What can we learn about the mentalities and discourses of a particular time and place by studying legal trials that became sensational events? How can historians use microhistory, a methodology scholars initially developed to study the early modern era, to reveal new insights about more recent and heavily documented time periods, such as the Weimar Republic? These are the questions that historian Heidi Sack tackles in her book Moderne Jugend vor Gericht. Sack’s primary goal is to use microhistory and ‘thick description’ (p. 31) to render Weimar-era discourses about youth and modernity more ‘tangible’ (p. 443). Her analysis focuses largely on the February 1928 trial of 18-year-old Paul Krantz for his role in the 28 June 1927 murder of 18-year-old Hans Stephan. According to Paul, the actual murderer was 19-year-old Günther Scheller, who shot Hans and then himself. Sack provides a social history of the case’s key participants. Paul grew up ‘half-proletarian’ (p. 127) in the Berlin neighbourhood of Mariendorf, whereas Günther was raised in Steglitz, another Berlin neighborhood, and was squarely middle-class. The victim had just completed an apprenticeship as a cook. Complicating Paul Krantz’s claim of innocence, Sack explains, were two factors. First, the murder weapon belonged to him. Second, he and Günther had written a murder-suicide pact the night before the murder as they binged on alcohol, smoked cigarettes and barely slept. Hans was in the Scheller home because, with their parents away, Günther’s younger sister, 16-year-old Hilde, had invited him over and hidden him overnight. When Günther learned of Hans’ presence, he and Paul crafted their plot; Paul told police that Günther considered Hans to be a ‘mortal enemy’ (p. 134) of his family because of earlier advances Hans had made towards Hilde. Paul explained that he always believed the plan to be a farce but, early the next morning, Günther was determined to see it through. He found Hans hiding in the house, shot him, and then committed suicide. Paul claimed that he tried to stop Günther but was steps behind him. Hilde and another witness, who later withdrew her statement, said that Günther and Paul entered the room together. Police arrested Paul on suspicion of murder. Paul Krantz’s trial began on 9 February 1928. Because he was 18 at the time of the murder, authorities tried him as an adult and the proceedings were public. And yet, because the main participants in the case and most of the witnesses were teenagers, the public quickly understood this to be a trial about youth, namely, middle-class youth. Meanwhile, the defense’s questioning of witnesses and the press’s coverage of the case helped to recast the murder as a ‘sexual tragedy’ (p. 248) and make the trial into a national sensation. Key to this transformation was the strategy of the defendant’s legal team, led by Dr. Erich Frey, to discredit Hilde and her testimony linking Paul to the murder scene. Frey therefore questioned Hilde under oath about whether she and Paul had engaged in sexual intercourse, an event she had denied during police questioning but now admitted in court. Frey also compelled Hilde to admit that she had initiated this sexual encounter, had had sex with Hans on the eve of his murder, and had had at least one other sexual partner. This strategy, Sack argues, helped to shift the court’s and the public’s attention away from the murder and towards Hilde’s morality. It also proved to be successful. The court ultimately convicted Paul of illegal possession of a firearm but found him innocent of murder. Throughout the trial, newspapers helped to sensationalize these details by printing verbatim portions of testimony, publishing photographs from the courtroom, and using dramatic conventions in their reporting. The public, in turn, followed the case for revelations about the sexual mores of bourgeois teenagers. Sack persuasively argues that the Krantz trial, together with a handful of other criminal cases she examines, sparked extensive debates that historians can analyse to unravel discourses related to youth and modernity during these years of ‘relative stability’. Using court proceedings, articles culled from nearly 30 newspapers, legislative debates, and several contemporary publications, she traces these discourses. In considering the first, that of youth, Sack devotes significant attention to explaining dominant discourses prior to and during the 1928 trial and argues that this history provides crucial context for understanding how and why this trial became a national sensation. In other words, to appreciate why the public was alarmed to learn that bourgeois teenaged boys and girls were having sex, it is important to understand how German society mythologized bourgeois youth before and after World War One. Her exploration of the discourse surrounding modernity largely emerges through her analysis of debates regarding teenage sexuality and the ‘new woman’. Krantz’s legal defense team made sexuality a key theme in the trial, and the court and the conservative press, Sack argues, pathologized teenage sexuality and used the term ‘sexual emergency’ (Sexualnot) to condemn the apparent shift in teenage sexual norms that the trial had disclosed and also to champion new protective legislation. Leftist politicians and the liberal press, meanwhile, contended that suppression of sex only led to unhealthy outcomes and that the solution lay in early sexual education. The most compelling strand of Sack’s analysis, and one that clearly demonstrates the advantages of using microhistory to study this era, is her analysis of courtroom dissections of Hilde’s sexual past as well as ongoing discussions about young female sexuality. Both conservatives and liberals, she explains, labelled Hilde as a representative figure. While conservatives regarded her testimony as evidence of a sexual degeneration among youth, liberals viewed Hilde as a harbinger of positive developments for women. After analysing a handful of other contemporary cases, Sack persuasively argues that although Weimar society actively analysed the emergence of the ‘new woman’ and certain groups praised the liberation of female sexuality, Weimar signifies a transitional era rather than a moment of realization in terms of empowered female sexuality. Sack’s goal to use microhistory to reconsider Weimar from a new perspective is effective. Although her study does not alter our historical understanding of Weimar, it certainly deepens our knowledge, particularly regarding how conservatives and liberals differed on the topics of teenage and young female sexuality. Yet, one wonders whether responses to this case can be seen as representative or whether this exceptional case generated exceptional responses. Did the Krantz case incite sharp reactions or did it lead conservatives and liberals to reiterate longstanding viewpoints? Additionally, Sack’s microhistorical approach means that some topics receive too little historical context. For example, Sack notes that as the Krantz trial was still taking place, conservative lawmakers in the Reichstag introduced legislation to prohibit newspapers from reprinting sexual content from court proceedings to protect young people. Yet the debate regarding youth and censorship in Weimar reached back several years, and lawmakers may have viewed the Krantz case as an opportunity to advance a preexisting agenda. In its entirety, the book is an engaging analysis of debates and discussions surrounding youth and modernity. Some of the most fascinating aspects of Sack’s study emerge from the details meant to compliment her analysis of discourse, including her exploration of why certain trials became national sensations, her examination of the public’s intense fascination with bourgeois teenage sexuality, her discussion of the German press and changes in trial coverage, and her cultural analysis of the German courtroom and the judicial system’s treatment of juvenile offenders in late Weimar. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved.
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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