Understanding Serial Murder

  • Kerstin Brückweh: Mordlust. Serienmorde, Gewalt und Emotionen im 20. Jahrhundert. (Campus Historische Studien 43) Frankfurt/M., New York: Campus 2006. 512 S. 13 s/w Abb. Kartoniert. EUR (D) 44,90.
    ISBN: 978-3-593-38202-9.

The »Mordlust« in the title of Kerstin Brückweh’s insightful study of serial murder is not the lust to kill – at least, not directly. The goal of her study is not to understand the violent emotions of serial killers but rather to understand the emotions they have inspired in the German public in the twentieth century. Her central project, she tells us in the introduction, is to explain the oft-noted cultural preoccupation with a crime that is statistically insignificant (p 11). To understand the fascination with serial murderers, she explores institutional and social contexts through which serial murders were explained and interpreted throughout the twentieth century. The emotions she seeks to understand are those of the people inhabiting those institutions and social spaces.


Brückweh understands emotions to be »Handlungsmotivationen und Erfahrungsweisen« that are »veränderbar und historisch spezifisch« (p 455). By ›violence‹ she means, following Heinrich Popitz, a »Machtaktion« that causes physical harm to another. The violence in her investigation includes not just the act of murder, but also sexual violence in everyday life and the ›legitimate‹ violence exercised by the state on the person of the murderer. Violence and emotions mutually conditioned and together, she writes in the conclusion, they make »Geschichte[n]« (p 455). She chooses to focus on serial-sexual murder because of the particular outrage such crimes attract. This fascination, she writes, is »eine ambivalente Emotion« that »setzt sich aus emotionalen Anteilen und Fantasie zusammen« (p 14).


Brückweh’s study offers provocative observations regarding the complex relationship between criminal justice and the media in twentieth-century Germany. Examining four sensational serial murder cases from multiple angles and levels, Brückweh finds ample evidence for the operation and instrumentalization of emotions in the investigation, prosecution, execution, and reporting of serial murderers. Although there is a surprising absence of scholarly literature on the history of emotion in Brückweh’s work, it nonetheless reflects Barbara Rosenwein’s 2002 call to rewrite the historical narrative in a way that »[…] recognize[s] various emotional styles, emotional communities, emotional outlets, and emotional restraints in every period […]« and thereby rejects the outmoded and discredited notion of the ›modernization‹ of emotion through progressive self-restraint. 1 The work under review here provides no narrative in the conventional sense of demonstrating not only what changed over time but how. It nonetheless establishes through a very thematic analysis the different ways in which what could be called ›emotional communities‹ (neighbors and relatives, experts and judges, newspapers and readers) encountered serial murder and made sense of it through outlets such as expert opinions, press reports, interviews with the authorities, or letters to jurists and prosecutors.


A Case Study Approach


Her three-part study seeks to answer the central question by focusing on four ›serial-sexual‹ murder cases: Fritz Haarmann, Adolf Seefeld, Erwin Hagedorn, and Jürgen Bartsch. She chose them, she writes, because all four fascinated the German public – »[…] die Öffentlichkeit äußerst emotional auf sie reagierte« (p 14). One of the reasons she chose these four cases is that they all entailed male victims, which, she claims, have been »vernachlässigt« in the scholarly literature (p 14). Brückweh organizes her work thematically rather than chronologically, which allows her to draw interesting comparisons at the expense of a conventional historical narrative that examines development and change over time.


This case-study approach provides obvious advantages for examining serial murders in four of twentieth-century Germany’s political systems. Fritz Haarmann was tried and executed in the context of Weimar Germany’s ›crisis of jurisprudence‹. Adolf Seefeld stood at the mercy of the Nazi justice system when the state had unprecedented (but not, according to Brückweh, total) control of the media. Erwin Hagedorn, the model socialist youth, posed a potential threat to the self-image of the GDR as a ›crime free‹ society. Finally, the trial of Jürgen Bartsch, whose appeal included the first use of expert testimony from a psychoanalyst in the Federal Republic, generated such public interest that it prompted hundreds of concerned citizens to write letters to the courts and to local papers regarding the case. Readers with nothing more than a passing familiarity with the cases may find the lack of an introduction to the salient features of each case somewhat frustrating. Brückweh instead launches straight away into her analysis of the cases.


Analysis of the Closest Level of Proximity


Brückweh divides her study into three parts, the first of which deals with the »konkrete Opfererfahrungen und imaginierte Täterbilder« (p 33). Here she addresses the apparent contradiction between the image of the murderer-as-stranger and the fact that in most cases of sexual murder the murderer is familiar to the victim. Through a careful examination of the testimony of (surviving) victims of the murderers’ sexual abuse, she demonstrates that the perpetrator was in all of the cases ›normalized‹ through a variety of cultural conditions and communicative practices. Young male witnesses in the Bartsch and Hagedorn cases, for example, often seem to have perceived the sexual advances of the erstwhile murderers as ›games‹ or ›fun‹, suggesting that they themselves had not been the victims of sexual violence. The silence surrounding sexuality that persisted into the 1960s prohibited young ›victims‹ of sexual abuse and their parents from discussing experiences of ›everyday‹ violence and sexual abuse. The marginalization of the victims’ experiences of violence was further accomplished by the centrality of the perpetrator in the interrogation of witnesses – the goal there was to collect evidence for the prosecution of murder, not of ›everyday‹ sexual abuse. As she points out later in the book, the silence surrounding sexuality extended to the press as well; by leaving out testimony on sexual assault by witnesses, the courtroom reporting helped to create the image of the murderer as ›other‹ and the violence experienced by all of the victims as not ›normal‹ rather than ›ordinary‹ and ›everyday‹ occurrences.


In contrast to the ›normalization‹ of the perpetrator and his violence that took place in the sphere closest to the perpetrator, outside that milieu, especially among investigators, the perpetrator was ›demonized‹. »Vermutungen, Fantasien, Stereotypen und Verdächtigungen« served to fill in the blanks as the public searched for the murderer. Naturally, during the process of investigation, the social status of the victims influenced assumptions about the identities of the perpetrators. Not surprisingly, received ideas about homosexuality, migrant populations such as the Sinti and Roma, even class influenced the ways in which members of the public as well as investigating authorities imagined the perpetrators. Brückweh gives a very illuminating example of this stereotyping in which the authorities incorrectly profiled as physically weak the as yet unknown perpetrator in the Hagedorn case because of the stereotype of the weak male homosexual (p 108 f.).


The Trials: Truth and Justice?


The focus of the second and lengthiest part of the book is how the question of causation was answered within the institutional logic of the trial. It follows the cases in the moments between the »Eckpunkte« (p 295) of each case – the rape/murder and the execution. This project, carried out by judges and court-appointed experts, was not, according to Brückweh, about reconstructing the ›truth‹ of the crime; it was rather about the »Wiederherstellung der Ordnung« in the social fabric that the murders had disrupted. A judge in the 1971 Bartsch case made this distinction explicit when he noted that while »eindeutig« evidence presented at the trial was not the same as the ›truth‹: »Aber was ist ›Wahrheit‹? Sie zu ergründen, ist noch niemanden gelungen, keinem Staatsanwalt und keinem Richter« (p 124). Brückweh observes that even though the judicial process required the use of scientific experts, science was used in the service of a juridical argument and thus could provide no satisfactory explanation for the cause of the crime or offer any curative solution for that cause.


In these four cases the experts to which Brückweh refers are the psychiatrists, psychologists, sexual scientists, and psychoanalysts who sought to determine the motivations and legal responsibility of the accused. The cases provide her with ample evidence that the selection of the experts, their explanations, the reception of those explanations by judges, and the influence of the expert testimony in the sentencing often had less to do with the persuasiveness of the science and more with power struggles between the professions, the pecuniary relationship between the professionals and the court, and, in the case of Hagedorn and Seefeld, political manipulation.


Selection of experts was particularly contested in the Haarmann and Bartsch cases because of the competition between the professions for interpretive authority. Brückweh makes the case, for example, that one of the reasons Theodor Lessing was excluded from the Haarmann trial was because of his public insistence that the court call for a psychoanalytic evaluation of the defendant. While Lessing was no apologist for Haarmann, he argued that an adept in psychoanalysis would be better suited than the psychiatrist Ernst Schultze to explain Haarmann’s crimes and to evaluate the trustworthiness of the witnesses arrayed against him. (Schultze had a professional reputation to protect, having on a previous occasion determined Haarmann to be mentally stable.) While Lessing was not the only critic of the court and he had already raised the ire of antisemitic conservatives, his specific demands challenged the authority of the court by providing unlikely but nonetheless unsettling grounds for an appeal on the basis of questionable witness testimony. Such an appeal never took place and a thorough investigation of the cause of Haarmann’s crimes was conducted only after his execution. Perhaps Lessing would not have been surprised to learn that the first time a psychoanalyst would be called to offer expert testimony would be as late as 1971, in the second Jürgen Bartsch trial. Here, too, competition for interpretive authority was in evidence.


The academics’ search for ›truth‹ was mediated by emotions in a variety of other ways, according to Brückweh. Even psychiatrists could not help expressing emotions in their evaluations of the accused, as when Schultze referred to Haarmann as a »Schwein«. In all four cases, she shows, the experts employed the stereotype of the ›true outsider› and advanced theories of the crime and recommendations based on highly selective use of existing interpretive frameworks. Why, Brückweh asks, did Schultze refrain from asking Haarmann about events in his life preceding his sixteenth birthday when Emil Kraepelin, whose school of psychiatry Schultze followed, believed those early adolescent years to be precisely the most influential in psycho-sexual development? Similarly, the experts in the Seefeld case, with one exception, started with the assumption that Seefeld was a sexual murderer and sought to determine the cause of death of the victims from that assumption.


The Violence of the State


Brückweh concludes this second part of her study with an examination of the execution of the sentence. The purpose of the chapter is to examine the different forms of ›institutional violence‹. Here she makes interesting observations about the differences in sentencing that reflected the different historical contexts, such as the contrast between Haarmann’s French-style beheading with the guillotine and Hagedorn’s Russian-style single surprise shot in the back of the head. Thus, the form of the sentence in each case was »emotional und symbolisch codiert« (p 464). In contrast to the trials in all four cases, the sentencing was not a public event. Here Brückweh, following Foucault, sees a »Verwissenschaftlichung des Strafprozesses«, in which the soul of the criminal became the object of punishment rather than the body. In all four of these cases, however, the absence of true scientific explanation meant the sentencing would be about punishment, not treatment. The Bartsch case was the most dramatic example of this: although sentenced in the second trial to a juvenile institution with mandated psychiatric treatment, he died of an accidentally lethal dose of anesthesia while submitting to a voluntary therapeutic castration.


Emotions and the Media


Whereas the first part of her analysis focuses on those in close proximity to the perpetrator and the second on the experts in the criminal trial, the third part of Brückweh’s study offers an examination of the »emotionale Aneigungen im öffentlichen Raum« (p 298). In this section she asks, »wie reagieren Menschen, die nicht direkt in die Fälle involviert waren, sondern nur über Medien von den Mordfällen erfahren hatten?« (p 298) The stated goal of this final section is to show that »sexuell motivierte Kindermorde erregten die Gemüter zahlreicher Menschen im 20. Jahrhundert« (p 299). In these four cases, the media presentations of the murderer and his crimes assumed a »stark emotional[es] und leicht beeinflußt[es] Publikum, anstatt sich an einem reflexiven und aktiven Individuum zu orientieren« (p 454). The media could not simply manipulate emotions, however – the public’s reception of media portrayals was always dependent on a variety of factors, including historical context. The Erwin Hagedorn case, while never a media event in the GDR because the MfS suppressed the details to avoid embarrassment to the state, became a cause célèbre after the fact in West Germany as a tale of German-German relations. There was controversy in 1991 and 1992 over the purported monument to Fritz Haarmann by the Austrian artist Alfred Hrdlička whose work intentionally connected the ›Mordlust‹ of Haarmann to the mass murders committed in Nazi Germany. There the outrage had little to do with the deaths of Haarmann‘s victims and more to do with the memory of the Nazi past.


Already in the second part of the book, Brückweh makes the observation that in the two cases tried in democratic contexts in which the press was more or less free – Haarmann and Bartsch – only Bartsch (or his defense team) was able to exploit the sensationalism of the press in his favor. A fine example of the symbiotic relationship between the judicial system and the commercial media, Bartsch owed his appeal in large part to a journalist who put up the money for an expensive defense lawyer in return for exclusive access to the defendant. The major difference, Brückweh asserts, was the change in the media market; the huge circulation of illustrated papers such as the Bild-Zeitung and the weekly Hör zu far surpassed even the wide circulation of the press of the 1920s. The combination of images and serial stories generated wide interest in the case (pp 270–274).


In contrast to the organization of the first two parts of the books, which examine the four cases thematically rather than individually, this final section takes each case study and examines the media representations and public reactions to them. In her chapter on the Seefeld case, she makes a convincing argument that, despite the high degree of censorship and control over the media exercised by the National Socialist state, news editors could nonetheless manipulate news service reports to produce different emotional effects – such as altering headlines or adjusting verb tense for dramatic effect or to suggest skepticism. The most important lesson from the Seefeld case, however, is the way in which the emotionalized reporting could be ›instrumentalized‹ for political purposes – to justify, for example, the Nazi criminal policies and to delegitimitize those of the Weimar government.


One of the most interesting chapters in the book is that which focuses on letters written to the courts and to newspaper during the two Bartsch trials. This rich source base affords Brückweh the opportunity to examine the views of members of the German public regarding Bartsch’s punishment and the reasons for his crimes. Comparing the frequency of letter writing with the number of news articles over the six-year period between Bartsch’s arrest and the conclusion of his second trial, she demonstrates that the number of letters to the courts from non-participants was directly proportional to the number of media reports (p 306, fig. 1). Whereas the letter writers – the »Halböffentlichkeit« as she calls them (p 337) – during the first trial came mostly from the Wuppertal area, in the second trial of 1971 more letters came from the Bundesstaaten then from the local area, in part because the trial had been relocated to Düsseldorf. She argues that the media reports ›inspired emotions‹ that were reflected in fantasies of retributive violence against Bartsch – sometimes in the context of calls for the abandonment of the rule of law. Brückweh finds a surprising number of letters expressing explicitly anti-democratic sentiments and making explicit connections between the case and the Nazi past. Although the letter writers were clearly influenced by the media reports, Brückweh argues that there were no simple »Stimulus-Response-Mechanismen« (p 331). Whereas sensational newspapers such as the Bild-Zeitung focused on Bartsch himself as an Einzeltäter during the first trial, during the second, because of the nature of the expert evidence, letter writers demonstrated an awareness of the psycho-developmental arguments for Bartsch’s behavior but nonetheless persisted in their demand for retributive justice. Brückweh finds limited evidence that the public influenced the courts: Bartsch’s lawyers’ arguments that Bartsch was unable to exercise his freedom of speech because the press was excluded from only parts of the trial and that he had been unable to express himself fully because of the loud demonstrations from the audience. Furthermore one judges’ oral presentation of the reasons for the decision invoked public opinion and its demand for the death penalty.


A History of Criminal Justice or a History of Emotions?


A brief review such as this cannot do justice to the many rewarding observations Brückweh’s extremely detailed analysis of the four case studies offers. Brückweh’s study is successful in addressing what she outlines as deficits in the existing literature in serial murder. The first part provides a necessary corrective to the absence of careful considerations of the social environment of the perpetrators and the experiences of their victims with violence. The second part of the book offers »eine Verbindung zwischen kriminologischen und kulturwissenschaftichen Erklärungssätzen« that is missing in existing studies (p 17). The third, and to this reviewer’s mind, most interesting, offers productive observations about the interaction of the legal system on the one hand and the press on the other in producing notions of criminality and justice.


It is a fascinating analysis but Brückweh does not clearly engage broader scholarly issues in the history of crime and criminal justice, such as the question of continuity in criminal biology, 2 the history of sexuality, or the history of emotions. To be sure, Brückweh informs her analysis of the cases with insights from these bodies of literature but her work would have benefitted from a more sustained reflection on the ways in which her findings contribute to these scholarly questions. For example, in the Bartsch case, what is the significance of the letter writers’ antidemocratic sentiments to the democratization of the Federal Republic? The thematic organization of her study permits comparisons and contrasts that a diachronic study would have missed: What does she see as the major contours of continuity and change in these ›emotional communities‹ across the twentieth century?


Scholars in all fields of the cultural and social sciences interested in criminal justice, emotions, and the media will read this book with profit for its rich theoretical insights and empirical observations. Her work provides compelling evidence for the interplay between affect and reason in modern practices of justice.



Barbara H. Rosenwein: Worrying about Emotions in History. In: American Historical Review 107 (2002), pp 821–845, here p 845. Included in this review essay is a discussion of William Reddy's The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2001.   zurück
See, for example, Imanuel Baumann: Dem Verbrechen auf der Spur. Eine Geschichte der Kriminologie und Kriminalpolitik in Deutschland 1880 bis 1980. Göttingen: Wallstein 2006. Reviewed here: Sace Elizabeth Elder, The Long Duree of German Criminal Biology. In: IASLonline [20.02.2007] URL: http://www.iaslonline.de/index.php?vorgang_id=1712, Datum des Zugriffs: 11.08.2008; Richard Wetzell, Inventing the Criminal: A History of German Criminology. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.   zurück