The Collini Case – Ferdinand von Schirach

TCC1993, the Head Office of a bank in Munich: ‘Before we go any further, I have to say …’ the man paused to find the right words, ‘I was only a child in the war; I was not responsible.’

I had not expected to hear those words from a new colleague.  In reply I managed ‘I understand’ and the conversation then moved on to the business at hand.  I could understand the meaning of his words, but the emotions giving rise to them were beyond me.  That was the first time I encountered the guilt in contemporary Germany and the Germans’ relationship with it.

A book of note takes hold of the consciousness because of its content, but sometimes its provenance adds to this, embedding deeper meaning and significance.  The Collini Case is an example of the latter and rooted in its provenance is that German guilt.

Ferdinand von Schirach is a prominent defence lawyer in Germany.  His short story collections Crime and Guilt became instant bestsellers and have been translated in over thirty territories.  His novella, The Collini Case is now available in the UK courtesy of a seamless translation from Anthea Bell.

For 34 years Fabrizio Collini was a quiet, hard-working and respected toolmaker at Mercedes Benz.  But one day he walks into an upmarket hotel in Berlin and kills the 85 year old wealthy and renowned industrialist, Jean-Baptiste Meyer.  Collini stays at the scene and admits to the murder.  The case is assigned to newly qualified attorney Caspar Leinen and Collini resists any form of defence.

Leinen soon realises that he knew the victim and is urged to drop the case but is unable to do so because of the legal process.  Another attorney, established and weathered, provides the wisdom of his counsel, reminding Leinen of the nature and difficulties of acting for the defence.

What follows in a concise and tautly paced narrative is the unveiling of the ‘why’ and an examination of the impact of crime.  Ferdinand von Schirach makes intelligent and skilful use of his legal experience in weaving his plot around various laws in operation and the true meaning of justice to be derived from them.  But this is not a dry novel: at its heart The Collini Case is packed with pure, visceral emotion.  Its ending plucks a chord that remains with the reader for a long time, possibly never to be erased as von Schirach does not hide from reality.

On its 2011 publication in Germany The Collini Case prompted a debate on changes made to criminal law in the 1960s and resulted in the Justice Ministry commissioning an investigation in early 2012.

Baldur von Schirach, leader of the Hitler Youth, Reich Governor and Nazi party Gauleiter in Vienna, later convicted of crimes against humanity, was the author’s grandfather.  With The Collini Case the author has worked through his own sense of inherited guilt and produced a remarkable novella that takes its own place in history: for justice, for the victims.

The above review first appeared in the print edition of the Catholic Herald.

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