Analysis

Germany’s Love Affair With Crime Fiction

The genre is a potent mirror for a country still coming to terms with itself.

germany-suspense-tatort-foreign-policy-illustration-horror-week
Foreign Policy illustration/Das Erste photo

Germans are obsessed with crime fiction, so much so that in German, the word Krimi—short for Kriminalroman (crime novel) or Kriminalfilm (crime film)—can also be used as a suffix to describe anything remotely suspenseful, such as a soccer match (Fußball-Krimi), chess competition (Schach-Krimi), or election (Wahl-Krimi).

In modern Germany, Krimis are everywhere: More than 3,000 new crime novels are published every year, and the deluge of crime shows (both televised and theatrical), murder mystery dinners, and crime fiction festivals is near constant.

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Foreign Policy illustration/Das Erste photo

Germans are obsessed with crime fiction, so much so that in German, the word Krimi—short for Kriminalroman (crime novel) or Kriminalfilm (crime film)—can also be used as a suffix to describe anything remotely suspenseful, such as a soccer match (Fußball-Krimi), chess competition (Schach-Krimi), or election (Wahl-Krimi).

In modern Germany, Krimis are everywhere: More than 3,000 new crime novels are published every year, and the deluge of crime shows (both televised and theatrical), murder mystery dinners, and crime fiction festivals is near constant.

Germans have always been big fans of crime stories, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that German crime fiction as a subgenre came into its own. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Germans preferred case histories in the French Pitaval tradition based on true crime that would plumb the psychological depths of deviant behavior. The Anglo-American formula of detective stories, featuring the exploits of seminal figures like Sherlock Holmes, only caught on in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century—but it did so with a vengeance. After World War II, translations of U.S. and British fare dominated the country’s crime fiction market.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the emergence of the Neuer Deutscher Krimi (New German crime novel), or Soziokrimi (sociological crime novel), marked the beginning of an era of homegrown production. The 1960s were a time when left-wing political theories were popular among German students, writers, and intellectuals, many of whom were grappling with and rebelling against their Nazi forefathers. Taking inspiration from the American hard-boiled school of the 1930s and 1940s—in which a private eye roams the mean, corrupt streets of a big city to fight crimein addition to Marxist philosophy and works by Belgian author Georges Simenon and Swedish crime writing duo Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the Soziokrimi showed a West German society where corrupt political and economic elites have their way and the common man is forced into criminal behavior to make ends meet.

As more and more Soziokrimis were published, German-speaking authors were able to capture a part of the crime fiction market and sell their work to radio, television, and film networks. With Germany concurrently experiencing its postwar economic miracle, ordinary Germans also had more disposable income to buy books and go to the movies. Perhaps the most famous series to emerge from this time is the publicly televised Tatort (“Crime Scene”), which has produced more than 1,000 episodes since 1970. 

Tatort is a phenomenon unto itself. Before the advent of private television and the internet, German city and village streets would empty around 8:15 p.m. on Sundays, as West Germans gathered in front of the TV to watch the show’s newest episode, which was broadcast immediately after the 8 p.m. news. Today, communal viewings among Tatort enthusiasts still abound. There’s even a German word for this sort of phenomenon: Straßenfeger, which literally translates to “street sweeper” but can also refer to a television show that is so beloved it sweeps—metaphorically—the streets clean of people, who are all in their homes watching.

But Tatort is more than reliable entertainment: The show’s emphasis on regionalism, in addition to its deeply analytic approach toward the political issues and societal structures undergirding crime, have rendered it some of the foremost commentary on modern German life. And where Tatort has gone, the genre of German crime fiction has followed. As Jochen Vogt, an academic and pioneer of German crime fiction scholarship, once wrote, “if you want to understand Germany, you have to watch Tatort.”

Tatort began as an experiment aimed at countering dubbed American crime shows’ market dominance and the success of other domestic productions. To take them on, ARD, one of Germany’s public broadcasters, tasked each of its regional affiliates with creating a series of crime shows featuring one of the cities or regions they served—incorporating its unique landscape, architecture, dialect, mentality, and economic characteristics. Each episode would be 90 minutes long—with no commercial breaks!—providing enough time to develop intricate plots set in distinctive environments. Surprisingly—even to the creators of this series—the audiences loved the new formula, and Tatort quickly earned the cult status it enjoys to this day.

People watch the screening of German TV series Tatort at the Volksbar in Berlin on Nov. 24, 2013.

People watch the screening of German TV series Tatort at the Volksbar in Berlin on Nov. 24, 2013. JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

During the 1970s, Tatort portrayed crime as something that happened in the private sphere, developing out of conventional interpersonal motives, such as love, hate, greed, or the wish to preserve a reputation. This changed in the 1980s, when the series became interested in depicting a variety of social milieus and subcultures, mirroring the economic and cultural fragmentation that was beginning to affect Germany as it became more diverse. After German reunification in 1990, Tatort expanded into East Germany, picking up on the tensions, challenges, and (criminal) opportunities that East-West integration brought with it. Organized crime, left- and right-wing terrorism, social inequities, the West’s perceived takeover of the East, mass migration, and a changing political landscape all became background for crime stories made in Germany.

Recent episodes of Tatort provide insight into many Germans’ concerns today, such as environmental issues, political and religious extremism, the effects of globalization and digitalization, and other tensions that inevitably arise in a multicultural society. All figure prominently in the show’s 21st century identity.

The 2018 episode “Vom Himmel hoch” (“From Heaven Above”) was based partly at Germany’s Ramstein Air Base and drew attention to the victims of U.S. drone wars, which are often launched from German soil. “Friss oder stirb” (“Devour or Die”), a December 2018 Swiss production, is set in the city of Lucerne, Switzerland, and contrasts the lives of the superrich with those who lost to globalization—people who lack jobs and raison d’être. “Die dritte Haut” (“The Third Skin”), broadcasted in June, displays the effects of gentrification in Berlin, underscoring how unaffordable rental apartments have become for common people. It proved timely: In September’s German federal elections, Berliners approved a referendum in favor of expropriating large real estate conglomerates in the city.

Beyond Tatort, contemporary German crime fiction similarly shows concern for pressing social and political issues—increasingly so in transnational and multicultural contexts. Writer Max Annas’s 2017 book, Illegal, follows Kodjo, an undocumented young man from Ghana, through Berlin’s streets as he tries to evade both the authorities and the henchmen of a killer he inadvertently observed murdering a sex worker. Afro-German author Noah Sow published Die Schwarze Madonna: Afrodeutscher Heimatkrimi (The Black Madonna: An Afro-German Crime Novel) in 2019, in which Islamophobic resentment, neo-Nazi subversion, and local corruption threaten a vibrant community of migrants and non-white Germans in a small Bavarian town. In “Bittere Pillen” (“Bitter Pills”), a 2015 episode of the TV series Wilsberg, asylum-seekers are held in camps and supervised by security firms who hire neo-Nazis to keep them in check.

A scene from the TV series <em>Babylon Berlin</em>.

A scene from the TV series Babylon Berlin. X Filme

Whether they are set in modern or historical contexts, Krimis are an intrinsic part of Germany’s ongoing project to come to terms with its Nazi past. Author Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath novels, which were adapted to TV in the international blockbuster series Babylon Berlin, are only one example of a fast corpus of crime stories set in Germany between the two World Wars. As the most expensive German TV production ever, Babylon Berlin shows the city as a place of spellbinding cultural creativity, widespread depravity, and abject social conditions where political extremism thrives and Nazism is beginning to rear its ugly head. In addition to Kutscher, many other German-speaking authors—such as Susanne Goga, Robert Hültner, Angelika Felenda, and Alex Beer—have set their crime stories in the 1920s and 1930s, exploring the history of fascism in Germany (and Austria) in ways history textbooks never could.

Despite the heavy topics, German crime fiction is usually consumed for its entertainment value, and most of the texts published annually adhere to well-established narrative formulas. Just as Tatort draws much of its distinctiveness from its regional flair, the most popular literary subgenre is Regiokrimi (regional crime novel). Hyper-local, these books often even include dialogue written in the region’s dialect. In 2003, writing duo Volker Klüpfel and Michael Kobr launched an extremely successful franchise around their Allgäu-Krimis (crime novels set in a part of southern Germany’s Swabia), complete with novels, audio books, performance events, and merchandise. Nele Neuhaus is the author of a popular series of novels set in the Taunus, the mountainous region north of Frankfurt, Germany; Jörg Maurer lets his team of police officers loose in the seemingly idyllic stretches of the Bavarian alps; and Klaus-Peter Wolf chose the serene landscapes of East Frisia on the North Sea as the background for his thrillers. Such works play on the German fascination with Heimat, or homeland, to provide a sense of belonging—and thereby an antidote to the alienating effects of globalization and transnationalism.

Although Krimis can be provincial, they are also changing. In 2009, the Suhrkamp publishing house added crime fiction to its catalogue. Until then, Suhrkamp had been known as publishers of highly sophisticated, difficult to read philosophical and literary works. That Suhrkamp would now publish crime fiction seemed to constitute a major cultural shift: In Germany, the distinction between light fiction and sophisticated reading has always been much stricter and more pronounced than in the English-speaking world. Crime fiction has traditionally been considered trivial literature, mass-produced entertainment for unworldly readers out to satisfy their basic needs. Now, some Krimis have graduated to the status of serious literature. Authors such as Friedrich Ani, Zoë Beck, Ulrich Ritzel, Uta-Maria Heim, and Simone Buchholz find themselves squarely atop this blurred line.

Tatort played a decisive role in finally granting these Krimis the legitimacy they deserve. The genre of German crime fiction continues to span a broad spectrum, but it has expanded tremendously in terms of quantity and quality since the 1960s. Tatort, for its part, provided a training ground for writers, directors, and producers to hone their skills and experiment with new formulas and techniques. All the while, the show has managed the delicate balance of producing widely accessible, popular entertainment that doubles as social and political analysis of the highest aesthetic quality. And though Germany today is wrought with uncertainty about its future—what its post-Merkel government will look like, for one, remains unclear—it is safe to say that whatever afflicts the country next, Tatort will be the first on the scene.

Thomas Kniesche is an associate professor of German studies at Brown University, where his research interests include crime fiction and contemporary German literature. He is the editor of Contemporary German Crime Fiction: A Companion and is currently working on a book-length study of historical crime fiction.

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