Duty, deviance and discipline

Tales from the German Underworld
February 26, 1999

In essence, Richard J. Evans's Tales from the German Underworld offers us four fascinating glimpses of crime and punishment in 19th-century Germany. He draws extensively on archive material in order to document various forms of penal practice. He explores, for example, policies of transportation and deportation in the early 19th century. He describes attitudes to corporal punishment - both as an act of public display and humiliation on the one hand, and as a private enactment of retribution within a carceral institution on the other. He discusses the increased concern, on the part of the police in the course of the 19th century, to create elaborate mechanisms of surveillance whereby the individual citizen would be subject to constant scrutiny and control. And finally, he analyses the role and function of prostitution in the late 19th century; the socially felt need to legislate for the illicit produces a complex structure of laws and regulations by which the interacting (but often conflicting) imperatives of morality and legality can be reconciled.

Evans presents his archival findings with great verve and panache, on occasion delighting in "roll up, roll up" headings for the various sub-sections of his chapters: "Mutiny and brutality on the high seas", "On the road to Siberia", "Public decorum and private violence", "Conning the crowned heads of Europe", "Folk devils and moral panics".

Central to Evans's enterprise is the sense that we know remarkably little about the workings of crime and punishment in European society. Moreover, he engages with the various theoretical debates about criminality to be found in the work of Michel Foucault. Evans is concerned to challenge some of Foucault's polemical views post-1968, according to which the growth of bourgeois carceral society through the 19th century is symptomatic of an omnipresent, all-seeing, all-determining authority. Evans reminds us that Foucault also wrote, in less apocalyptic mode, of complex processes whereby penal systems operate thanks to patterns of interactive acknowledgement and negotiation.

One of the best things in Evans's book is his insistence that the "underworld" of criminality and deviance is dialectically related to the respectable world with its various discourses of seemliness, of orderliness, of self- (and other forms of) possession. Evans is frequently concerned to challenge pat assumptions (about, for example, the inexorable progress of enlightenment and humaneness in the history of penal practice; about Germany's supposed love affair with authority in all forms). Moreover, he is acutely attentive to subtle processes of change within the socialised consciousness. For example, in the movement away from the overt disgracing of public punishment to carceral - even, on occasion, solitary - confinement he discerns patterns relating to the shift from a status-bound "society of orders" to a more individualist, monetarily defined class society. And he constantly draws attention to the currents and counter-currents of debate concerning the causes of criminality - innate wickedness? social conditioning? The answers to such questions flow into notions of the redeemability (or otherwise) of the criminal.

It is one of the most striking features of this study that it frames each of its four chapters with the brief life story of a particular individual. We have Wilhelm Aschenbrenner, a talented draughtsman and art teacher who turns to forgery and is deported to Siberia; Gesche Rudolph who is expelled from Bremen for refusing to register as a prostitute, but who constantly returns, each time to be condemned to a lengthier prison stay and canings of increased severity; Franz Ernst, a genial and colourful con man who infiltrates political and aristocratic circles and "Thymian Gotteball", a prostitute, whose fate - not least because she comes from the middle classes - becomes the subject of intense public interest and debate.

Clearly, Evans invokes these life stories because they impart greater "human interest" to the social history that he offers us. In all four cases, he is aware of the "literariness" of the narratives that enshrine these lives - all four figures were the subject of a contemporary account of some note. Often Evans fails to make the link between that "literariness" and the corporate imagination of 19th-century German society. And moreover, in the cases of Aschenbrenner and Rudolph, the life story remains curiously unintegrated into the historical analysis. But the other two cases - Ernst and Gotteball's - work much more successfully because the interpretative textures of their life stories richly interact with the broader historical processes to which the archive material bears witness. Evans's book may be uneven, then; but it is exciting nevertheless.

Martin Swales is professor of German at University College London.

Tales from the German Underworld

Author - Richard J. Evans
ISBN - 0 300 07224 4
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 8

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