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Globalisations / Globalizations

Future Themes and Research Agendas on Crime and Police in Wartime

Clive Emsley
p. 77-86

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1For many years the teaching of history in the UK tended to date the beginning and end of courses with the terminal dates of wars. Moreover many historians, including those of war, politics and political change often shelter their studies within terminal dates. During the 1960s the upsurge in social history prompted the investigation of societies during wars. Many universities began to run courses on “War and Society”, described by some as “the history of war with the battles left out”. Invariably this meant extending the work beyond the dates of the beginning and the ending of a conflict. A parallel development within social history was the beginning of research into the history of crime and criminal justice. This focused on those who made the law and for what reasons, on those who broke it and enforced it. Yet while the study of war and society and the history of crime and criminal justice developed in parallel, in the UK at least it took a long time for military historians and social historians to begin exchanging ideas; and I know from personal experience of a few military historians and copyright guardians who remain suspicious of any work that implies criminal behaviour by their nation’s military.

  • 1 Mannheim (1940, p.48-49).
  • 2 I refer to systems since English and Scottish Law, and the various prosecutorial and court systems, (...)

2There are many areas that would benefit from historical research in the areas of wartime crime and policing. I know the British experience best. There is a problem in making direct comparisons with other European countries in that Britain was never occupied during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars or the two world wars of the twentieth century; in consequence it did not experience any alien supervision of, or wartime alteration to its justice system. Equally, however, it must be emphasised that every national experience differ and different legal definitions of offences mean that direct comparisons can be misleading. Hermann Mannheim pointed this out in 1940 noting a much wider conception in the English word “murder” than in the German word Mord and the fact that the activities of a confidence trickster during the interwar years were dealt with in England under the Larceny Act while in Germany such offences were not “larceny” but came under the separate heading of Betrug1. A further problem of comparison arises from the fact that whereas, particularly in the Second World War, the British legal systems2 were unchanged much of continental Europe was occupied and the legal systems and functionaries were at least under observation by the occupier.

Ordinary Crime/Ordinary People

3Arguments about the causes of crime and who commits crime never go away; and the kinds of crime that are committed in peacetime do not cease because there is a war. Thus the police, often hard pressed because of a reduction in numbers as a result of the younger men or reservists being called to the colours, still have to deal with larcenies, assaults, criminal damage and so on. The individuals who commit these crimes are much the same as those who commit crimes in peacetime, and while the causes and occasions of the offences again are often much the same as in peacetime, war exigencies can lead to differences. Doing justice in wartime with reference to the usual range of criminal offences is not, therefore, greatly different for those state functionaries involved in the legal and penal system of a country. War can, however, have an effect, or at least the perception of an effect on reshaping traditional offences and involving new groups of offenders.

  • 3 Emsley (2015, p.39-45).
  • 4 Aaslestad and Joor (2015).

4Theft from docks was a problem that went back generations. Dock labour was largely unskilled work. The men worked in teams, they lived close to their place of work and family members laboured alongside each other. The pay was poor, but the opportunities were plentiful for improving pay through petty pilferage and either selling on the appropriated goods, or enjoying them at home. Wartime rationing and shortages, alongside the enormous amount of materiel and supplies delivered for the armed forces provided increased temptation for the team-work pilferage of dockers. At the beginning of the Second World War the British Military Police established a detective department initially to investigate the theft of goods being delivered to the British Expeditionary Force in France. Much of this theft occurred on French docks and was the work of local workers, but some was also committed by the Army’s own dock labour companies which had been recruited among dock labourers at home; and some of the pilferage occurred when the supplies were being loaded on to ships in British ports. Dock pilferage occurred throughout the war. In Britain it led to confrontations between Military Police protecting the ships and the well-organised dockers; and there were similar problems wherever the allies landed supplies. In Italy, and especially in Naples, the scale of theft reached massive proportions with local dock workers, Allied deserters and the honoured societies of Sicily and Naples linking with each other3. There is beginning to be some work on smuggling and dockyard relations during the Napoleonic Wars4. Yet the thefts from docks, military supply trains and dumps merits more work looking not just at wartime but also at whether wartime behaviour was different from peace and whether it left any legacy.

5If pilferage by dock-workers was a problem that occurred whether or not a country was at war, the idea that dockyard workers were “professional” criminals was not one regularly deployed, at least publicly, by police or by contemporaries that wrote and fretted about crime. Indeed, discussion of the problem was largely confined to those who had to deal with the losses. The “professional” criminal in the popular imagination, was someone who chose to live by dishonest means; during the nineteenth century particularly the notion took hold of criminal offenders starting their criminal career by petty theft and progressing to “adult” offences such as burglary and robbery – both of which in British legal definitions involved a degree of violence. When civilian towns and cities became targets for modern air power, blackouts were imposed; but in creating difficulties for night-time air-raids conceivably these also created opportunities for those intent on burglary and robbery, though the statistics as filed and categorised would make this difficult to prove positively. Wartime criminal statistics, like their peacetime equivalents, are difficult and are not especially helpful, but it appears probable that the two world wars led to a greater incidence of women and juveniles committing the most common offences. Certainly many contemporaries within the combatant countries believed that war increased the number of such offenders, although this belief was also entangled with pre-war beliefs about, and attitudes towards offenders.

Women and Juveniles

  • 5 Exner (1927); Liepmann (1930, p.159).
  • 6 Hay (1982) has argued that such problems can be detected in England during the wars of the eighteen (...)

6Immediately after the First World War research was conducted into the pattern of wartime crime in Austria and Germany. In both countries the statistics demonstrated a significant increase in the amount of crime committed by women and a corresponding increase in convictions. Property crime is invariably the most common form of offence brought before the criminal courts. In Austria the overwhelming majority of women convicted for crime were convicted of theft, embezzlement and fraud; and, unlike in peacetime, more of them were first time offenders. There was also a significant increase in women appearing before the courts charged with receiving. Germany presented a similar picture. „Dieser Krieg war nicht nur ein Kampf der Männer“, declared Moritz Liepmann, „sondern auch ein Kampf der Frauen, mögen auch Kampfplatz und Kampfort hier und dort ganz andersartig gewesen sein.“ Liepmann, and his Austrian counterpart Franz Exner, both wrote of a “masculinisation” (Vermännlichung) of female crime. They attributed this to the difficulties that the war created for women without the usual breadwinner and the need to care for their children with a lack of food and money5. It would be useful to have some further research on the potential shifts of gender among petty thieves in wartime, and the possible causes6. As it stands at the moment, however, the majority of the work focussing on women and crime in wartime focuses on women as prostitutes or victims of rape.

  • 7 Exner (1927, p.160-166); Liepmann (1930, p.153-154).
  • 8 Emsley (2013, p.145-148); Liepmann (1930, p.53).

7The First World War highlighted concerns about sexual morality. An apparent increase in prostitution agitated authorities, though the act of prostitution was not necessarily, in itself, a criminal offence. In English law soliciting, rather than prostitution, was an offence; in most European countries acting as a prostitute without undergoing the regulatory checks was an offence. The blame during the First World War, as before the war, focussed on the woman rather than her client; and there was particular anxiety about venereal disease incapacitating soldiers. In England the first women police officers were deployed largely to ensure that young women kept away from military and naval personnel. The German statistics suggested a decline in adultery cases resulting in divorce and an increase in abortion and child murder. These figures were taken to indicate that the absence of husbands, women working night-shifts in war industries, and the wartime increase in bed-sharing fostered adultery. A second assumption was that married women who could not afford to feed any existing family or who were compelled to take industrial jobs, chose abortion to maintain such children as they had or to disguise any indiscretion7. In England, while adultery was not a criminal offence, bigamy was and both judges and the popular press expressed outrage over an increase in prosecutions for the crime of bigamy which was not so much a female offence as one committed by soldiers and sailors posted far from home8.

  • 9 Exner (1927, chap. 4.3.); Liepmann (1930, chap. 3.1.); Smith (1990).
  • 10 Smith (1990, p.123).
  • 11 Emsley (2011, p.71).

8An increase in juvenile offending was noted during both world wars. There were concerns about young people’s – and especially young men’s – behaviour before 1914 but after August 1914 contemporaries found reasons for the increase rooted in the war. In Austria and Germany some schools were taken over by the military causing disruption for pupils. The drafting of some male teachers meant larger classes and less supervision of boys; similarly the drafting of fathers and elder brothers, and the necessity of a mother finding war work meant an equal lack of supervision at home. Unsupervised youths, it was argued, seized the opportunity to wander the streets and engage in petty theft and other offences; while unsupervised young women seized the opportunity to make friends with the young warrior heroes in military camps. Those who had left school, and in the case of male youths who were awaiting the call-up, sometimes found jobs. The problem here for some observers was that they had not yet sufficient maturity for some of the jobs they were doing and consequently, if they earned good wages, they spent them on clothing, drink, tobacco and sex. The example of the military was occasionally blamed for inspiring boys and male youths to join gangs. Yet these arguments had considerable weaknesses, some of which were debated at the time, some of which have had to await a more careful challenge by historians and criminologists9. And all might benefit from further work. According to the statistics, the greatest increase in criminal offending by juveniles in Austria, Germany and Britain occurred in the first year of the war. In Britain this was the period of voluntary enlistment when most volunteers came from younger, usually unmarried men who came from skilled trades. Unskilled married men living in the poorer districts, and districts where youth offending was more likely, were not present in significant numbers among those volunteering for King and Country10. Equally important, not all contemporaries in Britain were greatly concerned about youth criminality; rather they admired the wildness of boys and their spirit of adventure. Baden-Powell, for example, the founder of the scouting movement believed that “the worst hooligan makes the best [Boy] Scout” and hence, potentially, a fine soldier and a good citizen11.

  • 12 Emsley (2011, p.66 and p.82).

9The concerns about prostitution, venereal disease and what was commonly termed by contemporaries as moral depravity were not dissimilar from pre-war concerns. Two things made the war different: first, large camps for military personnel which attracted girls and young women, not necessarily for prostitution but for the fun of meeting large numbers of young men; second, the large number of married women having to fend for themselves and their families without a male head of the household. The concerns about juvenile offending similarly were not new; during the nineteenth century there was an assumption that many “criminals” progressed from child pick-pockets to adult burglars and murderers. Then, shortly before the First World War, G. Stanley Hall published his analysis of adolescence which maintained that each individual was compelled to follow the development of the human race from primitive behaviour to that of rational civilisation. In Britain this fed into concerns about “the boy labour” problem by which young males went into what the 1911 Census Report call “blind alley occupations” giving them money without responsibility; when the boys reached adulthood they were often dismissed and thrown in to an uncertain labour market with neither skills nor training. Significantly the British Library catalogue lists new editions of Hall’s book in 1914, 1916 and 191712.

  • 13 Gellately (2001, p.87-89 and p.112-113).
  • 14 Peukert (1989, chap. 8).

10It would be interesting to have an exploration of how far the ideas about “adolescence” were taken up and developed as a result of war. Similar concerns about female and juvenile offending were to be found during the Second World War. Nazi Germany boasted of cleaning up the crime problem and pointed to a decline in the criminal statistics from the Party’s take-over in 1933. As ever there are problems with statistics of this sort, and these problems were aggravated in the Third Reich first by the enormous number of cases tried in Special Courts and the People’s Court, which were not included in the statistics, and second by the numerous amnesties decreed by Hitler which meant that cases were dropped by the courts or never went to court. Prostitution was controlled, though women who acted outside of the system could find themselves identified as threats to morality and the purity of the race; this identification could provide a justification for incarcerating the suspect in a concentration camp. In wartime the determination to maintain the purity of the race also led to the creation of brothels for foreign workers; the considerable sum spent on these institutions was not popular with the majority in the population who considered that the money involved would be better spent on sheltering homeless Germans13. The desire to maintain the purity of the race also impacted on the Nazi perception of juvenile offending. The swing movement offended the Nazi state by its Lässigkeit (casualness) and Lottern (sleaziness); its threat to the new order and the Volk made it a crime and led Himmler to aim at incarcerating any ringleaders in a concentration camp for two or three years where they would be subject to punitive drill, forced labour and regular beatings. More plebeian groups, collectively known as Edelweißpiraten, were rooted in their locality and took their own group names to distinguish themselves; Cologne had its “Navajos”; Düsseldorf its Kittelbach Pirates; Essen its Fahrtenstenze. They disliked and resisted Nazi regimentation. They could be violent towards representatives of the state, particularly members of the official Hitler Jugend14. Not all of these young people were involved in criminal offending as it is generally understood. It would be useful to explore the Nazi labelling of crime alongside a more generally accepted assessment of juvenile, or female offending. Similarly it would be useful to have an assessment of such offences in other wartime authoritarian states such as Fascist Italy or Soviet Russia.

New Forms of Crime

  • 15 Bohstedt (1983) and Wells (1988) both focus on the period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (...)
  • 16 See, for example, Grenard (2008); Roodhouse (2013); Zierenberg (2015).
  • 17 Smithies (1984) is an exception; but the topic could do with a more modern investigation; and Ziere (...)

11Concerns for security during the two world wars led to the criminalisation of offences that might assist the enemy or undermine morale. The threat of aerial bombardment led to the prohibition of showing lights after dark. Listening to the radio broadcasts of an enemy became an offence, though in Britain enormous numbers listened to the Nazi news as told by William Joyce – popularly known in Britain as Lord Haw-Haw – with amusement and without fear. In Nazi Germany in contrast, listening to the BBC could lead to a death sentence. The most obvious form of crime boosted, if not created, by wartime was the black market. Fraudulent or illicit markets were not confined to wartime. Even without a war, and especially in times of economic difficulty, individuals have sought bargains, or been prepared to purchase the necessaries of life through means that bent or broke the state’s law. In some ways, and in some circumstances, this might be seen as an element of popular justice to the extent that ordinary people understood it as their right to have the necessaries of life at a fair price – an echo of the legitimising notions or taxation populaire that were a feature of crowd action in earlier centuries and in earlier wars15. The wars of the twentieth century, perhaps more systematically than previous conflicts, have put the civilian population of combatant nations in the front line and have also put massive pressure on foodstuffs, fuel and supply, leading people of all social classes to use the black market. This form of illicit trading has been reasonably well researched in recent years16. However, few have explored the continuities and contrasts of such trading between war and peace17.

  • 18 Emsley (2013, p.81-82, 89, 91 and 93-94); Emsley (2017, p.51-56 and 77); Sanders (2009).

12There are other issues that might be usefully explored within the black markets. How far, for example, did this offending foster resistance to enemy occupation? It has been suggested that in France the Resistance claimed it as such; though problems did not cease with the war and British Military Police found elegant women’s clothing being made out of British army blankets and sold for high prices in both France and Belgium after liberation. In Italy, after 1943, the theft and resale of Allied military materiel became a considerable problem with massive amounts of equipment, vehicles, spare-parts, medicines disappearing from docks, depots and in transit. Allied deserters became involved with the local criminal gangs. In France it appears that German occupiers, including specialised military purchasing agencies, down through individual units to ordinary soldiers, were heavily involved in the illicit purchase of French goods18. These issues have been best studied for the Second World War; other conflicts would benefit from a consideration of them.

The Soldier as Criminal

  • 19 Rodgers (2012) presents some interesting evidence on these concerns for mid-eighteenth-century Engl (...)

13Most crime is committed by young men and most men that engage in armed conflict are young. In Britain there is a tradition of blaming crime committed by soldiers on “criminals” that joined the Army or who were swept up by conscription during the two world wars. At the same time there are fears that, at the end of wars, the young men, brutalised by experiences on the battlefield, will return home out-of-touch with civil society and continue to kill, rape and rob19. The situation is, as might be expected, a little more complex.

  • 20 Emsley (2013, p.16-17 and 107-111).

14In a battle men depend on their mates and there are assumptions that men usually fight for each other rather than what might be considered the higher notions of “King and Country”, the Fatherland, the republic, the empire or whatever the government, government apologists and propagandists emphasise. A soldier’s military unit is essentially his family, in many instances his gang. In the British Army the smallest infantry unit is the section of no more than ten men; the section is bound into a bigger unit of three or four sections – the platoon; platoons are united in companies, companies in battalions. In the hard drinking, aggressive nature of an infantry regiment a section may fight another section over some relatively trivial matter; equally they will bond against an outsider group be it from a different regiment, a different arm of the services (navy or air force), or men from a different, but allied army. In both world wars British soldiers could be particularly hostile to Americans, who had smart, walking-out uniforms and considerably more money. Fights, assaults, even murders involved the civilian police and legal authorities when they took place beyond the confines of a military establishment or when the troops were not on active service in a theatre of war20.

  • 21 See, inter alia, Lilly (2007); Joly (2012); Emsley (2013, p.124-131); Gebhardt (2015).

15The machismo of military units may also have prompted sexual crime; and so too, might the dehumanisation of the enemy leading to a woman in an occupied district being perceived as nothing more than a receptacle for the victors’ requirements. Yet there are problems. Many British soldiers in both world wars appear to have had a naivety about sex and may have assaulted women less than some of their allies and enemies. French colonial troops worried the Germans towards the end of both wars, especially when deployed in the Army of Occupation in 1919; their alleged behaviour towards Italian women during the Second World War led to them being withdrawn from the Italian campaign. During the Spanish Civil War the presence of Moorish troops led to panic and the threat of their deployment was used also as terror propaganda. American troops appear to have raped more and more as they moved from bases in Britain, into France and, ultimately, into Germany; those accused, tried and convicted, however, appear to have been drawn disproportionately from African-American GIs. The Red Army’s advance into the east of Germany is notorious for the number of rapes and murders committed, though a recent publication suggests that there was a much greater incidence of rape by the allies in the west than has hitherto been estimated21.

16Being at war, the wearing of battledress and the aftermath of battle and conquest are not requirements for offences of rape and sexual violence. It is the same with looting, various forms of theft and vandalism. In some instances war makes such offences easier for perpetrators; in a battlefield area, for instance, men might take clothing, supplies, food because they wanted some fresh underwear, some soap for a wash, fresh razor-blades, fresh food. “Looting” of this type is understandable and, perhaps to some extent excusable. The problem is muddied by the theft of watches and rings from the dead, wounded and prisoners, by the men who take gold teeth from the dead and sometimes even go equipped with dental tools to facilitate such desecration; and by robbing frightened civilians at bayonet point. Such offences were liable to military jurisdiction in a theatre of operations; but they could easily get side-lined by officers on the grounds that there was a war to fight and investigators from Military Police units could find their enquiries significantly impeded by busy or indifferent commanders. It was the same with accusations of rape and sexual violence; though these latter might be complicated further by a reluctance to bring an accusation for fear of family, or the victim’s honour.

17Men who stole personal possessions or money from comrades were often dealt with violently by those comrades or, if the case went before a platoon or company commander, by a beating from sergeants or sergeant majors. There was no notion of going beyond summary jurisdiction to a formal court martial in such circumstances. Thefts from civilians outside of a theatre of operations, in the British Army at least, were generally dealt with by the civilian courts; and there could be legal clashes if a judge or magistrate heard that an accused was facing a military charge linked with the same offence – for example; it might be that a soldier accused of theft on a civil indictment was also charged with bringing the Army into disrepute for what amounted to the same incident. Yet all of these issues would benefit from more sustained research.

  • 22 Virgili (2002) is the best study of this phenomenon for France.

18Soldiers, it was feared, would return from the war brutalised by their experiences, inured to violence and ready to assault, murder and rob their fellow citizens. There was some violence by veterans, especially from those who returned suffering from some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which was scarcely recognised in the First World War, and not much better appreciated in the Second. Others returned, sometimes disturbed in this way, to find that their wives or girlfriends had been unfaithful; sometimes the woman was assaulted, sometimes she was killed and the wronged soldier was also known to assault or kill her lover. Often British courts were prepared to treat such offenders leniently, generally making their decisions on the man’s previous behaviour. Other forms of justice were meted out sometimes by “popular justice”, sometimes by the victors, sometimes by a restored government. It was also a time for settling old scores. Police officers and other state functionaries who had become too close to an occupier could be investigated and purged, even on the flimsiest evidence22. The women accused of, and punished for la collaboration horizontale are the best-known example of “popular justice” and the style of the punishment – the stripping and the shaving of heads hearkens back to the world of charivari and could, perhaps provide another way in to the study of the continuation of old traditions.

Looking Ahead

  • 23 Williams (2016) raises some interesting issues in a book that goes far beyond the Second World War.

19This short essay has concentrated primarily on the two world wars of the twentieth century. Yet war and crime are not restricted by time or space. Crime or rather its perpetrators adapt to the environment; it is the same with war. Some suggestions have been made about the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period, and there remains much that could be done for the latter half of the twentieth century with reference to the wars at the end of the European empires and subsequent conflicts. Much ink has already been spilled on the question of war crimes and how they might best be punished by the international community rather than merely by victors – but here too, much might usefully be done23.

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Aaslestad, K.B. and J. Joor (Eds.) (2015) Revisiting Napoleon’s Continental System: Local, Regional and European Experiences, Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bohstedt, J. (1983) Riots and Community Politics in England and Wales 1790-1810, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Emsley, C. (2011) Crime and Society in Twentieth-Century England, Harlow and London: Longman.

Emsley, C. (2013) Soldier, Sailor, Beggarman, Thief: Crime and the British Armed Services since 1914, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Emsley, C. (2015) Cops and Dockers, History Today, 65, 8, p.39-45.

Emsley, C. (2017) Exporting British Policing during the Second World War: Policing Soldiers and Civilians, London: Bloomsbury.

Exner, F. (1927) Krieg und Kriminlalität in Österreich, Vienna: Hölder-Pichler-Tempsky.

Gebhardt, M. (2015) Als die Soldaten kamen: Die Vergewaltigung deutscher Frauen am Ende des Zweiten Weltskrieg. Munich: Deutsche Verlag-Anstalt.

Gellately, R. (2001) Backing Hitler, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Grenard, F. (2008) La France du marché noir (1940-1919), Paris: Payot.

Hay, D. (1982) War, dearth and theft in the eighteenth century: The record of the English courts, Past and Present, 95, p.117-160.

Joly, M. (2012) The Practices of War, Terror and Imagination: Moor Troops and Rapes during the Spanish Civil War, in Branche, R. and Virgilie, F. (Eds.) Rape in Wartime, Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Liepmann, M. (1930) Krieg und Kriminalität in Deutschland, Stuttgart, Berlin and Leipzig: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt.

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1 Mannheim (1940, p.48-49).

2 I refer to systems since English and Scottish Law, and the various prosecutorial and court systems, are different.

3 Emsley (2015, p.39-45).

4 Aaslestad and Joor (2015).

5 Exner (1927); Liepmann (1930, p.159).

6 Hay (1982) has argued that such problems can be detected in England during the wars of the eighteenth century.

7 Exner (1927, p.160-166); Liepmann (1930, p.153-154).

8 Emsley (2013, p.145-148); Liepmann (1930, p.53).

9 Exner (1927, chap. 4.3.); Liepmann (1930, chap. 3.1.); Smith (1990).

10 Smith (1990, p.123).

11 Emsley (2011, p.71).

12 Emsley (2011, p.66 and p.82).

13 Gellately (2001, p.87-89 and p.112-113).

14 Peukert (1989, chap. 8).

15 Bohstedt (1983) and Wells (1988) both focus on the period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars for their discussions of food riots in Britain.

16 See, for example, Grenard (2008); Roodhouse (2013); Zierenberg (2015).

17 Smithies (1984) is an exception; but the topic could do with a more modern investigation; and Zierenberg (2015) runs beyond the end of the war.

18 Emsley (2013, p.81-82, 89, 91 and 93-94); Emsley (2017, p.51-56 and 77); Sanders (2009).

19 Rodgers (2012) presents some interesting evidence on these concerns for mid-eighteenth-century England with particular reference to demobilised sailors.

20 Emsley (2013, p.16-17 and 107-111).

21 See, inter alia, Lilly (2007); Joly (2012); Emsley (2013, p.124-131); Gebhardt (2015).

22 Virgili (2002) is the best study of this phenomenon for France.

23 Williams (2016) raises some interesting issues in a book that goes far beyond the Second World War.

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Clive Emsley, « Future Themes and Research Agendas on Crime and Police in Wartime »Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, Vol. 21, n°2 | 2017, 77-86.

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Clive Emsley

Professor Emeritus
The Open University
Milton Keynes, United Kingdom

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