Policing Germany: Between Authoritarian Rule and Civil Society, 1871–1918

AHA Session 187
German Historical Institute 2
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Chicago Ballroom D (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Richard Wetzell, German Historical Institute
Richard Wetzell, German Historical Institute

Session Abstract

Policing Germany: Between Authoritarian Rule and Civil Society, 1871-1918

The historiography of nineteenth-century Germany has been the subject of considerable revisions in recent years, resulting in important contributions to how historians understand German nation building. However, historians’ understanding of nineteenth-century Germany is still overshadowed by Prussia’s history and attendant notions of an authoritarian state. The police and practices of policing in particular have figured as crucial agents underpinning authoritarian rule. This panel proposes to make a critical intervention in the historicization of this formative era for Germany by drawing new attention to the crucial role of honor lawsuits in Imperial Germany and the policing of communities in Bavaria and Prussia between 1871 and 1918. We stress that the execution of state power caused complex processes whose outcome escapes the convenient categorizations of a top-down-model. At the core of our discussion lie questions of 1) how state power was executed, 2) how efficient the efforts to discipline subjects actually were, and 3) how courts, the police and private citizens responded to legal regulations. Emphasizing the role of citizenship, courts, urbanization, and the heterogeneity of police agendas, this reappraisal is not only relevant to a new perspective on German history, but also entails critical findings concerning the impact of policing in a broader European context.

The far-reaching legal changes implemented during the 1870s and the profound transformations of German society altered not only the role and position of courts and the police, but were also decisive for the development of an enhanced awareness of civic rights among German citizens. Subsequently, civil servants and the broader population underwent a “learning process,” respectively negotiating their realms of authority and rights. Conflicts among citizens or between private citizens and the police are particularly vital sources in order to understand the ways in which these negotiations over policing and civil liberties took place. Furthermore, these records demonstrate that the notion of a comprehensive and effective system of supervision and control needs to be revised.

Private citizens did not simply accept police decisions, but productively disputed constraints or fines, complained about the seemingly arbitrary behavior of police officers, or even went to trial to enforce their rights. Moreover, police work came increasingly under the supervision of the press. In response to complaints and accusations, the police were predominantly interested in defending their professional honor. In the case of Berlin, the police were forced to find a manageable compromise between guaranteeing public order and granting night entertainments adequate for a metropolis.

While many of our findings suggest a rather antagonistic relationship between the police and the population, in time, the police came to be perceived as a positive force. Through an exposition of certain critical events in the practices of policing and the management of the civilian population, we will offer explanations of how this transformation in the perception of policing came to be. Our critical considerations of policies and practices will certainly unsettle received notions about authoritarian rule in Imperial Germany.

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