Dead People, Dead Birds, and the Responsibility Silo

Image result for bird fossil

The New York Times has gotten rather scoldy about Germany lately. Judging by New York Times coverage, Germany is not doing enough to combat racism, anti-semitism, and right-wing violence. Nor has it fully confronted its Nazi past.

I’m not sure what the reason is for this critical undertone. Generally, American liberals find much to praise about Germany: free college tuition, universal healthcare, a deep aversion to war, generous social-welfare benefits. My theory is that the Times’ German aversion may something to do with the Times’ gradual conversion to full-scale wokeness. The Times now identifies with identity politics and American-style ethnic particularism. To a fully-woke American, Germany must seem backward indeed: after all, one of the highest-circulation German dailies just published a frontal attack on identity politics (g), something that no longer appears in major American newspapers.

Anyhow, enough speculation. The main point of this post is this article on Niels Högel, the German nurse who is accused of killing up to 300 hospital patients over a period of five years. The article singles out a certain aspect of German culture for criticism:

The number of killings and the amount of time it took for suspicions surrounding his actions to come to light have raised uncomfortable questions for Germany, including whether the same deference to hierarchy and predilection for procedure that once facilitated Nazi-era crimes allowed Mr. Högel to kill uninterrupted for so long.

According to Frank Lauxtermann, the only former colleague who testified openly about working alongside Mr. Högel, “A culture of looking away and keeping your head down” ultimately shielded the suspect….

She said Mr. Högel’s colleagues in Oldenburg had talked about him, but did not go to their superiors or lodge a complaint out of fear of being reprimanded or because they didn’t see it as their business in a country where citizens closely guard their privacy.

When another nurse in Delmenhorst told her superior she was suspicious of Mr. Högel, no action was taken and she never followed up….

“The course of events that took place on June 24 are symbolic of the failure of those responsible for their completely erroneous assessment of actual facts and the tragic results that ensued for the patients,” Mr. Schmidt said, announcing the results of his investigation in 2017.

That investigation came about only after years of pressure by family members, and led to the current trial.

Two former prosecutors from Oldenburg were investigated for failing to sufficiently investigate Mr. Högel in 2005, but neither faced charges. One is now a judge in Oldenburg.

I think the Times, for all its gimlet-eyed coverage of matters German, has a point here: There is a cluster of German cultural traits — many of them admirable — which often works against institutional accountability.

First is the German respect for privacy. You don’t pry into your co-workers’ personal affairs. You also don’t pry into their job performance, unless it directly affects you, and perhaps not even then. It’s the bosses’ job to evaluate job performance, not the co-worker’s. Complaining to the bosses about a co-worker’s performance comes dangerously close to informing on them, which immediately raises loud historical alarm bells. In both Nazi Germany and in East Germany, anonymous denunciations were often used to derail competitors’ careers. These historical memories metastasized into the corners of the German national character: complaining legitimately about a colleague’s serious mistakes on the job is, of course, not as sinister or serious as denouncing them to the secret police. But it’s the same overall genre of activity, the same kind of behavior. And thus it has Sinister Historical Overtones, and should be avoided.

Another factor is institutional. Germany’s public healthcare system is stretched to the limit; under-funding and under-staffing are the norm. A December 2018 EU report (pdf) concluded:

Understaffing in hospitals and residential homes is widespread, and the number of graduates completing vocational training falls far short of those leaving the job (due to retirement or dissatisfaction) and those which are additionally needed (due to the rising number of people in need of care). At the same time, working conditions for carers are poor, particularly in LTC: wages are low, the work is demanding and working hours are unattractive.

Accountability for medical malpractice is still limited in Germany. In the United States, a hospital can be sued for millions for negligently hiring or negligently retaining a worker who causes a serious accident. If you prove that the hospital knew, or should have known, about an incompetent employee, the hospital must pay. The German system creates less accountability, principally because (1) hospitals aren’t always liable for their employees’ on-duty mistakes; (2) malpractice judgments are notoriously hard to win; and (3) judgments are generally for modest amounts. German healthcare is still very good on average, but there are growing gaps in quality which Högel was obviously able to exploit.

And finally, there’s the “that’s not in my job description” effect. This is not solely a German phenomenon, but it’s very strong here. My job is to take care of my patients, not to make sure everyone else is. I have my tasks and my duty area, and I’m going to do my tasks within my duty area, then go home and forget about work. North Americans, in particular, notice this strong silo mentality. In a restaurant or a start-up, you do whatever is required to keep the customer happy and the business afloat. In a bureaucratic institution such as a hospital or university, the average Joe or Jane will normally do their jobs reasonably well, but feel no need to show any extra initiative.

Here’s a story. At the university where I used to work, a dead pigeon lay in front of one of the buildings. A friend of mine, also from the New World speculated on how long it would lay there. Hundreds of people walked past it every day, noticing it with disgust. But nobody did anything. Professors would never stoop to touch a dead thing. Nor would secretaries. Students reasoned that the university paid for cleaning crews, and it was their job to pick up the dead bird. But the cleaning crews were paid only to clean inside the buildings. Day after day, the cleaners wheeled their carts right by the rotting pigeon, ignoring it. The pigeon, you see, lay on an exterior brick walkway, and nobody had been clearly assigned the task of keeping that specific walkway clean.

The pigeon lay there for over ten days.

Not for nothing did Georg Christoph Lichtenberg once ask (g): “Tell me, is there any country but Germany in which people are more likely to learn to wrinkle their noses in disgust than learn to clean?”

East Asian Art in Cologne

After a trip to the Cologne Philharmonic to hear Yefim Bronfman play (g) Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, it was off to the Museum for East Asian Art, a favorite place for a calm, meditative morning after a night of drinking. The Museum sits right next to the Institute for Japanese Culture, both of them flat, quadrangular, mildly Brutalist/mies van der Rohian buildings whose spare lines and rectilinear spaces harmonize well with Japanese ideas of space. Even this hardcore anti-Brutalist finds them in Ordnung. The buildings are located next to Hiroshima and Nagasaki Park, created in 2004 at the initiative of peace groups.

The first floor of the Japanese Cultural Institute shows a fine photographic exhibition by Mitsumasa Fujitsuka on Japanese wooden buildings, including this shrine, erected in 719:

Image result for fujitsuka mitsumasa

And then to the Museum for East Asian Art. It’s located in a one-floor building designed by Kunio Maekawa in 1977, blending contemporary rectilinear minimalism with traditional garden courtyards. The building exudes an elusive, unpretentious sense of calm and order which visitors find immediately attractive. The temporary exhibit space is lined with sisal carpet which absorbs noise and lighting is kept at a minimum to preserve silk scrolls. (This is why it’s the right place to wait out a hangover).

The collection has been pieced together from various donations, and is a bit idiosyncratic, but solid. The highlight is a set of perfectly-tuned Chinese bronze bells. A recording of them plays in the gallery, inspiring meditations on timeless themes. And then you see an 1847 Hokusai print of the heads of two executed criminals, which slingshots you right back into the snares of delusion. But then there’s a sublime painting of fog-enshrouded cliffs.

A few camera photos to give you a taste:

Korn, or Breakfast Whisky

Schwarze Frühstückskorn 0,7L 32% vol.Korn is a German distilled alcohol made from grain, between 32-38% alcohol by volume. It’s got sort of a shady reputation as cheap rotgut — it’s not hard to make, and a bottle of average Korn costs well under €10.

It’s the kind of thing you see sold in tiny €1.99 bottles behind the counter of neighborhood shops — the “secret drinker” stash. You sometimes see people sitting on park benches openly drinking from bottles of Korn. These folks, unlike the beer drinkers, are in the very lists of dissolution. If you hang around all day in public drinking 12-15 bottles of 38-cent Oettinger beer, you’re part of the Trinkerszene: the ‘Drinkers’ Scene’, a rowdy but generally harmless addition to any neighborhood.

If you hang around all day in public drinking Korn, you’re slid down several levels from the Drinkers’ Scene, who themselves may shake their heads in disapproval at you. One fine Sunday morning I was on the way to visit a friend and encountered a drunk guy collapsed face-down on the pavement in front of my apartment building. He had just fallen straight down face-first, nearly breaking his nose, and lay there like a beached seal. As we lifted him and and propped him up, waiting for the ambulance, we saw he had collapsed directly onto the bottle of booze he’d been drinking. Which was, of course, Korn.

So it was with some trepidation that I bought a bottle of Korn the other day out of curiosity. I chose a brand manufactured by the Schwarze distillery called Frühstücks-Korn, or “Breakfast Korn“. You can choose to see this either as amusing or horrifyingly cynical. “You’re just trying something new”, I repeated to myself as I poured the first shot. “It’s a traditional German drink going back to the 15th century,” I said to myself as I poured the second shot. “You’re more or less solvent and employed. You are not an alcoholic, or at least you’re not hanging around in parks all day yet,” I said as I poured the third shot.

My verdict? Korn is tasty! It’s incredibly smooth, almost flavorless, with only a touch of appealingly earthy graininess to it, like chewing on a grass stalk. Frankly, it’s so smoothly drinkable it’s a bit dangerous: there are no acids, zippy congeners or high-proof throat-fire to remind you you’re drinking hard stuff.

I’m still a whisky man, first and foremost, but I will certainly try out of a bottle of Korn once in a while, to pay homage to a noble and ancient German distilling tradition. And get pie-eyed for cheap.

Should The USA Eliminate Tuition?

I just published a piece at Quillette on my experience within Germany’s tuition-free university system. A sample:

Yet the tuition-free system also has disadvantages. The first difference an American will notice is that most German universities look dingy and threadbare. Many were erected hastily in the 1960s and 1970s to house new students brought in by liberalizing reforms, and these cheap, poorly maintained structures are notoriously ugly (a German magazine recently ran a feature on “German Universities Ranked by Ugliness”). Most classrooms still feature rigid wooden or metal desks bolted into rows. Wireless coverage, library stocks, laboratory gear and classroom A/V equipment lag far behind the average American state university. It’s still possible to arrive to give a lecture and find an overhead projector awaiting your transparencies. Professors’ salaries are much lower than in the United States, and Germany’s problem with “adjunctification” and precarious conditions for aspiring scholars (known by the German neologism Prekarisierung) is becoming as urgent as it is in the United States.

This bare-bones regime also dominates student life and counseling. German universities are sink-or-swim: if you have scholarly or personal problems while studying, help will come only from overburdened counselors with hundreds of cases, or from student volunteers. Along with lax admissions standards, this fact helps explain the high dropout rates; one-third of all students who enroll in German universities never finish. A recent OECD study found that only 28.6 percent of Germans aged between 25 and 64 had a tertiary education degree, as compared to 46.4 percent of Americans (although classification issues mean these numbers must be handled with care). This chronic lack of resources—in addition to the understandable fact that many outstanding German scholars publish in German—also helps explain why German universities punch below their weight in international rankings, a topic of obsessive concern to German politicians.

American college tuition is often obscenely high, but I don’t think the answer is abolishing tuition entirely, just as the answer to housing shortages isn’t to abolish rent entirely. Moderation in all things!

The Nieheim Sack Museum (Home of the SackSmacker) and its Bitter Rival, ‘FlourWorlds’

Let me start this post with cliché: Germans like to collect, organize, and classify things. If you have a problem with this “stale cliché”, then you’re at the wrong blog. Here, we fully embrace the science, which shows that most clichés have a sound basis in reality. Besides, calling an observation about some social group a stale cliché is itself a stale cliché. Touché, bitches.

If you’re still with me, I’d like to highlight one of the most delightful fruits of the German passion for organization and preservation: ludicrously specific museums. Today, it’s the Nieheim Sack Museum (g), located in the no-doubt-charming 6,250-person town of Nieheim in Westfalen, Germany. Located in a handsome red-brick former agricultural products warehouse, the museum promises entry into “the world of old and new sacks”. Here are just some of the back-to-back stacks of slack sacks you can admire:

But sacks are only the tip of the seed-storage iceberg, so to speak. There are also exhibits devoted to sack-making, sack repair, and even a Sackausklopfmaschine: A “sack-smacking” machine.

There’s also a local history museum run by the local-history group (the Heimatverein), and a historical kitchen, in which you can take “cheese seminars” and learn how to make local Nierheimer cheese. The Nieheim Sack Museum also landed a curatorial coup when convinced the nearby Westfälisches Kulinarium to host a permanent exhibit devoted to the local cheese.

Nieheim may seem like a rural idyll, but there’s trouble in paradise. You would think Germany is far too small to host two sack-related museums, but you’d be wrong. So very wrong. Hundreds of kilometers to the east, just a decade after the Nieheim Sack Museum was summoned into being, another sack museum (g) was created, in Wittenburg. This new museum is devoted to flour sacks.

But does this museum call itself what it is — a sack museum? Oh no. Not by a long shot. You see, this museum has a “curatorial concept based on the experience of flour”, whatever the f**k that means. You can tell by its name: MehlWelten — “FlourWorlds”. The museum opens with a work of art made from a flour sack. Then you move into the “SymbolRoom”:

This isn’t just a bunch of flour sacks. This is an interpellation — an interrogation, if you will — of the Deleuzian/Guattarian “assemblage” which problematizes the synthetic and contested crux of commerce, banality, food, and anguish. “FlourWorlds” even has a “sackotheque”:

A “sackotheque”, for Chrissake. The Wittenburg Flour Sack Museum — oh sorry, I meant “FlourWorlds”, also has its own English-language website, a sure sign that city folk with too much book-larnin’ are involved.

Now, I don’t want to sound too jaundiced here. Let a thousand sack museums bloom, I say! But if I had to choose between one of the two sack museums, I think I’m going to go with the one which has the simple honesty to call itself what it is: a sack museum. Nieheim, here I come!

German Word of the Week: The ‘Knapsack’ Mystery

Image result for knapsack problem

As I found out returning from a weekend in Luxembourg, Knapsack is a town in Germany. It’s also a common word for a backpack in English, as in the notorious “knapsack of white privilege“, or the “knapsack problem”. Yet Knapsack is not the word for backpack in German — the modern German word is Rucksack.

So many mysteries: Why is the English word for a kind of backpack, ‘Knapsack’, in reality a German word? When did it first enter English? Did Germans ever use it? If so, why did they abandon it? What is the significance of the fact that there is a town in Germany named Knapsack? Was the Knapsack invented there? Which came first, Knapsack the bag or Knapsack the town?

Anyone have any ideas?

German Words of the Week: Renaturierung and Eisvogel (Spring Birdsong Bonus)

Four years ago, the city of Düsseldorf undertook a project of Renaturierung — literally, “re-naturing”. This refers to taking land which was being used for agriculture, quarries, buildings, or perhaps nothing at all, and allowing it to revert to a more natural state. In this case, the land was the Urdenbach Marshes, a wetland area on the southern edge of Düsseldorf. The Rhine river changed direction long ago, and the area between the old course of the Rhine and the new course became a wetland frequented by many bird species. Then, in the 1950s, housing was built in the area, a dike was built to prevent the summer flooding of the wetland and create a pedestrian path

In 2014, a project began to restore the wetland (g) by opening up the dike in two places and building bridges and other amenities to preserve the pedestrian path:

ApplicationFrameHost_3lmaBDLaYb

Was the project successful? Judge for yourself. Yesterday I rode my bike to the marshes, picked a spot, and made a short film. It lasts about 5 minutes. I count at least 10 different kinds of birdsong, some of it downright deafening. If you just want the highlights, a kingfisher (Eisvogel, or “Ice-Bird”, in German) hovers and strikes at 4:12. Enjoy:

 

An American Who Defected to East Germany and Lived Happily Ever After

The interesting podcast Cold War Conversations interviews Victor Grossman. To call his life history exciting is a bit of an understatement. Born in 1928, he grew up in a hothouse of New York Jewish leftism in the 1930s and 1940s. Then attended Harvard, and after graduation went to work in a factory at the suggestion of the Communist Party. He was then drafted into the Army, and, faced with scrutiny over his leftist past, defected to East Germany in 1952.

And then he decided life was fine there, although he admits that he always wanted to return to the USA at some point, but didn’t want to face desertion charges, which were dropped only in 1994. Grossman got married and raised two children and became a journalist, writer and editor in East Germany. He is still very much alive, and blogs about German politics at Victor Grossman’s Berlin Bulletin.

I  recommend the interview, in which Grossman, a natural talker if there ever was one, talks about the Stasi, the Berlin Wall, East German movies, his 1,100-page FBI file, and many other things. And dances around some subjects quite elegantly.

German Word of the Week: Retortensiedlung

A while ago, I needed to get a document from one of the “citizens’ offices” (Bürgerbüros) in Düsseldorf. There are about ten of them. You request an appointment online, and get pointed to whichever office can give you an appointment the soonest. This time, it was in the neighborhood of Garath.

Yes, Garath. At the mention of these two syllables, Düsseldorfers will hear ominous string music — or perhaps a song from a band with a name like Nahkampf or Erschießungskommando.

Garath is a neighborhood at the very southern tip of Düsseldorf, a 13-minute S-Bahn ride from the center. It’s the dark-gray bit in this map of Düsseldorf. Its basic design was laid out inLage im Stadtgebiet 1959 by the notorious (and notoriously auto-friendly) Düsseldorf architect and city planner Friedrich Tamms (think of him as the Robert Moses of Düsseldorf) as a planned community of medium-rise apartment buildings, 8000 apartments capable of housing 30,000 people. Because it was largely a designed community, critics call it a Retortensiedlung — a test-tube town, as opposed to a neighborhood which grew up organically. Tamms’ plan, with many modifications and additions, was realized in stages during the 1960s and 1970s. The overall style was mild Brutalism, described (g) as an “explicitly solid and respectable style which affords no room for architectural experiments or reforms.” In other words, cheap buildings for workers.

Today, Garath is a solidly working-class section of Düsseldorf. It’s mostly white, with a percentage of foreigners of only 12.5% (g), well under the city’s average of 19.2%. There seemed to be a strong Eastern European and Russian presence — they wouldn’t affect the foreigner percentage, since many of them would be Russians or East Europeans of German descent (g), who are entitled to German citizenship.

Garath has a reputation as one of the social burning points of Düsseldorf, a cluster of sterile pre-planned buildings stuffed with the resentfully unemployed. There are stories of rabid football fans, right-wing violence, mass fistfights, urine-soaked undergrounnd passages, the whole nine yards. But people from Garath tend to be loyal to it. It ain’t fancy, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous or desolate as its reputation. People know each other and help each other, and there’s plenty of green space and even a small castle (g).

Garath city center is like a small throwback to the idea of a socialism-infused, egalitarian model of German society. There are large paved squares with benches where local day-drinkers can soak up the sun:

09-DSC08643

There are also funky small modular orange shops under the train overpass, looking as if they were plucked straight from 1974. One of them houses the “Altschlesische Speisekammer” (The Old Silesian Pantry), a which sells Polish food, including delectable sausage:

There’s a bunch of government offices right next to the main train station, and right next door, a “Leisure Center”, made of modest red brick, where people can go spend time for free, or at least a modest fee. This building was designed by Olaf Jacobson in 1974. It’s made of interlocking cubes of different sizes stacked on top of and next to one another, faced in handsome red-brick. Inside, pathways lead from one modular cube to the next, creating interesting, inviting spaces.

When I stopped by the auditorium, there was a group of at least 80 old ladies settling into their seats for some sort of concert. The local library branch is located inside the building, and offers this inviting reading nook:

13-DSC08651

On the side of the leisure center is a quote from Heine about Old Düsseldorf’s funky nooks and crannies:

11-DSC08647

Of course, there’s an ice-cream parlor:

08-DSC08641

And a little bit of urban decay:

01-DSC08627

But also delectable fruits right across from it:

04-DSC08632

And a bar next to the train station with this oddly charming…whatever it is:

07-DSC08639

And is there public art? Yes, the “Sunwheel” by Friedrich Becker, erected in 1976 (obviously):

10-DSC08645

Behind it you can see the housing blocks typical of Garath. They’re nothing special, but at least they’re not Corbusian nightmares. Facing the train tracks, there’s “Countdown”, by Hans-Albert Walther:

12-DSC08649

There’s too much concrete in the heart of Garath, a common problem with 1960s and 1970s town planning. But still, there are some interesting buildings, and a bit of funky pre-planned quasi-socialist charm. Infinitely worse things have come out of test tubes.

Andreas K. Licks the Salamander

In German nature photographer Andreas Kieling’s edutaining video series ‘Little Primer on the Forest’, he explains, in his suave, soothing voice, all sorts of interesting things about European forests.

This time the subject is the fire salamander. As Kieling notes, they were all over the place near the Thuringian forest village where he grew up. The name comes from a horrifying custom: people used to throw live salamanders into a fire to protect their homes and buildings from lightning strikes or accidental fires.

But that’s not the only horrifying thing in this video. Fire salamanders have some of the longest gestation periods in the animal kingdom: up to 2 and 1/2 years! The fire salamander he’s holding is, in fact, pregnant. Yet these mothers have no umbilical cords, so no nutrients from mommy. How do the salamander fetuses survive? By eating each other. About 20 salamander fetuses start out in the womb, then the biggest eats all the others. Eventually, only 1 or 2 make it out of the mother’s, er, cloaca.

And the final shocking scene of this video comes toward the end. Fire salamanders are somewhat poisonous, which explains their warning coloration: “The fire salamander’s primary alkaloid toxin, samandarin, causes strong muscle convulsions and hypertension combined with hyperventilation in all vertebrates. The poison glands of the fire salamander are concentrated in certain areas of the body, especially around the head and the dorsal skin surface.”

Nevertheless, Andreas goes there. Trigger warning/spoiler alert: Andreas licks the pregnant salamander. Live. On-camera. Uncensored. He doesn’t go into convulsions, fortunately. He just makes a face at the bitter taste. I suppose his vast store of forest-knowledge tells him there’s not enough poison in a single salamander-lick to harm a large human. I found the salamander-licking scene a bit much, but Kieling is hands-on — he likes to fondle, touch, and taste the plants animals he’s describing. You never know when he’s going to cram his hand into an anthill or stuff a bunch of leaves into his mouth. That’s what makes his videos so fun to watch.

Itten’s Enemas, or: Bauhaus Kooks

I’m reading James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia, an erudite broadside against the International Style and Brutalism in 20th-century architecture. One of the many refreshing things the book does is provide a non-hagiographical account of the Bauhaus. When I was growing up, it seemed that Bauhaus was universally revered as the most important design movement of Modernism, if not in all of human history. A famous band named themselves after it! Young female Bauhaus students looked so ahead of their time!

Bildergebnis für bauhaus girls

Bauhaus’ progenitors were described in hushed, reverential tones, and their many glaring faults ignored. (Nobody mentioned, for instance, that Ludwig Miës van der Rohe was born plain old Ludwig Mies, and added the diacritics and extra words out of pure affectation.)

Curl is having none of that. He acknowledges Bauhaus’ many achievements, but also holds it responsible for many of the most regrettable aspects of 20th century architecture: sandwich-like buildings with horizontal windows, flat roofs, a puritanical ban on ornamentation, soulless prefabricated cubic “machines for living”, etc.

And he points out that many people associated with Bauhaus were, not to put too fine a point on it, kooks. Case in point, Johannes Itten (from pp. 94-95):

He was a devotee of Mazdaznan, one of a great many mystical or quasi-religious cults that flourished in Germany at the time. It was related to the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, and therefore tentatively associated with Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (though any connection with the philosopher’s ideas was hopelessly corrupted). It held that the world was a warzone between good and evil, and that what is perceived as reality is really only a veil that hides a higher existence that can only be achieved by rigorous physical and mental exercises, a vegetarian diet (featuring huge doses of garlic), fasting, and regular enemas. Mazdaznan macrobiotic dishes became de rigueur in the Bauhaus canteen, and some students adopted Itten’s garb (a loose robe) and shaved their heads.

Some, of course, regarded him as a saintly figure, but many, probably more accurately, saw him as a charlatan. Itten would accept students on his ‘intuitive judgement’ without even looking at work or asking questions. One of the many problems that emerged from this régime in malnourished, bankrupted, demoralized, defeated Germany, was that dishes like the garlic paste insisted upon by Itten caused students to look rather ill, with grey-green skin: furthermore, apart from the enemas, peculiar rituals such as ‘purification of the body’ involved pricking the skin and anointing it with oils, so that the pin-pricked areas began to suppurate: resultant infections caused illnesses.

Christin and Her Murderers — Inside a German Murder Trial

I have another blog in which I mainly talk about German law. I wrote this post for that blog, but I think the case is so interesting it deserves a spot here, too.

Bildergebnis für christin r. mord
Poster seeking information in Christin R.’s killing

The public radio station for Berlin-Brandenburg recently released an 8-part podcast — “Christin and Her Murderers” exploring a German murder case. The podcast yields interesting insights into German criminal trials, mainly because the authors — Martina Reuter und Uta Eisenhardt — got unusual access to the main players in the case: Judges, detectives, lawyers, and even three of the defendants agreed to interviews. This may not raise any eyebrows for an American or a Brit, but this level of access is very unusual for Germany. Germans tend to be very protective of their private sphere, and German law helps them protect it.

First I’ll provide a rundown of the murder case itself, then look at the investigation and trial.

I. The Murder of Christin Rexin

The facts are mundane in some respects, but startling in others. We start with Christin (pronounced like “Christine” in English) Rexin. She was a 21-year-old woman from Lübars, a quaint village near Berlin. She loved working with horses, and was doing an apprenticeship on a nearby horse farm, the Goldnebelhof (Golden Fog Farm!). One day, a mother and son showed up to express interest in buying the place. The mother, Cornelia, worked at a bank. Her son Robin was a competitive rider on the German equestrian circuit, and owned a number of valuable horses. Robin and his mother held discussions with the farm’s owners, a divorced couple, and arranged to buy the farm, with tentative financing from a bank.

Robin and his mother Cornelia thus became Christin’s employers. The financing for the purchase fell through after a few months, but Christin fell in love with Robin, the young, self-assured businessman who loved horses as much as she did. Soon they were a couple, although the stories Robin told about his background seemed a bit inconsistent, and he was something of a braggart. His mother had meanwhile stopped paying Christin’s salary and social-insurance contributions. It became clear that Robin and Cornelia were having financial problems. They were actively trying to sell some of the valuable horses they owned. In November 2011, Christin agreed to take out a €250,000 life insurance policy in her own name with Robin as the beneficiary. Robin’s mother Cornelia would pay the premiums. They claimed their financial advisor had recommended this step as a routine precaution. Christin eventually became engaged to Robin, and the family group began searching for another horse farm to rent or buy.

And then, on April 4, 2012, something quite bizarre happened: While Cornelia and Christin were spending time in Cornelia’s kitchen, Cornelia stabbed Christin in the back. Christin defended herself. The knife wound was severe, but not life-threatening. Cornelia claimed she had stabbed Christin during a “blackout”. Needless to say, the stabbing put something of a damper on the marriage plans. Nevertheless, Christin still agreed to see Robin, although not at his house or with his mother. Meanwhile, Christin pressed charges against Cornelia, but the police — incredibly — suspended prosecution, believing her convenient story of a blackout.

Meanwhile, Christin, her family, and friends kept discovering inconsistencies in just about everything Robin said: his supposedly deceased ex-wife kept posting on Facebook, he claimed to have participated in riding tournaments where nobody remembered seeing them, etc. He even claimed to have served in a secret special forces regiment in the German Bundeswehr in Afghanistan whose mission was to “kill and destroy” (g). Robin appears to have had some charm and self-confidence, but was also clearly a pathological liar. Nevertheless, Christin refused to break off all contact with him. Meanwhile, his mother kept taking out more and more life insurance policies on Christin, eventually adding up to more than €2 million Euro. It was unclear who signed these extra policies in Christin’s name.

Through the equestrian scene, Robin befriended Tanja, a young, horse-loving butcher with a troubled past growing up in care homes. After laying on a bit of charm, he came right out and said he wanted to help her kill someone to collect insurance money. In another plot twist too ludicrous for fiction, she agreed on the spot. She later claimed she had been manipulated and controlled by Robin, but didn’t deny he had promised €50,000 to her and whoever else she was able to recruit. For the second attempt on Christin’s life, Robin gave Tanja champagne laced with potassium chloride. Tanja was supposed to feign interest in buying one of Robin’s horses and, when the deal was concluded, offer her champagne to drink. After a few sips, however, Christin poured it out, claiming it tasted off. The second attempt to kill Christin thus failed.

For the third attempt to murder Christin, Robin and his mother pulled out all the stops. Robin, much to his later regret, texted Tanja that “the third time cannot be allowed to fail.” Robin asked Tanja if she knew someone who might be willing to pull off a hit. She said her brother Sven, a petty criminal who had spent time in prison, probably would. Sven in turn recruited Steven, who also had a criminal record, and a plethora of “social problems” so vast he lived in an assisted-living facility. Together, they lured Christin to a parking lot late at night in her hometown of Lübars, and one of the crew (it’s still not certain which one) strangled her to death.

The case wasn’t difficult to solve, although investigators had a hard time proving exactly who had played which role. They immediately focused on Robin, and discovered that his mother had stabbed Christin some months beforehand. They quickly twigged to Tanja’s involvement, and through her Sven and Steven. All five were charged with murder or abetting murder (which carry the same punishment under German law).

II. The Investigation and Trial

The podcast explores the detectives’ tactics and the court proceedings in detail, something which is surprisingly rare in Germany — a country which is obsessed with (generally unrealistic) murder mysteries. When you’re arrested for a serious crime in Germany, you will be interrogated by the police. They are obliged to inform you that you are required only to identify yourself. You are not required to answer any further questions without the presence of a lawyer. Yet the rules are nowhere near as strict and arbitrary as they are in the UK or the USA. Interrogations do not need to be recorded, as in the UK; detectives prepare a written record based on memory. Nor do police need to recite a specific speech concerning a suspect’s rights and obtain a formal written waiver, as they usually do in the USA. German police can advise you that you’ll fare better in court if you cooperate, and invariably do so. They often try to establish a friendly and laid-back tone to the interrogation. Suspects are not handcuffed or restrained unless they seem to present a threat. German courts probe deeply into how cops get confessions, so third-degree tactics — lies, threats, manipulation, especially violence — are seen as counterproductive, and rarely used.

To build rapport, a detective might chat at length about common interests such as soccer or food or television. One detective who questioned Robin quizzed him about horses, because he was genuinely interested in horses, and Robin knew quite a bit about them. What could be more natural? Later, he told the reporters about Robin: “Oh sure, I knew he was lying in lots of what he said to me, but then again, he’s got a right to do that.” One key in the questioning of Tanja was the fact that one of the detectives smoked. He joined her outside the precinct for smoke breaks, and appealed subtly to her conscience, person-to-person.

The main purpose of interrogations is to obtain a confession. If that proves impossible, then detectives try to pin the suspect’s story down early, so that they can later point out inconsistencies if they arise. A caveat: As is the case anywhere, police tactics vary in Germany depending on the officer is and the suspect. All the suspects in this case were ethnic Germans, and many had no previous criminal record. Thus, they almost certainly received gentler treatment than, say, an immigrant with a long criminal record and limited German. In fact, this case seems to contain a specific example of what you might call “German privilege”. It’s difficult to imagine that the local authorities would have suspended prosecution in a serious stabbing case based merely on Cornelia’s uncorroborated claim that she had a “blackout” if the Cornelia had been a foreigner, rather than a well-spoken German lady who worked in a bank. But even with this caveat in mind, stories of brutal third-degree interrogations are rare in Germany. German police simply don’t have the win-at-all-costs mentality that often drives American police to bend or break the rules they feel restrict them. If a suspect strictly refuses to cooperate, they’ll just give up trying to get a statement, and hope other tactics will solve the case.

Nevertheless, German police do get suspects to talk about the crime, and often to confess, with surprising frequency. There are a few reasons for this. First, German law is quite lenient in international comparison. A suspect in a country which imposes 10 years in prison for crime X is going to be much more circumspect than one in a country where crime X is usually punished by 2 years with a suspended sentence. Second, German judges are often suspicious of confessions, and will explore the circumstances under which they were given. This is part of the “duty of investigation” (Pflicht zur Erforschung) which requires judges to independently establish all relevant facts of a case. Did the suspect confess to protect or appease a third party? Does her confession square with the known facts of the case? If not, why not? Even a full confession which squares with the facts will not prevent a later full examination of the facts of the case, during which the defense will be able to make its own arguments. Even if a case is settled by a plea bargain, the judge is still obliged by law (g) to carefully examine the circumstances of the confession, although some overburdened judges cut corners here.

Perhaps the most important reason for the high rate of confessions in German cases is that suspects know they will receive more favorable treatment from the judge in their case if they come forward. In the Christin R. case, Tanja, Robin, and Steven all decided to talk to the police. Tanja gave a full account of everything that happened, saying she wanted to “get the pictures out of her head”. Steven — who talked so quickly and with so much slang that detectives had trouble keeping up with him — corroborated much of what Tanja said, but claimed Robin, not he, had strangled Christin. Robin, for his part, provided a carefully curated and selective account, confirming facts which he knew could be verified, but denying any murder plot. He had also tried to carefully arrange an alibi for himself by visiting a gas station.

After a long investigation came the trial. It was held before a Schwurgericht, an untranslatable term which is officially rendered into English as a “criminal division with lay judges”. It originally meant court with twelve “sworn” jurors, but is now composed of three professional judges and two lay judges (Schöffen). It is reserved for the most serious offenses involving the death of a victim. It is still not allowed to record criminal trials in Germany, but the podcast’s authors were in the courtroom and provided a careful account. The trial opened, with the reading of the indictment. Directly after this, the court turns to the defendants and asks them to provide their personal information.

After they have done so, the court asks them if they want to make any comment on the case. At this point, an Anglo-Saxon criminal defense lawyer’s hair would catch fire. Speak informally, directly to the judges in the case, right there in open court? Clearly, we are in another procedural universe here, one with many fewer strict rules and formalities than in England or the UK. Of course, defendants aren’t obliged to make a statement at the beginning. German law respects the presumption of innocence and the right to silence. In this case, Tanja decided to make a full statement in open court at the beginning of the case. She explained her version of exactly how the crime occurred, and expressed remorse. She had been advised to do this by her lawyer, with an argument like this: “You already said all this to the detectives, so the judges are going to find out about it anyway. This way, you get out ahead, portraying yourself as the only member of the conspiracy willing to come right out and be honest from the beginning, come what may. This will help speed the trial and earn the judges’ respect.”

After the initial statements comes the wearisome task of establishing what happened. As noted, German courts have an independent duty to probe as deeply as possible into all the circumstances of a crime. The judges dominate the proceeding, directly questioning witnesses and commissioning expert testimony. There is no clear “prosecution” and “defense” case — each side merely intervenes occasionally to highlight facts it considers helpful to its side. Trials often last for months or even years — they’re not held day after day, but rather in a sporadic series of sessions. In the Christin R. case, there were numerous seemingly minor inconsistencies in the testimony and evidence — Tanja said the attacker was wearing a certain color jacket, but another witness said it was a different color. Fiber evidence was inconclusive. There was no DNA evidence. In an Anglo-Saxon courtroom, these minor weaknesses would become fodder for back-and-forth argument by the lawyers. But in German courtrooms, the judges are obliged to try to resolve these seemingly minor inconsistencies in mind-numbing detail.

Finally, after the relevant facts had been established, Robin and his mother Cornelia decided to testify. In German courtrooms, defendants are not obliged to testify under oath because, as any professor or lawyer will tell you, “they’re going to lie anyway, and have a right to do so.” As best they could, Robin and Cornelia tailored their account to match the facts — Robin’s damning Internet searches for poison were meant to protect his horses from eating the wrong weeds; Cornelia had taken out all those life insurance policies merely as a precaution; Robin only wanted to sell Tanja a horse and had no idea of “her” plan to murder Christin. To call their versions unconvincing was an understatement.

Eventually, after all the suspects were heard, and the judges retired to deliberate. Eventually, they returned their verdict (g). All five of the defendants — Tanja, Robin, his mother Cornelia, Tanja’s sister Sven, and his friend Steven (who probably actually committed the murder) were found guilty. Robin and his mother were sentenced to life in prison with a special finding of especially severe culpability (besondere Schwere der Schuld), which means they will have to stay around 25 years behind bars. Sven and Steven were sentenced to life without a special finding, which means they’ll become eligible for release in around 15 years.

As for Tanja, the judges made use of §46a of the German Criminal Code, which allows sentence reduction if the offender “voluntarily disclos[es] his (sic!) knowledge” of the offense. She received not a life sentence, but a term of fourteen and one-half years. With good behavior, she might well be released in half that time. Some of the defendants appealed their conviction, but on 9 March 2016, the Supreme Court of Justice (g) dismissed the appeals as “evidently unfounded“. At this point, the verdicts and sentences became formally legally binding.

As I mentioned above, Cornelia, Robin, and Steven all agreed to be interviewed from prison. This is quite rare in Germany, both because prisoners generally want to avoid calling attention to themselves, and because prison authorities often deny access to prisoners because it may “hinder resocialization”. Robin and Cornelia apparently wanted to increase their chances of early release by making a show of coming to terms with their sentence. However — at least from the edited excerpts presented in the podcast — they still seem to deny the charges against them.

Interestingly, the authors of the podcast, after all their research, believe that important aspects of the case still remained unsolved, and attribute this to gaps in the investigation and the judges’ examination during trial (g). I personally don’t see this, from an American or British perspective, the evidence is much more than adequate for conviction. German law punishes abetting the crime identically to committing it, so the various levels of involvement are not particularly important, as long as there is evidence the abettors had a common purpose and plan. But the German criminal justice system is oriented toward finding out the entire truth, as far as possible.