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Inventing the Criminal: A History of German Criminology, 1880-1945. (Reviews).

Inventing the Criminal: A History of German Criminology, 1880-1945. By Richard F. Wetzell (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. xiv plus 348pp. $39.95).

Were one to think about criminal-biologists and criminal-psychiatrists in the Bismarckian through the Hitlerian periods of modem German history, images of depraved doctors and mad scientists probably come quickly to mind for many people. But, explains Richard F. Wetzell in this sober and admirably researched volume on the history of German criminology between the years 1880 and 1945, this is in many respects unfortunate. Although he notes that the Nazis' "crude biological determinism ... would have been inconceivable without decades of hereditarian criminal-biological research," which he details at length throughout his book, he argues forcefully in his conclusion that "the triumph of genetic determinism under the Nazi regime was not as complete as has often been supposed." (p. 301) Indeed his important study reminds us that part of the reason for the Nazis' success in gaining the support of the German population was because Nazi society neither represented a complete break with Germany's past nor did it only embrace the most objectionable features of that past. Pointing to recent works of scholars like Robert Proctor's The Nazi War Against Cancer that have "called attention to the continuity of 'normal' science during the Third Reich," Wetzell concludes: "In sum, these studies have argued that major areas of science continued to produce complex, sophisticated scientific research under the Nazi regime and were less pervaded by Nazi ideology than previously assumed. In this study I have sought to make exactly this argument for the field of criminology." (p. 303)

Although Wetzell ends on this somewhat provocative note, his book generally does not read provocatively at all. Far more than a mere analysis of the sometimes dubious and other times respectable aspects of Nazi criminology and their genesis, the book's seven chapters provide a balanced and informative examination of the main currents of scholarly research and academic debate in German criminology in each of three periods: the Kaiserreich, the Weimar Republic, and the Third Reich. Of particular interest to scholars will be his detailed analyses of the work of leading figures in the development of German criminology from its origins among nineteenth-century moral statisticians and critics of the Italian phrenologist Cesare Lombroso to internationally-renowned, turn-of-the-century experts in criminal law and criminal psychiatry, respected Weimar sociologists, and finally Nazi-period criminal biologists and eugenicists.

Featured among these in the years of Imperial Germany are the penal reformer and professor of criminal law Franz von Liszt and the Cologne professor of criminal psychiatry Gustav Aschaffenburg. While Liszt pushed for an enlightened punishment policy that would serve more of a social than a moral purpose by attempting to modify the future behavior of the offender more than seeking to exact a "just measure of pain," Aschaffenburg produced one of the first systematic analyses of the causes of crime in his seminal 1903 study Das Verbrechen und seine Bekampfung (translated in English in 1913 as Crime and Its Repression) that stressed both individual-hereditary and social-environmental factors and firmly rejected Lombrosian notions of "born criminals." Also Aschaffenburg took the lead in gaining academic respect for the fledgling field of criminology in Germany by founding a journal in 1904 (the Monatsschirift fur Kriminalpsychologie und Strafrechsreform) that for decades was regarded as the prime organ in the fiel d.

From its reasonably promising start in the Kaiserreich, however, the nascent field of German criminology began to move in more doubtful directions in the Weimar Republic, particularly, Wetzell argues, in its becoming more "medicalized." Although some scholars like Aschaffenburg, Karl Birnbaum, Franz Exner, and Hans von Hentig continued to produce important studies that accented socioeconomic as well as hereditarian factors in crime causation, German criminal-biology, as the discipline came to be known, became increasingly dominated by psychiatrists and physicians who believed that the prime causes of crime lay more in defective people than in defective environments. One of the most notorious of these people was a prison doctor named Theodor Viernstein. Having founded an influential institute in 1925 called the Bavarian Criminal-Biological Service that gathered mountains of data on prison inmates through the administration of highly subjective medical examinations that could supposedly distinguish between corr igible and incorrigible inmates who were either "racially beneficial" or "racially harmful" to German society, Viernstein used his questionable evidence to advocate sterilization and permanent detention for the one-third to one-half of the criminal population that he regarded as incorrigible inmates.

In the Nazi period Viernstein's influence became even more pernicious. As criminal-biological examinations were soon carried out in scores of prisons across the country, Viernstein began to advocate that his examinations be extended to include the entire general population so as to make criminal-biology tightly connected with Nazi eugenic policy. Although understaffing made Viernstein's wildest dreams unrealizable, the Nazi Sterilization Law of July 1933 and the Law Against Dangerous Habitual Criminals of November 1933 were consistent with his and many other criminal-biologists' thinking. But Wetzell takes pains to point out that not all German criminal-biologists were of this mindset during the Nazi period and much decent scholarship in the area of criminology continued to be conducted. When Jewish professors like Aschaffenburg and Birnbaum were removed from their posts soon after Hitler assumed power, Hans von Hentig resigned from his coeditorship of Germany's leading criminological journal in protest and F ranz Exner and other non-Nazis took over his and Aschaffenburg's editorial duties and saw to it that the journal remained respectable.

Other criminal-biologists like the Austrian-born Friedrich Stumpfl carried out largely creditable family and twin studies on the link between heredity-based mental illness and criminality which were nonetheless subjected to sound academic criticism.

If perhaps not all readers will be fully in agreement with Wetzell's nuanced and respectful stance toward Nazi era criminal-biology and if some might want him to tell us a bit more than he does about how the development of German criminology compared with that of other countries, his book undeniably represents a fine accomplishment. He not only has crafted a compelling synthesis of a large body of primary and secondary literature that should become a standard work on the history of German criminology, he has made a substantial contribution to the understanding of modern German society.
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Author:Johnson, Eric A.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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