on Crime, stories by Ferdinand von Schirach, tr. by Carol Brown Janeway (Knopf)

Born in Munich in 1964, Ferdinand von Schirach makes his living as a defense attorney in Berlin. At age 31, von Schirach became a controversial celebrity when he defended Günter Schabowski, a former senior East German official held responsible for the deaths of refugees along the Wall. Schabowski was given a three-year custodial sentence. In 2009, von Schirach’s book of stories, Verbrechen, spent 45 weeks on Germany’s best seller lists.

CrimeVerbrechen.jpegThe eleven tersely stylish and surprising stories in Crime are narrated by von Schirach and based on actual cases. I read them compulsively. Although the shapes of the cases and levels of culpability are various, each story hinges on the particulars of the committed crime as they reflect the accused’s life situation.

“Our system of criminal law is based on the requirement of personal guilt,” he writes in “The Ethiopian.” “We punish according to someone’s guilt; we ask to what extent we can make him responsible for his actions. It’s complicated. In the Middle Ages, things were simpler: Punishment was only commensurate with the act itself. A thief had his hand chopped off. It was all the same, no matter whether he’d stolen out of greed or because he would otherwise have starved … Our contemporary criminal law is more intelligent, it is more just as regards life, but it is also more difficult. A bank robbery isn’t always a bank robbery.”

SchirachBaldur.jpegAssigning guilt is complicated, as American prosecutors discovered at the Nuremberg trials. On May 23, 1946, the case of Baldur von Schirach was taken up by the tribunal. He was Ferdinand’s grandfather. Telford Taylor’s landmark study, The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials, notes that von Schirach heard Hitler speak in Weimar in 1925, became the leader of the Nazi Students league in 1929, Reich Youth Leader (Reichsleiter) in 1931 (reporting directly to Hitler), the head of Hitler Jugend in 1933, and Gauleiter and Reich Governor in Vienna in 1940. He married the daughter of Hitler’s official photographer. Responsible for the deaths of thousands of Viennese Jews, von Schirach was sentenced as a war criminal and served twenty years in an Allied forces prison until 1966.

According to Taylor, in his final speech to the court, von Schirach “spoke furiously against the British prosecution’s accusation that he had ‘corrupted millions of German children,’ and skillfully answered it, not in terms of exonerating himself, but to ‘remove the distorted picture of German youth.’ Von Schirach concluded, ‘May you, Gentlemen of the Tribunal, contribute through your judgment towards creating an atmosphere which is free of hatred and revenge.’”

Schirach1.jpegTen-year old Ferdinand was attending a Jesuit-run boarding school in the Black Forest when sein Opa died in 1974. His generation grew up untainted by their grandparents but not untethered from history and its undying half-life of guilt. Many defendants in the dock at Nuremberg entered spurious pleas of innocence based on “extenuating circumstances.” Ferdinand von Schirach would not disavow his own true innocence and thus trained his persuasive skills on helping judges weigh his clients’ thorny and often painful extenuating circumstances.

In “The Thorn,” a 35-year old man named Feldmayer obtains a job as a guard in a museum of antiquities. Although it is the administration’s policy to cycle guards through different rooms and museums in order to relieve the tedium, a clerical error results in Feldmayer guarding a single room for twenty-three years. Von Schirach’s stories gain their authority and ramp up the suspense through a telling perceptiveness of their characters’ psyches:

“The museum changed Feldmayer. It began when he found himself unable to tolerate the sound of his TV in the evenings. He let it run on mute for another six months, then stopped turning it on at all, then finally gave it to the young student couple that had moved into the apartment across the hall. The next thing was the pictures. He had a few art prints, Apples on a Cloth, Sunflowers, and The Alps. At some point, the colors began to irritate him; he took the pictures off the wall and put them in the trash. He gradually emptied his apartment: illustrated magazines, vases, decorated ashtrays, coasters, a lilac bedspread, and two plates with motifs from Toledo. Feldmayer threw them all away. He stripped the wallpaper, spackled the walls smooth and whitewashed them, got rid of the carpet, and polished the floorboards.”

CrimeCover.jpgBy the time we arrive at Feldmayer’s crime, it seems inevitable. The museum’s obvious culpability leaves little for von Schirach to do in court. But other cases find the attorney fiercely arguing his case or cannily providing new evidence. In “Self-Defense,” two skinheads named Beck and Lenzberger attack a man sitting on a bench at a railway stop. A CCTV camera recorded the man killing Beck with a single knife thrust and Lenzberger with a chop to the neck. A lawyer calls from New York asking Von Schirach to defend the nameless man , “a key client has asked for our help.” The man refuses to speak and has no identity papers in his possession. In the end, self-defense may absolve the man of the charge of murder – but the possibility that he has committed other crimes disgusts von Schirach.

In “The Cello,” a woman devoted to her ailing brother is accused of murdering him. In “Green,” a disturbed young man who has killed a number of sheep is accused of murdering a young woman. In “Fähner,” a passive husband tormented by his wife for years does away with her. In “Tanata’s Tea Bowl,” a sloppy robbery triggers a series of violent crimes; three men who committed the burglary of Tanata’s prize bowl hire von Schirach to help them out of the mess.

SchirachBW.jpegVon Schirach had an uncle who had been a judge. “He told us stories from these cases [murder and manslaughter] that we could understand, even as children,” he writes. “They always began with him saying: ‘Most things are complicated, and guilt always presents a bit of a problem’ … All our lives we dance on a thin layer of ice; it’s very cold underneath, and death is quick. The ice won’t bear the weight of some people and they fall through. That’s the moment that interests me.” Crimes opens the way to our chilly familiarity with certain criminal behaviors.

[Published January 13, 2011. 188 pages, $25.00.]