Joshua Smeltzer über Kurt Perels, Der Friede von Versailles und der Deutsche Staat (1920)

Kurt Perels war Professor des öffentlichen Rechts am Hamburgischen Kolonialinstitut sowie der erste Dekan der rechts- und staatswissenschaftlichen Fakultät der Universität Hamburg.  Zu seinen Forschungsschwerpunkten gehörte das Parlamentsrecht, das Kolonialrecht und das Völkerrecht. Nach der nationalsozialistischen Übernahme der Universität drohte der Verlust seines Richteramts und seiner Professur. Am 10. September 1933 flüchtete er in den Tod. Über Perels‘ Nachfolger Ernst Forsthoff und andere politische Juristen, die die Linien politikwissenschaftlicher Forschung an der Universität vorzeichneten, werden in Kürze weitere Beiträge erscheinen.

Joshua Smeltzer holds an M.Sc. in Politics, Economics and Philosophy from Universität Hamburg. He is a doctoral candidate in the department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Speaking in the Aula of the newly established University of Hamburg on January 17, 1920, Kurt Perels dedicated his presentation to the relationship between “the Peace of Versailles and the German State.” Born in Berlin in 1878, Perels came to Hamburg by way of Greifswald in 1909, replacing Richard Thoma as the Professor of Public Law at the Hamburgisches Kolonialinstitut. A decade later, he helped to found the University of Hamburg and became the first dean of the Faculty of Rechts- und Staatswissenschaften. Before the outbreak of the Great War, Perels had already published on topics such as “Disputes between German Federal States on the Basis of Article 76 of the Reichsverfassung” (1900) [“Streitigkeiten deutscher Bundesstaaten auf Grund des Art. 76 der Reichsverfassung”], “The Establishment of a Colonial and Consular Court” (1910) [“Die Errichtung eines Kolonial- und Konsular-Gerichtshofs”], and “The General Privilegium de non appellando for Brandenburg-Prussia” (1909) [“Die allgemeinen Appellationsprivilegien für Brandenburg-Preußen”].

Compared to these earlier academic texts, Perels’ speech was nothing less than a bitter polemic against the Treaty of Versailles and its consequences for Germany. For Perels, the Treaty was not only a national humiliation and source of indignation for the Germans, but it also symbolized the end of the German state as such: if the “essence of a state” is defined by its “territory, people, and independently organized power,” Versailles had radically infringed upon each of these three aspects. The fledgling Weimar Republic thus needed to decide whether it would accept the existing terms of the treaty, or seek a fundamental revision. In short, Perels thought the German state was faced with an existential choice: “life or death?” (6).

Throughout his speech, Perels aired a list of grievances against the Treaty of Versailles, though its territorial provisions took center stage. The loss of agricultural territory in the East, and resource rich territory in the West; the placement of the Saar Basin under a League of Nations mandate; the French “robbery” of Alsace; the establishment of international commissions to establish German rivers. How was it possible, Perel wondered, “that at the very same moment that the right of national self determination was announced, territories with an essentially German population were shoved into foreign national communities without being asked?” (7). At the same time, the occupied territory of the Rhineland found itself under effective Entente control, with a right of intervention and a right of extending the occupation written into the treaty. Even worse, Germany was made to foot the bill for the occupation of its own territory, in addition to its already exorbitant reparations payments.

Each of these incursions into the territorial integrity of the German state paled in comparison to what Perels viewed as the ultimate humiliation: Article 178 of the Weimar Constitution. Section two of this article held that “the stipulations of the peace treaty signed on June 28th 1919 are not affected by this constitution.” As Perels bluntly summarized it, “the Peace of Versailles stands above the constitution,” and as a result, had dealt a “crushing blow” to the essence of a state: “constitutional autonomy and the wealth of sovereignty”(14). Indeed, he quipped that every Abiturienten should receive, in tandem with a copy of the Reichsverfassung, a copy of the Treaty of Versailles, as that was the true “Schicksalsbuch of the German people” (19). For Perels, enshrining the Treaty into the Weimar Constitution was a clear indication Germany was no longer an independent state; it was, at best, a mere “province,” subject to the foreign control of occupying authorities and international commissions.

What was Germany to do? Perels recognized that the Reichstag could not simply unilaterally wish away the Treaty of Versailles, even if he held that was an “immoral” treaty at its core. Instead, Germany ought to follow a two-fold strategy: honor the terms of the treaty over the short term, while simultaneously demanding its “annulment or amendment” (25). Thus, Perels presented a list of amendments to the treaty to restore Germany to the status of a state: an end to the Rhineland occupation; a “right of self-determination for the German people”; a reduction of reparations payments to manageable sums; and an end to unilateral most favored nation status with the Entente powers, a policy that ensured the Entente enjoyed the best trade terms for their exports to the German market while denying Germany the reciprocal benefits. Only by securing each of these amendments, Perels argued, could Germany “protect the holy legacy of our past, and perhaps prevent the withering of the slumbering seeds of our future” (27).

For a former Professor at the Hamburgisches Kolonialinstitut and expert in Colonial Law, Perels’ presentation contains surprisingly little discussion of the Treaty of Versailles’ dissolution of the German Overseas Colonial Empire. There are merely two passing references: in one sentence, he notes that “The German Empire had its colonial territories taken away” (7), while later, he laments that Germans can no longer migrate to the “colonies, which were robbed from Germany” (22). However, beyond these two sentences, there is no substantive discussion of the colonies. But perhaps this was not such an omission after all: in expounding the economic, political, and legal consequences of Versailles for the German state, Perels was in fact making the then-ubiquitous argument that Germany itself had been transformed into a colony of the victorious Entente powers. Germany “resembled a well-ordered colony … whose only purpose is to provide compulsory labor for a master state, or better, a master association of states” (18-19). To fight against this reduction of Germany’s political and moral status was thus the “obligation of all those who still have the courage and the right to call themselves German” (30)

Perels remained in Hamburg until the end of his life, a pre-mature death caused by the National Socialist Gleichschaltung – an exclusion from the very same Germanness to which Perels had appealed in his Hamburg speech. Anticipating the consequences of being unable to establish his “Aryan ancestry” after the passage of the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” [Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Bereufsbeamtentums], Kurt Perels took his own life on September 10, 1933 at the age of 56. He was succeeded at the University of Hamburg by Ernst Forsthoff in the Winter Semester 1935/6, and subsequently by Hans Peter Ipsen in 1940. A Stolperstein in Perels’ memory lies today in front of the University’s main building at Edmund Siemers Allee 1: “Here taught Kurt Perels (b. 1878) // humiliated and disenfranchised // escape in death // 10.9.1933.”


Hans Peter Ipsen, “Kurt Perels 1878-1933,” Archiv des öffentlichen Rechts 83(44) (1958), 374-379.

Stefan Oeter, “Internationales Recht in Hamburg: Vom Institut für Auswärtige Politik zum Institut für international Angelegenheiten,” in 100 Jahre Rechtswissenschaft an der Universität Hamburg, eds. Tilman Repgen, Florian Jeßberger, Markus Kotzur (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019), 555-576.

Arne Pilniok, “Kurt Perels als Pionier des Parlamentsrechts im Kaiserreich und der Weimarer Republik,” in 100 Jahre Rechtswissenschaft an der Universität Hamburg, eds. Tilman Repgen, Florian Jeßberger, Markus Kotzur (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019), 339-354.

Rolf Stödter, “Dem Gedächtnis von Kurt Perels,” Juristenzeitung 13(17) (1958), 549-550.

Michael Stolleis, Die Geschichte des öffentlichen Rechts in Deutschland, Bd. 3.  (München: C.H. Beck, 1999).

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