Elisabeth Elling-Ruhwinkel. Sichern und Strafen: Das Arbeitshaus Benninghausen (1871-1945). Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2005. 436 pp. EUR 46.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-506-71344-5.
Reviewed by Julia Bruggemann (Department of History, DePauw University)
Published on H-German (May, 2007)
Elisabeth Elling-Ruhwinkel's monograph Sichern und Strafen is a detailed study based on extensive archival work of the inner workings of the Arbeitshaus, a type of work house or quasi-prison, in Benninghausen, Westphalia, and the ideology that motivated its leadership from Imperial Germany into the postwar period. The author shows that from 1871 to 1945, the leaders of this particular Arbeitshaus changed their tactics, but the institution retained a coercive character throughout. Elling-Ruhwinkel posits that studying the methods and principles guiding the institution's administrators reveals the social climate of the larger society as well. Indeed, the long time span under consideration is one of the strengths of the book, because it allows Elling-Ruhwinkel to see continuities in the approaches to socially marginalized groups across different political systems. The author argues that in the tension between social control and social welfare that characterized most emerging welfare states during this period, the tension between the sichern and strafen of the book's title, the Arbeitshaus always remained on the coercive end of the spectrum (p. 389).
The Imperial period forms the starting point for Elling-Ruhwinkel's analysis, even though the founding of the institution predated German unification. Established as a home for the poor and as a reformatory (Besserungsanstalt), Benninghausen quickly became a coercive institution characterized by punishment through arbitrarily extended imprisonment not subject to court approval and forced labor. This work included domestic tasks to support the day-to-day life of the institution such as washing and cooking, as well as for-profit agricultural labor and manufacturing. Elling-Ruhwinkel labels the Arbeithaus a "total institution" (p. 73) that governed all aspects of inmates' lives to an extent far greater than prisons, not least because the length of incarceration was less predictable. Inmates were mostly men and women who had violated Paragraph 361 of the Imperial Criminal Code (RStGB), such as petty criminals, prostitutes, homeless people, vagabonds, people in bad health, the elderly, alcoholics, orphans, people who lacked education, had previous criminal records, or others on the margins of respectable society. In fact, though the Arbeitshaus promised help and improvement, Elling-Ruhwinkel shows convincingly that it offered its inmates mainly coercion and punishment. Military discipline, perfunctory medical care, and food worse than that offered in prisons, though maybe better than outside, prevailed and the inmates were denied dignity even in death as their corpses were routinely sent away to anatomical institutes for research instead of being given proper burials. Elling-Ruhwinkel suggests that the coercive, socially controlling ideology governing the institution was representative of larger social trends in Imperial German society, although she could have fleshed out this analytical connection much more fully.
The following section of the book tackles the institution's developments in the years between 1914 and 1924. Elling-Ruhwinkel asserts that general trends of the era towards the embrace of the welfare state were not present in Bennighausen and instead a "conceptual stalemate" (p. 100) prevailed at the institution. In fact, the war years saw a decrease in the number and status of marginalized "unproductive" groups such as the inmates (p. 100). Despite the scarcity of guards at that time, the institution attempted to make up for the shortage of inmates and workers by introducing new categories of inmates: these included men in military protective custody (militärische Schutzhäftlinge), vagabonds, prostitutes, and a division of civilian forced laborers from foreign countries, especially Russia and Poland, who were subject to particularly harsh conditions and brutal treatments. After the war, Benninghausen housed almost exclusively foreign civilian laborers and prisoners of war, and finally, it functioned like a supplementary prison (Hilfsgefängnis). The decrease in numbers of traditional inmates and new political circumstances led to public criticism of institutions like the Arbeitshaus after 1918, especially with regard to the appropriateness of coercive institutions that still relied heavily on Imperial standards and ideology. Meanwhile, the administrative leadership kept its ideological distance from the new political forces that cropped up during and after the revolution of 1918. The director of Benninghausen specifically questioned the new government's policy of unemployment insurance and other social policies, which he argued deprived the institution of inmates.
The years between 1925 and the economic crisis of the late 1920s represent the next period under consideration. The author argues that this "phase of modernity" (p. 142), during which a dual system of public and private, mostly confessionally driven, welfare institutions developed, did not affect the Arbeitshaus in Benninghausen, where discipline, repression, and coercion continued to trump care. Even the development of the concept of protective institutions (Bewahrungsanstalten) and the medicalization of certain areas of social welfare and corrective institutions, especially in the treatment of alcoholics and people with venereal disease, did not change the fundamentally repressive nature of Benninghausen. Elling-Ruhwinkel argues that this repression was an important counterpoint to the sustainability of the inclusive qualities of the new welfare state. Moreover, she suggests that the continued emphasis on repression in institutions such as the Arbeitshaus, revealed the "destructive potential" (p. 146) of modernity.
The limited success of the Arbeitshaus became obvious not only in the revolts of some of the inmates and the sustained critique of the Communist Party, but also in the context of the worldwide economic crisis of the late 1920s, as financial backing for welfare measures dwindled. Although the financial bottleneck renewed support for the cheaper policy of repression versus costlier programs for rehabilitation, it also confronted Benninghausen with the need for dramatic funding cuts.
The Nazi seizure of power marks the next caesura in Elling-Ruhwinkel's analysis. Repressive protocols, especially towards people considered "asocial" that had started gaining currency during the years of the economic crises found increasing support under the Nazis. Elling-Ruhwinkel describes this development as a "paradigm shift" (p. 220), which is, perhaps, an overstatement, given her evidence for the continuity of coercion and repression in Benninghausen. Under the Nazi regime, however, traditional welfare policies were placed into new ideological contexts of völkisch-biological reasoning that denied marginal groups and those deemed "asocial" fundamental rights. In fact, official policies deemed it "necessary" to withhold public funding for "physically, mentally, and morally inferior people" (p. 221), regardless of their individual situation and need. The putative benefit to the Volk was now the yardstick against which welfare decisions were made. Nevertheless, strict guidelines for the treatment of "asocials" and other individuals deemed marginal by the Nazi state did not exist. The Arbeitshaus in Benninghausen and those like it no longer represent the repressive extreme. Concentration camps took over that role. Social welfare based on inclusiveness and the common good became social engineering on a biological and racist basis. New ideological realities ensured more inmates and a safer financial footing for institutions such as the Arbeitshaus, but also brought them into closer collaboration with the Nazi state. "The leadership in Bennighausen delivered inmates to the police" (p. 226), which often led to their imprisonment in concentration camps and other escalations for the inmates such as forced sterilization. Other aggravations included indefinite imprisonment, arbitrary preventative imprisonment (Vorbeugehaft), lack of food, lack of clothing, insufficient sleeping space, increasing brutality of daily life in the institution, continued forced labor, and the complete lack of legal rights. Inmates included so-called asocial men, women who had worked as prostitutes, prisoners from other overcrowded prisons, people who suffered from contagious "open" tuberculosis, and even young people who had come to the attention of the Nazi regime as unmanageable.
At the end of the war, the Arbeitshaus was captured and liberated by the Americans and by May 1945 all inmates were discharged. Shortly thereafter, the institution was reopened for tuberculosis patients and other people needing medical attention, but the institution also began to take in welfare recipients and women with venereal diseases again. Strict discipline and labor duty continued to characterize the institution and its inmates remained stigmatized and marginalized. None of the prewar inmates received financial compensation or recognition for their suffering. In fact, much of the old staff was allowed to stay on after 1945 with the assent of the occupiers and pursued practically unchanged tactics. By mid-1946, the inmate population had changed somewhat and most inhabitants in Benninghausen were elderly expellees who did not find accommodation elsewhere and women who were subject to compulsory cures (Zwangsheilung). With time, however, the institution began to detain marginalized and socially displaced people again in an attempt, as Elling-Ruhwinkel argues, to punish sexually deviant behavior as well as fight the disintegrative elements of the immediate postwar years with authoritarian strategies (p. 373). The end of the 1940s saw the end of the concept of the Arbeitshaus all over Germany. The Arbeitshaus in Bennighausen also shrank and most of its divisions were closed by 1962.
In conclusion, this is an interesting book full of fascinating details about not only the specifics of the Arbeitshaus in Benninghausen, but the highly contested nature of social control in modern Germany. Scholars interested in the detailed application of socially coercive mechanisms across diverse political systems will find this monograph particularly useful. The scope of the book is, however, also a weakness in the sense that Elling-Ruhwinkel's detail-centered approach makes the subject unwieldy and at times the larger thesis gets lost in a thicket of facts. The book would have benefited from some editing and streamlining of the narrative in favor of a clearer argumentative thread. In fact, even visually, the reader does not get a break. Though the publisher has included some evocative photos and charts, these are not fully integrated into the analysis. The entire book is presented as one uninterrupted text as the chapters are barely marked by more than subheadings and do not really have introductions and conclusions. The conclusion to the whole book comprises four pages. Though this study could have fleshed out some fascinating connections and continuities between political systems, ideologies, and standards of care versus repressive tactics, it does not fully do that. Moreover, the author does not provide a fully articulated connection between the micro-study and the larger picture. As it stands, the reader is left to draw her own conclusions.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Julia Bruggemann. Review of Elling-Ruhwinkel, Elisabeth, Sichern und Strafen: Das Arbeitshaus Benninghausen (1871-1945).
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2007 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.