Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case, tr. Anthea Bell (Germany)

Following a lovely summer break, Mrs. P. kicks off with a review of Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case, translated from the German by Anthea Bell (London: Penguin/Michael Joseph, 2012 [2011]). It’s an effectively written courtroom drama that asks some big legal and ethical questions.

Opening line: Later, they would all of them remember it: the floor waiter, the two elderly ladies in the lift, the married couple in the fourth-floor corridor.

Ferdinand von Schirach is an eminent defence lawyer based in Berlin. He first came to prominence as a writer in 2009 with the short story collection Verbrechen (Crime), which drew heavily on the real-life cases he’d encountered during his career. It was an instant hit, spending 54 weeks at the top of the German bestseller lists, as well as critically acclaimed (the winner of the 2010 Kleist prize). A second short story collection entitled Guilt was also extremely successful, which was followed by the publication of The Collini Case, his first full-length crime novel, in 2011.

The focus on criminality, justice and the law is as evident in The Collini Case as it was in the author’s earlier works. It’s 2001 Berlin, and young barrister Caspar Leinen is assigned to defend an Italian national, Fabrizio Collini, the perpetrator in an apparently open-and-shut murder case at the famous Adlon Hotel. Only after accepting the brief does Leinen realise that he knew the victim, retired industrialist Hans Meyer: the latter was the grandfather of a close school-friend, who had been kind to Leinen in his youth. While considering whether or not he should continue to represent Collini, Leinen is faced with another problem: the accused refuses to reveal his motive for the crime. How then is Leinen to defend his client when the case comes to court? Leinen’s personal difficulties in representing Meyer’s murderer and his efforts to figure out a viable defence become the key concerns of the unfolding narrative.

Von Schirach is a skilled author who knows how to write an effective page-turner. But by far the most interesting aspect of this novel for me was the legal discussion portrayed in the courtroom section of the novel. And here I find myself in a rather difficult position, as talking about this aspect of the narrative would inevitably mean breaching Mrs. P.’s spoiler rule. So I will have to content myself by saying that the discussion of genuine points of law and their impact on a genuine set of cases since the end of the 1960s was fascinating, and is not something that I’ve seen addressed this way in a German crime novel before. 

The wider impact of the novel has also been quite extraordinary. The legal points it highlights have been raised by German MPs in the Bundestag, with a Ministry of Justice commission established in 2012 to examine the larger issues raised about legislative processes in the 1960s. It’s extremely rare for a crime novel to have such an influence in the ‘real world’, and this sets it apart from others that have tackled the same subject in a very special way.

I would second Maxine’s advice over at Petrona to read the novel before seeking out further information about the author and his work. But once you’re through, you might be interested in the following:

A Spiegel piece by von Schirach in English, in which he talks a bit about his unusual family background (thanks to Maxine for this link).

An interview with the author in German in the newspaper Die Zeit, which includes discussion about the judicial issue at the heart of the trial (contains spoilers!).

This Guardian article also draws on the interview in Die Zeit (contains spoilers!).

The comments on this post may also inadvertently hint at the novel’s content…


May 2013: The Collini Case has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger Award.

And one last note: There’s extensive discussion of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader in the comments below, which also has a courtroom section, as well as reference to Schlink’s crime novels (the ‘Selb’ series). In my capacity as an academic, I’ve written two articles on Schlink’s work, with links as follows… The first is a comparative analysis of the crime novel Selbs Justiz (which opens the ‘Selb’ series) and The Reader in the journal German Life and Letters (2006). The second looks at the controversies created in critical circles by The Reader, both in Germany and in the English-speaking world (German Monitor, 2013). It’s nearly twenty years since The Reader was published, and critical reaction to the novel and the film continues to be extremely polarised.

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32 thoughts on “Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case, tr. Anthea Bell (Germany)

  1. Lovely review, Mrs P, and thank you so much for the kind mention(s). I agree that the book is a little “obvious” at times, something I’ve noticed in other recent, short German/Austrian fiction (eg The Camera Killer by Glievec and Andrea Maria Schenkel’s novels) – all of which could be described as novellas. The authors are presumably sophisticated people, but they seem to write their books on a rather simple level, I am not sure what their intention is by using this style.

    I also agree that the details of “bodily function” type of subjects are not my favourite! I had to skip a section or two of this book. But on the whole I enjoyed it as it lacked the claustrophobic element of the books by the other two authors I’ve mentioned here, having as you write a strong moral perspective, and a darn good courtroom climax.

    • Thanks, Maxine. It was a tricky one to review, I found, as there was so much one could have said, but not without giving the game away. It’s such a revelation-driven narrative that one couldn’t really say too much!

      I read the novel in the original German, and as you’ll have gathered, the style did get up my nose a bit: the literary tone jarred with those odd interludes of violence and sex – the author seemed to be wanting to have his cake and to eat it too.

      Of the others you mention, I’ve read Schenkel’s The Murder Farm, which I liked very much. That’s an interesting point you raise about the fondness of German-language crime authors for the novella form. Something to ponder and to look into at some stage!

  2. This book sounds fascinating to me, although I try to avoid books which go back to a certain war and its horrors. I could not find it here so I read the Spiegel piece, which was fascinating and illuminating as to the author’s motives in writing this book. His family background explains why he wanted to write this book. I hope I can find a copy in the States as I would violate my own book-reading rules to read this one. (And, yes, I’d probably skip some sections, too, including the forensics.)
    And, welcome back! Your book reviews and comments — and your presence on FF — are another reason to turn on the computer every day and read mystery-related blogs. Can’t wait to read reviews of your summer reading.

    • Thanks, Kathy – it’s really nice to be back and to link up with everyone again – I’ve missed our discussions!

      Reading that Spiegel article is extremely illuminating, isn’t it? I thought he was very articulate. I’m slightly surprised, though, that he opted to write on this particular subject in the end, given that he’d spent much of his life trying to get away from his family legacy. Intriguing. But the legal angle is fascinating, and I’m glad that he made this a focus of the novel (glad too, that this was subsequently picked up by some German papers).

  3. Nice review and background to the book and author. I liked the writer’s prose style but thought that about the half-way point he flicked the switch from novelist to social commentator – with the result that the plot and characterisation weren’t brought to completion in a particularly satisfactory way.

    • Thanks, Cliff. That’s a really good point – the novel definitely has that extra agenda in the second half when talking about larger legislative developments in the 1960s and a slightly different feel / tone as a result. I’d be really interested to know whether the legal material was the starting point for the book (in other words whether the story was thought up as a vehicle to make that legal discussion possible). The ending – yes, I agree with you – not entirely satisfactory.

  4. I thought this book packed in a lot of drama in a few pages. I don’t normally read legal/courtroom books but there was something compelling about the narrative. I kind of knew where the book was going but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of it.

    • It did, didn’t it? I agree with you that the narrative was compelling: von Schirach knows how to tell a good story and to keep readers turning the pages. In this respect the novel reminded me a bit of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, which also features a courtroom drama in its second section, and is a real page-turner. (I have more time for von Schirach than I do for Schlink as an author, however. I found the latter’s depiction of justice / the failure of justice extremely dodgy.)

  5. I have avoided reading The Reader as have a strict view of justice regarding any perpetrators of a certain war and its horrors. I’d expect it to be meted out. This hasn’t always happened, as regards criminals who have lived for decades undisturbed in the States and Canada; one doesn’t even notice them until one day an obituary appears with their sordid histories and nice lives post-war.

    • I wasn’t able to avoid The Reader, as it was such as huge ‘event’ in German literature and such a success in translation (a fairly rare example of a German international bestseller, complete with an appearance on Oprah for Schlink). Opinion on the text was sharply divided between those who thought it a masterpiece that sensitively explored the German past and those who thought it deeply problematic in terms of what it had to say about the issue of guilt (which was the position I also took).

      I’m gathering a little subcategory of crime fiction at the moment that thematises the issue of justice in relation to WW2. There are some really interesting examples around, including Schlink’s first crime novel, Selb’s Punishment, William Broderick’s The Sixth Lamentation and Brian Moore’s The Statement. It’s really interesting to see what kind of justice is dished up to perpetrators (or indeed not) within the narratives, and to consider those depictions of justice in relation to what was going on politically and judicially at the time they were written. Not always comfortable reads, I grant you, but fascinating in many respects… The von Schirach is another addition to that pile, which is great.

  6. Now, after reading your last comment, I must get this book.
    I didn’t read The Reader, as I got the impression that Schlink was an apologist for the woman guard or absolved her of any responsibility in the horrors.
    I remember that a friend of mine wrote a movie review of The Reader — and notwithstanding Kate Winslet’s acting abilities, which are excellent — he skewered the movie for what he thought was “the positive portrayal of a Nazi guard.” I don’t know if the book or film does that, but I was of the impression that Schlink did not make her culpable.
    I didn’t want to read the book, as I usually do not read about WWII in fiction, but the views I did know about turned me off.
    I saw Schlink on Oprah’s show and I was not impressed with him or what he said about The Reader.
    There were women in the audience who had grown up in Germany and said that everyone was taught to be obedient and they heeded the fascist government’s orders. Somehow it didn’t at all impress me. Others said that they were afraid if they did anything oppositional, their families would be punished. (That I understand.)
    Also, I know that there was a lot more resistance in all kinds of ways than is generally known and that there were tens of thousands of political opponents, imprisoned and worse.
    I didn’t want to read The Reader after seeing that show. Also, the book’s plot and the character of the woman guard allegedly came from Schlink’s own past. So, was he absolving his friends of any responsibility? It’s hard to know.
    However, I have a hard line on this, especially since my grandparents and their relatives fled anti-Semitic tsarist pogroms in 1907 and fled their homeland.

    • Thanks, Kathy. One of the criticisms of The Reader is that Hanna, the former guard, can be viewed as a ‘victim’ at a certain point in the trial section of the novel. That shift from ‘perpetrator’ to ‘victim’ status is of course a problematic one when viewed in the context of the politics of memory and engagement with the Nazi past. I’ve actually just finished up a journal article about academic responses to The Reader, which has been fascinating to research. Without a doubt, it’s one of the most contentious and disputed texts ever to have been published in Germany. I’ll be putting up an abstract shortly on my academia.edu webpage [now here: http://www.academia.edu/1920274/Text_Crimes_in_the_Shadow_of_the_Holocaust_The_Case_of_Bernhard_Schlinks_The_Reader%5D.

      I’m not sure I would go as far as saying that Schlink presents us with ‘a positive portrayal of a Nazi guard’. Hanna is not presented as a likeable figure at all – the problem is more that the reader’s sympathies are manipulated to feel that she has been treated unfairly by the law compared to the others on trial with her. I’m not sure either, about the story having been based on Schlink’s own past: I’ve seen that written speculatively in a couple of media articles, but have seen no firm proof in the time I’ve worked on him since the 1990s.

      von Schirach does something very different in the trial section of his novel, which I thought quite laudable (won’t say more…!). If you do go ahead and read it, I’d love to know what you think.

  7. I just quickly read the Wikipedia entry on The Reader. By the way, a name you know well is cited there. Some of the criticisms of the book are stated, including that the prison guard character of Hanna had choices. Also, the issues of collective guilt and individual guilt are raised. There is a lot of criticism of that book. If I were so inclined, I’d read more about it. But probably not.
    I have to find von Schirach’s book somewhere. It’s not at Amazon yet but may be there soon.

    • Thanks, Kathy. Just had a peek myself. It’s not a bad overview, although oddly, a couple of the key criticisms and the legal aspects of the novel aren’t really explored (perhaps due to spoilers?).

      Hope the book reaches US shores soon. If you can’t get hold of it we can arrange for an emergency parcel to be sent!

  8. That’s kind of you to offer. I’m waiting for Amazon, Book Depository or Abe Books to have it. All in the name of scholarship — and a good mystery, too!
    I hadn’t realized that the Hanna character in The Reader had a choice about going to work at the camp; also she sent young women there. That’s kind of it in my book. That makes her culpable for her own actions — sending women to a camp.
    One argument goes that because she was illiterate (or others were illiterate), perhaps they were ignorant of what was going on. Oh, really! The entire country knew what was going on at a certain point. It was stated by the top officials in the early 1930s. One didn’t have to read to know what was happening or have a college degree. Everyone knew it. Illiteracy just doesn’t make it as an excuse. There were public rallies, speeches, and it was discussed. So that is not an excuse absolving one of individual guilt.
    Good grief! I’ll keep trying for The Collini Case.

    • Good grief indeed! One of the most interesting things about the novel is how it manipulates the reader’s emotions. When you lay out the case as you have above, it looks extremely clear cut. But so many readers (including Jewish critics such as George Steiner) were bowled over by the novel, and cite its emotional power time and time again as a key factor in their reading experience. I was always wary of it as a text, but had to read it a few times to fully understand what narrative mechanisms it was employing to ‘steer’ its readers to a particular view of Hanna’s actions (she’s clearly guilty, but the question the novel poses is ‘how guilty’?).

  9. One of the criticisms is that The Reader moves people to sympathize with the perpetrators. That’s a problem. Hanna was pulled in by the propaganda, the uber-patriotism, the wanting to do what the state commanded. Her conscience was either never developed or she was swept in and believed it or she was in denial (!) The state’s propaganda machine was very intense.
    So, then, how do we judge the actions of the Nazi’s army? These were just soldiers, after all, following orders. What makes what they did horrific? That makes them accountable? Where does one draw the line between “normal” practices of warfare and abnormal?
    There were atrocities committed in the Vietnam War/ few were held accountable. Or the Iraq war? Or to soldiers now who sign up and then go overseas and commit inhuman acts? Some are held accountable, not too many.
    Hanna did what at the time was expected of her. She contributed to genocide. She decided to work in a camp, to send young women to it, knowing what would happen to them, I’d assume.
    How does anyone with a conscience do that? Anyone who care about human life? Unless one has caved in to total brutality, which that regime did, caved in to the complete antithesis of humanity, of what it is to be human. She did cave in to that. So she is accountable.

    • I think you raise some really important questions, Kathy. A couple of observations / points to add in to the mix.

      In The Reader, we are shown a limited amount from Hanna’s perspective. We never really see inside her mind and she never gives a proper explanation for the decisions that she made during the war. It’s Michael, the first person narrator, who is shown drawing his own conclusions about ‘why’ during the trial (and critics have had much to say about the implications of the conclusions he draws!). The big questions that you raise in your comments are not really addressed by the narrative (and there are lots of gaps like that. Schlink is good at raising big questions, but often doesn’t answer them).

      The question of where the line gets drawn between ‘legitimate warfare’ and ‘crimes against humanitity’ is one that international law has wrestled with for a long time, and especially since the Nuremberg Trials held in 1945-46. The legal judgements that are passed down in individual cases form precedents that can then be applied to cases in future conflicts. Crucially, too, they can form part of the instructions / training that soldiers are given before they take part in any conflict (‘this is acceptable’ vs ‘this is not’). I’ve read some of the courtroom transcripts from the Nuremberg Trials and the sheer amount of work and legal/ethical consideration that went into each judgement was phenomenal. They also, of course, record those criminal acts for the historical record – another absolutely vital function.

      The Harvard Law School Library has a million pages of docs from Nuremberg and is digitising them at the moment – the ‘Nuremberg Trials Project’. The resources are open to all and make for fascinating reading. See: http://nuremberg.law.harvard.edu/php/docs_swi.php?DI=1&text=overview

  10. The Nuremburg trials were amazing and the laws that came out of them a huge boost to international law. The only problem is that they have been and are violated in many instances. I’ve seen lots of legal briefs about these issues presented by civil liberties groups over here, about how those laws are violated at Guantanamo, at Abu Ghraib, in bombing villages and cities as collective punishment for the crimes of a few, which violates the Nuremburg laws. Lots of wars and bombings go on, in violation of those laws, or they’re selectively enforced.
    I’ve read a bit of testimony by women, who were in camps, at the Nuremberg trials. That they could speak so objectively about the horrors they saw being done to friends, or that they experienced was too much to read. It’s just too horrible to have to contemplate, although, of course, we know about some of it.
    It’s fine to discuss this as an intellectual exercise, and even, analyze The Reader, but when it comes down to the reality of what was done, not to hold people responsible seems weak. The German people heard propaganda daily. They also knew what happened if one opposed the regime. But for those who went along, and with Hanna’s character, she made choices, why?
    Why did soldiers carry out brutal acts? That’s war. But I don’t let German solders off the hook.
    But I don’t let other soldiers off the hook either if they’ve committed atrocities.
    Anyway, I just mentioned The Collini Case to a friend who reads German and likes mysteries, so know he’ll look for it in German, while I wait for it in English.

    • Thanks, Kathy. I absolutely agree that those who commit war crimes should be held accountable, and that all to often this hasn’t been the case. At the same time the dedication of the legal teams involved in war-crimes trials has been and continues to be remarkable – trying to deliver justice in often imperfect legal and political frameworks.

      On the question of perpetrator motivation, there’s an illuminating study by the historian Christopher R. Browning, called Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (early 1990s). He finds that there were multiple reasons why ‘ordinary men’ ended up working as part of the Nazi’s extermination machine, and draws on a number of historical sources for his analysis, including the witness statements that a number of the men made at their postwar trial.

      Don’t forget to let me know what you think of the von Schirach once you get hold of it!!!

  11. I agree about legal teams who work on war-crimes trials. In fact,some of my family knew one of the attorneys at Nuremberg, whom I heard about often.
    Also, as I remember, relatives of another family member were killed in Poland at the beginning of the war by Poles, not Germans, in a famous massacre. Why they did that I don’t know, but they were swept up by the virulent anti-Semitism then and historically.
    The history of Europe is full of horrendous anti-Semitism, and in the late 1200s, Jewish people were even forced to leave England. Ariana Franklin, in her first lovely mystery about Salerno coroner Adelia Aguilar, writes about that particular form of bigotry then, but it was widespread, as we know from what happened in Spain, Portugal, Italy and elsewhere.
    So, anti-Semitism and a super-patriotic war fever and nationalism were promoted and that permeated some of the German population — not all, as I recognize the many who resisted or who quietly opposed the Nazi regime.
    And so we come to Collini. I can’t wait for the book. I’ll skip The Reader. It would aggravate me.

    • Thanks, Kathy – yes, the history of anti-Semitism is a highly sobering and depressing one – and not over yet, I fear. The rise of far-right politics in eastern Europe at the moment is extremely worrying.

      I fully understand your decision to skip The Reader. I would say it’s the most aggravating book that I’ve ever read.

  12. The most aggravating book you’ve ever read! Now I perked up on that. That is saying a lot. Now I’m curious, but not curious enough. (I suddenly felt like my 15-year-old self, when a parent who only read good books, told me not to read one book: I read it the next day!)
    I agree with you about the dangers of the far-right in Europe, including Greece. I have read many posts by Jeff Siger at Murder is Everywhere — he lives on Mykonos part-time — about the dangerous, violent far-right in Greece, although there it is directed against immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. He’s written and posted terrible stories about immigrants being beaten.
    The New York Times has run front-page stories on this, including of legal immigrant shopowners being threatened with their stores being burned down if they don’t leave within a week.
    Does that ever sound familiar, like Germany in the 1930s.
    I remember a quote from France’s National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, last summer, when she said that now the issue “isn’t Jews, it’s immigrants.”
    The ultra-right sure has a lot of targets and scapegoats, unfortunately. It’s awful that they are using the deep economic crisis to whip up rage and target groupings of people, who are themselves hit by the crisis, too.
    Anyway, much to ponder, which is why I need the entertainment and distraction of mysteries. I try to avoid too much horrendous stuff in my fiction reading, but sometimes it’s there.

    • Now I’m wondering whether you might end up reading The Reader after all!

      Thanks for alerting me to Jeff Siger’s posts – I’ll check his website out – sounds very interesting.

  13. Jeff is good about the Far-right in Greece. You may have to scroll down to get past posts. I might end up reading The Reader if I can tolerate it. It might end up thrown across the room if I open it.

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