Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The Success of the Civilization Offensive: Societal Adaptation of Reformed Boys in the Early Twentieth Century in the Netherlands

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The Success of the Civilization Offensive: Societal Adaptation of Reformed Boys in the Early Twentieth Century in the Netherlands

Article excerpt


The reform of criminals and potential digressors has been the object of politicians' and policy makers' concern for over a century. Interventions and preventative efforts to achieve this, are these days scrutinized by committees of learned men and women for their 'evidence-based' effectiveness. This article will attempt to analyse the effectiveness of one such early intervention effort in the Netherlands, where from the start of the 20th century onwards children were re-educated in steeply increasing numbers with the aim of preventing them from falling prey to lives of crime and vice.

About a century ago, around 1900, civilians and politicians in numerous European countries noted that crime had increased and had become one of the most pressing societal problems. While current debates on crime and crime control stress the protection of victims from crime and criminals, risk assessment and exclusion of potential norm violators, around 1900 the policy focus was diametrically different. Then, crime control policy had become focused on spiritual and moral re-education and on the reshaping of potential misfits, particularly children, into productive citizens. Instead of the shielding of society from the dangers of crime, crime was to be controlled through inclusion of (potentially) dangerous citizens into society, a civilisation offensive.

From the mid 19th century onwards, many social organizations had attempted to improve the lot of prisoners and criminals. For the Netherlands, the country in which the study that we will report on took place, these were primarily the 'Genootschap tot Zedelijke Verbetering der Gevangenen' [Society for the Moral Betterment of Prisoners] and the 'Maatschappij tot Nut van 't Algemeen' [Society for the General Good]. Established in the first half of the 19th century, in which poverty was bitter and widely prevalent, these societies aimed at the poor and the misfortunate, out of philantropical interest on the one hand and fear of the threat that emanated from the lower echelons of society on the other hand. These movements were dominated by well-intending citizens from the nobility and patricians--mainly from the Protestant part of the nation. After Catholics had been granted the same political and religious rights as Protestants in 1848, also Catholic foundations established themselves in this area of care. From the mid 19th century the number of care-homes for juveniles grew strongly. Until that time, much of the care that was provided for children outside of their family home, had been for orphans. But now, such homes were increasingly set up for children who still had both parents.

The number of vulnerable children decreased considerably from the last decades of the 19th century. After mortality declined significantly in the second part of the 19th century, the economic climate improved strongly by the end of that century as well, and structural unemployment became much lower. After the general compulsory education law in 1901, only 5% of children did not attend school anymore. This means that those who remained on the fringes of society, the poor, the begging and stealing children, became also more marked and as a consequence the focus of more singular attention. These children were increasingly seen as contributing to general criminality in society. And it was now generally perceived as useless to lock up young norm violators for one or two days in a police cell, as had until then been customary.

Concurrent with these changing perceptions, numerous studies were being published on pressing social issues such as care for the poor, crime, unemployment and the prison system. Most of these, written by liberal advocates, concluded that the state should guarantee education for all, and should re-educate rather than punish those who transgressed its norms. The central idea had become that through better education crime could be prevented. Regarding criminal children, the conclusion was that protection should be called for. …

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