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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 305-307

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Book Review

Inventing the Criminal:
A History of German Criminology, 1880-1945

Inventing the Criminal: A History of German Criminology, 1880-1945. By Richard F. Wetzell (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2000) 348pp. $39.95

German physicians and jurists have argued for more than a century about whether criminals are born or created by their environment. In [End Page 305] this precisely argued, specialized book, Wetzell shows that a portrait of the born criminal was invented by a medical establishment with a powerful hereditarian bias long before the Nazis enshrined biological determinism into state policy.

Wetzell's major focus is the intellectual debate--in criminological journals, monographs, lectures, and occasionally policy-making bodies--about who criminals were. He examines at length the arguments of a relatively small number of criminological researchers and writers, carefully pinpointing their gradually increasing sophistication and lingering biases. Although this approach may limit the number of readers who wish to follow Wetzell's discussion in detail, it allows him to make a persuasive case that despite the entrenchment of biological determinism within certain medical and academic circles already in the late nineteenth century, the theory's later unquestioned dominance among the Nazi political leadership did not reflect the still-divided intellectual community.

Biological explanations of criminal behavior received an enormous boost from Cesare Lombroso's Criminal Man (Milan, 1876), which argued that criminals were a distinct anthropological type, with identifiable psychological and physical characteristics. German doctors were especially receptive to Lombroso's claims. They helped to transform the interdisciplinary study of crime by the Weimar period from criminal anthropology to criminal psychology and eventually to criminal biology.

Wetzell shows that a lack of humanitarian empathy for individuals and a willingness to subordinate individual welfare to imagined national concerns were already pronounced by 1900 within the German medical profession. Arguments between hereditarian physicians and jurists, who were more likely to support social explanations of crime, continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Doctors folded hereditarian explanations of crime into an enthusiasm for eugenic improvement of the German population. The most extreme eventually moved from advocating sterilization of the loosely defined "feeble-minded" to organizing the mass killing of "asocials," including the criminally insane, in the Nazis' T4 program.

Inventing the Criminal can be read as a story about a part of the German medical community, especially psychiatrists, whose exaggerated concern for the German Volk led them to participate in killing German people. It is also a narrative about the development of a sophisticated interdisciplinary criminological research program, supported by that combination of prestigious professorial chairs, specialized journals, monograph series, and government support, which made German social science the best in the world at the turn of the century. Criminological researchers were forced by their studies to develop social explanations for criminal behavior, but they could not convince their more ideologically driven colleagues. Decades of intellectual claims about the biological basis of crime enabled crude Nazi biological determinists to find [End Page 306] academic supporters. Yet, even during the war, the intellectual debate continued, isolated from the realm of policy but still rigorous and relatively uncensored. Wetzell is careful not to indict the entire German intellectual community, but rather to demonstrate that the continued existence of argument underlines the moral responsibility of those who chose to put their expertise in the service of murder.


Steve Hochstadt
Bates College



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pp. 305-307
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