April 19, 2011 Books

While glancing through a pile of newspapers, I came across a review of “Crime: Stories” by Ferdinand von Schirach. He is a German criminal defense lawyer writing about a few aberrant humans he defended but what caught my eye was the surname von Schirach. Early in my career, I devoured books on the Nuremberg war trials, especially the Trial of the Major War Criminals.  Robert Jackson took a leave of absence from the supreme court to lead the American prosecution team. He performed an utterly brilliant opening statement (definitely take time to read it), but fell apart trying to cross examine Hermann Goering.  In fact the prosecutors worried Goering might swing public opinion to his side until Hartley Shawcross, the British Attorney General took him on and exposed all his ugliness. Shawcross could cross-examine; Jackson couldn’t. The Brits only give the top legal posts to senior barristers, KCs or QCs who don silk, and they know their way around a courtroom.  Here in the colonies there is no such impediment, as we are wont to say a judge is a lawyer who had a politician for a friend.

His grandfather, Baldur von Schirach, was head of the Hitler Youth and convicted of crimes against humanity at Nuremberg. Baldur personally sent 65,000 Viennese Jews to the camps, so naturally I wondered how his grandson became a criminal lawyer.  Seemed an unlikely occupation for the family.  The book is oddly silent about his grandfather but notes his uncle, who was severely wounded in the war, became a judge and then committed suicide. In a suicide letter the judge wrote: “Most things are complicated, and guilt always presents a bit of a problem.” von Shirach said the book is about him and people like him. At first I thought the guilt might hark back to the Nazi era but no, it was just plain old guilt, the type we see in court every day.

In one of the later chapters he wrote that the final argument in German trials was no longer decisive. “The great closing arguments belong to earlier centuries. The Germans no longer tolerate pathos; there’s been too much of that already.”  I assume that alluded to the Nazi era but once again he shied away from a deeper exploration of the issue. So if he won’t do a mea culpa for his family crimes, why should we read his book?  Well, because they are fascinating little stories. This slim volume is a collection of eleven true case studies, although from various reviews I read no one is quite sure how true they are.

“Fahner” is a mild-mannered 72-year-old physician who one day snapped and decapitated his ugly shrew of a wife. Von Shirach presented a detailed biography of their courtship and marriage as his defense, if you can call it a defense. It was more an exercise in mitigation.  The client was convicted but received only a two-year sentence, so the tactic was successful. A US judge would have been sympathetic and then rendered a guideline sentence of life.

“Self Defense” is a bizarre story of an unnamed man, described as almost insignificant, looking just like a bookkeeper, who is assaulted by two young thugs out for some fun and money, while he waits for a train.  One slashes the man with a knife across his chest. The man springs into action, quickly and silently killing both of them, like Jason Bourne. The strange part is that he refuses to say a word at any time, to anyone, even von Shirach. The authorities finally release him without ever finding out his name, who he was, where he was from, or even what language he spoke.  Here in the land of the free, he would still be in pretrial detention.

My favorite is “Summertime,” where von Shirach defends a wealthy man charged with killing a prostitute.  This is the only story which describes a trial tactic we would recognize.  He won the case by establishing that the time clock in a parking garage camera didn’t adjust to daylight savings time . But all is not as it seems and this victory is tainted by a possible deception.

I enjoyed the stories in this slim volume and I don’t believe in generational guilt but it would have been nice for him to mention it rather than ignoring it. No doubt von Shirach has difficulty talking about his grandfather’s crimes, but how do you edit out the Holocaust?