Research Unit Law

Between Loopholes and Gray Areas

A Transnational History of Illegal Jewish Networks in the 19th Century

Border and port towns have always been sites not only of increased mobility and easy trafficking of goods, but also contact zones of different legal systems and conceptions. As such, they are also productive spaces for criminal ventures. The markedly accelerated interconnection of the world in the 19th century and the migration movements this entailed contributed drastically to these phenomena. Against this background, repressive laws, their arbitrary enforcement, and economic hardship moved a not insignificant number of Jews to try and improve their mostly precarious living conditions through activities outside of the law.

This PhD project examines illegal Jewish networks as well as cooperatives established to combat these networks in the 19th century, thereby focusing on the interplay between criminal actors, the political and legal systems in which they operated, and the Jewish communities who were not infrequently called upon by state authorities to provide information or punish misdemeanors. On the basis of police and court files, correspondence between Jewish organizations, and newspaper reports, this project aims to uncover the working methods of such networks among other places in Vienna, Lemberg, Odessa, and St. Petersburg, which will in turn serve to illuminate the scopes of action used or even created by the protagonists – men and women alike. Located at the crossroads of Jewish history in Eastern Europe, migration and legal history, as well as historical research on criminality, this project follows the routes taken by the illegal actors within the Russian Empire and Austria-Hungary, including their migration from their home countries to South and North America. A detailed examination of Jewish criminals and their everyday realities in their various contexts opens up a perspective on narratives of globalization and mobility that sharpens our view of ambivalences in the success story of modernity.