Hugo Sinzheimer: a concise biography


Note: This is only a concise biography. There is an excellent, recent biography of Hugo Sinzheimer by Otto Ernst Kempen (2017). Somewhat more critical of aspects of his work are two other partly biographical books: a political biography by Susanne Knorre (1991) and a book on his notion of self-regulation by Sandro Blanke (2005). Far from critical is the biography Keiji Kubo published 1986 in Japanese, translated in German in 1995, which contains a lot of factual information on his activities and his contacts with other scholars. This concise biography has been composed by Robert Knegt.



Hugo Sinzheimer (1875-1945) was a German lawyer and legal scientist whose work has had, mainly in the second and third decades of the twentieth century, a profound influence on collective labour law and on the legal reality of labour relations. He has been called the ‘father of labour law’. Although this is a qualification he would himself have renounced, it is beyond doubt that he has been one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the discipline.

He grounded his plea for the relative autonomy of ‘labour law’ as a discipline of law upon the particular character of the legal relations regarding ‘dependent’ labour. Their character defied a simple treatment with ‘civil law’ concepts. His ensuing theoretical work on collective agreements and works councils has made him the ‘architect’ [i] of collective labour law, not only in Europe, but as far as in Japan and Southern Korea.[ii]

Besides his scientific work he has acted as a spokesman in union debates about labour legislation and for some time been actively involved in the politics of the Weimar Republic.


As basic motives in his life and work can be mentioned an active sense of justice, and two strives for reconciliation: first, between his being both Jewish and an impassioned German citizen and, second, between Marxist ideas and a liberal-humanist philosophy of life. Sinzheimer’s friend Ludwig Curtius claimed to have ‘discovered the secret, but also the wound of his analytical mind: his Jewish­ness in the midst of a passionate love for Germany and its [i.p. literate] culture’.[iii] Sinzheimer shared Marxist convictions of the class struggle, but declined the idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat – industrial relations rather required the organisation of a collective counterpower, and he regarded a unified German state as an indispensable guarantor of a new fair legal order of labour relations. In international affairs he took an ethical, pacifist posit­ion: as early as 1908 he advanced a legal structure of peaceful inter­nat­ional relations. He promoted both the development of a Europe­an eco­nomic community and the idea of a League of Nations (Völkerbund).[iv]  To Sinzheimer (following Kant in this respect), man was an ‘end in itself’, and (economic) socialism was just instrumental to realizing a ‘new humanity’, a “Sozialismus des Geistes” (spiritual socialism) in which humans would realize their full autonomy.[v]


Summary of his life

Hugo Daniël Sinzheimer was born April 12th 1875 in Worms in the family of Jewish clothing manufacturer Leopold Sinzheimer. After completing studies in law and in economics he got his PhD in 1901 in Heidelberg and established himself in 1903 as a practising lawyer in Frankfurt. In 1913 he was married to Paula Seliger (1890-1960); they got three daughters and a son.Sinzheimer published regularly on labour law matters, in particular on collective labour agreements and self-determination in labour affairs, and acted as an advisor to German unions. Initially his political affiliation was with the liberal left, but at the start of WW I he joined the Social Demo­cratic Party of Germany and became active in local politics. 

In the turbulent period after the collapse of the German Empire he has for some time acted as chief of the city police (Polizeipräsident) of the town of Frankfurt. As a member of the parliament of the Weimar Republic he has been actively involved in the construction of the Weimar Constitution. Due to his efforts, it includes rights regarding freedom of coalition and employee participation that today are still included in the German Constitution. From 1920 till 1933 he was Honorary Professor of Labour Law and Sociology of Law at the University of Frankfurt. In 1921 he published a founding book on the theory of labour law.

In 1933 the national-socialists deprived him (being Jewish and a politic­ally active socialist) of his professorship and arrested him. Having been released after some time, he and his wife fled to Amsterdam; their four children joined them in the summer. Already in November 1933 he was appointed Professor of Sociology of Law at the University of Amsterdam.

During the German occupation of the Netherlands he was arrested twice but nevertheless succeeded in surviving the war at different places of hiding. The famine winter of 1944/45 is said to have affected his health. September 16th, 1945 he died in Bloemendaal (Netherlands) of a brain hemorrhage, a day before his planned valedictory speech at the reopening University of Amsterdam.


Education and early professional activities

As from 1894 Hugo Sinzheimer studied law and economy in München, Berlin, Freiburg (Br.), Marburg and Halle. In München he was impressed by the lectures of Lujo Brentano who was distrustful of the social-reform­ative capacities of the state and stressed the need for self-organisation in labour relations. In Berlin these ideas were reinforced by the teachings of Otto von Gierke and his ideas on associational self-control (‘Genossenschaftsrecht’) within the encompassing association of the state. During his stay in Halle close contact with Rudolf Stammler fostered his conviction that law could and should be mobilized to improve relations between employers and workers. He got his PhD in Heidelberg at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität in 1901. As from 1903 he worked in Frankfurt/M as a barrister and earned a certain fame as a defender in criminal cases (a.o. due to penal sanctions on strikes), and as a counsellor of German unions.


Political activities

Initially a member of left-liberal political associations, he joined the German Social-Democratic Party during WW I. As from 1917 he acted in Frankfurt as city councillor, during the November Revolution of 1918 for a short time (until April 1919) as chief commissioner of the city police. In 1919 he earned a seat in the Weimar Parliament (Nationalversamm­lung), where he substantially contributed to the sections on ‘industrial democracy’ in the Constitution of the ‘Weimar Republic’. June 1919 he aspired to the position of Minister of Labour (Reichsarbeitsminister) but the SPD fraction voted in favour of another candidate[i]. He acted as chairman of a parliamentary commission charged with an investigation into the role that army generals would have played in prolonging the World War. His close interrogations of these generals met with fierce criticism from right-wing nationalists and evoked an antisemitic campaign against his person. At the end of his parliamentary mandate in 1920 he withdrew from national politics.

It is clear that Sinzheimer’s ideas on collective agreements and on works councils have had an important impact on the relative legislation shortly after the revolutionary year 1918. The Tarifverordnung (23-12-1918) corresponded to what Sinzheimer had proposed in 1916; in 1920 the Betriebsräte­gesetz incorporated his ideas. In 1921 he chaired a commission of experts that designed a bill on collective agreements that has not been enacted – the Tarif­verordnung has remained their legal basis throughout the Weimar Republic. Sinzheimer participated in a commission dedicated to designing a uniform labour law; the proposed bill has never been enacted, but its proposal to install labour courts has (Arbeitsgerichtsgesetz, 23-12-1926).

Sinzheimer was himself part of the right-wing Hofgeismarer Kreis of the SPD. In the desper­ate socio-economic situation of Germany in 1923 Sinzheimer acquiesced (as did the SPD) in state-led wage politics, and was heavily criticized for this ‘defection’ by left-wing social demo­crats. In the political situation of renegotiating the War Reparations in the 1920’s and in the economic crisis of 1929 he turned out to be a political realist, prepared to renounce, for the moment, his beliefs in the need for self-regulation. Meanwhile he favoured re-strength­ening the position of the unions and championed a better training of judges, in order to awake in them the humanist, democratic spirit that would hopefully lead to a more just implementation of laws. Sinzheimer’s optimism, linked to his condit­ional sympathy with the Freirecht-idea of leaving scope for the legal creativity of judges, was not shared by his assistants (Fraenkel, Kahn-Freund, Neumann) who had reason to distrust judges’ discretionary decision-making.[ii] Sinzheimer’s participation and acquiescence in an arbitration decision (8-11-1930) that included a wage cut by 3-8 percent met with fierce criticism from the metal union that had recommended him as an arbitrator. It turned out to be a prelude to the emergency ordinance of 8 December 1931 by which all collective agreements were suspended.[iii]


Scientific activities

In Germany already in 1905 about half a million workers were covered by a collective agree­ment, but German law did not provide for means to enforce employers’ compliance with them.[i] This factual lack of corre­spondence between ‘legal reality’ and legal theory was the basis of Sinzheimer’s plea for integrating a sociological method into legal science. Know­ledge of how the actual effects of regulation turn against the values embodied in law, and knowledge of (evolutionary) tendencies in ‘legal reality’ neglected by the traditional approach of legal science but revealed by sociological methods, should inform legislative policies. Important was his analysis of the ‘free’ labour contract as a device of domination. As employ­ers unilaterally controlled the execution of the labour contract, the formally equal freedom of contract turned, according to Sinzheimer, in an authoritarian contract (Herrschaftsvertrag). 


Portret van Hugo Sinzheimer, 1931, door Emil Stumpp

Property, a power of command over things, thus turned into a power of command over people.[1] It was the collective agreement that had, in his vision, the potency of turning this back into a more substantial freedom. Only in this way contractual freedom in labour relat­ions could truly be realized; instead of the abstract person of the law of contract the worker would be recognized in his or her concrete conditions of life, and treated as a human being.

In two successive books, published 1907/8 and 1916, Sinzheimer devel­oped his analysis of the legal regulation of collective agreements. In the first book his analysis resulted in the conclusion that civil law categories failed as a basis for a thorough regulation of collective agreements. In the second book he went on to develop the foundations of a specific collective labour law, which have up to now retained their validity. In 1921 he published his book Grundzüge des Arbeitsrechts (Principles of Labour Law), re-issued in 1927 in an extended and completely revised version that is up to now used in labour law courses in Germany.[i] His conception of the relation between labour law and the reality of labour relations was dialectical: labour law does not contend itself with recogn­izing existing relations; by observing immanent tendencies in these relations and developing these into new regulation it transforms them.[ii]


Academic career

In 1912 he founded, together with Karl Flesch and Philipp Lotmar, the ‘Committee for  systematic labour law research’ (Komitee zur syste­matischen Erforschung des Arbeits­rechts). He was co-founder of the Frankfurt Akademie der Arbeit, a union-oriented education centre for workers. In 1920 he became Ordinary Honorary Professor of Labour Law at Frankfurt University, in 1930 also of Sociology of Law. Among his pupils and assistants were several who, forced into exile after 1933, later became famous for their scientific work: among them Ernst Fraenkel (1898-1975, political science), Otto Kahn-Freund (1900-1979, Labour Law Professor in Oxford), and Franz Neumann (1900-1954, political science, Professor Columbia University, New York). He acted as co-founder and co-editor of several professional journals, among which Arbeitsrecht (1914-1919) and Die Justiz (1925-1931).

After his flight to the Netherlands early in 1933 he obtained a professor­ship of sociology of law (the first one in The Netherlands) at the Univer­sity of Amsterdam. November 6th, 1933 Sinzheimer had his inaugural lecture. In 1936 he obtained a second professorship at the University of Leiden. Both professorships have been annulled in 1941 on the order of the German occupying power.


After having been arrested by the Nazis (23-31 March 1933) and robbed of his professorial qualifications, he and his wife Paula first fled to Saarland (at that time a Protectorate of the League of Nations), and then in April to Amsterdam. Public law professor George van den Bergh - with whom Sinzheimer was familiar due to common holidays in the seaside resort of Noordwijk aan Zee - took care of him in Amsterdam and arrang­ed for a professorship at the (at that time: Municipal) University of Amster­dam. As soon as July 14th 1933 the city council agreed to the institution of this professorship, which was financed by a Foundation supported by both the Dutch federal union NVV and the Unilever concern (Van den Bergh was a des­cendant of one of its founders). November 6th, 1933 Sinzheimer gave his inaugural lecture. In 1936 he obtained a second professorship in Leiden, somewhat late due to the resistance evoked by the controversial character of his approach to labour law. In 1934 he had been deprived of his German citizenship, in 1937 Heidelberg University revoked his doctorate. Cut off from the practices of writing on German legislative policies, he continued his theoretical work and his lectures to a core of enthusiastic students, 1940-42 at his home in the southern quarter of Amsterdam. February 1941 he was dismissed from his professorship at the University of Leiden, together with other professors branded as ‘Jewish’, by order of the German occupying power.


During the German occupation of the Netherlands Sinzheimer has been arrested twice: in 1940, after an abortive attempt at escaping by boat to England, he has been detained for two months in Kleve (Germany); letters of his wife Paula to the German authorities succeed­ed in effecting his release. Both have been arrested during a razzia in August 1942, and then escaped transport to a German concentration camp only accidently: the Jewish Council (Joodsche Raad) was allowed by the German occupying power to select ten Jews to be excepted from transport; Sinzheimer and his wife Paula were among those selected. He survived the war at different places of hiding in Amsterdam, Haarlem and Bloemendaal, where he died September 1945 of a brain heamorrhage, a day before his planned valedictory speech at the reopening University of Amsterdam, and before word could have reached him that all of his children had survived the war.


Books by Hugo Sinzheimer (a complete list of publications is here):

  • Lohn und Aufrechnung. Diss. Heidelberg, Berlin 1902.
  • Der korporative Arbeitsnormenvertrag. 2 vol.s: Leipzig 1907/1908.
  • Ein Arbeitstarifgesetz: die Idee der sozialen Selbstbestimmung im Recht. München/Leipzig 1916.
  • Grundzüge des Arbeitsrechts. Jena 1921; 2nd extended ed. 1927.
  • Theorie der Gesetzgebung: die Idee der Evolution im Recht (posthumously ed. by Johan Valkhoff), Haarlem 1949.

Another portrait of Hugo Sinzheimer is to be found here.



Complete references of the publications mentioned in the endnotes are to be found in the Biographical literature or in the Publications of Sinzheimer.

[i] Kempen 2002: 273.

[ii] Kubo 1995; Kettler & Tackney (1997).

[iii] Cited by Kubo 1995: 31.

[iv] Sinzheimer 1917h: 33; Knorre (1991): 47-55.

[v] Sinzheimer 1920c, cited by Knorre (1991): 84-85.

[vi] Kempen 2017: 76.

[vii] Kempen 2017: 128-9.

[viii] Kempen 2017: 146.

[ix] Kempen 2017: 24-5.

[x] personal communication members of HSI Frankfurt.

[xi] Sinzheimer 1933b: 59, cited by Knorre (1991): 75.


[i] Kempen 2002: 273.

[ii] Kubo 1995; Kettler & Tackney (1997).