- Lovable Crooks and Loathsome Jews: Antisemitism in German and Austrian Crime Writing Before the World Wars by T. S. Kord
German Studies scholar T. S. Kord uses a crime that occurred in Washington, D.C. in October 2002 as a disturbing, if somewhat counterintuitive, introduction to Lovable Crooks and Loathsome Jews: Antisemitism in German and Austrian Crime Writing Before the World Wars. She recounts the murders perpetrated by John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo, the crime duo remembered as the “D.C. snipers.” The 41 year old Muhammed and his 17 year old sidekick Malvo cut a hole into the back of their Chevrolet, shot unsuspecting victims with an assault rifle, and sped off anonymously on the Capital Beltway. The killings terrified a city still on edge after the 9/11 attacks. A massive manhunt and media frenzy ensued. When authorities apprehended and prosecuted Muhammed and Malvo, the snipers justified their actions as acts of Islamic extremism. At this point in this study’s opening narrative, one might legitimately ask how it relates to the figure of the lovable crook and notions of ‘Jewish’ criminality in German and Austrian crime writing a century earlier.
Kord justifies the choice through an analogy. Although Muhammed and Malvo explicitly described their actions as “jihad,” the terrorism narrative never stuck. Instead, news outlets and ultimately the American public framed the D.C. snipers as more “traditional” criminals and demoted them “from jihadists to garden-variety American serial killers” (3). Against the amorphous menace of terrorism, Kord writes, “cinema and the news media attempted to reestablish a semblance of order by focusing on the devil they knew, on an evil that—unlike terrorism—could be defeated” (3). The premise of Lovable Crooks and Loathsome Jews is that “something very similar was going on in Germany and Austria in the years leading up to both World Wars” (3). Because of its ahistorical character, this comparison generates significant cognitive dissonance, but its function is primarily rhetorical: to set up [End Page 176] the book’s thesis about the dangers of essentialism and to demonstrate its ongoing threat. Kord’s book illustrates how the concept of hereditary criminality—specifically Jewish criminality—became a conceptual framework used by sociologists, psychologists, politicians, jurists, and law enforcement to categorize, stigmatize, discipline, and eventually murder Jews. Through a detailed intellectual history of late nineteenth and early twentieth century criminal biology and criminal psychology, including case studies of comparable high-profile frauds in which Germans and Jews were treated differently, this study examines high-profile incidents in which criminals marked as German were often received as lovable folk heroes. The crimes of Jews, however, were understood as evidence of an intrinsic Jewish propensity for wrongdoing. In Kord’s concise phrasing, “[u]nlike crime, vice is not a deed but a state of being; it cannot be punished, only exterminated” (154).
To advance its claims, Lovable Crooks and Loathsome Jews draws on a methodology born of the German word Geschichte and its double meaning as both history and story. “If we accept [Hannah] Arendt’s claim that discourse in totalitarian States [sic] masquerades as history,” Kord writes, “it becomes more important than ever to retain a sense that discourse is, in fact, composed of stories, of tales that, their fragility and dubious truth-claims notwithstanding, have the power to create new myths and new meanings” (16). The history/story elision forms the study’s methodological bedrock. It justifies and motivates Kord to excavate a rich and interdisciplinary array of fictional and non-fictional sources that implicitly and explicitly represented and reinforced notions of Jewish criminality while downplaying comparable crimes committed by Germans. The Germans might commit crimes, but Jews were inherent criminals.
To structure this argument, Lovable Crooks and Loathsome Jews is divided into five parts which are, the author writes, “named after the five essential elements of a story”: setting, character, plot, conflict, and resolution (16–17). “Setting” and “Resolution?”— the question mark is Kord’s...