‘On “betterment”, imprisonment and support: The aims of placements in forced labour facilities in Austria from 1918 to 1938’

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Sonja Hinsch

(cand. PhD), Institute for Economic and Social History, University of Vienna, Austria

‘On “betterment”, imprisonment and support. The aims of placements in forced labour facilities in Austria from 1918 to 1938’

(Introduced by: Beryl Steeden, College of Occupational Therapists, London)

[18min; 9 slides]


Paper presented to the International Research Symposium:

"Therapy and Empowerment – Coercion and Punishment:

Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Labour and Occupational Therapy"

26–27 June 2013,  St Anne’s College, Oxford


Abstract: In my presentation I will describe the multiple representations (and therefore constructions) of detainees and purposes of detainment in correctional houses by comparing person related files of detainees as well as debates mostly led by medical and juridical experts. It will be pointed out that the programmatic aim – betterment through forced labour –did not coincide often with the aims described in person related files.

In Austria between 1918 and 1938 people perceived as “workshy” could be convicted among others as beggars, vagabonds or prostitutes and be detained and forced to work in correctional houses (Zwangsarbeitsanstalten). There, according to the law, they should get “accustomed to an industrious (arbeitsam) way of life”. This was part of a delegitimization of specific practices perceived as non-work. In the context of the emerging welfare state in the late 19th and the beginning of the 20th century working became an essential precondition of social participation. Hence people “willing to work” were distinguished from those seen as “workshy”. Measures and entitlements such as unemployment insurance were established to support people without but willing to work whereas people seen as workshy were to be punished as well as to be “bettered”.

However, a closer examination of person-related files of internees in correctional houses shows that the distinctions drawn by the legislation did not include all of the distinctions made in the actual internment. Internees were not only described in categories related to work but also by e.g. alcohol abuse, mental and physical diseases, “excessive” sexuality, criminality and economic hardship. Correspondingly, “betterment” was not the only aim mentioned, but also e.g. punishment, support, cure or care. This can be explained among others by the different interests and experts´ knowledge of the various people involved, like lawyers and judges, civil servants, the internees (and their families), physicians and psychiatrists. By analysing person related files and debates on correctional houses, one can see the struggle of the different actors involved to establish their views of internment. Thereby, not only did physicians and psychiatrists become important players in defining the sense of internment, but also referring to them became a frequently used argument by other actors involved. Thereby, experts may have broadened the aims of correctional houses as particularly physicians and psychiatrists described detainees in mostly non-work related terms such as diseases, sexual behaviour and alcohol abuse.

What may be seen as a common term among the different actors involved was the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of non-work. Illegitimate non-work, as well as unsteadiness or neglecting one’s duties were facets of a broader concept of deviant behaviour. In contrast to that, young people being trained for a job in borstals or unemployed receiving unemployment relief were more often described in work related terms such as “needy because of unemployment”. If there are e.g. mental problems described, these are mostly described as the consequence of unemployment. Thus, the constructions of detainees referring to a wide range of possible categories can be explained as a result of the struggle of what should be legitimate and what should be illegitimate non-work.

I am going to focus on the different ways internees in correctional houses are described but also point out what they have in common in comparison with descriptions of other people without work.



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