Senior Lecturer in Modern European History Heather Wolffram has just had a book published – we asked her some questions ahead of the launch next month.
Q: What is the book about?
Forensic Psychology in Germany, 1880-1939: Witnessing Crime examines the emergence and early development of forensic psychology in Germany from the late nineteenth century until the outbreak of the Second World War, highlighting the field’s interdisciplinary beginnings and contested evolution.
Initially envisaged as a psychology of all those involved in criminal proceedings, this new discipline promised to move away from an exclusive focus on the criminal to provide a holistic view of how human fallibility impacted upon criminal justice. As this book argues, however, by the inter-war period, forensic psychology had largely become a psychology of the witness.
Q: Why is this important?
A: My book looks at how and why the psychology of the witness, particularly the child witness, became important in German courtrooms in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany. It uses a number of sensational murder and sex crimes trials to look at how psychological expertise was applied in court and asks why forensic psychology appears to have gone into decline under the Nazis. This is the first book-length study of the history of forensic psychology in any national context and is therefore a significant contribution to the history of the field.
Q:Why is it relevant now?
A: There remains today significant concern about the reliability of witness testimony, particularly in cases where children appear as prosecution witnesses. My work shows that the kinds of debates that emerged in the 1990s around the reliability of repressed memories and juvenile witnesses, were not new and had been rehearsed in German courtrooms as early as the 1890s. My work demonstrates what some of the consequences of these earlier debates were for the treatment of juvenile witnesses and the fortunes of forensic psychologists.