Confidentiality of letters

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The secrecy of letters is a fundamental right guaranteed in the constitution of democratic states that protects the inviolability of letters .


In Germany, ensuring the confidentiality of letters was first addressed in the Josephine election surrender of 1690. A delinquent should be punished for his injury with a stroke and expulsion from the country. In the General Prussian Postal Code of August 10, 1712, every post office clerk was threatened with dismissal and criminal punishment as a perjurer in the event of a prohibited letter opening , which was incorporated into the General Prussian Land Law .

French law was even tougher. A regulation of Louis XV. of September 25, 1742 stipulated that post officials who had broken open letters and parcels and misappropriated the items they contained for their own benefit should suffer the death penalty . The French National Assembly adopted on Sieyès to ensuring the confidentiality of correspondence among the fundamental rights' request. In the following period, the secrecy of correspondence was guaranteed in most of the constitutional documents of the constitutional states, for example in Portugal in 1826, Kurhessen in 1831, Württemberg in 1843 and Baden in 1845.

Article 141 of the Paulskirche constitution of 1849 regulated: “The confidentiality of letters is guaranteed. The restrictions necessary for criminal investigations and in cases of war are to be determined by legislation ”. Prussia (1850), Oldenburg and Saxony (1852) incorporated provisions into their constitutions after the failure of the German Revolution . In the German Empire , Section 5 of the Postal Service Act of October 28, 1871 guaranteed the confidentiality of letters for all of Germany.

Article 117 of the Weimar Constitution declared the secrecy of correspondence inviolable, but made this fundamental right subject to a legal reservation . During the entire period of National Socialism , the confidentiality of correspondence was suspended “until further notice” with the Reichstag Fire Ordinance .

Legal bases


Federal Republic of Germany

Germany guarantees the privacy of correspondence by Art. 10 in the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany , however, it expands up there through the postal secrecy (and also the secrecy of telecommunications for the protection of electronic communication), whereby the basic right protects not only letters in the strict sense, but all mailings , including Open postcards as well as any written communication between the sender and personally addressed recipient that is secured against unauthorized access by locked containers. Violation of the confidentiality of letters is punished according to § 202 StGB .

In addition, the German Postal Act regulates that data protection at postal service companies does not only apply to private individuals, but to all postal customers, including companies. At the same time, it allows the customs authorities to generally open consignments of goods from abroad if it can be assumed that the goods may be “indexed” on the list of media harmful to minors or that the customs duty is withheld .

Restrictions on the secrecy of letters are subject to the legal reservation of the Article 10 Act of 2001. In the case of certain offenses and under certain circumstances, it allows the monitoring and recording of telecommunications and the opening and evaluation of mail items that are subject to letter or postal confidentiality by the Federal Office for the protection of the constitution , the military counterintelligence , the 16 constitutional protection authorities of the federal states and the federal intelligence service . In the early days of the Federal Republic of Germany, the secret services of the occupying powers had similar powers on the basis of the occupation law and later the allied right of reservation .

Section 94 of the Code of Criminal Procedure also allowsthe police to seize mail to secure evidence. The responsible court is solely responsible for opening sealed items ( Section 100 (3)sentence4 of the Code of Criminal Procedure), but judges maydelegateit to the public prosecutor if a delay jeopardizes the success of the investigation. Section 99 of the Code of Criminal Procedure also permits the seizure of mail that is still in the possession of the postal company.


Hot air gun of the MfS for opening letters

Violation of the confidentiality of letters was formally punished in the GDR in Section 135 of the Criminal Code (GDR) . Nevertheless, a systematic control of all mail with sender or destination in western countries was carried out by the "Department M" of the Ministry for State Security (MfS). This worked together with the Deutsche Post of the GDR and operated within the post under the code name "Department 12" or "Dienststelle 12". During the GDR era, they were in the railway post offices, post customs offices and post loading stations (control of the Christmas parcels in extracts).

The postal control of the MfS began in 1950 with three units and a few dozen employees and was continuously expanded. In 1989 the division had ten departments with almost 2,200 employees. The importance that the SED attached to the control of letters was shown by the fact that the head of the division Rudi Strobel had the rank of major general and that "Department M" had been under an area of ​​responsibility since 1982 which was headed by Erich Mielke himself.


The secrecy of letters protects the correspondence between the sender and the addressee from being opened and misappropriated by authorities ( Art. 10 StGG and Art. 8 ECHR : Right to respect for private and family life ) and third parties ( Section 118 of the Criminal Code (Austria) ). The publication of the letter by the addressee is harmless ( OGH 9 ObA 181/90).


In Switzerland, the confidentiality of letters is currently regulated by Articles 13 and 36, Paragraph 4 of the Federal Constitution and Article 179 of the Swiss Criminal Code . Articles 54 and 55 of the Federal Criminal Law of February 4, 1853 already determined the penalties for violating the confidentiality of correspondence, the right to pardon belonged to the Federal Assembly.

Since the Military Criminal Law of June 13, 1927 (MStG; SR 321.0) does not separately criminalize the violation of written secrecy, the civil penal norm is also used in military situations.

Web links

Wiktionary: Secret of letters  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ↑ Secrecy of letters . In: Brockhaus Konversations-Lexikon 1894–1896, Volume 3, p. 530.
  2. ^ Ordinance of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State (Reichstag Fire Ordinance) of February 28, 1933., reproduced on February 7, 2004, accessed on January 14, 2011
  3. StGB (GDR)
  4. ^ Hanna Labrenz-Weiß: MfS manual: Department M: Post control . The Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic; Berlin 2003.
  5. ^ Reference to obsolete penal regulation in the canton of Geneva from 1874, since the penalties were already listed in the federal criminal law of 1853, Swiss Federal Gazette, XXVII. Volume II. No. 20, May 8, 1875, page 158 of 169