Zef Segal discusses nineteenth-century German society through the prism of law and order.

Nineteenth-century German society is usually explored and understood through the prism of the two contemporary German superpowers: Austria and Prussia. Accordingly, the German links between state and power are traditionally represented by the two corresponding stereotypes, the Austrian police state, with its oppressive and extensive policing measures, and the Prussian military state, which prioritized external defense matters. However, most of the German states in the post-Napoleonic era were neither of these. They were engaged in problems of executive centralization, grappling with local communities that wished to retain their traditional autonomy. Nowhere did this become more apparent than in the realm of law and order, particularly the attempt to police migration, which was riddled with complications.  

Zef Segal

Zef Segal is a lecturer of History and Mathematics at the Open University of Israel and an adjunct lecturer of Mathematics at Tel-Aviv Jaffa College.

His research interests include the study of space and spatiality in the nineteenth century and their interrelations with changing concepts and practices of mobilities and communication. His work combines traditional and computational historical methodologies.

The police and local autonomy

The police in German states were at the forefront of the power struggle between the state and the community. Since the eighteenth century, the police were a major instrument of public control. However, the police were seen as the responsibility of the community. State involvement in local police was perceived as a threat to social order, which was based on local legal and judicial autonomy. As a result, even state-oriented thinkers, such as Johann Justi, suggested that the police should be managed by the local communities and not the state. Unlike state reforms in education, communication, transportation, economy, religion, and law, policing remained decentralized. Law and order were the responsibilities of the communities, Gemeinde, and not the state, in contrast to more centralized European countries, such as Britain and France. In fact, the first German state department for police activities was only established in 1936.

The passport system

Nonetheless, a completely different security doctrine was devised with regards to foreigners and vagrants that were gradually being seen as a threat to state stability. The securitization of the ‘movers and doers,’ transients and foreigners, led to the formation of the first German state police forces. However, since these police forces had to deal with the supervision and control of the movement of people and material, they required an innovative strategic plan. The new concept of a state police consisted of two components: a passport regime (with severe penalties ranging from deportation to life imprisonment), and a mobile police force in the rural areas of the state, especially the borderlands.

A passport and police office, painting by Felix Schlesinger (1859). Wikimedia commons.

The harsh and even oppressive passport policy reflected the state attitude toward spatial mobility. The threat to security was not foreign armies or local criminal activities, but drifters that broke the stability of communal collectives. While the eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment and the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution both lead toward greater mobility, German authorities tried to limit and reduce movement.

The introduction of the gendarmerie

In order to supervise the passport regiment, a state police was established, the Gendarmerie. Unlike the static police in the towns, the gendarmerie units were established as mobile forces that patrolled the roads. Clive Emsley states that it was meant to demonstrate state presence in the countryside and fortify its exclusive role as a law enforcer.

Großherzogtum Baden Gendarmerie in the 1830s, Lithography by Heinrich Ambros Eckert. Wikimedia commons.

From the 1810s, semi-military horse-ridden units inspired by the French gendarmerie were established in Saxony (1809), Bavaria (1812), Hanover (1815), Wurttemberg (1823) and Baden (1831). Their explicit role was to protect the countryside, but the underlying motive was controlling and limiting movement along the state borders. The border was seen as a crossing of dubious people who might harm society.  The directives were clear: any person caught wandering without permission would be regarded as guilty, until proven innocent. Consequently, any local or foreign peddler along the border was seen as an immediate suspect.

Mid-19th century mass movement

Despite the desire of the government to create a strong force that would control movement, the number of people on the move was too great and the number of policemen was too small. Bavaria, for example, intended to form a force of 1700 people, but the 1819 budget only enabled the recruitment of 1500. All other medium-sized states recruited merely several hundreds. Although the forces gradually grew, they remained rather negligible, especially when compared to the amount of traffic. The number of people on the roads cannot be accurately assessed, but the number of passports issued gives a rough estimate. Between 1830 and 1833, 188,388 transit permits (Wanderbücher) were provided annually in Munich for journeymen. At the same time 17,739 journeymen passed through Dresden every year. The construction of railways from the mid-1830s made the supervision of movement, borders, and passports almost impossible in the given system. By the 1850s, millions of train passengers crossed district and state borders on a daily basis. Gendarmerie policemen and the German passport regiment were helpless.

The celebrations of the first railway between Nuremberg and Fürth. Source: Unknown
artist (1835?). Courtesy of Haus der Bayerischen Geschichte.

The reaction of the gendarmerie

Although the Gendarmerie were meant to patrol the country roads, they discovered the futility of their actions. The distribution of these forces reflected, more than anything, distrust in the ability to enforce the official rules and regulations. German borders were mostly abandoned, and the supervision was shifted to the centers of large cities and regional train stations. The number of places, in which a routine inspection of passports was held, was minimal, although regulations required that a passport had to be examined as a person crossed the border.

A member of the Munich gendarmerie riding in the city streets, the 1840s. Wikimedia commons.

The spatial deployment was not just skewed towards urban cities, but gradually concentrated in the state capitals.  In 1860 Hanover, for example, 6 out of 9 police headquarters, 4 out of 8 prisons and 3 out of 7 gendarmerie headquarters were located in the proximity of the capital city.

The distribution of the Hanoverian gendarmerie in 1856.

The limitations of state power

The difference between the real distribution of the state police, the gendarmerie, and its official goals reflected a gap between declarative territorialization (symbolic acts of defining a territory that have little practical value) and effective territorialization (functional acts of territorial control). Despite the pronounced securitization of movement, which led to an association of any type of mobility with immoral and illegal actions, the forces were not equipped, financed, or deployed in a manner that would enable effective enforcement. As a result, the strict regulations were never implemented and barely affected the actual movement of people. Agents of enforcement kept a low profile, and security was achieved not by using force but rather by manifesting state power. Although Prussian militarism and Austrian oppressive policing are usually portrayed as the German story of state forces, the other states understood the limits of power and acted accordingly.

COVER IMAGE: Großherzogtum Baden Gendarmerie in the 1830s, Lithography by Heinrich Ambros Eckert. Wikimedia commons.

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