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

Tales from the German Underworld: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth Century. – Review – book review

Mary Lindemann

Tales from the German Underworld: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth Century. By Richard J. Evans (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998. x plus 278pp.).

Hard on the heels of his splendid Rituals of Retribution (1986) comes Richard Evans’s new book on crime and punishment in nineteenth-century Germany. Rituals of Retribution addressed the vast subject of capital punishment in Germany since 1600. Here Evans turns to other forms of punsihment–imprisonment, deportation, and corporal chastisement–and to a series of crimes that were not capital offenses. Tales from the German Underworld is certainly not, as one might fear, what was found lying on the cutting room floor when Rituals of Retribution went off to the publisher. Rather, Tales continues Evans’s long-term exploration of nineteenth-century German society and politics so brilliantly begun with his Death in Hamburg.

The book has four longish chapters, each of which focuses on a particular crime or criminal. Each begins with a “story” that is then used as a jumping off point for a series of expanded discussions on several topics: crime and punnishment, of course, but also the broader character of the German underworld and, for that matter, the far greater expanse of nineteenth-century society. The four chosen tales are those of the deportation to Siberia of the forger and adventurer, Wilhelm Aschenbrenner; the “sufferings of Gesche Rudolph” (whose decades-long experience with the prison and the whip makes for especially depressing reading); the account of the imposter and con-artist, Franz Ernst; and, finally, the fictional version of prostitution presented by Margarete Bohme in her sensationalist Diary of a Lost Woman (published in 1905).

The history of writing “true crime” stories is long. The genre was well developed by the eighteenth century. The picaresque novels of the seventeenth century can count as forerunners as well. In the eighteenth century, however, rousing yarns of heroic or noble bandits and adventurers began to yield to darker narratives of social misfits and born criminals and to didactic parables of a youthful waywardness that almost inevitably lead to a life of greater crime and an ignominious end on the gallows. In retelling the lives of real-life villains, like Cartouche in France, Jaco in the Netherlands, or John Sheppard in England, writers began to construct the idea of an underworld and a counter-culture that mirrored and parodied respectable society. One could, of course, still thrill to roguish escapades, but the stories now also conveyed a sense of deep moral and social depravity. The “Pitaval” collection, among several others, was the classic type. [1] Evans, however, presents us here with more than just an update d Pitaval. Tales is an important book in at least two senses. First, it is an intensely political work that is primarily concerned with probing the realities of power in nineteenth-century society and with revealing as well the brittleness and insecurity of that culture. Second, it reflects on how to write history.

Evans presents power as a subtle entity. In this orientation, he builds on the perspectives of Michel Foucault. Unlike Foucault’s rather ethereal philosophizing, however, Evans’s presentation of the mechanisms of power rests on concrete historical circumstances and on the exploitation of considerable archival material. Power in nineteenth-century Germany was, as Evans defines it, “not a one-way process of the state and its organs of policing and control exerting themselves on society.” Power was instead “a constantly shifting series of structures in which the ‘underworld’ of deviance and criminality exerted its own forms of power, both influencing the state’s discursive practice and evading and manipulating its controlling agencies.” (3-4) Important here are not so much Evans’s observations on the ubiquity of power, for others have suggested that understanding power as a simple form of oppression or even social control fails to catch its invidious and insidious character. Evans, however, shows how the omnipr esence of power played out in specific instances. Despite this structural orientation, the human dimension remains paramount and is neither buried in statistical mountains nor cast adrift in abstract theorizing. The futile effect of years of corporal chastisement and imprisonment on Gesche Rudolph–and many others like her–showed that, paradoxically, corporal punishment (and also imprisonment) “created and perpetuated deviance as much as, or possibly even more than, suppressing it.” (134) Thus, by the early 1900s a type of correction–corporal punishment–once viewed as unambiguous was increasingly coming to be questioned. Advocates could no longer praise its efficacy without reflection. Yet, opponents, too, were less sure that abolition would accomplish anything positive. The close investigation of these individual cases is backed up by a far greater mass of collateral evidence drawn from the archives. This approach allows the author to question and even dismantle several cherished beliefs about, for instan ce, bourgeois society. Take, for example, the interpretation that prostitution can best be explained as a “simple exploitation of proletarian women by bourgeois men.” (176) Evans’s exploration of the social origins of prostitution show that the demand for prostitutes did not come solely from bourgeois males, but rather “derived from the social structure of the male population of Germany as a whole.” (177)

Tales also reflects on how to write history, and Evans explores newer narrative techniques that combine detailed study with sensitivity to overarching structures. Evans portrays what he is doing as a “microstudy,” which he equates with Natalie Davis’s retelling of the story of Martin Guerre or Robert Darnton’s anatomizing of the “great cat massacre.” Microhistory, now an established and accepted technique among early modernists and medievalists, has found considerably less resonance and sympathy among historians of the “modern” world. How closely Evans’s inquiries parallel the kind of microhistory Carlo Ginzburg sketched out in his Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method is, however, somewhat questionable. [2] The careful investigation of “clues,” the methodical dissection of the minutiae of each event or story (as Ginzburg achieves impressively and convincingly for his miller) are not found here. Mennochio rarely leaves center stage in Ginzburg’s work, but in Tales from the German Underground the supposed m ain characters disappear into the background rather quickly. In fact, in the four stories Evans uses to introduce each of his sections, the meat of the account moves rather quickly away from the individual or the event and on to bigger matters. The material presented here is extremely rich, although occasionally tangential (see, for example, the discussion of deportation to Brazil and the United States that adds unnecessary length to the chapter on Aschenbrenner). Thus, Evans does not, I believe, write a series of linked microhistories. Rather he deploys an older method with consummate skill, employing the striking individual case or example to introduce his subjects and to raise profound historical questions. He then strikes out in several directions. What results is a vibrant and authentic portrait, and a robust analysis of how tales of crime, the underworld, and adventure reveal the contours of nineteenth-century German society.


(1.) Francois Gayot de Pitaval, Causes c[acute{e}]l[grave{e}bres et int[acute{e}ressantes avec les judgments qui les ont decid[acute{e}]es (24 vols; 1739–1770).

(2.) (Baltimore, 1989). The method of “microhistory” is nicely laid out by Edward Muir in his introduction to Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero, eds., Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe (Baltimore, 1991).

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