Thomas Hettche ‘The Arbogast Case’

Thomas Hettche’s Arbogast Case, based on a true story of criminal mis-justice in West Germany stretches from the early 50’s immediate post war times through the building of the Berlin Wall up to the period of  civil unrest towards the end of the 60’s.

The book is roughly divided into four parts, firstly the initial incident and it’s aftermath leading up to Arbogasts sentence, the second part portrays the detention centre and helps us to understand the utter hopelessness of The detainee’s life in this centre at that time. The third part concerns itself with the fight to get a re-trial and the last part deals with this trial.


Hans Arbogast, a married travelling sales man, was no saint and nor was the hitch hiker, one of the refugees from the east living in the Ringsheim camp on that September day in 1953. “After awhile, he felt her hand on his neck and her fingers slipping inside his shirt collar…… “Why don’t we just stop somewhere along the way?” “Do we want to do that?” “Yes.” Her voice was so close against his face that he could feel her moist breath on his skin.” Marie Gurth then died in his arms during a second “vigorous” bout of love making.

His trial hinged on an expert witness who attested to undoubted strangulation, against the view of the legist, based on some poor photos. A possible explanation for this is given towards the end of the book “I went to see Arbogast yesterday, and I do think that what happened back then was some sort of accident. But also an eruption, a sort of blown circuit, a storm, a vestige from the war that suddenly discharged.” “What’s the war got to do with it?” “He’s got it in him.” “So?” “I think everyone felt that back then. People knew the scent of it all too well. The jurors, the judges, the press, all of them knew one thing: That had to go. It mustn’t be allowed. The fear was too great. Then people got civilized—and now the fear is gone. People have actually forgotten it was ever there.”

Hettche then helps us to understand the particular prison that was the Bruchsal Penitentiary, copied on a British idea that was never applied so purely in Britain, Bruchsal was a panopticon prison, designed to de-humanise its inmates at a lowest possible cost. This part of the book seems long but is powerful.

It took his new lawyers the best part of 7 years to get his second hearing, German law “as it existed today, contained all of history inside it…He’d often thought he could hear echoes of the language used during Germany’s imperial past in the current Criminal Code; in certain passages, there were also shades of the heated rhetoric from the period between the wars, when new laws had been drafted in rapid succession; then, too, there were tones of the horrible premeditated sobriety of the Nazis, who had stormed across the Penal Code, incorporating into it one reform after the next….all these disparate voices within the law constituted the real prison that held Arbogast captive.”

There is no doubt in the readers mind that the case against Arbogast would be dropped and as the judge says “Only Hans Arbogast knows if we have made a mistake.”

I found this an enlightening read, a type of historical procedural thriller and many thanks to Farrar the English language publishers for having taken this book on.

First published in Germany by DuMont Verlag in 2001
Translated into English by Elizabeth Gaffney and published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 2003
Translated into French by Nicole Casanova and published by Grasset et Fasquelle in 2003

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