How Schiller Changed the True Crime Genre

Gargoyle in Ulm, Germany;

Gargoyle in Ulm, Germany;

What distinguishes true crime from other non-fiction? If you were to measure its pulse, where in the story should you place your two fingers?

Gallows by

Gallows by

The German poet Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) would say motive. He should know. He revolutionized the true crime genre in Germany. Before Schiller came along, the German true crime genre had a different emphasis. It provided sensational details of misdeeds and the criminal’s repentance. Those details were supposed to instill a respect for the law and scare the readership into upright behavior.

Statue of Goethe and Schiller in Weimar, Germany

Statue of Goethe and Schiller in Weimar, Germany

But Schiller bucked convention and he admitted it. The problem with the sensationalist crime story, he wrote, is the emotional distance between reader and criminal. It leaves readers shaking their heads over behavior they don’t understand. They no longer view the perpetrator as human, but as a different species. If the author really wants to move the audience, wrote Schiller, he or she must pick up a scalpel and dissect the motive. Readers must not only see the protagonist commit crimes. They must see him want to commit them.

How do psychology and circumstances interact to produce criminal conduct? That became the new focus of Germany’s true crime genre. In the introduction to his own true crime story, Schiller wrote: “In the entire history of mankind, no chapter is more educational for the heart and soul than the history of human aberrations. For every great crime, an equally great force is at work.”

What was the last true crime story you read? Did it focus more on motive, sensationalism, or forensic techniques?

Some literature on point:

Gail K. Hart, Freidrich Schiller: Crime, Aesthetics, and the Poetics of Punishment (Newark: University of Delaware Press 2005)

Jeffrey L. High, Schiller’s Literary Prose Works: New Translations and Critical Essays (Rochester, New York: Camden House 2008)

(c) 2014 Ann Marie Ackermann


  1. Brian
    Sep 25, 2014

    Do you have a favorite True Crime tv show? There is an abundance of these shows on American tv – even channels dedicated to it. Do they watch shows like this in Germany?
    (20/20, unsolved mysteries, dateline nbc, etc)

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