Summary Justice—A German Divorce

Sybille Bedford
Illustrations: Ken Krimstein
August 19, 2020

The twelfth piece in our Polity of Literature series:

Recently in this series we’ve seen what happens to life stories when asylum seekers must appeal to nation-states for protection. Many of their stories can’t be heard at all (see addendum to PoL #10). We’ve seen how procedural rules constrain the stories that can be told in a court room, and the ways that an artist can re-stage the same encounter while loosening the rules (see PoL #11). How close can those forms ever bring us to hearing and understanding “the other” (which is the starting place of politics)? And what about literature? What will shift, what possibilities will open, if we take the same complex lives that fill the processing centers and court rooms, and transfer their stories from there into literature?

Sybille Bedford wrote several books about court trials in the mid-20th century. Bedford herself is an underappreciated giant of English-language prose. Best known for her travel writing (The Sudden View) and the brilliant novel/memoirs of her storied life (Jigsaw, A Compass Error, A Favourite of the Gods), she also produced five books about law courts. She reported the West German trials of Auschwitz guards, for The Observer, Jack Ruby’s trial (the man who shot JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald) in Dallas, Texas, for LIFE Magazine, and the London obscenity trial of the publishers of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The most intriguing of her court room books is The Faces of Justice (1961), a survey of trial court procedures in five European countries. Typical of Bedford’s work, the author herself appears as a central character, deflating any pretensions toward expertise, bedevilled by the accidents of travel, and wary of hubris in anyone, especially herself. This is a layman’s account of something that matters deeply, the reporting of what, today, we’d call a “fan boy.” Bedford’s belief in justice is fierce, anchored in a life buffeted by too much injustice. She observes the court with the keen hunger of an acolyte who must feed her faith. Bedford is a superb, sympathetic observer and a terrifically skilled writer. (Those interested in learning more about her can begin with novelist Boyd Tonkin’s insightful profile, published on the web journal Boundless.) Following is the Munich chapter of The Faces of Justice, currently available from Faber & Faber.


In Munich the Palace of Justice—such is the name—is a florid, pompous pile of 1870 baroque and forms the centrepiece of a loud square. Even so courts, archives and offices spill over into an annexe laid out like an ornate railway station. The clientele is large and mixed. Munich, before the war, before it had become the present phantasmagoric and quite ominous exhibit of destruction, the jumble of boomtown with black, solid ruins and the standing pezzi grossi of Wittelsbach Victorian masonry, must have been a curious place, very German and unlike any other place in Germany. It was, and is, the sophisticated, hybrid capital of a mountainous and rural country on the wrong side of the Alps. For in aspiration Munich is incurably Italianate, an expression in flesh and stone of that perennial Germanic longing, der Drang nach dem Süden. Only whereas the architects and the good citizens and the building prince dreamed of Florence, what the people tried to live was Naples. Pace and life were set by an extravagant, operatically romantic and beloved court (and later on by the memories of that court), by a middling and on the whole not very prosperous, intensely local aristocracy (Graf and groom to this day wear the same Bavarian dress), a large number of academic figures who had come by choice, a very large number of artists, and by a robust, pious, rowdy, beer-swilling populace of artisans and shopkeepers, Catholics to the bone, swaying through the year in a round of saturnalia—an eight weeks’ open carnival, roast oxen at the fair—punctuated by prescribed lean days.

The very beer is brewed strong or thin according to the Apostolic Calendar. It was a Munich rabble that first attached itself to Hitler. The King was often mad; the Regent behaved with marked eccentricity. All the professors were respectable and most of them were eminent. Thomas Mann settled here, his own compromise possibly between his brand of Mediterranean longings and his need for a discipline of the North. Many of the artists were thriving and respected artist figures; the crowd of them were artists by dress and habits: Munich had the second largest pre-war population of painters in the world, Paris with a round hundred thousand coming first. The streets were always full of tourists, tourists en route for Italy, tourists setting out on climbs, English and American tourists come to stay, imbued with the same kind of love for Munich the inhabitants bear the land beyond the Brenner Pass. The climate is not good; wet cold alternates with summer rain, dry days are scourged by a southern wind called Föhn that flays the nerves (in crimes of violence Föhn is always put forward in mitigation); the Loggia dei Lanzi—what is left of it—looks dusty, heavy, philistine and what it is: a nineteenth-century copy; pavements and drinking cellars have indeed achieved some débraillé, but it is not that of Donatello’s Mercury, smiles here are guffaws, the rugged feasting is not even Murrillon, it has a Flemish streak, it is Brueghel. And yet there are blue days and those are of a quality, so rare, so luminous, so alien, that one can see what the inhabitants have hoped to see for so many hundred years.

To-day, Munich looks as gutted as London did in 1945. The Brown House is a shell; Königliche Hoheit has receded to the point of no return, though Wagner, Lola Montez and King Ludwig keep marching on in nostalgic memory. The rest is there. The fair-ground crowds; the dishes heaped with gross farinaceous eating—dumplings and sausage, and cabbage and fat; the magnificent art collections; the professors; a bohemia in new clothes; the aristocracy, fewer, older, leaner, more very old women than men, more down-at-heel after every war; the tourists re-inforced now by swarms of Balkan refugees and by the omnipresence, in uniform and out, of the Amerikaner, all milling between the cosy pre-fabs with the little theatre and the good shops and the gap-blown, rectilinear streets of bourgeois tenements, and of course the Beer Halls.

A hand holds a beer stein with lady justice on it.

The Beer Halls are hideous. The Beer Halls have to be seen to be believed. They are the Corner Houses of a different world. Bavarian beer as we all know is very good indeed. A difference in degree makes a difference in kind. Here it becomes something vile. At the Hofbräu, at the Löwenbräu, the Salvator, the Augustiner, hundreds upon hundreds of men and women sit each with a two-pint pot of beer before them, and down the aisles there open, flight on flight, ample, Roman, marbled, loud with gushing waters, the urinals and the vomitoria.

As for the country, it is here that the foothills of the Alps begin, the region of Europe that has always been inhabited—whether, on paper, Swiss or Austrian or Bavarian—by a stock of strong and narrow peasant strain. It is the goitre belt of prudish Catholicism, guttural speech, unkindness to animals, endurance, craft, frugality, cretins and hard-worked women. There are as always contradictions. There is Baroque art, the white and golden, lyrical architecture of these lands. There is the fact that this one of the loveliest, most elegant, original, and surely recondite, of European styles sprang from and flourished in these deceptively uncouth regions.


The Munich courts, high and low, operate in two distinct sets, one with jurisdiction over Munich Town, the other over Munich Land. The lists of both are heavy (at least while I was there) with sexual offences and crimes of violence: procuration, assault, abortion, in an unhappy conjunction of native tendencies with the ubiquitous Amerikaner.

“You must have known that he was married?” the judge says to the girl.

“He was going to divorce for me.”

“And when you had the second baby, the one that lived—luckily for you—the one that was born last month, that was by him, too?”

She is getting on for nineteen by now. The first one, the one she managed not to have, would have come when she was still in law a juvenile. (The mills of Continental justice.)

“Where is he now?” says the judge.

“I don’t know.”

There is information, the prosecution puts in, that he was taken into custody by the U.S. military authority.

The judge is sitting with two jurors, round-eyed, sausage-fingered men who do not utter.

The girl volunteers, “He sold his TV set to pay for the doctor’s fee.” The doctor, too, is in custody.

The judge says, “What are we to do with you? Didn’t you know that this was serious? Didn’t you know that for adults it can mean hard labour? Didn’t you look it up?”

The girl shakes her frizzy head.

The public prosecutor, a small dark man with a foreign accent, a political refugee from a Rumanian province, speaks and asks for a sentence of four weeks juvenile detention.

“A load off your mind?” says the judge. Cat-and-mouse or kindliness? One cannot quite tell.

They discuss what would be the most convenient time for doing the four weeks. The girl has got a job as chambermaid at an hotel; December is the slack season. The prosecutor says it would be more desirable really if she spent Christmas at home with the new baby. The judge concurs. All this, it must be noted, takes place before sentencing.

What about January then? January is cleaning time. The spring? That’s the beginning of the season. The father is in court, a great big wood-hewn Bavarian with a game leg, sobbing heartily. Please, he says, will they give her a deferred sentence.

The judge explains that the law does not allow him to defer a sentence of juvenile detention. A prison sentence might be deferred, but the minimum prison sentence prescribed for this offence is six months.

What does it matter, says the father, as long as it is deferred.

(A sentence to a term of prison deferred is the Continental form of our conditional or suspended sentence. In a case where we might give, say, a twelve months’ conditional discharge or a year’s probation, they would make it a month prison deferred for one year. The principle is the same; the convicted person is given a complete chance and in either form is liable to go to prison if he relapses. The practical effect may well be different: it is likely that the knowledge of a definite sentence, of the month in the book, has a greater deterrent influence than the remembered words, “if there is a new charge you can be brought here again and be punished for this charge”).

The judge says that unfortunately it is never safe to rule out the possibility of a relapse. This, however, is not their main consideration; their main consideration is that the court does not like to put such a prison sentence on the record of a young offender. Six months would look bad to a future employer, a passport authority; six months would look very bad in a court. “We cannot change the law, sir, you must see that. We can only seek a reasonable solution.”

The judge and his two dumb friends withdraw and when on their return they announce the reasonable solution, it sounds indeed a hybrid: Approved school, indeterminate period, two years deferment.

The girl grasps that if she is good she will be free to divide her time between the January cleaning and looking after the new baby.

“No more Amerikaner,” says the prosecutor.

The father thanks the court. The girl says, “Auf Wiedersehn.”

“We hope not,” says the judge.


The next is an older mother accused of letting her daughter share her bed with Them. Schwere Kuppelei, they call the offence.

She is quite indignant. “She was engaged to the American gentlemen,” she says. “Oh yes, formally engaged, each time.”

Big cases usually involve complex, many-stranded issues; in small cases one too easily takes sides. If the judge is kind, intelligent and fair, and without that maddening streak of donnish-judicial remoteness from the facts of life, it is hard to sit in a court for any length of time without coming to look upon the people on the wrong side of the bar as so many oafs and morons. I had moreover taken against the inhabitants of Munich from the start, those Bavarian faces, that blend in the popular temper, one soon comes to feel, of frivolity and romanticism with simple brutality. I was spoken to by a number of people who told me admiringly how nice it was for England still to have the death penalty. And when in the North or in the Rhineland or in Baden they tell you how they never really took to Hitler, they never fail to point to Bavaria, his spiritual home, the breeding-ground and sanctuary of National Socialism. (In Bavaria, they tell you that the real Naziland was Saxony. Now cut off in the Eastern Zone.) So I was glad when I heard a case that shed a softer light.

Between assaulted minors, hefty girls who looked quite capable of holding their own at Buenos Aires, there appeared a mingy specimen of a man charged with house-breaking and illegal entry from Czechoslovakia. He had been in custody for some weeks (this was one of the speedy trials), and the policeman on the chair by him, sitting in his amplitude of flesh, looked of a different breed.

The facts were—none too quickly—told. The accused, speaking poor German, inarticulate generally, was a Czech, twenty-eight years old and an unskilled worker; he had had enough and one night he walked across the border in the clothes he stood in hoping to reach Munich and there ask for asylum as a refugee. (I am also putting in this case because I heard a case similar in issue later on in Paris.)

Was he not aware, the Czech was asked, that he could have asked asylum at the first police station inside Germany?

He did not know, he thought he would have to go to Munich. He had been anxious to get as far as Munich.

Why had he not provided himself with a little money against his first needs? Had he not been in employment?

Oh, yes, he’d been working. He left on a Saturday evening, but he didn’t take his Czech money. He thought it was better so.

After three days and nights in the Bavarian woods, he was worn out and hungry, his socks were walked to shreds. He broke into an empty week-end shack and there took, in the language of the charge sheet:

1 pair of worsted knee-socks valued at 18s 4d
1 slab of chocolate valued at 1s 6d
1 package of pretzels valued at 11d
1 jar of honey valued at 5s 6d
1 package of 20 cigarettes valued at 3s 4d

What the Czech actually did was to wolf the chocolate and the pretzels, light a cigarette, find a spoon and eat about two thirds of the honey—it was all the food to be found—put on the clean socks, hang his own bloody rags over a chair, light another cigarette, put the package in his pocket, lie down on the couch and fall asleep. It was so that the Bavarian owner—who sat next to me during the trial uttering self-congratulatory noises—found him: in exhausted sleep, on the owner’s couch, the owner’s fine hand-knitted Bavarian knee-socks with tassels and embroidered tops on his legs, the jar of honey by his side with the spoon and the two stubs. The owner first woke him, then locked him in, then drove to fetch the police.

An invisible person wearing only socks lounges on a couch and smokes a cigarette

At the trial the Czech was not represented. He admitted all the facts. He put forward no defence.

“Are you an habitual smoker?”

“Yes.”

“How many a day?”

“Forty.”

The owner was asked if he wished to make a submission. “Yoah,” he said. “Punishment.”

The judge gave a sentence of four months, deferred; and justified it as follows. The facts of the case themselves, he said, constituted a defence. House-breaking was a very serious crime, but here the question of guilt hinged on the question of Necessity, and in the view of the court there had been Necessity. The country between the Danube and the Czech border was wooded and lonely. The accused, for some obscure but well-lodged reason of his own, had been convinced that he must on no account appeal to an authority before reaching the capital; he had been on the point of collapse from hunger and exhaustion. The taking of the articles of food was quite evidently covered by one legal definition of Necessity, Mundraub; the taking of the knee-socks also—the police had testified as to the state of the man’s own footwear—was covered by a definition of Necessity, Notentwendung. It was true that these socks happened to be far superior to the article they had served to substitute, but one had to bear in mind that these had been in fact the only pair of socks there was. The only doubt the court had had was over the package of cigarettes, the eighteen unsmoked cigarettes found in the accused man’s pocket, but it was the opinion of this court that in the case of a man accustomed to smoking forty cigarettes a day, the taking of one packet must be considered provision for his journey and therefore Appropriation through Necessity rather than Theft.

The judge then asked the Czech whether he accepted the judgment, and told him that in any case he was now free to go.

The man looked extremely worried.

“You must go to the Foreigners’ Police,” said the judge, “and get your status straightened out. If you like, the court will give you a letter.”

I went behind the scenes to find out whether there was any chance of his being sent back to Czechoslovakia. He did not look, one must bear in mind, a very bright or healthy or useful addition to the Federal Republic. I was told that he certainly would not. Back in the corridor, I found the Czech encircled by a pressing mob—the audience from the public gallery. They had sent round the hat and were stuffing the proceeds into his pockets and limp hand.

________

In the course of my first week in Munich I had happened to come in on the middle of a dullish case and had stayed to the end, fascinated by the manner of the judge, who looked like a young priest. On my last morning, wandering rather disconsolately about the passages—one does get very weary of it at times and there are days when it all looks stale and sad, pedantic, heartbreaking, stupid in the last analysis, and beside the point—I decided to manage for myself a kind of farewell treat, I was going to hear that judge again. I did not know his name. The place is vast. I opened and shut doors, and when it did seem hopeless, went on with a kind of mechanical obstinacy. When I saw that very man hurry across a vestibule, I spoke to him on an impulse. I found it possible to tell him I had been impressed and why, and I asked him if he were sitting anywhere this morning might I come with him. At close quarters he did not look young. He still looked like a priest; a poor priest in a shabby soutane, with a worn youthful face. He was kind. He said to come but that he was afraid his second case was going to be a Matrimonial Reconciliation, and all divorce proceedings had to be held in private. I said I knew that. He said to come anyway, and we would see.

He sat alone in what one might call chambers and which was a small bright room furnished like an office and equipped with a bright and pretty girl for shorthand-writer.

The first case was an application for reduction of alimony, and sheer heartbreak, something from the column of Miss Lonely-hearts. The wife, who was desperately resisting the reduction, was there, sitting with a flabby lawyer who had slipped in ten minutes late. The husband did not appear; his lawyer kept on adding figures in his brief as if he were trying to sort them out for the first time. It was evident from the start that the judge must have spent the night poring over them.

As the figures are going to recur I shall at once translate them into pounds.

Herr and Frau Kahn (I call them Kahn because that is not their name) were divorced some years ago. There were two young children. Frau Kahn was given custody, and Herr Kahn, who had just taken up a post as Government architect in the Rhineland with a salary of £800, was ordered to pay alimony of £250 a year. Meanwhile he had remarried and had had another child. At first the new wife had had a job, now she had fallen very ill. Herr Kahn could no longer manage to pay that slice out of his income.

Frau Kahn began by saying quietly that she did not believe a word of it. “You do not know my husband——”

The judge said that he realised from the correspondence that her husband had been very bad about the payments, he had been constantly in arrears long before his present difficulties began. “I do see that this was extremely hard on you and the children, but Frau Kahn, we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that we are now facing a radically changed situation. Unfortunately it is all quite true.” The second wife, the poor young woman, had been struck by illness which had left her with a deformation of the spine, a permanent invalid. “I have the medical documents—they are at your disposal—it is an appalling thing really, and nothing can be done about it.”

“I am very sorry about that,” said Frau Kahn, who looked pretty tired herself.

“So now it is not only that she had to give up all thought of ever earning anything herself again, she is no longer able to do the housework for her husband and she cannot look after the child. The child has been boarded out, later on he will have to be sent to a boarding school and to holiday camps, all at great cost to your husband.”

“There are institutions.”

Frau Kahn,” says the judge.

“Yes, yes,” she says. “I see.”

“And therefore——”

“You can tell me what you like, but it isn’t an excuse for my husband to wriggle out of his obligations. As he always has.”

“An excuse, no. The question is how far can he now fulfil his obligations? All his obligations. We cannot ask people to do the impossible. I want you to realise how matters stand——”

I do the impossible.”

“And why?”

“For my children of course. Herr Landrat, I love my children.”

The judge says nothing.

“Quite—my husband, perhaps I should say ex-husband, wouldn’t do it for me.”

Worried eyes surrounded by speech bubbles

The judge says, almost sotto voce, “I worked out a little chart.”

The lawyers come to life.

“It’s just a note to help me, gentlemen. Your husband then, Frau Kahn, is earning £800 a year, you are earning just under £500 at your bank, is that right?”

“It comes to exactly £493 a year.”

“That is what I put down. So you see it is simply a question of dividing just under £1,300 between six people—three grown-ups, one of them an invalid, one of them in poor health—I do know that you, also, have been far from well—and three children. Here you are.”

HUSBAND
Income £800 a year = £16 a week
+ Alimony £250 = £5
_________________
Total Left £550 a year = £11 a week for 2 Adults and 1 Child
WIFE
Income £493 a year = £9 10 a week
– Alimony £250 = £5
_________________
Total Left £743 a year = £14 10 a week for 1 Adult and 2 Children

“Herr Landrat, if you think you have proved now that that’s a lot of money and that I get more than my husband, let me tell you … Fourteen pounds ten a week, you say, when my husband does pay up, which is not often and not without many efforts, letters, lawyers, running to offices in my luncheon hour—well, when we do get it, we can just manage, only just. Two growing children——”

“I do realise, Frau Kahn, I do——”

“—and I’m away from home all day, and I have to look fairly respectable at the bank, Herr Landrat, do you know the rent one has to pay if one doesn’t want to bring up one’s children in a barrack? And I can’t move further out, I couldn’t leave them alone even longer than I have to now. Every penny, I tell you, goes into just keeping us going. You were right to say I was not well myself, I was in hospital again last August—ten days—I went home too soon. I’ ve had this kidney thing ever since the boy was born. I shouldn’t stand so much, it wears me out there are times when I think I cannot go on, I want to die. And it never stops. The housework, being in time for the office, getting back in time for the housework and their homework——”

The judge says, “I can see it all, Frau Kahn, and I do sympathize with you. But what can we do about it? You say —and I know it’s true—you cannot afford any help on fourteen pounds ten a week, and your husband has eleven pounds a week and the domestic situation I told you about?”

“My husband could take on some extra work. I have to do work in the evening. I often stand and do the ironing and at the same time the little boy’s arithmetic.”

“Do you think your husband would?”

“Not a chance. Not he.”

“You see we shall be forced to come to the decision to allow your husband some reduction.”

“Herr Landrat, may I tell you the background story of this case? My husband and I were married in 1948. I was twenty-one and at the university, working for my degree. I was going to teach. My husband was twenty-two, he had just been demobilised and he wanted to become an architect. I broke off my studies and took a job as a telephone operator to make it possible. His training lasted for nearly six years, and all that time I stayed in that telephone exchange. I supported us all. I worked so hard that the little boy developed a nervous trouble because he was so much left alone as a baby, he is still under treatment now. Herr Landrat, one year after my husband got his diploma, he started having an affair with that girl. Six months later he left me for her.”

The judge looked at her. “A very bad business.”

“One more thing: If I had gone on with my degree, instead of financing my husband’s, I should now have my own career, I always wanted to be a teacher, and I should be earning enough to keep my children and myself decently, and in security. My present job will lead to nothing, I had no training in banking, it was too late, I was only taken on as unskilled clerical staff. Now you have the whole situation. I never speak ill of their father to the children—nor to anyone—but sometimes one must speak out….”

And so we heard that during the worst time after the war her husband had his shirts made to measure—when we couldn’t afford a baby-sitter … “He is a selfish man, Herr Landrat,” how he had always managed to get American cigarettes. “Is there no justice?”

“Would it be material——” said her lawyer, but the judge signed him to desist.

After some time, he said, “What do you suggest?”

She said, “He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it, and I really don’t see how I can manage on less.” Then she stiffened once more, “It’s his moral obligation.”

A man and a woman stand on either side of a judge, who is looking back and forth at both of them. A question mark appears on the judge's desk.

“We are here to decide on what is possible; now. We still have only £1,300 to divide between six people, and your husband has the heavier liabilities. And he is a civil servant, he, too, has to look fairly respectable at the ministry. We are obliged by law to leave a man enough not to impair his working capacity. Do you know what the prescribed legal minimum is for an unskilled, single working-man? £4. 10. 0. a week.”

“Yes, but——”

“Frau Kahn, what do you think would happen if we refused this application of your husband’s now?”

“He’d find some other way of getting out of paying.”

“Like resigning his appointment and going into private practice and declaring a business loss?”

“He’s quite capable of it.”

“So it might be unwise—for your sake, Frau Kahn—to refuse this application?”

“Yes, but——”

“Herr Rechtsanwalt—do you think that if we allowed an annual reduction of £50, which would bring the order down to £4 a week, your client would feel that his need had been met and would undertake to pay regularly?”

“Yes, we would agree to that,” says Herr Kahn’s lawyer.

“Herr Rechtsanwalt—in the circumstances, would you consider this an acceptable solution for your client?”

“I should recommend it,” says Frau Kahn’s lawyer.

“Frau Kahn—would you agree?”

“Oh, very well,” she says. “But——”

Presently the order is entered in due form.

When the shorthand writer has closed the protocol, and Frau Kahn gets up to go, the judge says to her, “This will not go on for ever. You know that your husband’s salary is bound to rise. It looks as if he had a career in front of him, they’ll probably make him Oberbaumeister in a few years. That would alter the circumstances. The courts would grant you an increase of order.”

After she had left he said, “That was an unhappy story. There is so little we can do. All we can try is to heal; so often we succeed only in amputating. Was I wrong to hold out hope? I made some inquiries—I’m not quite such a fool as I look—I think that man will rise. He is thought to have ability. If he is not crushed. That is another question: here we have a man who liked things easy, and now he has got two tragedies on his hands. She asked if there was no justice. I sometimes think there is too much.”

Then he said, “Do smoke, please, if you wish. Oh, dear, we’ve over-run, I’m late again. The Reconciliation must be waiting.” He explained that there can be no divorce without this hearing which is a formal invitation to reconsider and to make it up. Generally, they do not. “You had better stay. We shall have to ask the parties’ permission.”

Presently, a man and a woman enter, each with a lawyer. They sit down apart and without looking at each other. Both are middle-aged, both show traces of uncommon handsomeness, both are wooden-faced.

The judge begins by asking their consent for me to stay. The man shrugs and says, “Why not?” The woman gives me one quick look, and says, “Yes.” Her lawyer says “I have no objection.” The man’s lawyer says, “English press? I don’t think that would be at all desirable.” I feel as if I were already guilty of having hawked his clients’ private life to the Sunday papers. “This is of no interest,” he says to me in a menacing tone. The judge puts my case, which makes me feel guilty in another way. “Oh, very well then,” says the lawyer.

“Frau X., Herr X. — you have considered this: you are both now in your fifties—your children are married—you have been married yourselves for twenty-nine years—neither of you wishes, it appears, to set out on another marriage—have you asked yourselves whether it is worth breaking up your lives and your home at this stage?” The grounds for this divorce are incompatibility and mutual consent. (Both are valid here.) “Could you think of burying your differences and going on as you were? Herr X.——?”

The man chews his mouth. After a time he says ungraciously, “I wouldn’t mind. She can stay. If she admits her guilt. [Suddenly colouring] If she admits it.”

The woman says, “For nothing on earth.”

There follows an outburst from the man. It is bitter, bitter. It is also savage and ranting and loud, yet all about petty things. The seed-cake she baked for the neighbours, the sugar and the egg he had walked twelve miles to find in 1946, the undone mending, the running to the cinema, “she never thinks of me, never of me, never——”

The woman says, “Herr Richter, a woman may be very guilty, a woman may feel very guilty, but no woman, Herr Richter, is able to live with having her guilt thrown in her face every day for sixteen years.”

The man shouts a word; then trembles.

The shorthand girl looks at the judge, pencil poised? The judge lightly shakes his head.

“Herr X. are you quite blameless?”

“I slept with every woman who came my way, I made all her friends. I did. I made her own sister. But that was afterwards. Afterwards. I didn’t like it, it didn’t help.”

During the war something happened that could have happened to any woman. Here, ill luck, or circumstances, or fate, gave it an extra twist. And so something had to happen to the man that would be very hard for any man’s pride, or fastidiousness, to bear. He came home on leave from the front in 1943, an N.C.O., possibly already a bit of a soft bully, his nerves shot to pieces. He learnt about his wife because he became ill. He never got over it. From that day on their life was hell.

When the spate of words and counter words was over, the judge dictated, “The parties Herr X. and Frau X. of Y. appeared before me on this tenth day of November in the presence of the clerk and of (my name and address) and were duly invited to resume their marriage. The attempted reconciliation failed.”

Their children are of age. “Maintenance?”

“I want nothing,” says the wife.

“That will make it all quite simple when your divorce comes up. That will probably be—not in December: the Christmas vacation—in January, in February more likely. It seems a pity … All the papers are ready…. To wait all that extra time…. The expense, too, having the case called a second time. It is a pity.” The judge pulled his watch. “If only we had finished a bit earlier. A quarter past one, they’re all gone now. You see, we have to be three High-court judges to pronounce a divorce. I wonder— There may still be someone in the building. Fräulein—? You think we might be able to find someone? Ring down to Court VIII, will you?”

Frau Landsgerichtsrat Holm has only just risen.

“Tell her to wait!” cries the judge. “We shall be right down. Tell her we have a divorce. Come, follow me … And you, come with me,” grabbing my arm, robe flying, he is down the corridor. “No not the lift, the lift is slow, I shall explain it all to you on our way down.” We fly down the main staircase. Behind us is the shorthand writer, bearing the divorce file on her clipboard, behind her are the woman, and at some distance the husband and the panting lawyers.

Legal officials run down a hallway in the direction of a sign marked "To More Courts."

Landsgerichtsrat Holm is disrobing, “Come with me, follow me—no, keep it on!—come quick, we have to find someone else, I’ll explain it all to you as we go.” We are trotting three abreast now. “Are they all there? Are they following? No, you stay here, it may interest you to see how things are done.” Past cleaning women, past stray lawyers. “Can we go a little faster? You don’t mind, Frau Landrat? I don’t want them to wait all of those months, it wouldn’t be at all good—— Let’s try here.”

“The judge went out to luncheon half an hour ago, sir.”

“Thank you. Come on, come on—we must try the other floor. And to pay all that money—— I must explain to you that here we have costs every time a case is called. Legal expenses are wicked. Frau Landrat, a little faster perhaps? Here. No—locked. Come on, come on….” We are frankly running.

“Oh dear no, that’s the Amtsgericht wing, that’s no use. Amtsgerichts judges cannot do a divorce. Half past one—we must hurry—this turning—are they following? You must explain to me about procedure in England. Oh, here’s a clerk—can you tell us, please? No, I suppose not. We cannot disappoint them now … Where did you say? Oberlands-gerichtsrat Staadler is working in his rooms? Come along then! Oh, no, Frau Landrat, he will be delighted. We must hurry….”

Our cortege streams into the Appeal Court judge’s rooms. He looks at us over his spectacles. “Really Landrat, is this necessary?”

“It is, it is. I’ll explain it all to you as we go along. Put on your robes. We can stand, it won’t take a minute. Are they all here?”

The shorthand writer presents the file. The judge takes it, trying to get his breath. The Appeal-Court judge slings on his white tie. We group ourselves in a semi-circle. The judge gabbles through the pages as if he were conducting a Catholic country funeral. The parties look at the floor. As soon as the marriage is declared dissolved, the Appeal-Court judge disappears again into his inner room. The lawyers mark their briefs. A register is signed. There is some shaking of hands. The woman has already walked away. The man bows to the judge. And on this note of Alice directed by René Clair ended my encounter with the German legal system.

Sybille Bedford

Sybille Bedford

"Born in Charlottenburg in Germany on 16 March 1911, Sybille von Schoenebeck, after an unusual and insecure childhood, a hectic education and a bohemian youth, found her true voice and became an English writer under the name of Sybille Bedford. Her complex life and changing habitats, the troubled and tragic times she lived through, and the feeling she had of being a survivor gave her a strong awareness of the hazards of fate. Her endless curiosity about the world, her compassion for her fellow human beings, her bright original views, her wit, her insight, her elegance of spirit and style make of her an irreplaceable witness of the twentieth century and give her writing a distinctive quality. Novelist, biographer, essayist and journalist, she was elected a Companion of Literature in 1994 and died in London on 17 February 2006." —from sybillebedford.com

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