Is it a crime to be human?

Until September, Norbert Nedopil headed the Forensic Psychiatry Department at the Psychiatric Clinic of the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich for more than 20 years. His job was to assess whether a criminal was mentally ill or responsible. In his professional life, he examined thousands of test persons, including some spectacular cases: the masked man who kidnapped and murdered three boys from a school camp, a truck driver who strangled six prostitutes, as well as Gustl Mollath and Beate Zsch├Ąpe. He has published his experiences in a book that has now been published by Goldmann: "Everyone has their abyss. Searching for clues in the souls of criminals."

Mr Nedopil, the media give the impression that things are getting worse and worse in Germany with murder and manslaughter. Is that impression correct?

No, definitely not, it has been decreasing steadily for many years. We're just no longer used to dealing with violence. In 2014 there were 624 homicides in Germany, which corresponds to a frequency of 0.78 per 100,000 inhabitants. And 30 percent of it is committed by the partner. It will probably never get better than 0.6 per 100,000 inhabitants in Western Europe, because there will always be family quarrels, psychological emergencies and some criminal motives that cannot be eliminated. Fascinatingly, however, the fear of crime has not decreased accordingly, but has increased. The perceived threat is illuminated more glaringly than reality.

Is the decrease also correct for sexual offenses?

The number of sexually motivated homicides decreased from around 90 to 17 per year between 1981 and 2012.

And sexually motivated infanticide ...

... fell from eight to three between 1981 and 1998. However, the number of publications on child abuse has risen from around 50 to 950 per year over the same period. Incidentally, children are not particularly likely to be victims of violence, and when they do, it is acts in families. The number of child homicides by strangers in Germany has been around 30 to 40 cases a year for years. As bad as the individual acts are and no consolation for the relatives: The world is better than you think.

How many people are housed in the psychiatric penal system?

Here, too, the numbers have been falling in recent years. Compared to prisons, in which around 63,000 people are housed in Germany, only around 6,600 people live here because of mental disorders.

You have faced thousands of offenders in your career. How do you talk to murderers?

No different from the way I'm talking to you. You can't tell by looking at people. But I know what he did. That's why I treat him first of all like someone who has caused an accident ... as if it is an accident that is not alien to me.

But an accident also leaves victims. Is it harder to talk to victims?

If you have a woman in front of you who was raped, or a perpetrator who raped a year ago, then talking to the woman is much more difficult.


You are more neutral towards a perpetrator because you don't sympathize with them and never have the feeling that you are obliged to express sympathy.

Are there any bad people?

Actually, good and bad are moral categories that are not relevant in my field, but I have met a few people in my professional life who I would describe as bad. These are people who knew what they were doing, who deliberately harmed or hurt another, or who consciously lived out their needs at the expense of others.

How do you get murderers to speak?

I try to make the other person feel like I understand them. That works all the better if you can stand by your own weaknesses. Because you yourself know despair and you make mistakes yourself, even if not fatal ones. I also admit that - at least in my imagination - I went much further more often than in reality. I think I'm not alone in this.

How reflective can murderers talk about what they did?

It is very different. There are some very reflective people who cannot stand their guilt and break because of it. There was just someone here who has denied all guilt, saw himself only as a victim of difficult circumstances. He blamed everything on the terrible things he had experienced and said that he had to swim in the current. Then there was an argument and suddenly there was the knife.

Can you break through such self-pity?

I let people talk for a long time, then I follow up. Only at the end do I confront people with the question of whether all of this actually happened without their involvement. For example, I tell them that they are easily injured or cannot stand it when she rejects a woman. Some stay in their loop, others take the chance to face their own responsibility.

How do these people react when you tell them the truth openly?

I try to tell them as much of my psychiatric assessment as they can take. But it can happen that they then get angry, leave the room, devalue me and the situation repeats itself. I have to heed the warning signs so that everything goes peacefully. Many of these people are seething, and often all you need is the famous drop that brings the barrel to overflow.

Do these people regret what they did?

Repentance is hard for me to grasp, it hardly lasts for long periods of time in anyone. Many people later do not regret the act, but rather the consequences for themselves.