- Violent Sensations: Sex, Crime, and Utopia in Vienna and Berlin, 1860–1914 by Scott Spector
The question “who is the murderer?” remains at the heart of countless media scandals today, just as over a century ago; many rely on graphic images of violence, brutality, and criminal activity. Scott Spector’s long-awaited book eloquently demonstrates that the fascination with such spectacles dates back to the 1860s, with the rise of media scandals about sexual practices (especially between men) and their potential connections to violent criminal acts. Ritual murder accusations that gained momentum in the 1880s made for Central European versions of the Dreyfus Affair, which strained Christian-Jewish relations and put allegedly treacherous Jews on trial. The fin-de-siècle, when killers similar to London’s Jack the Ripper and other marginal or degenerate figures came to signify urban modernity, marks a further turning point in this history. It was also around 1900 when new sensationalist texts about the criminality of the metropolis proliferated.
Violent figures associated with the city became the subjects of modern scientific studies, legal investigations, and medical diagnoses. Yet in some cases they also emerged as subjects on their own terms. In rejecting the sufficiency of the “marginalization thesis” embraced by Richard Evans and others (namely that marginal figures merely validated more centered identities), Spector shifts the conversation toward a dialectical analytic that brings together “enlightened” and “decadent” discourses (2–3). Scientific, legal, and medical texts constitute the enlightened sources; [End Page 178] newspaper articles and popular books make up the decadent. Although Vienna and Berlin are the primary focus of this study, which innovatively explores cultural phenomena across national borders, noteworthy events elsewhere in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire also receive attention.
One of the book’s major claims makes it required reading for historians and German studies scholars alike: it was not after World War I, but rather in the decades prior to the war, when violent fantasies emerged on a mass scale. By positioning World War I “not as a cause but as a symptom” (14), Spector suggests that Weimar scholarship—on Lustmord, criminality, and sexuality, among other topics—must look to earlier decades for the origins of interwar-era incarnations (170, 196). The fin-de-siècle represents an especially key moment: Otto Weininger, Robert Musil, and, to a lesser degree, Sigmund Freud factor into Spector’s portrait of this time.
In addition to its in-depth look at individual texts and criminal cases, the book also offers an early history of the fields of criminology, criminal psychology, and forensics. For Spector, Austrian Hanns Gross serves as a real-life Sherlock Holmes (56). German responses to the early criminal anthropological work of Cesare Lombroso, which privileged physical signs of degeneration ranging from forehead shape to tattoos, lead to a fascinating discussion of criminal accountability (Zurechnungsfähigkeit). Here we see the growing authority of expert witnesses and their knowledge, a trope that runs throughout the book. Spector makes the powerful argument that the fixation on “twilight conditions” or border states (Dämmerzustände) including epilepsy, somnambulism, alcoholism, and religious fanaticism, points to a rejection of will and a privileging of innate characteristics as explanations for crime or violence (252).
Sexuality is at the core of several chapters on homosexuality and Lustmord, and scholars of gender and sexuality will find this history indispensable to understanding work on later developments in sexology. In weaving together various theories of homosexuality, Spector emphasizes the early conflation of same-sex and violent sexual practices, as well as the crime scandals that brought many alleged homosexuals into the limelight. The coinage of such terms as Urning (same-sex attraction) by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and homosexual by Karóly Kertbeny (Karl-Maria Benkert) predates and informs the important work of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Magnus Hirschfeld. One scandalous court case from 1889 led Krafft-Ebing to write the first article on lesbianism (Gynandrie); the story of Sándor (Sarolta) Vay here leads us to...