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  • Denis Szabo (1929–2018): Founder of Criminology in Québec
  • François Fenchel and John Winterdyk

Rien n’est possible sans les hommes, rien n’est durable sans les institutions. Nothing is possible without men, nothing lasts without institutions.

Jean Monnet

The recent passing of Professor Denis Szabo (13 October 2018) is marked with sadness in the Canadian criminological community. There is, however, a respite in knowing that as one of the founders of Canadian criminology, his legacy has been well-documented. We are also fortunate that many of his former students, including the lead author of this article, and a good number of his former colleagues (e.g., Maurice Cusson, Jean-Paul Brodeur, Serge Brochu, Ezzat Fattah, and André Normandeau, among others)2 are still alive to provide their own accounts of Szabo’s life and contribution to the development of criminology. As an homage, we propose a condensed version of his life drawn from a recently published essay on his life.1

Szabo’s early years

Denis Szabo was born on 4 June 1929 in Budapest, Hungary. His father was a police officer, and at the tender age of 10, he became a cadet and received an officer’s education during World War II. It was during this formative phase of his life that Szabo garnered different lessons that would guide the rest of his life. One of the first and enduring lessons he learned was a certain contempt for authority and rebelliousness against regulations and bureaucracy. While his military training provided him with specific valuable skills, he found it too restricting, and his will to be more expressive and free-spirited often got him into trouble. [End Page 1]

Nonetheless, he acknowledged that military life taught him the value of using his time effectively and efficiently. As was demonstrated throughout his academic life, he was a master of planning and time management.

After Germany’s surrender in 1945, Hungary came under Soviet occupation. Szabo continued his studies and eventually registered as a sociology student at the University of Budapest. While studying there, he met his first mentor, Professor Alexandre Szalai, chair of the department, who would have a fundamental influence on him. Under Szalai’s mentorship, Szabo discovered a curiosity for the meaning of history, the nature of knowledge, and the causes and consequences of social change. During his studies, one of the required textbooks came to symbolize these questions: Philosophie der Geschichte als Soziologie (The Philosophy of History as Sociology) by the German scholar Paul Barth. This sophisticated and demanding book, grounded in an erudition that was daunting, eventually helped to influence and shape Szabo’s thirst for inquiry and understanding.

But, the increasingly repressive regime meant uncertain security and fleeting prospects for Szabo and many fellow citizens. In 1949, along with some university friends, he fled into Austria, risking his life, as the Russian occupiers would not willingly let anyone leave the country. From Austria, he then moved to Belgium.

Despite the hardship of fleeing Hungary and trying to find a safe refuge, Szabo enrolled in Political and Social Sciences at the Université de Louvain. While there, one of his mentors was Professor Jacques Leclercq, who was a specialist in natural law and moral philosophy. To Szabo, Leclercq seemed to be worlds apart from the Marxist realism context of his mentor Szalai, and he was attracted to Leclercq’s penchant for using objective and scientific inquiry to examine, explore, and understand the world. This new line of investigation was further strengthened once he began to familiarize himself with the work of Vilfredo Pareto, who introduced Szabo to “experimental” sociology.

It was during this intellectually stimulating period that Szabo began writing what would become his doctoral thesis in sociology: “Crimes et villes” (“Crime and Cities”). It is noteworthy that the subject chosen reflected some of the social concerns of the time. For many post-war European sociologists, the question of social change focused on the problems of urbanization, as people were increasingly leaving behind their traditional ways of life and entering a world of accelerated change. Szabo took a macro perspective to examine urban society, analysing the effect of the city on society from various perspectives...


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