Ferdinand von Schirach: Crime – Verbrechen (2009)

Are they true? Are they not? The discussion of Ferdinand von Schirach ‘s stories circled to a large extent around these questions  in Germany  and what the respective answers might mean. For the book. For life. And human nature in general. In English speaking countries there is no emphasis on whether they are based on true cases or not. People admire the crisp, precise, unadorned prose, the philosophical background, the look into human depravity, into guilt, gruesome crime and its possible punishment. They are seen as literature and not as true crime accounts. I find this interesting. In this faz interview von Schirach says that all the cases happened and are true. A lot has been changed to guarantee anonymity of the people involved but other than that, this is what happened. Does it matter? Maybe not.

Von Schirach is a famous German defence lawyer. His grandfather Baldur von Schirach was even more famous. He was one of the Nazi criminals convicted in Nuremberg.

The stories in Crime – Verbrechen are astonishing. Some are shocking, some made me laugh, some are puzzling, others thought-provoking, even very touching at times. Often the person who sets out to commit a crime isn’t the person the lawyer in the story will have to defend. Somewhere along the line, the roles are reversed. The initial victim can become the perpetrator. This happens especially in those cases in which silly small-time-crooks inadvertently attack a “big fish”. Some of those stories are hilarious.

But there are stories in which a lot of pain and cruelty pushes a person over the edge. As von Schirach writes in the introduction, this is what the stories are about; the tipping point. We are all, as he says, walking on thin ice, but not all of us make it to the other side. The moment when the ice crashes, is the moment he is interested in.

Punishment is one of the key themes of all of those stories and surprisingly, for various reasons, not many of the delinquents get sentenced. The book, being written by a defence lawyer, gives a lot of insight into the German criminal system, comparing it to other systems, showing how it has changed over time, how it has become more just but much more complicated as well.

I cannot write all that much about the individual stories as that would spoil the fun of discovering what happened. I’m glad I discovered the review of the book on Lizzy’s blog last year.

Some of the stories are gruesome but the majority is just absolutely fascinating and thought-provoking. Many give insight into the German society, it’s problems and challenges; many illustrate that some people are just born unlucky.

Crime was von Schirach’s first book. It was an immense success in Germany and translated into 30 languages. One of the stories of the collection have been made into a movie Glück – Bliss by none other than Dorries Dörrie. It’s in the cinemas in Germany right now.

Another short story collection Guilt – Schuld and a novel Der Fall Collini have followed. Guilt just came out in English.

Der Fall Collini which Die Welt calls a”cristal clear story of disconcerting amorality” will certainly be translated very soon. I want to read both, Schuld and Der Fall Collini. And watch the movie.

Have you read von Schirach or heard about him?

48 thoughts on “Ferdinand von Schirach: Crime – Verbrechen (2009)

  1. I haven’t heard of him, but I’ve studied his grandfather while writing my thesis on the Hitler Youth. This fact makes me really curious about the author.

    • The novel that just came out in Germany looks into WWII and the retribution for Nazi crimes. While some say the story isn’t complex enough for a novel, others wrote that it was amazing, he delved into it.
      What I found interesting is the discussion whether yes or no they are true. As of when does non-fiction become literature. I found that interesting.

  2. I have the new collection of stories in the TBR and I don’t think they’ll be waiting for my attention much longer ….

    • I had the novel in my hands today and didn’t buy it because I have to read various readalong books – I knew, if I bring it home, there is no stopping be from reading it immediately. They didn’t have the short stories. I’ll order them, beginning of may, I’ll read them both.
      You should read the interview I attached. Training. 🙂

  3. I have read this Caroline, just last month, and I thought it was superb. I bought Guilt straight away. Great to hear about the novel as well, that’s news to me.

    I loved the tone of the writing, it’s cool and slightly distant in a way that’s hard to describe exactly. The situations people find themselves in, the decisions they make, the terrible things they are capable of doing and the reversals fate inflicts on them are all grist to Von Schirach’s beady narrative eye. Yet he balances that with a whisper of sympathy for those on the wrong end of luck or the law.

    The question about how much the tales are based on reality is tantalizing but a red herring I think. Are they 80% based on facts from Von Shirach’s case files? 60%? Either way, the clarity of Von Shirach’s vision of human nature, and the precision and skill of his writing, are the things that give this collection its power.


    • I’m glad to hear you liked it as well. The reviews of the novel are slightly less good as those of the short story. I will read it anyway, that’s for sure, although, once more it’s a German novel focussing on WWII. Given his family history it’s not suprising.
      You are right, he shows a lot of sympathy and that is one of the great qualities, yet thanks to his style it’s never sentimental nor corny which could have happened as well.
      I think the question about the truth is interesting and it seems he says they are, it’s interesting in terms of writing. Where does literature begin. They read like literature because of the style and the way he renders the stories.

  4. I hadn’t heard of the author before, Caroline, but he sounds interesting. However, is there any real uncertainty about whether this is “truth” or “fiction” he’s writing? If so, I would tend to suspect a marketing ploy until/unless I actually read him for myself.

    • In the German newspapaer article I atached, it’s obvious they are true but the marketing in the Englishspeaking countries do not mention the truth of them at all. I found this interesting. Why does Germany market it like truth made into fiction, the fictional part being the style and the chnage of identity while in the US/UK it’s not mentioned. I wonder.
      Some of the stories would be unbelievable if they were not true. Sounds odd maybe but that’s how it is.

      • Hmm. My guess–and it’s only a guess–is that fiction is way more popular than nonfiction among the American book-buying public. Therefore, not mentioning the “reality” behind the prose might increase sales. German readers, presumably being more “sophisticated” than the U.S. reading public, wouldn’t care about that fact/fiction thing or are already in the know about the author’s background. I’m kind of joking about the sophistication thing, but I find way more English-language bloggers with reading blinders on than non-English-language bloggers with reading blinders on. I won’t say too much more in case any super-earnest English-language bloggers eager for an unnecessary crying jag see this comment and get mad at both of us! 😀

        • Many people love to read about crime but in a very abstract way. They don’t like to thougth that things like this happen might be unsetling + the fact that the perpetrators don’t always get caught and/or convicted even more.
          In the interview the journalist said it made him feel uneasy to think that things like this happen in Berlin and Schirach says he would be surprised to know that there was criminal parallel world thbut on the other hand, it’s a closed world and the two worlds do not meet often…
          Not sure what it says about the reading habits of Europeans and Americans.

  5. another book to look for. I havent heard of him before. Your review really makes me curious. the only lawyer books I have read were Grisham and Picoult but both are fiction…this one sounds much more interesting.

    great review caroline.

    • Thanks Novroz. It’s very different, they are all short stories but all of them read like tiny novels and some of the stories are fantastic. Some of the people get what they deserve before even being sentenced. Some stories are quite heartbreaking. And the way he writes about the criminal system is interesting as well. I hope you can find it.

    • No, he doesn’t. He was asked about him and said he never gave much thought, not even that it might be a reason why he became a lawyer and interested in justice. In his novel that just came out he writes about a Nazi crime, I think, so he finally got to that topic but it’s not about his grandfather.

  6. Thanks for the wonderful review, Caroline! I haven’t heard of von Schirach before. This looks like a fascinating collection of real-life stories. I want to read this book NOW! I love the cover picture – simple and beautiful and open to interpretations.

    • They really are something. Unbelievable in some cases. I’ve finally caved in and already bought the other two books in a book shop today and the same text on the back cover, they call them ” literarily reprocessed true stories”. The second collection focusses even more on “justice”. many true criminals walk for some reasons while people who did something accidentally get sentenced.

  7. I’d not heard of this author before reading your post, but it sounds very intriguing. Happily it has been published over here (with yet another very different cover) so I’ll be curious to check it out and see how it is “presented”. I’m not sure it matters whether the stories were based on real cases–it seems most fiction is based on reality in some way–the lines must be blurred. Thanks for the heads up.

    • i think you might like some of these stories a lot. The one or the other made me feel a bit voyeuristic but overall they were just facsinating. I’m curious to see what you think of them and – indeed – how they are marketed in the US.

  8. I’ve never heard of this but it does sound very intriguing – or at least you make it sound that way! I’m not very good with gruesome, and like my crime psychological on the whole. But I can see why this has done very well.

    ps the other comment from sukey was also me. Do not know why wordpress is being so annoying!

  9. Pingback: Book Review – Crime by Ferdinand von Schirach « Vishy’s Blog

  10. Pingback: Ferdinand von Schirach: The Collini Case – Der Fall Collini (2011) « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  11. Pingback: Ferdinand von Schirach: Tabu (2013) – The Girl Who Wasn’t There (2015) | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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