The Collini affair, a look back at one of the biggest scandals in German judicial history…

In theaters this Wednesday, “The Collini Affair” delivers a painful introspection on a German judicial system rendered amnesiac over the prescription of Nazi crimes, thanks to a law which was one of the biggest scandals in judicial history.

What is it about ?

Why did Fabrizio Collini assassinate Hans Meyer, an industrialist from German high society? How to defend an accused who refuses to speak? By investigating this file, his lawyer will discover the biggest legal scandal in German history, and a truth that no one wants to confront.

A painful introspection

For some years now, German cinema has engaged in a fascinating introspection on the way in which the country, at the end of the Second World War and with the colossal weight of guilt that followed, undertook to denazify society, its administrative and judicial system.

Let us cite in this respect the remarkable Maze of Silencereleased in 2015, which returned to facts relatively unknown to the general public, and yet essential: the tracking by German justice of former Nazi officials responsible for administering the Auschwitz extermination camp. A hunt that led to the Frankfurt trial, in a post-Nazi Germany of the 1950s and 1960s, where the time was not right for repentance for the crimes of the still burning past. An exceptional trial that took place for 20 months, from October 1963 to August 1965. 20,000 people attended this exceptional trial; 360 witnesses from 19 different countries, including 211 Auschwitz survivors, were called to testify.

We can also cite as an example another solid film, quite complementary to the previous one: Fritz Bauer, a German heroof Lars Kraumereleased in 2016. A fascinating portrait of the Frankfurt prosecutor, Fritz Bauer, who was at the origin of the trial mentioned above, but who was also essential in the hunt for the famous former Nazi war criminal who took refuge in Buenos Aires, Adolf Eichmann.

If we take the time to come back a bit to these two works, it is because The Collini Affair intelligently complete these. Firstly because of the singular pedigree of the film directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner. It is indeed an adaptation of a novel published in 2011 and written by a famous former lawyer, specialized in criminal law and later converted into a (great) successful writer: Ferdinand von Schirach.

A very heavy surname to bear for those who know history: it is the grandson of Baldur von Schirach (1907-1974), the leader of the Hitler Youth, responsible for the deportation of Jews from Vienna, condemned at the Nuremberg trial. to 20 years imprisonment. The same sentence to which Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments, was condemned.

Justice without memory for imprescriptible crimes

In January 2012, the Federal Minister of Justice, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, set up an independent commission at the Federal Ministry of Justice, to carry out a reassessment of the country’s Nazi past; and explicitly quoted the work “The Collini Affair”.

It is because the work, and by extension the film from which it is taken, evokes an iniquitous law, baptized “Dreher Law”, which serves as a backdrop and a common thread. Eduard Dreher was during the Third Reich public prosecutor at the Special Court of Innsbruck, and had regularly demanded the death penalty for very small crimes, even shoplifting. After the war, he became a civil servant. In 1968, he was appointed head of the criminal justice department.

He largely contributed to the elaboration of a law entitled “introduction to administrative offences”, which contained regulations at first sight insignificant, and which was voted by the members of the Budenstag (parliament) unanimously, in 1968. But , as often, the Devil is in the detail… Because this law included a sentence which made it possible to prescribe almost all the crimes of the Nazi era at once, as soon as the law came into force.


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It was only a few days after having passed it that the deputies discovered, horrified, the disastrous consequences of this law, by reading an article in the newspaper Der Spiegel. Some wanted to believe in an involuntary error. The facts have shown that this was not the case: Eduard Dreher knew perfectly well what he was doing.

This sentence, inserted in paragraph 50 of the penal code, concerned the accomplices of the murders for which the motives could not be proven. For example, the Nazis who killed Jews, but for whom it was impossible to prove that their actions were motivated by personal racial hatred. This new provision stipulated that these accomplices to murder should no longer be punished for murder, but only for manslaughter.

Homicide, voluntary or involuntary, is punished in Germany with different degrees of severity: life imprisonment for murder, 15 years in prison for manslaughter. This distinction affects the limitation period. Murder is imprescriptible, while manslaughter is prescribed after 20 years. When this Dreher law came into effect in 1968, all crimes committed by Nazis were considered time-barred…

Jurisprudence quickly validated this form of amnesty, which did not say its name, during the trial of Hermann Heinrich which took place shortly after the vote on this law. The latter was responsible for the selection and deportation of Jews from Krakow to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Belzec; he was then accused of complicity in the murders of at least 37,600 people. However, he was acquitted by the Federal Court.

Pattern ? The person concerned knew that these victims were killed because of racial hatred, but he asserted that he was not animated by any hatred, and claimed to have only followed orders. These acts motivating the murders were now prescribed, according to the new version of paragraph 50 of the code of criminal procedure. Subsequently, the largest series of lawsuits against the former security employees of the Reich Office, was cut short, burying 150,000 files. Very few criminals of the Third Reich were punished from then on, except only those against whom motives for murder could be proven; i.e. behaviors going beyond the execution of orders received…

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