Book review: “Der Fall Collini” by Ferdinand von Schirach

This time, there was no “meet the author”. (See Steiners Geschichte and On faut aimer). Instead, this novel was a fortunate choice for a German readers’ group. It combines aspects of the court-case novel, thriller, as well as history and is thought-provoking. It is also available in English through f.i. Amazon as “The Collini Case”.

It opens with Collini pretending to be a journalist and being admitted into Hans Meyer’s Berlin apartment. Twenty minutes and four bullets later, Hans Meyer lies dead. Collini himself asks the receptionist to call the police, sits down, waits. What is the story behind this murder?

Collini’s defence lawyer is introduced in the next chapter. This seemingly simple case will be Caspar Leinen’s first. Caspar’s youth and difficult relationship with his father are described. While at boarding school, Caspar meets Philip. Soon the two boys spend most of their holidays at the sprawling villa and park of Philip’s family. Philip’s grandfather ultimately becomes a second father to Caspar. Caspar also falls in love with Philip’s elder sister, Johanna.

This may seem like too much background stuff to build up character, tension, suspense. However, at the end of the second chapter, it is clear that Collini shot Jean-Baptiste Meyer – or Hans Meyer. He was Johanna’s grandfather and Caspar’s “replacement father”.

How can Caspar defend him, asks Johanna quite rightly. Caspar tries to get out of it, but is slowly sucked into what proves to be anything but a simple murder. His father’s love for guns will give Caspar a first clue. When the court case starts, Caspar also realises: … “Jahrelang hatte er … versucht, den Strafprozess zu begreifen – aber erst heute, erst bei seinem eigenen Antrag, begriff er, dass es in Wirklichkeit um etwas ganz anderes ging: den geschundenen Menschen.” (p 132)

What he uncovers is a horrifying story. Though this is a novel and much in it may have come from the author’s imagination, the story is only too familiar. In the novel, the acts leading to the shooting of Hans Meyer occurred during the Second World War. But similar situations occurred in recent European, Asian, African conflicts as well as in Latin America. Similar scenes are undoubtedly taking place right now in other parts of the world. For all parties involved in a war, kill innocent civilians. And Hans Meyer caused the murder of innocent civilians. This in turn, caused his murder.

Are there no laws? Are there no legal systems, both national and international, which offered Collini redress? Provided he had the money, of course, one might think.

There are indeed laws, national and international ones. But what to do, if such laws state that the killing of innocent civilians is “allowed under extreme circumstances” (p 169)? What can one do, when international and national laws ensure, war criminals walk free (p. 179)?

The descriptions of the atrocities are nauseating. But even more nauseating is reading the last few chapters, where various laws actually condone such atrocities: … “Hier waren es nach der Akte nur erwachsene Männer. … Also auch das erlaubte das Völkerrecht?” “Ja.” … “Das dürfte nach den Grundsätzen des Völkerrechts ausreichen.” (p. 171).

Fabricio Collini does not say much, but one of the last things he tells Caspar is: “… Bei uns sagt man, dass die Toten keine Rache wollen, nur die Lebenden wollen sie. …”. Collini knows they will not win this case. Revenge is of no use to those who are dead. For those who become members of the group of “geschundenen Menschen” there is no justice, no redress, often not even acknowledgement.

This novel, based on world war two atrocities and their aftermath, but dealing with situations still happening in many corners of the world today, is quite rightly translated and available in over 30 languages.

“Der Fall Collini , Ferdinand von Schirach, 195 pp, Piper, München, 2011
“The Collini Case”, Ferdinand von Schirach, Michael Joseph, 2012 – also available as a Penguin Pocket (about 10 UK Pounds) and Audiobook.



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