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Adolf Busemann, "Barbarization and Brutalization" (1956)

Adolf Busemann decries the alarming rise in youth crime in West Germany in the 1950s. As he explains, youths were committing both more and more serious criminal acts. For Busemann, the rise in recorded criminality was only the tip of a much broader – and even more troubling – trend toward behavior leading in the direction of criminality. He attributed the rise in youth criminality to the earlier onset of puberty, but also to the dismantling of social and moral inhibitions. He called for vigorous socio-political and socio-pedagogical activity to put an end to barbarization and brutalization among youths, in schools, and in society as whole.

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All Western countries, including the USA, which leads the pact, unanimously report a shocking rise in youth crime. In 1954, 560,000 young people (=up to age eighteen) stood before a judge in the Federal Republic. For the first half of 1955, a 17% rise over the same period in the previous year has already been registered. Of these 560,000 youths, more than a third were younger than 14. In the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (1954), alone, 10,893 children ranging in age from 12.0 to 13.11 were recorded as the perpetrators of criminal acts. While overall crime in Bavaria rose by 3.5% in 1954, the number of youths between the ages of 18 and 20 who became delinquent rose by 13%, the number of children (age 14 and younger) by no less than 17%. Additionally, the statistics reveal that the portion of youths involved in overall crime in large cities is substantially higher than in rural districts, and that in 80% of the cases, the perpetrator grew up in a detrimental family situation (illegitimacy, orphanhood, marital discord, divorce, etc.), situations that are represented today in abundance in all prosperous and educated strata. An assessment of the number 560,000 requires the following commentary. Criminology teaches us that always and everywhere, more criminal acts are committed than reported, let alone punished. No one can tell us by what factor we need to multiply the number 560,000 in order to arrive at the approximate number of criminal acts actually committed by youthful perpetrators. It may be that we have to double that number!

The following is even more significant. From a moral, and thus also from a psychological perspective, a criminal act is only the tip of much broader and more frequent type of behavior that heads in the same direction. Below and behind those 560,000 cases there is thus not only a presumably equally large number of committed but unrecorded crimes, but also – and this matters more here – an immeasurably broad layer of behaviors among probably several million youths that lead in the direction of those crimes, of illegal acts, of conflicts with the moral and legal order of human coexistence. Finally, one must not forget that this rise in recorded criminality among young people between the ages of 12 and 18, along with the background and foundation of a much broader violation of the communal order, did not appear overnight, but emerged slowly over decades, from about 1920 on, though most recently with catastrophic acceleration.


Statistics sometimes trigger in laymen a mistrust born of bad experiences. In this case, however, the facts stand before us unequivocally. Their closer examination reveals that youth crime has increased not only in frequency, but also in seriousness. In the space of a few months, the press has published dozens of reports about crimes of cruelty: “Three year-old playmate tortured to death” [ . . . ]; “Fourteen year-old murders seven year-old” [ . . . ]; “Eight year-old boy tied to the tracks by two twelve year-olds so that he would be run over” [ . . . ]; “Thirteen year-old murders an elderly woman” [ . . . ]; “School boys stone an old man nearly to death on the village road” [ . . . ]; “Fourteen year-old drowns sexually abused girl” [ . . . ]; “Fourteen year-old girl attempts robbery” [ . . . ]; “Sixteen year-old robs and murders an elderly woman” [ . . . ]; “Fifteen year-old strangles his ten year-old playmate,” “Five year-old girls beats three year-old playmate to death with a picket,” “Fourteen year-old beats sleeping friend unconscious and sets the house on fire to conceal the murder.” Or: “School boy snags a squirrel and beats it to death to the applause of . . . the father.” “A school boy, in the presence of his parents, chases a squirrel in the city park, beats it to death.” “Youths chase a Mufflon lamb until it dies.” Murder, robbery, and cruelty to animals join rapes and so on. In 1938, sexual offenses accounted for 4% of the overall criminal acts committed by young people in North Rhine Westphalia; in 1954, they accounted for 16.5% of the same. Thus, it is not just that more trivial transgressions are being recorded today than in the past, and that this has caused crime numbers to rise. The opposite is true! The overabundance of serious transgressions and serious crimes is forcing one to overlook more venial violations.

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