international treaties. The court based the required intent on the fact that the defendants had been pacifists, from which it could be concluded that they had wanted to have an anti-militaristic effect. The Weltbühne trial is one of many cases from this period that proceeded in this or a similar way. The political judiciary in the Weimar Republic often argued with the “patriotic duties” of German citizens and thus fought against pacifist journalism critical of the government. From 1924 to 1927, over 1,000 people were convicted of treason or insulting the Reichswehr. The verdict made huge waves nationally and internationally.
Attempts to reopen the trial in the 1990s failed.