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Police and the Social Order in German Cities: The Dusseldorf District, 1848-1914.

Elaine Spencer finds much truth in the stereotype of the Prussian policeman as an intrusive, overbearing representative of state authority, but her study of the Dusseldorf region also reveals the limitations and pressures on the police in an era of industrialization and social change. Students and researchers in urban and police history will welcome this book - and so should all those interested in the relationship between the Prussian state and German society before 1914. Police and the Social Order is meticulous, where possible statistical, perhaps narrow in its geographic and institutional focus - but it raises issues of general concern.

"Policemen played a significant role in shaping popular perceptions of the state," says Spencer (p. 163). The uniformed, spike-helmeted Prussian policeman symbolized a militaristic intrusion into civic life. The basis for this perception lay in the broad range of powers and responsibilities of the Prussian police, which allowed them to intervene almost anywhere they chose. Police powers were broadly defined in the era of reaction by the police law and association law of 11 March 1850, and the press law of 12 May 1851. From these the police derived far-reaching authority that led to officers sitting and taking notes at political meetings, dissolving assemblies on the slightest pretext, monitoring the movements and living arrangements of the population, and dispersing picketers by whatever excuse lay at hand. The Kulturkampf and the antisocialist law of the 1870s increased their role in dealing with political opponents of the regime. Other duties devolved to policemen simply because they were a widely dispersed group of officials who had regular contact with the public: they ended up doing everything from regulating business practices (to the annoyance of shopkeepers) to establishing taxi services.

The system that was set up in the 1850s was, in a formal sense, little changed by 1914. Police grew in numbers both absolutely and relative to population, and they tended to become more centralized and more specialized. Legislative changes like the lapsing of the antisocialist law in 1890 and the new imperial association law of 1908 reduced their powers, especially in political matters. The main impetus for administrative change came from the Prussian state itself, which demanded more reliable forces and greater financial contributions from local governments, above all to meet the increased social and political challenges from organized labour. But while the state wanted the cities to pay more, it did not want to give cities more control; and city elites were themselves unconcerned by the question of local police accountability. The reason for their unconcern may lie in the fact that, in the 1850s, police surveillance had weighed on middle-class associations; but by the 1890s the police were visiting their attention on the working class. In 1909 urban leaders in the Ruhr even welcomed the introduction of more centralized, royal police forces as these were seen as more effective in, among other things, fighting socialism.

The perceived militarism of the police had a basis in policy. The state wanted police recruitment to complement the manpower needs of the army. Authorities clung to a military model for the police, and favoured former noncommissioned officers as police recruits. Being more military and being more professional were seen by officials as largely the same. There was concern, though, that rigidity and harshness by police officers would damage the credibility of the police and undermine public co-operation. Police authorities issued repeated reminders to officers to act like approachable public servants, not like petty tyrants" (P. 159).

A recurrent theme in Spencer's book is the uncomfortable position of police officers between the suspicion in which they were held by their superiors, and the contempt with which they were regarded by large segments of the population. This, combined with low pay and gruelling shift work that often did not leave them eight hours in a row off duty for sleep, made the policeman's lot unenviable. Constantly exhorted to be more effective in pursuing the regime's opponents, police officers often did not share the regime's paranoia. Police officers were more familiar with many aspects of everyday life than were other kinds of officials, and could be sympathetic to the poor and critical of greedy employers and landlords. Some policemen, like Eduard Hapke of Essen (later police chief in Duisburg), earned the approval of local socialists for departing from the normal, rigid style. The district Polizeikommissar in Elberfeld "believed most policemen would prefer street duty in the worst possible weather to being unwelcome guests at opposition gatherings where they were subject to open or implied insults" (p. 132). When unrest occurred, or when employers demanded that strikers be harassed, the police were ordered to act in defence of private property, and did so just as their counterparts did in other countries. But when the issue was not public order, but instead the regulation of leisure, popular entertainments, drinking, or prostitution, the police adapted to social change and showed flexibility and even permissiveness. "Except in dealing with oppositional politics, they shied away from trying to enforce the unenforceable" (p. 163).

Police and the Social Order, in examining the efforts by the state to use the police to control social change, shows the limitations of the state. Again and again the police did not have the money, or the men, or the time, or the credibility to do what hardliners in the government, the clergy, or the employers' federations wanted done. The author shows that the police were commanded to defend the social order, but the evidence just as clearly shows their limitations and inability to do so, except in a limited way to harass the socialist political and trade-union opposition. Authorities were uneasy about the quality and reliability of local policemen, and sought constantly to control them through military discipline. But proposals for improving the police foundered inevitably on lack of money, lack of suitable recruits, and lack of public acceptance. Not insignificantly, the places most "needing" policing were the ones where the police were weakest, most lacked public credibility, and had trouble finding qualified applicants. What Spencer's book reveals is, in the last analysis, less an example of the state controlling society, than the fruitless efforts of the state to resist social change.

Spencer's book is, of course, a study of only a single region, and one atypical in its degree of urbanization and industrialization. Precisely for that reason the region is of interest, but undoubtedly studies of other areas and branches of officialdom will further illuminate the relationship of state to society in modern Germany.
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Author:Fairbairn, Brett
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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