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Philipp Müller, Auf der Suche nach dem Täter : die öffentliche Dramatisierung von Verbrechen im Berlin des Kaiserreichs

Frankfurt am Main : Campus, 2005, 423 p., ISBN : 978-3-593-37867-1
Anja Johansen
p. 132-135
Référence(s) :

Philipp Müller, Auf der Suche nach dem Täter : die öffentliche Dramatisierung von Verbrechen im Berlin des Kaiserreichs, Frankfurt am Main : Campus, 2005, 423 p., ISBN : 978-3-593-37867-1

Texte intégral

1The present monograph is the published version of Philipp Müller’s PhD thesis from the European University Institute. The scope of the study is intellectually ambitious. In his introduction Müller describes his approach as a “historical-anthropological inquiry placed in the cross-road between several histories : of the police and the press, of the city of Berlin and its public sphere ; as well as the history of mass-culture.” (p. 26)

2Müller’s study is part of a growing literature on the relationship between police and public in its cultural context in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when police forces around Europe, mainly big city police, sought to engage with the public to increase popular acceptance and cooperation (Funk and Jessen for imperial Germany ; Emsley and Taylor for England and Berlière for France). Because this study focuses primarily on the public engagement of the Criminal Investigation Department (Kriminalpolizei), Müller identifies this relationship as characterised by much greater positive engagement, compared to studies focusing on the ordinary street policing in charge of enforcement of petty ordinances and occasional riot policing. Müller thus provides a very welcome readjustment to the impression of police-public relations in Berlin as primarily confrontational. Müller’s study also follows a wave of interest in cultural representations of crime and criminals in the popular press in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the German context through the studies by Peter Becker, Peter Fritzsche and Benjamin Hett. The study by Dominique Kalifa, L’encre et le sang (1995) which looks at Paris of the belle époque and covers much of the same ground as this study, is not considered by Müller – probably because Kalifa’s work is only available in French.

3The study touches upon many themes : media constructions and popular representations of the criminal ; the relationship between police, press and the public ; the involvement of the public in crime investigation and apprehension of the criminal ; the “crime theatre” of the urban public space. The text is well written ; an enjoyable read with engaging narratives on individual cases of police and public “searching for the culprit”. Müller’s interests lie in the complex and multi-layered interactions between police, press and the public. He analyses the mediating role of the press in police-public relations, as well as the ways in which the criminal’s persona was shaped not only by the police and the press, but also by the criminal himself. Although the research is focused on the Wilhelmine era, there is a distinct feel of Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic “M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder” in the narrative, as Müller acknowledges himself (p. 28).

4Part One sets out the broader framework of the press, the police (i.e. the criminal investigation department) and the public. Chapter 1, ‘Die Zeitung, die Polizei und die Vielen’, focuses on the changing landscape of the Berlin press, and analyses the liberalising impact of the new Press Law of 1874 as well as the establishment of a police press bureau in 1884. As Müller repeatedly stresses, the police needed the help and cooperation from the press and the public in the crime investigation process, as ordinary people constituted the eyes and the ears of the city. Yet it was an exchange the police could not control. They could issue descriptions of wanted criminals, but could not rely on the press to accurately render these details without adding a more marketable spin to the story.

5In Chapter 2, ‘Polizei und Presse : Die pressepolitik der Kriminalpolizei’, Müller describes the difficult relationship between police, press and the public which was characterised by mutual dependency as well as suspicion. The Kriminalpolizei had good reasons for not trusting the press to faithfully report the information provided by the police, as their primary interest was to increase sales, with the hunt for criminals being a means to that end. Müller analyses how police information was turned into sensationalist ‘News’ and kept boiling for days or weeks on end, and how the image of the criminal and the victim as ‘types’ was shaped both by the police, by the press and by the popular imagination. Müller concludes that from the 1890s the police increasingly entered in a dialogue with the public, but in the eyes of the police this was not a conversation of equals and the police remained the ultimate arbiter in defining reality (pp. 148-149).

6In Chapter 3, Müller switches the focus to the public : how ordinary people interpreted the information released by the Kriminalpolizei. Müller provides some very amusing, examples of how people reported their observations to the police, often in exaggerated and distorted accounts. By denouncing strangers and neighbours alike, individuals sought to settle private scores or hoped to provide the essential clue leading to the arrest of the criminal and whereby one might gain publicity, were it even for a brief moment, and perhaps some reward. On their side, the police distrusted the information they got from the population – or at least certain sections of the population – and preferred to rely on forensic evidence rather than witness statements. The identification and occasional chase of a suspect on the run became a public spectacle in which the population took a very active role, and the chase as well as the trial was treated in the press as public entertainment.

7Part Two of the book groups together the Chapters 4 to 8, and analyses two highly publicised cases to illustrate the cultural construction of ‘the criminal’. The first is the case of Rudolph Henning who robbed and murdered a waiter in December 1905 (at page 180 the date is erroneously rendered as “December 1906”, but this is clearly a blip, as all other dates related to the case are correct). The second case under scrutiny is the almost proverbial incident of the military imposter, Wilhelm Voigt, better known as the Captain from Köpenick. On the basis of press reporting and records from the subsequent trials, Müller provides a wealth of interesting and engaging details on how the two cases were presented to the public and how the characters of the two criminals were altered and reinterpreted in the course of the investigation and trials. Müller also demonstrates that Hennig and Voigt were not passive objects, but both actively employed a pre-existing cultural repertoire to shape their public persona as (anti)hero and, in the case of Voigt, also as victim of the criminal justice system.

8The broad intellectual scope of the book is both its strength and its weakness. The attempt to bring together several types of history without prioritising any of them as the main focus leads to a certain fuzziness, with the analysis sometimes going in many different directions. Moreover the analysis occasionally gets a bit lost behind the many intricate details. Do we really need to know that much about the changes in pricing of individual newspapers (pp. 65-67), particularly since all these details are available in the appendices ? Or is it necessary to render every little fact relating to the cases Hennig and Voigt ? As reader one needs more explicit clarifications along the way of how the details are linked to the overarching arguments. I would also have liked to know whether the case studies are intended to illustrate the norm or the particular in the repertoire for constructing media villains and victims. The Captain from Köpenick is after all a highly unusual case, and while its protagonist Wilhelm Voigt skilfully played on contradictory cultural perceptions of himself as a villain and a victim of the criminal justice system, it seems to show more about what was possible at the margins of Wilhelmine media culture than what was norm.

9This leads me to the other problem with the study : the lack of wider contextualisation. How does the repertoire for criminals to shape their public persona in Wilhelmine Berlin fit into similar phenomena in the 18th and early 19th centuries with criminals’ autobiographies and dying speeches at the scaffold ? I am not suggesting a whole new research project, but some thoughts on what was ‘modern’ about the media construction and self-construction of the criminal persona in Wilhelmine Berlin would be useful. It would also be relevant to know whether Berlin should be seen as typical or untypical for imperial Germany, and how developments in Berlin reflect general trends elsewhere in Europe and North America towards increasing press commercialisation of crime reporting and increasing involvement of the public in crime investigation. Except for one passing note referring to inspiration from parallel developments in the American press (p. 57) there is very little attempt to draw any connections to the world outside Berlin.

10Overall Philipp Müller’s book is an engaging and inspiring read providing a timely reassessment of the idea of the relationship between the Berlin police and the public as confrontational. It also constitutes a very important complement to the study by Kalifa on Paris of the same era as well as the more recent studies by Sace Elder on Berlin of the Weimar era and the edited works by Judith Rowbotham and Kim Stevenson on Britain. An important study to build on.

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Anja Johansen, « Philipp Müller, Auf der Suche nach dem Täter : die öffentliche Dramatisierung von Verbrechen im Berlin des Kaiserreichs »Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, Vol. 16, n°2 | 2012, 132-135.

Référence électronique

Anja Johansen, « Philipp Müller, Auf der Suche nach dem Täter : die öffentliche Dramatisierung von Verbrechen im Berlin des Kaiserreichs »Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies [En ligne], Vol. 16, n°2 | 2012, mis en ligne le 13 mars 2013, consulté le 05 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Anja Johansen

University of Dundee

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