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Why Criminology terrifies me

Hitler-Jugend_(1933)

Cards on the table; I love my discipline with a passion, but I also fear it. As with other social sciences, criminology has a rather dark past. As Wetzell (2000) makes clear in his book Inventing the Criminal: A History of German Criminology 1880-1945 the discipline has (perhaps inadvertently) provided the foundations for brutality and violence. In particular, the work of Cesare Lombroso was utilised by the Nazi regime because of his attempts to differentiate between the criminal and the non-criminal. Of course, Lombroso was not responsible (he died in 1909) and could not reasonably be expected to envisage the way in which his work would be used. Nevertheless, when taken in tandem with many of the criticisms thrown at Lombroso’s work over the past century or so, this experience sounds a cautionary note for all those who want to classify along the lines of good/evil. Of course, Criminology is inherently interested in criminals which makes this rather problematic on many grounds. Although, one of the earliest ideas students of Criminology are introduced to, is that crime is a social construction, which varies across time and place, this can often be forgotten in the excitement of empirical research.

My biggest fear as an academic involved in teaching has been graphically shown by events in the USA. The separation of children from their parents by border guards is heart-breaking to observe and read about. Furthermore, it reverberates uncomfortably with the historical narratives from the Nazi Holocaust. Some years ago, I visited Amsterdam’s Verzetsmuseum (The Resistance Museum), much of which has stayed with me. In particular, an observer had written of a child whose wheeled toy had upturned on the cobbled stones, an everyday occurrence for parents of young children. What was different and abhorrent in this case was a Nazi soldier shot that child dead. Of course, this is but one event, in Europe’s bloodbath from 1939-1945, but it, like many other accounts have stayed with me. Throughout my studies I have questioned what kind of person could do these things? Furthermore, this is what keeps me awake at night when it comes to teaching “apprentice” criminologists.

This fear can perhaps best be illustrated by a BBC video released this week. Entitled ‘We’re not bad guys’ this video shows American teenagers undertaking work experience with border control. The participants are articulate and enthusiastic; keen to get involved in the everyday practice of protecting what they see as theirs. It is clear that they see value in the work; not only in terms of monetary and individual success, but with a desire to provide a service to their government and fellow citizens. However, where is the individual thought? Which one of them is asking; “is this the right thing to do”? Furthermore; “is there another way of resolving these issues”? After all, many within the Hitler Youth could say the same.

For this reason alone, social justice, human rights and empathy are essential for any criminologist whether academic or practice based. Without considering these three values, all of us run the risk of doing harm. Criminology must be critical, it should never accept the status quo and should always question everything.  We must bear in mind Lee’s insistence that ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it’ (1960/2006: 36). Until we place ourselves in the shoes of those separated from their families, the Grenfell survivors , the Windrush generation and everyone else suffering untold distress we cannot even begin to understand Criminology.

Furthermore, criminologists can do no worse than to revist their childhood and Kipling’s Just So Stories:

 

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who (1912: 83)

Bibliography

Browning, Christopher, (1992), Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, (London: Penguin Books)

Kipling, Rudyard, (1912), Just So Stories, (New York: Doubleday Page and Company)

Lee, Harper, (1960/2006), To Kill a Mockingbird, (London: Arrow Books)

Lombroso, Cesare, (1911a), Crime, Its Causes and Remedies, tr. from the Italian by Henry P. Horton, (Boston: Little Brown and Co.)

-, (1911b), Criminal Man: According to the Classification of Cesare Lombroso, Briefly Summarised by His Daughter Gina Lombroso Ferrero, (London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons)

-, (1876/1878/1884/1889/1896-7/ 2006), Criminal Man, tr. from the Italian by Mary Gibson and Nicole Hahn Rafter, (London: Duke University Press)

Solway, Richard A., (1982), ‘Counting the Degenerates: The Statistics of Race Deterioration in Edwardian England,’ Journal of Contemporary History, 17, 1: 137-64

Wetzell, Richard F., (2000), Inventing the Criminal: A History of German Criminology 1880-1945, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press)

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A walk in the past

Kirsty is a current undergraduate student. She has just completed her second year of study reading Criminology and Sociology.

KG1The inspiration of this blog has developed from a recent trip to Riga, Latvia. Whilst the city itself is surrounded by cobbled streets, creative buildings and various water attractions; it is merely inevitable to miss Latvia’s criminological past. Many of the city’s museums’ and prominent statues are dedicated to war and occupation, with a particular focus towards the Soviet and Nazi regimes. The two historical landmarks of interest for the discussion of this blog will focus on the KGB Building and Riga Ghetto Holocaust museum.

Firstly, I would like to briefly discuss the concepts of ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ as I think they are important to this text. It is easy to read of the happenings of the past; yet, sometimes it is experience that can enable an individual to truly grasp an understanding of how a society once operated. Upon entering a place whereby masses of people endured acts of repeated interrogation, violence and execution; events from the past become very surreal and complex.

To provide a brief history, the KGB was a secretive and secluded state- security organisation, involved in all aspects of life of everyday people in the Soviet Union. The organisation enforced Soviet morals and ideologies with various mechanisms such propaganda, which in turn, politically oppressed all citizens of Latvia. After the War, the KGB selected the Corner House for its headquarters, as its construction made it convenient for secretly transporting individual prisoners. The KGB Building has preserved its original layout, design and furniture from the Soviet times which allows for a genuine feel of its previous context. Interestingly, the tour guide that showed us round the prison was a former Russian prison officer, whereby we were shown various cells and rooms of importance. One aspect that really stood out to myself was a small cell that we were informed to enter, in which we were told roughly 30 prisoners at a time would be held inside singular cells like these. During the day time, lights were kept off and the heating was set to high- as you can imagine, this would have been extremely unpleasant in these conditions. The tour guide then told us to lightly cover our eyes, as he turned on several piercing bright lights, that even after a few minutes started to make myself feel dizzy. It was then explained that prisoners were prevented from sleeping with these lights being on each night; if caught covering their eyes by a prison guard, they would be beaten. Standing in the exact room of where individuals endured this kind of treatment allowed me to reflectively engage, both mentally and physically, of the complex issues of this dark historical time.

It could be argued that the KGB period hits close to home with the case of Alexander Litvinenko: a former officer of the Russian FSB who resided to Britain in escape of arrest by the Secret Service he had once been a part of. Litvinenko was allegedly poisoned to death by two Russian assassins, reinforcing the Soviet Union’s traditions of effectively ‘destroying the enemy’.

Another point of criminological interest was the Riga Ghetto and Holocaust museum; opened with the aim to preserve memories of the Jewish community in Latvia. On arrival, you are met with a memorial wall and informative stand that show the history of WW2 and the Holocaust- more than 70,000 names of Latvian Jews are recorded. Next, I approached a transportation waggon which were simply used to deport Jewish members to concentrations camps. However, oddly to myself, there were several tree branches inside the waggon itself. I then discovered that this represented those who were deemed ‘unfit’ for labour were taken to the Bikernieki forest- Latvia’s largest mass murder cite during the Holocaust period. As previously mentioned, it was the presence of being in a place whereby those same people lived in a society with arguably no humanity that is so difficult to fully digest.

As a Criminology student, visiting these institutions made real some of the key issues that emerge in class discussions, providing valuable, historical and international development of criminological debates. From an academic perspective; it is widely accepted that accounts should remain objective and avoid journalistic traits, yet the mass suffering of these events is inevitable to ignore.

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