File Number XY: Dissolved

The TV program File Number XY: Unresolved Crimes is an enormous, fantastic, and mass fraud. Once a month on a Friday evening several million German and Austrian television viewers go in search of criminals, and help the police find wanted people. They are told the frightful deeds of real live villains, become eye witnesses when clues are found, and wait up steadfast in front of the TV for the first results, the final clues from Eduard Zimmermann (1) whose goal "as we all know" is to put an end to the rise in crime. The fraud is twofold: first of all, the viewers are given the impression that something is actually happening, that there is more than just talk—there is action—which is why the show is so popular. Secondly, the viewers are made to believe they have played an active role, because they were allowed to participate, and because what happens is in their own personal interests. The gangster we catch today cannot pull a fast one on us tomorrow. The whole thing is a fraud because nothing really happens, and you can be pretty sure that the felon or murderer or thief who is named today will not be the one who will get you tomorrow or the day after. In one year, thirty of the forty-five people who were wanted were caught; a mere thirty of the thousands who are operating in total freedom. This is hardly successful crime fighting, which is what the program claims to be about. And the responsibility assigned to the viewers is total nonsense, in quantitative terms alone: the two crooks whose fate millions of viewers were asked to wait up for until 10:30 on December 13 are only two among thousands. What is the point of all this? And why do the viewers fall for it?

The program is well constructed. It is an entertaining detective show. In fact, it is part of the entertainment sector of the Zweites Deutsches Fernschen (2) that broadcasts it to Germany and Austria. There may well be many more viewers than we can even imagine—especially on those days we find the show particularly irritating—who don’t fall for the fraud at all, but just watch it for fun. Still—let's look at Eduard Zimmerman’s own concept based on what he divulged at the tenth anniversary program to justify himself, and explain what he wants and what he sees as the objective of the show. There was finally some action, something was finally being done, he said. Furthermore, if we didn’t succeed in stopping the rise in crime then the danger that another strong man would . . . and so on and so forth. Besides, we really ought to consider the victims of the crimes, he said; those who are robbed and violated. They are humans too.

The trouble is that there is no action, and the viewers’ ostensible action is an illusion as well. The program’s suggestive message may well be striking a chord with the many people who feel the need to get out of their subaltern roles at work and their consumer roles at home, who want to escape the permanent condition of powerlessness, the feeling of not being the subjects of their own lives, but the objects of outside interests. The feeling of having no influence, of knowing that the people "up‬ there" do what they want anyway, the feeling of isolation in their own living rooms, the desire to pound their fists on the table—the program responds to all this, which is why the fraud is tolerated, because it responds to the need for personal action, the need to be counted, to be more than just a little cog in the machine, to be an individual who is addressed as an individual, and who is important as an individual.

Germans, as we know, are fed up with politics. Generally, they equate political engagement with National Socialism, which gave them a bad time. Along comes Herr Zimmermann, who tells them they have to help fight crime, otherwise a new Hitler will come along and do it for them. Which makes Hitler a crime fighter—but a crime fighter who overshot his target—which is why we have to beware of the next guy and clean up the country ourselves. Everyone is their own strong man, all grown up now. And in the process, the Germans’ devotion to Hitler is being retroactively justified, which could reawaken the Germans’ willingness to get politically engaged, and restore historical continuity—all part of the Germans recovering from the humiliations of the postwar period.

The victims, those who have been robbed and violated, are people, after all, as Zimmermann says. A strange statement, given the fact that no one has ever denied this, and even stranger when it is juxtaposed to the threat of the strong man, whose victims the discourse blatantly ignores. The show doesn’t hunt down Nazi criminals, concentration camp guards, or judges (Kammergerichtsrate) at the People’s Court (Volkgerichtshof), like this Herr Rehse who was recently let off in Berlin. (3) Instead Zimmermann asks his viewers to identify with the victims of all manner of blackguards, cradle-snatchers, highwaymen, grave robbers, and racketeers. How do you do that without a full measure of self-pity? Self-pity for the humiliations you suffered and never understood because of your National Socialist past, say, or because of territories you lost in the East, or because of denazification. How else could Zimmermann dare not to mention the victims of National Socialism when he refers to the strong man, and talk instead about the victims of petty everyday crime? This is only possible because he alludes to the latent but omnipresent self-pity of the Germans, a product of the history they have not understood.

We know, from reading Freud, Reich, Mitscherlich, and others, that we Germans have greater difficulties than others with our suppressed aggression, because we cannot hate those we ought to hate, precisely those who have suppressed our aggressions and continue to do so—our bosses, parents, the ones "up there." We used to hate the Jews and the Communists. You can’t hate the Jews now; it doesn’t seem to work anymore to hate the Communists; and hating the students is still prohibited by the democratic superstructure. So Zimmermann suggests we hate criminals. He turns them into the scapegoats of German history—they are the reason why Hitler surfaced. He makes them the scapegoats of our present day and assigns them the brunt of political displeasure—so that no new Hitler should rise up. Mitscherlich writes, "Scapegoats are created from groups of outsiders; lack of knowledge about them is actively promoted (people don’t want to know about them) so that they can be used without opposition or blame.” (4)

Do Herr Zimmermann and his viewers know what causes criminal behavior? Do Herr Zimmermann and his viewers know about the drastic conditions in German prisons? Probably not. This is why these petty and not so petty criminals can be demonized, though their deeds are mere bagatelles compared to the crimes of National Socialism. This is why they can be turned into objects of public hatred, and why it is easy to ignore the fact that someone who has been tossed to millions of viewers as prey will never recover, not even once his case has been heard and his sentence served.

File Number XY: Unresolved Crimes is an enormous fraud perpetrated against the viewers; it is a fraud that continues to pass because it speaks to a number of real needs. The program may actually be serving as a test to see to what extent criminals can be deployed as hate objects in Germany and Austria, and to what extent such fascist methods can both mobilize and control Germans and Austrians. Zimmermann claims the Germans are not a people of informers or headhunters. It would be nice if he were proven right.

(1) Eduard Zimmermann (1929-), a journalist and former television presenter, created File Number XY: Unresolved Crimes, which first aired in October 1967, and was broadcast for the tenth time on 13 December 1968.

(2) Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen is one of the federal public broadcasters in West Germany.

(3) Hans-Joachim Rehse (1902-1969) was the judge at the People’s Court in Berlin during the Third Reich. As such he was responsible for 231 death sentences. In 1968 he was sentenced to five years of penitentiary; upon appeal he was found not guilty.

(4) Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, The Inability to Mourn (Munich, 1968), p. 98-99.‬