Academic journal article German Quarterly

Tales from the German Underworld: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth Century

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Tales from the German Underworld: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth Century

Article excerpt

Evans, Richard J. Tales from the German Underworld: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.278 pp. 21 illustrations. $37.00.

Tales from the German Underworld by the distinguished social historian Richard Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge University, is the result of research spanning over a decade and a half in archives and libraries in London, Berlin, Munich, Hanover, Bremen, Hamburg, Lubeck, Karlsruhe, Coburg, Frankfurt am Main, Braunschweig, and Schwerin. Evans's panorama of crime and punishment in nineteenth-century Germany takes the form of four "micro-studies" (in the line of Natalie Zemon Davis and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie)-intriguing and fragmentary "underworld" stories of a forger, a vagrant, a con man, and a prostitute--that disclose insights into contemporary discourses of criminality, incarceration, surveillance, and, not least of all, bourgeois identity. Rather than "establishing the facts" via quantitative methods as was the trend in the 1960s and 1970s, Evans seeks "the human dimension" that had been buried beneath the statistics and that, he implies, holds the real key to our understanding.

Chapter one, which makes up about a third of the book, opens and ends with the autobiography, published in 1804, of the art teacher Wilhelm Aschenbrenner, a talented man who turns to forgery because of poverty. After escaping from a prison fortress in Konigsberg, Aschenbrenner pursues a series of epic adventures in which, to name a few highlights, he rescues a prostitute (who dons men's clothing in order to remain his loyal companion), engages in military espionage, suffers shipwreck, and finally finds himself serving a twenty-seven-year sentence in Spandau. What captures Evans's attention is Aschenbrenner's deportation in 1802 with fifty-seven Prussian felons to the silver mines of Nerchinsk in Siberia. This focal study of Aschenbrenner's fate becomes the occasion for a rich and detailed accounting of vagabondage, poverty, property crime, legal codes, carceral conditions, and prison reform, and of the bizarrely amusing efforts on the part of several German states to empty their overcrowded prisons by deporting criminals to Siberia, Brazil, and, especially, the United States.

The second chapter tells the story of Gesche Rudolph, a poor prostitute who, at the age of forty-eight, had spent eighteen years in prison and received nearly nine hundred strokes of the cane for repeatedly returning to the city of Bremen after she had been expelled. Evans's contextualization, indebted to the work of Reinhart Koselleck, sets the changing discourse surrounding corporal punishment (abolished as a result of liberal reform in the last half of the nineteenth century) within the larger shift from a feudal or patriarchal status-bound world to a class society based on the principles of legal equality and free enterprise. However, Evans argues, this picture also involves the separation of a bourgeois public sphere from a private realm in which the corporal punishment of women, children, and convicted criminals remained legitimate; corporal punishment was not abolished but simply banished from public view. This raises fascinating questions regarding the fantasies of violence that inhabit private (sexual) imagination around the turn of the century. While Evans points to such works as Heinrich Mann's Professor Unrat and Wedekind's Pandora's Box as well as to Maria Tatar's book on sexual murder in Weimar Germany and Klaus Theweleit's Male Fantasies, the connections he makes are loose and quick-within the space of a single page-between the abolition of corporal punishment, the release of violent impulses in fantasy, actual sexual violence, and the fascism of the Freikorps. …

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