Visiting a Historic Place: The Former Workhouse in Dresden (1)

What is it like, walking on the ground of a former “total institution” as Erving Goffman defined it in his book Asylum? For me, it was a strange mix of feelings: excitement connected with respect and somehow glumly feeling. But let us start from the beginning, and in this post series, I will invite you to join me visiting the former workhouse in Dresden while explaining its history, use, and its current state.

Societies are prone to define “normality”, which inevitably comes with determining deviance and “unnormal” behavior. In this way, identities are created by demarcating the “right” from the “wrong”, establishing what society is — defining what it is not. To enforce these often blurry, arbitrary and constantly changing values, past and today’s cultures create places for the “outcast”, for people who apparently do not fit “in” and, in Goffman’s words, endanger our social gatherings. The most obvious place for such people transgressing legal and social orders, you may think of prisons or partly psychiatric hospitals. But there were always more institutions, which states and local authorities established for the purpose of “cleaning” the streets from social deviance, such as beggars, vagabonds, prostitutes, and other similar political-motivated “labels” that stigmatized people. Once caught into the mill of social institutions, it was hard to get out.

This vicious circle is the starting point of Goffman’s criticism: the described institutions would not rehabilitate or re-socialize but rather “store”, safe-keep people: the unavoidable feature and thus failure of every “total institution”. I will try to keep it short, but it is essential that you, as a reader, know Goffman’s definition of facilities like psychiatric hospitals, prisons, and workhouses. For him, these “total institutions” have the following features:

  • all matters of peoples’ lives occurred inside a confined space;
  • they all were put under tight social and medical control;
  • and the staff of this institution thoroughly managed the daily routine of the inmates.

Apart from the described tight measures of “social control” in a confined space, “total institutions” were mostly located outside of cities and remote areas. The idea behind this decision was the attempt to remove the “deviant” individual from his or her “pathological” social environment — basically, freed from any evil influence. Goffman and others criticize, however, that institutions like workhouses were never able to import society inside its walls. Instead, it always was a frozen image of what the staff and the local authorities thought was the “right” way of life — omitting the socio-cultural development of the “outside”. Even if Goffman’s concept has been critcized for shortcomings and generalizations, it gives you a glimpse into the issues of institutions that confine and try to re-socialize people and is a good starting point for going into the workhouse in Dresden.

There is much discussion of why the 19th century saw a rise of workhouses that often utilized former penitentiaries, through secularisation abandoned monasteries, and other complexes of buildings that could efficiently serve as a “total institution”. It was the time when the term “asocial” also developed, and cities exploded in size due to the migration from people from the rural into the urban areas, looking for work in the new factories. In this context of significant shifts in the labor market and the rise of Capitalism, the productivity of people became the critical category for evaluating the “value” of a human. This development ultimately meant that there was less time and decreasing acceptance of any transgressions, as it would hinder the common good. People unable or unwilling to comply with the new societal rules thus were quickly marginalized and put under social control. The interconnection between the description of “normality” and its “total institutions” in societies always sparked my interest. During my research, I somewhat randomly discovered the workhouse in a suburb of Dresden.

The so-called Bezirksanstalt Leuben bei Dresden (District Asylum Leuben near Dresden) was established in 1883. It was embedded in the European development that during the industrialization as part and parcel of the poor laws, national states and local officials created institutions for disciplining deviant people and bringing them into work. However, the exact purpose of these multifunctional institutions differed from country to country. So, the German workhouse had hardly something to do with the British one described by Charles Dickens. Whereas in the United Kingdom, workhouses were places for the poor, providing them with work, in Germany, these institutions were always disciplinary, but also with the blurred aim of re-socialization the individual.

The workhouse in Dresden was placed into former farm buildings, which were extended multiple times – not only in its size but also regarding categories of people, which were supposed to be confined there. Soon after its creation, local officials changed the name to Bezirks- Anstalt für Sieche, Versorgte, geistig Minderwertige und Korrektionäre (District Asylum for the Sick, Beneficiaries, Intellectually Inferior and Corrigible) that indicates its multifunctional character — and that it was something like a melting pot for any transgression in the increasingly industrialized society.

In my next post, I will talk about the design of this workhouse in Dresden, as the buildings were created and renovated according to contemporary beliefs and thus shaped the experiences of the “inmates”. For this, I will use architectural plans and will take you deeper into this former “total institution”.


  • Goffman, Erving, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (London: Penguin Books, 1991)
  • Goffman, Erving, Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings (New York: The Free Press, 1985)
  • Goffman, Erving, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968)

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