Tales from the German Underworld


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Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth Century

Richard J. Evans

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Through the means of four powerful and extraordinary narratives from the nineteenth-century German underworld, this book deftly explores an intriguing array of questions about criminality, punishment, and social exclusion in modern German history. Drawing on hitherto unexplored legal documents and police files, Richard J. Evans recounts the epic adventures of an art teacher imprisoned for forging bank notes, then transported to Siberia with a gang of violent Prussian felons in 1802; the tragic sufferings of a drunken female vagrant whipped repeatedly by the authorities in Bremen in the 1820s and 30s; the comical and fantastic deceptions of a con man arrested in the 1860s for not paying his hotel bill; and the ironic career of a young woman who drifts into prostitution after bearing an illegitimate child and discovers the underworld to be much less cruel and immoral than the "respectable" society from which she has been rejected. Each of these narratives sheds light on German penal policy in the nineteenth century, when a regime of public and often symbolic physical punishment was transformed into one of silent, regimented incarceration. Using these fascinating cases as starting points for a wider consideration of crime and justice, Evans investigates the complexity of the relations between deviance and control, the ambiguities of criminality in modern German history, and the ways literary models influenced perceptions of—and behavior in—the criminal underworld.

Richard J. Evans was appointed professor of modern history at Cambridge University in 1997. Among his books are the landmark studies Death in Hamburg and Rituals of Retribution.

"Throughout this book there are some instructive, if depressing, similarities to our own time. . . . But a central strength of Evan’s book also lies in the way it underscores the many differences between the 19th century and our own . . .Tales from the German Underworld is full of illuminating observations. It offers insights into matters as diverse as the phenomenon of popular admiration of criminals and the repeated efforts of crime specialists to link the underworld with the "un-Christian" minorities of Jews and Gypsies. Altogether, this is an informative, thought-provoking book." —Dagmar Herzog, New York Times Book Review

"Richard Evans tells his own tales with gusto. . . This book provides further evidence of his extraordinary zeal as an archival detective, while the succinct introduction and conclusion demonstrate enviable expertise at surveying general arguments about authority, obedience and transgression."—David Blackbourn, Times Literary Supplement

"Tales from the German Underground is destined to become a classic. It is that rare thing—a groundbreaking book which scholars will find useful and which general readers will enjoy."—Amanda Foreman, Observer

"Evans reveals the value of the concept of the underworld for those who developed it and the value of the narratives of its inhabitants for understanding past societies, and not just their deviants."—Clive Emsley, History Today

"Instructive and interesting."—Choice

"Evans displays all his customary mastery of the archives. . . . Evan’s case studies reveal a striking conflation of rhetoric and reality, fact and fiction, as the public forged the bogey figures that it needed to vilify."—Roy Porter, New Republic

"Tales from the German Underworld offers us four fascinating glimpses of crime and punishment in 19th-century Germany. . . . Evans presents his archival findings with great verve and panache."—Martin Swales, Times Higher Education Supplement

"The individuals featured in Evans's book provide memorable examples of such evasion and manipulation. Their life stories, combined with accounts of the trajectories of the varied punishments they suffered, provide readers intriguing insights into life on the margins in nineteenth-century German society."—Elaine Glovka Spencer, Central European History

"Tales continues Evans’s long-term exploration of nineteenth-century German society and politics so brilliantly begun with his Death in Hamburg. . . . 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."—Mary Lindemann, Journal of Social History

"[A] compelling and evocative study. . . . A fascinating and persuasive study that addresses an impressively broad range of issues across the span of a century without sacrificing analytical rigour or the pleasures of narrative."—Christopher Clark, English Historical Review

ISBN: 9780300187526
Publication Date: May 1, 1998
298 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4