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

This book fills an important gap in the historiography on the German police. Whereas All Ludtke, Wolfram Siemann and Hsi-huey Liang have written on the police in the early 19th century and in the Weimar Republic, very little was known hitherto about the German police in the period leading up to the First World War.(1) Spencer's work parallels the work of Ralph Jessen whose book about the German police in the same period appeared last year and is available only in German.(2)

As a case study the Dusseldorf district is well chosen. Densely populated, highly urbanized and industrialized its significance amongst the twenty-three Prussian districts is beyond dispute. Up to 1848 the district police force remained inadequately staffed and resourced to deal with major kinds of unrest. This became painfully visible in the social and political upheavals of 1848/1849. In the subsequent period of reaction, important changes in the policing of Prussia took place. The 1850 and 1851 Prussian laws restricting the right of association and the freedom of the press gave the newly formed Schutzmannschaft widespread legal means of surveillance. Increasingly distrustful of municipal authorities the Prussian state was adamant that the police force should not be locally accountable. With the advent of mass politics in the 1860s and 1870s, the possibility of democrats or social democrats gaining some influence over municipalities even made the Prussian bureaucracy replace communal policing with a state police force in those cities where serious social or industrial unrest was feared. The various efforts of the Prussian bureaucracy to centralize and restructure the police force are well documented in this book.

The authorities aimed at recruiting only persons with nine, or better still, twelve years of military service as policemen (holders of the Zivilversorgungsschein). When, however, industrialization and urbanization brought with them fears of unruly crowd behavior and political insurrection it proved increasingly difficult to find suitable applicants for the intended dramatic expansion of the police force. Spencer stresses the political function of policing within an illiberal and authoritarian Prussia. Those who were branded enemies of the state, first the Catholics and later the Socialists and Poles, suffered serious police harassment.

Spencer sees the authorities' fear of social and political unrest as much more important in the decision to expand the police force significantly before the First World War than any fear of increased crime statistics. The police was able to resist pressure from moral reformers and the church to prohibit popular amusements and showed very liberal attitudes towards prostitution. Rather than clamp down on "vice," it sought to regulate it. Such liberal attitudes were absent from the surveillance of political organizations, and feelings of bitterness towards the police were especially prominent amongst organized workers who suffered the most persistent persecution. However, Spencer stresses that conflicts between socialists and the police also came to include an element of play.

Furthermore she documents the astonishing extent to which the police intruded in the everyday lives of ordinary Germans, especially of the German working class. Apart from dealing with all criminal activity, German police surveilled all large meetings and pubs frequented by organized workers. It was responsible for the registration of all citizens, for the implementation of communal immunization programmes, for the proper schooling of the citizen's children and for the correct taxation of the citizens. It inspected factories and housing tenements, regulated master-servant relations and often mediated in conflicts between landlords and tenants and among neighbors. It was responsible for clearing the streets of vagrants, beggars and Gypsies, monitored mixed bathing facilities and censored films and live theatre. In some cities the police even staffed lost-and-found services and facilities for calling taxis. The policeman seemed an omnipresent symbol of the power and authority of the Prussian state.

Yet Spencer does not only confront the reader with a symbol of repression: the reader gets to know a lot of interesting detail about the policemen's routine of hard work, their subjection and adherence to stiff hierarchies, their family orientation, educational backgrounds and training as well as their enforced alienation from wide sections of the citizenry.

The book finishes with a brief section on policing methods in the Weimar Republic. Spencer stresses the continuities with Imperial Germany: there was no effort on the part of the republican state to introduce any sort of local accountability of the police. The state still relied on the police to control riots and crowds. Police powers were neither drastically diminished nor were its tasks drastically redefined.

Throughout Spencer makes highly interesting comparisons with the policing of other countries, notably the United States and Britain. The German police appears less oppressive and brutal than its French counterpart, to say nothing of the Russian police. It was always accountable to the Prussian bureaucracy. Victims of the police could and did seek redress in the courts, where they were often successful in indicting police powers. The German press reported critically on police actions and methods, and policemen were penalized for any wrongdoings. The Prussian state's ideal of an impartial, incorruptible police force standing above specific interests was, however, sham. Co-operation between influential employers and the police in breaking up labour organizations testified to the partiality of the Prussian police.

Spencer compares the intrusiveness and military abruptness of the German police unfavorably with the allegedly more liberal and polite British police. Here Spencer repeats a common myth about the British police. A more adequate view of the British working-class's view of the police is given by the following: "Along the dividing line, there they stand, taking their orders, together with pay and promotion, from the one class, and executing them for the most part on the other, as any police court records will show."(3) However, the biggest contrast is with the United States, where policing remained very decentralized and locally accountable. On the whole Spencer has written a very valuable book which it is a delight to read.

Stefan Berger University of Wales, College of Cardiff


1. All Ludtke, 'Gemeinwohl,' Polizei und 'Festungspraxis': Staatliche Gewaltsamkeit und innere Verwaltung in PreuBen 1815-1850 (Gottingen 1982), translated into English as Police and State in Prussia, 1815-1850 (Cambridge 1989). Wolfram Siemann, Deutschlands Ruhe, Sicherheit und Ordnung: Die Anfange der politischen Polizei, 1806-1866 (Tubingen, 1985). Hsi-huey Liang, The Berlin Police Force in the Weimar Republic (Berkeley, 1970).

2. Ralph Jessen, Polizei im Industrierevier: Modernisierung und Herrschaftspraxis im westfalischen Ruhrgebiet, 1848-1914 (Gottingen, 1991).

3. Stephen Reynolds, Bob and Tom Woolley, Seems So! A Working-Class View of Politics (London, 1913), p. 85. See also for the British police force as a specific anti-labor device, Jane Morgan, Conflict and Order. The Police and Labour Disputes in England and Wales, 1900-1939 (Oxford, 1987), p. 276.
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Author:Berger, Stefan
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1993
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