12. Social Control of Violence, Violence as Social Control: The Case of Early Modern Germany
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chapter 12 Social Control of Violence, Violence As Social Control:The Case of Early Modern Germany Gerd Schwerhoff Translated by Lukas Hoffmann he problem of the containment, control, and suppression of violence is inextricably linked with that of its nature. Scholars of present-day violence, as well as historians concerned with the topic, sometimes fail to see this central connection or to discuss it appropriately. Thus, the author of a recent overview of sociological publications dealing with violence complains that a real sociology of violence is almost totally lacking. According toTrutz vonTrotha, sociologists— following the classic route from Durkheim and Weber to Simmel and Elias— restrict their analysis to the reasons for violence, instead of developing a real phenomenology of violence. InTrotha’s view, a “thick description” (Clifford Geertz), a microhistoric exploration of violence, is needed.1 My contribution tries to reach this goal, for the field of history rather than sociology. When sociologists discuss violence, they often do so with the opportunities of its prevention in mind, whereas historians are concerned with the shape of violence and its control in the past. The problem at the root of both discussions is the same: without a precise understanding of what violence actually is, one can hardly talk adequately about its prevention, suppression, or changing shape. There are various ideas about the true nature of violence.The implicit or explicit starting point of many discussions is the assumption of an inborn drive to aggression , which needs to be suppressed and modified by strong sociocultural forces. Among those forces, the emergence of the state in the early modern period has always been credited with a central role. Opinions differ, however, about the question to what extent the control of violence can be regarded as historically successful , or if such a control can be successful at all. Even though it does acknowledge internal ambivalences, the theory of civilization by Norbert Elias can be seen as the optimistic branch of such a viewpoint, according to which 220 T Spierenburg_Vol_1_Ch_12_3rd.qxd 6/22/2004 2:48 PM Page 220 the suppression of violence is not only possible but sociologically probable over the long term. Not only could violence thus be suppressed outwardly, but its control could be internalized and thus become a habit. Other, more pessimistic views have gained prominence during the twentieth century with its wars, civil wars, and genocides. The authors concerned see civilization merely as a thin veneer through which the animal within the human being can break out to the surface at any time.2 In its most radical form such a view not only rejects a discussion of the reasons for violence but also refuses to attribute a social meaning to acts of violence. Thus, according to Wolfgang Sofsky, any attempt to make sense out of incidents that seem senseless at first sight fails to acknowledge the unique character of violence; the understanding resulting from it would suppress the essential truth of violence: namely the sufferings of its victims and the lust for violence of the culprits.3 Hence, the following analysis of the social meanings and the context of early modern violence must be considered as one analysis among various possibilities. It is by no means the only legitimate approach to the phenomenon of violence, and it does not exclude alternative interpretations. Nevertheless, to me it seems a necessary and useful perspective, after all, that presents an alternative to a “history of violence” based on Norbert Elias’s theory of civilization. Unmistakably, the approach based on this theory is undergoing an astonishing renaissance at the moment, perhaps because its capacities to solve problems are suggestively convincing at first sight. In my view, however, this approach conceals many problems , so that it ultimately results into a problematic distortion. In contrast to Elias’s approach, this article tries to view violence from a historical-anthropological perspective, while it also draws inspiration from micro- and gender history .4 But far from presenting a case study, this article is largely based on scattered research. The empirical base for my remarks is constituted mainly by German research into crime and violence—which has been largely neglected internationally until now. Further, I am going to refer to examples from my own research into the city of Cologne, whenever this seems possible and reasonable.5 The initial part of this article (Terms and Definitions) explains what kind of violence is focused on here and which concept of social control will be used in this article. Following...