F. Bretschneider, Gefangene Gesellschaft (Pieter Spierenburg)
Francia-Recensio 2010/3 Frühe Neuzeit –
Revolution – Empire (1500–1815)
Falk Bretschneider, Gefangene Gesellschaft. Eine
Geschichte der Einsperrung in Sachsen im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert,
Konstanz (UVK Verlagsgesellschaft) 2008, 636 S., ISBN
978-3-89669-624-3, EUR 59,00.
rezensiert von/compte rendu rédigé par
Pieter Spierenburg, Rotterdam
This thorough study, the text of which covers more than 500 pages, deals with imprisonment in Saxony and everything related to it. The story ends around the mid-nineteenth century; in any case it does not go beyond the moment when Saxony lost its independence. In his introduction the author stresses the advantages of combining an examination of the pre- and post-1800 years, which few scholars have done indeed. Ironically, these advantages do not include a comparison between the early modern régime of forced labor and the subsequent reliance on solitary confinement, because the cellular system was not adopted in the region studied. Although there was much public discussion about prison systems in various German states from the 1840s on, this debate hardly reached Saxony. In fact, the legislature refused to adopt the cellular system for financial rather than ideological reasons, because the introduction of individual cells was expensive. Thus, imprisonment in this part of Germany until 1870 essentially meant a prolonged early modern period. Nineteenth-century change remained confined to a few reforms, such as a more rigid separation of the sexes and classes of inmates and a brief spell during which the treadwheel was in use. This episode resulted from an increased resistance from free workers to production of goods in prisons.
It is also to the author’s credit that he includes a perspective from below, although the sheer mass of data causes this perspective to appear less conspicuous. The discussion is spread over two chapters dealing with the turn of the century and the Vormärz period, respectively. We hear, among other things, about informal trading, inmate sex, mutual conflicts, escape and rebellions. With respect to sexual activities in prisons the author attributes to this reviewer a claim that these were rare, which I don’ t believe I have said. I merely wrote that my sources for the early modern period revealed more cases of sex between a female inmate and a male official than between male and female inmates. Both in Bretschneider’ s and my sources the reason that sexual activities came to light lay in the woman’s pregnancy. Most of his cases, dating from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, involved two inmates, but almost always one or both actually worked as assistant for a personnel member. This confirms that the opportunity for sex offered itself especially to those who were legitimately on the move through the institution.
The picture of imprisonment in eighteenth-century Saxony essentially confirms what we already knew about the early modern period. The repression of begging constituted a major motive for the introduction of prison-workhouses, which predated the year 1700. Nevertheless, several institutions were multi-purpose ones, functioning as prison-workhouse as well as asylum for the insane, sick or elderly. Religion was considered as a major tool for improving inmates. Prison labor was seldom profitable. Very gradually, the prison came to occupy a more central place within the penal system. Additionally, Bretschneider places emphasis several times on the concept of gute Policey , which guided the efforts of officials, administrators and state agents. For my part, I am a bit skeptical about the frequency with which gute Policey figures in German early modern historiography, because to me this concept seems to denote merely an ideal in the minds of political theoreticians, while it hardly says something about the actual degree of control over various sectors of society that governments were able to exert.
It would be odd to wish that the author should have written even more pages, but perhaps he should have cut in his empirical material, in order to keep room for expanding the theoretical discussion. Although his introduction has the words »theoretical foundations« in its title, it is rather a state of the art, with the implicit function of showing that the author has read every conceivable publication in the field of prison history. The author’s own theoretical position does not become entirely clear there. The book’s conclusion includes, among other things, the statement that prison history is characterized by long-term changes rather than abrupt ones. It also contains a brief discussion about the power chances of all parties concerned. That discussion could have profited from a reference to the work of Herman Franke on the emancipation of prisoners, which Bretschneider has not used. Another absent theoretician is James Q. Whitman, who has argued that whereas the USA’s long-term penal development meant the extension of degradation to all, in Europe it meant the extension of dignity to all. For Europe, Whitman bases himself on France and Germany and in the latter country Festungshaft (fortress confinement) plays an important role in the discussion. Bretschneider discusses fortress confinement once (p. 215–217), showing among other things that inmates often languished for life in these comfortable prisons. On the other hand, the 1848 revolutionaries were confined in an ordinary Zuchthaus – a fact that shocked contemporaries (p. 457). These observations imply at least footnotes to Whitman’ s theory, which I find unconvincing for other reasons as well.
These few critical remarks should not distract from a positive conclusion. Bretschneider has written an important contribution to prison history.
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