1.1 Background

Violence and the study of violence have been an inexhaustible source of my scientific and personal fascination over the past 20 years, and I am still deeply impressed by the writings of Wolfgang Sofsky (1996), Heinrich Popitz (1992), Trutz von Trotha (1997) and Trotha and Rösel (2011). Violence research has also been one of the main focuses of the Max Planck Partner Group for Balkan Criminology (BC) that I have been running from 2012 onwards. However, it was only in spring 2016, and after BC had already been heavily engaged in numerous large non-violence projects, like the ISRD3 (International Self-Report Delinquency Study), when Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Hans-Jörg Albrecht and I started working on the research design for a study into (lethal) violence in the Balkans. Like many of our grand ideas on and in the Balkans, it all started out over a casual cup of coffee and a contemplating smoke.

Our preliminary analysis showed that in fact no recent or larger empirical violence study had been conducted in the majority of BC partner countries, especially none with a regionally comparative approach. In addition to this empirical vacuum, we also detected a considerable theoretical vacuum when it comes to explaining violence in the Balkans outside the framework of simply copy-pasting theories developed in other parts of the world.Footnote 1 Both the empirical and the theoretical vacuum called for our criminological engagement.

Based on a questionnaire Prof. Dr. Albrecht had already developed and tested for the study of lethal violence in Uruguay, we started working on the research design and questionnaire for the BHS (Sect. 4.2). In a next step, we selected several partner countries from the Balkan Criminology Network (BCNet) based on their geographical location in the region. In March 2016, together with the BHS partners and based on prior analysis of all the relevant national homicide statistics, we considerably broadened the initial Uruguay questionnaire and thus adjusted it to our study’s research questions and the regional context. We thus decided on data sourcing and sampling strategies. Equipped with highly contagious enthusiasm and ample team spirit, as well as 5000€ on average for the field work, total data collection and analysis for each of the six participating countries,Footnote 2 the BHS was officially launched.

Our idea for the BHS has been to focus on two main lines of research. First, we were interested in capturing violence as a normative and social construct, in order to investigate the power to define violence and how it is used throughout the criminal justice system (Sessar, 1981; Hess, 2010; Dölling, 2015). This is still an understudied topic in violence research, especially in the Balkans, though its comprehension has a crucial impact on many methodological decisions, for instance, including or excluding attempts or non-homicidal violent offenses. Basically, the question is how and why at police level violent incidents are defined, for example, as (attempted) homicide or grave bodily injury (with lethal consequences), and how and why such initial definitions are redefined by the prosecution and the courts. This is not only a strictly normative question about the power to define violence by different criminal justice actors but also a fundamental criminological question, for example, about understanding homicide drop-outs: why and how do (attempted) homicide cases get lost in criminal justice processing? It is thus an extremely intriguing question about the normative construction of violence vs. its criminological reality.Footnote 3

This brings us to BHS’s second line of research: the empirical reality of violence. There is an obvious paradox concerning lethal violence in the Balkans. On the one hand, there is solid evidence that, compared to other parts of Europe, the Balkans do not fit the profile of a high crime region and appear to be much safer in terms of street and urban crime (UNODC, 2008; Aebi et al., 2010, 2014). On the other hand, there is also solid evidence about a higher propensity toward lethal violence in the Balkans (UNODC, 2011, 2013). Available data indicates higher homicide rates than in other European regions, even though more recently a declining trend is noticeable (UNODC, 2019b). But what do these homicide rates actually reveal, beyond the obvious mere incidence of homicides? We were intrigued by this Balkan-violence-paradox . Finding out what (lethal) violence in the Balkans actually looks like, in terms of its criminological reality, might help understand, perhaps even explain the paradox. It might thus provide the empirical starting point for future theoretical reflections.Footnote 4

1.2 Conceptual Framework

The question about what violence is and how it should be understood is much more than just a simple matter of terminology or methodology. It is, or at least should be, a conscious, transparent, and well-founded conceptual decision, as it pretty much determines how one ought to approach violence as a research subject. This in turn has a major impact on methodology and consequently on the research findings as such. One of the many challenges in violence research is the chronic lack of a commonly accepted definition of violence (Heitmeyer & Hagan, 2003; Imbusch, 2002). Violence, just as the scientific as well as the general perception, of what violence actually is, has clearly changed over time (Aebi & Linde, 2016). Although the undisputable core of violence is the intentional infliction of physical harm upon another person (Popitz, 1992; Nadelmann, 1997), the continuous adding of further dimensions, such as psychological, verbal, economic, structural, symbolic, cyber, and object-related, has blurred the picture and vastly broadened the subject scope of violence research. There is a clear trend toward indefinitely stretching the term violence, up to the point where currently almost everything is labeled as violence, and where eventually almost nothing presents itself as violence anymore (Meyer, 2002). It is at least questionable whether such a broadening of violence research’s subject scope has actually contributed to a better understanding of violence.Footnote 5 Yet, when it comes to homicide research, it is quite clear (at least to me) that the focus should be on the infliction of physical harm upon another person. That is also pretty much the only thing that appears to be quite clear.

Violence as a Social Construct

Being in the business of criminological violence research almost inevitably requires one’s daily confrontation with social and normative constructs of violence. Be it crime statistics or court file analysis, health statistics, or forensic reports, all of them are deeply rooted in their own perception of reality. So, for example, in (German) criminal law, lethal poisoning, even if causing no suffering to the victim, is commonly perceived as an aggravating circumstance to simply killing another person. It is an insidious murder (Ger. Mord), even if it is a woman poisoning her physically far superior husband against whom she would never stand a chance in a bare-knuckled life and death fight. Choking the life out of someone that could last for agonizing 5 minutes, however, might well be perceived as a normal killing , a manslaughter (Ger. Totschlag). But if the killer was provoked by the victim into a state of extreme rage, then even the most brutal massacre might be perceived as a less severe case of manslaughter (Ger. Minder schwerer Fall des Totschlags). And as if such teleological normative constructions of violence were not enough, all cruelty killings are considered, just as painless poisonings, simple cases of insidious murder (Ger. Mord), whereas justified killings or those lacking criminal responsibility or culpability are normatively not even perceived as violence (Getoš Kalac & Šprem, 2020; Cooney, 2009). Similar normative classifications of violence exist throughout Europe, as well as its southeastern part and the Balkans. Ultimately, none of these normative perceptions sufficiently consider the realities of violence and the victims’ suffering, but they rather focus on everything else around it (e.g., supposed motive or potential justification).

If we were to rank the above examples by their criminological realities, the ranking would be exactly the other way around. Now, using such normative constructs and their classifications as the foundation for criminological research is surely very practical, even unavoidable if one sources data from criminal justice agencies that operate on the grounds of such normative constructs. It is however not at all meaningful, at least not if one aims to study the empirical realities of violence, rather than their normative (re)interpretation. Criminology has so far failed to provide its own authentic perception of violence and is still largely preoccupied with fitting its research subject into purely normative constructs of violence.Footnote 6 The BHS is no exception in this regard, but based on its findings, first ideas on developing an authentic criminological violence classification system, as well as a universal measure of violence, are discussed (Chap. 6).

Violence as an Empirical Reality

Violence, understood as the infliction of physical harm upon another person, is a tangible and empirically capturable event. It exists in reality regardless of whether it has been reported or someone has been found guilty for having caused it. It also exists in reality regardless of its normative justifiability and excusability, or intent, negligence, and criminal responsibility. A wide range of highly valuable (criminological) conceptual and theoretical perspectives have been developed in an attempt to tackle the challenge of coherently framing violence.Footnote 7 However, criminology has in general and independently from criminal law thus far not been able to fully conceptualize violence as an empirical reality, although examples from other disciplines show this is both possible and feasible.Footnote 8 In criminology, we have even managed to successfully avoid such basic questions as who or what and why should be considered a victim of violence, by simply adopting the relevant normative constructs. These constructs are however all but scientific or empirically grounded and sometimes even highly inconsistent.Footnote 9

Apparently different research areas in criminology, including homicide research, have managed to operationally define the subject of their interest, without necessarily embedding it into an overarching definitional or conceptual framework.Footnote 10 Such operational definitions in homicide research commonly discuss various aspects of diverse normative concepts (e.g., premeditation, intent, negligence, unlawful abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, infanticide, assault leading to death, reckless driving, justified killings, attempt, or responsibility) and then operationally simply decide on including some and excluding others (Smit et al., 2012). With the BHS, we conceptually did not solve this issue, neither did we much discuss it, except for the issue of attempt. Since this is a far-reaching conceptual decision we made, it shall be briefly addressed.

Lethal Violence or Homicide

Basically, the question is whether homicide is a unique phenomenon, something essentially different than lethal violence – the deadly outcome of violence. Depending on one’s answer, research should either include or exclude the study of non-lethal violence (attempted homicides). With the BHS, we approached this question from two angles. First, in order to actually be able to deal with the “(lethal) violence-homicide dilemma” as such, one must include attempts (nonlethal violence) and then based on the findings determine if lethal violence is merely a subtype of violence, or whether it is a unique type of violence – homicide – which should be studied independently from attempts. Second, from a victimological perspective, it would be almost irresponsible not to search for potential protective traits on the side of victims and deescalating situational factors that might explain why some violence turns out deadly whereas other does not. While it is indeed plausible to exclude attempts from homicide statistics, particularly internationally comparable ones (UNODC, 2019a; Smit et al., 2012), homicide research that is based on case analysis should include attempts, just as it should include a wide range of various types of non-homicidal (lethal) violent events, in order to enable the interpretation of findings within their overall violent context.Footnote 11

1.3 Terminology

There are several central terms relevant for the BHS, which need to be defined early on. The aim of clarifying the terminology used is not to provide for generally acceptable definitions but to provide for a common understanding of the key terms used throughout the book.

(Lethal) Violence and (Attempted) Homicide

For the purpose of the book at hand with the term violence, the human infliction of physical harm upon another person is meant. The adjective lethal denotes that as a consequence of such violence another person has died. The person inflicting the violence is the offender, whereas the person suffering the violence is the victim, while the violent event is the incident. Since the term homicide is widely used, especially in English language and in the field of violence research (Smit et al., 2012, p. 8), (lethal) violence and (attempted) homicide are used interchangeably, without implying any essential uniqueness of homicide as a phenomenon.

Balkan or Southeast Europe

The terms Balkan, Western Balkans, and Southeastern Europe and their common inconsistent usage cause much confusion. Whereas the term Western Balkans is neither academically nor historically justifiable and can be attributed to everyday political affairs, from a historical-structural perspective, one can differentiate between a broader concept of Southeast Europe and the narrower concept of the Balkans (Sundhaussen, 2014). Southeast Europe ranges from the western part of the former Kingdom of Hungary, the present Slovakia, over Hungary and the Republic of Moldova to approximately Odessa on the Black Sea, and everything that lies below this line is Southeast Europe (Sundhaussen, 2014). The Balkan, according to Sundhaussen, includes Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia (not including Vojvodina), Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Bulgaria, the European part of Turkey (Eastern Thrace), Greece, and Albania, as well as the corridor between the Lower Danube and the Black Sea (Dobruja, split between Romania and Bulgaria) (2014, p. 8). Since the BHS in terms of sample countries covers four Southeast European and three Balkan states, one could argue for renaming BHS to SEEHS (Southeast European Homicide Study). However, since the violent Balkan images and stereotypes also frequently apply to the broader concept of Southeast Europe, as will be demonstrated later on (Sect. 3.1), the usage of the term Balkans remains justified. Similarly, the (criminological) research setting in the Balkans is quite comparable to that in Southeast Europe, whereas it is in many regards rather different to that found in most other European regions (Sect. 3.2). With this in mind, this book uses the terms Balkan and Southeastern Europe.