Sippenhaft or Sippenhaftung ( [ˈzɪpənˌhaft(ʊŋ)], kin liability) is a German term referring to the idea that a family can share the responsibility for a crime or act committed by one of its members; that is, it is a form of collective punishment because of family association. As a legal principle, it was derived from Germanic law in the Middle Ages, usually in the form of fines and compensations.
In traditional Germanic law (before the widespread adoption of Roman canon law), Sippenhaft accepted the idea 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, 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.
In Nazi Germany, the term was revived to justify 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.
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."
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."
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.