Youth Delinquency & "Crime": The Perception and the Reality

By Wegs, Robert | Journal of Social History, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Youth Delinquency & "Crime": The Perception and the Reality

Wegs, Robert, Journal of Social History

The number of youthful wrongdoers increases steadily and meaningfully. Yet it seems almost as if the criminal infection today selected youth above all other age groups.(1)

Alois Zucker, Professor of law, Karl-Ferdinands University, Prague, 1894.

A public image of a dangerous youth fueled by official reports and accounts of escalating youth crime gained increasing credibility during the late nineteenth century and provided the rationale for more restrictive laws and actions to "protect" society. This essay will compare public perceptions of youth crime in Austria with crime data from the 1870s to the turn of the century in order to provide a more analytical perspective on the alleged youth "crime wave" that occured not only in Austria but also in almost all European countries at that time. Indeed, German crime reports and popular accounts heavily influenced Austrian perceptions of juvenile delinquency and crime. Austria provides an important window into understanding the response of elites in more autocratic states to the rapid industrial and demographic changes that occurred in the late nineteenth century. My findings will suggest that elites created a youth crime panic because of heightened fears of a changing economic, social and political environment that appeared to threaten traditional relationships. After examining public perceptions, I will analyze crime figures and the nature of youth "crimes" in order to show how the image of a "dangerous" youth was constructed. While a few studies have suggested that youth crime was exaggerated during this time, none has combined an examination of public perceptions with a systematic look at the nature of youth violations. This study will also confirm that one of the best ways to study a society is to examine how it treats its youth.

Many held the urban environment alone responsible for what was perceived as an increased youth waywardness and criminality.(2) In 1894 Eugen Schwiedland, the director of the welfare office for industrially employed youth in the Austrian Ministry for Public works, gave a romantic's interpretation:

It [urbanization] separated the child, youth, from the healthy, invigorating breath, the educating peace and fullness of the open land, and confined it to narrow streets and sky-high walls; it closed the book of books for them, i.e., nature, and put them in front of the window displays of the city with its dazzling, false, seducing splendor, transplanted immature, under-age boys and girls to the dangerous height of economic independence and provoked them to reckless satisfaction of their adolescent craving for pleasure...."(3)

Although recent works, such as Eric Johnson's Urbanization and Crime: Germany, 1871-1914, have challenged these views, they produced powerful images at that time and have still not been laid to rest.(4)

Schwiedland's account was only part of an intensified discourse that began in the eighties on what many regarded as a youth threat to society. Numerous Austrian and German authorities, responding to official reports of increased youth crime discussed below, offered advice concerning what they described as a youth delinquency and crime problem.(5) The rhetoric surrounding laws passed by the Austrian legislature in 1873 and 1885, directed against those "averse to work" (Arbeitsscheue) such as beggers, vagabonds and prostitutes, reveals a society obsessed with fears about the itinerant population including what they depicted as a rapidly expanding, too independent, unsupervised, wayward (verwahrlost), depraved (verdorbt) and unrestrained youth.(6) Zucker, author of numerous works on the youth crime issue, contended that "In the increasing amount of youth crime hides a large social danger for the future. A rapid and significant reproduction of criminal offspring justifies serious worries about the future shaping of society."(7) Although Zucker began to express some doubts about the reported high youth crime rate in a second book written in 1896, he maintained that "the fear and anticipation of a social revolution reached a significant level that was not necessarily justified by the conditions; however, the very fact that people were truly alarmed would have caused an increase in the number of actual victims.

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