Violence has always been a staple of art and literature, but it became an obsession during the 19th century, first with the Romantics and the vogue for Gothic horror, and later still with the development of detective fiction, which started with Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe in the mid-19th century.
But as Scott Spector explains in Violent Sensations: Sex, Crime and Utopia in Vienna and Berlin, 1860-1914, it was anxiety about an apparent rise in violence and sexual degeneracy that made Berlin and Vienna twin centres for advances in the legal and scientific discussion of these topics. More specifically, Spector looks at what motivated people of the era to ask ‘Is there something inherent in modernity and urbanisation which causes degeneracy?’ Using German-language sources of the time, Spector examines four aspects of this discourse: biological models of criminal profiling; sexual crime; the emergence of the homosexual as a social and criminal phenomenon; and anti-Semitism.
The industrial and scientific hubs of Vienna and Berlin were known not only as beacons for culture and enlightenment, but also as centres of squalor and depravity. For many, the prostitution rife in these two cities was seen as a sign of the innate degeneration caused by metropolitan living. Could it be, some wondered, that modern life, by shielding the populace from the pruning effect of natural selection, was allowing hereditary flaws to weaken the population? Given the endemic nature of prostitution in Vienna, the Austrian obsession with formality, status and propriety seems even more hypocritical once one understands the double standards and self-deception needed to maintain such social mores. It is no wonder that research into neurosis, hysteria and sexual dysfunction developed in Vienna.
Thinkers of the time claimed that modern living conditions had produced criminals who were atavistic throwbacks possessed of the vigour and courage of primitive hunters
The period 1860-1914 is when the concept of biological determinism as the origin of crime, as championed by Cesare Lombroso, took hold. It was the outcome of ethnological anthropology, the collection of sociological data and theories of heredity. Yet, as Spector notes, crime is a social construction that is culturally specific, and so the Lombrosian model (insofar as it ever was a falsifiable theory) was always fatally flawed.
The origins of sexual typing and the systematic study of human sexuality are grounded in the analysis of deviant sexuality. In order to define a sex crime, the precise acts needed to be described. This led jurists to consider what types of normal and abnormal sexuality might exist. Once typing became established, it was inevitable that individuals within deviant types would start to self-identify themselves. Thus we see the emergence of identity defined by sexual orientation and the origins of sexually-oriented communities. Spector notes that when a Viennese newspaper embarked on a campaign against pederasty, it was bombarded by hostile letters from homosexuals. The newspaper responded by publishing the letters unedited in order to allow spelling and grammatical errors to expose their authors to public ridicule.