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

Tales from the German Underworld: Crime and Punishment Crime and Punishment (Russian: Преступление и наказание) is a novel by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, that was first published in the  in the Nineteenth Century. By Richard J. Evans

For other people named Richard Evans, see Richard Evans (disambiguation).
Professor Richard Evans (born 1947) is a British historian of Germany.
 (New Haven New Haven, city (1990 pop. 130,474), New Haven co., S Conn., a port of entry where the Quinnipiac and other small rivers enter Long Island Sound; inc. 1784. Firearms and ammunition, clocks and watches, tools, rubber and paper products, and textiles are among the many  and London: Yale University Yale University, at New Haven, Conn.; coeducational. Chartered as a collegiate school for men in 1701 largely as a result of the efforts of James Pierpont, it opened at Killingworth (now Clinton) in 1702, moved (1707) to Saybrook (now Old Saybrook), and in 1716 was  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 Capital punishment in Germany has been abolished.

The current Constitution of Germany ("Grundgesetz") as adopted in 1949 does not allow capital punishment (Art. 102 GG: "Die Todesstrafe ist abgeschafft" - Capital punishment is abolished).
 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 sen·sa·tion·al·ism  
a. The use of sensational matter or methods, especially in writing, journalism, or politics.

b. Sensational subject matter.

c. Interest in or the effect of such subject matter.
 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 ig·no·min·i·ous  
1. Marked by shame or disgrace: "It was an ignominious end ... as a desperate mutiny by a handful of soldiers blossomed into full-scale revolt" Angus Deming.
 end on the gallows GALLOWS. An erection on which to bang criminals condemned to death. . In retelling re·tell·ing  
A new account or an adaptation of a story: a retelling of a Roman myth. 
 the lives of real-life villains, like Cartouche Cartouche (kärtsh`), 1693–1721, nickname of Louis Dominique Bourguignon, French highwayman. His band terrorized the Paris area until his capture. He was broken on the wheel.  in France, Jaco in the Netherlands, or John Sheppard John Sheppard can refer to several people:
  • John Sheppard (Stargate) for the fictional character from Stargate Atlantis
  • John Levi Sheppard for the U.S. Congressman
  • John Sheppard (VC) for the Victoria Cross winner
 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 rogu·ish  
1. Deceitful; unprincipled: Set adrift by his roguish crew, the captain of the ship spent a week alone at sea.

2. Playfully mischievous: a roguish grin.
 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 phi·los·o·phize  
v. phi·los·o·phized, phi·los·o·phiz·ing, phi·los·o·phiz·es

1. To speculate in a philosophical manner.

, 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 in·vid·i·ous  
1. Tending to rouse ill will, animosity, or resentment: invidious accusations.

 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 Imprisonment
See also Isolation.

Alcatraz Island

former federal maximum security penitentiary, near San Francisco; “escapeproof.” [Am. Hist.: Flexner, 218]

Altmark, the

German prison ship in World War II. [Br. Hist.
 on Gesche Rudolph--and many others like her--showed that, paradoxically, corporal punishment corporal punishment, physical chastisement of an offender. At one extreme it includes the death penalty (see capital punishment), but the term usually refers to punishments like flogging, mutilation, and branding. Until c.  (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 mi·nu·ti·a  
n. pl. mi·nu·ti·ae
A small or trivial detail: "the minutiae of experimental and mathematical procedure" Frederick Turner.
 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 tan·gen·tial   also tan·gen·tal
1. Of, relating to, or moving along or in the direction of a tangent.

2. Merely touching or slightly connected.

 (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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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Lindemann, Mary
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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