A is for affluence

Capture A

A is for. . .

Affluence [mass noun] the state of having a great deal of money; wealth

If there’s one thing guaranteed to make me mute the sound on television and avert my gaze it’s the latest story about ‘lucky’ lottery winners, pictured celebrating their sudden and unexpected good fortune, obligingly spraying champagne around for the assembled multitude of photographers.

But why is the acquisition of wealth, particularly when it isn’t hasn’t come through hard work but simply by winning, automatically assumed to be the route to everlasting happiness and a Good Thing? I’m not suggesting for a moment that there’s anything noble about being poor. Properly poor, that is: deprived of the basic needs that every human being is entitled to expect. But having far more than one requires both to survive and live untroubled by worry about money particularly when so many people are struggling to keep their heads above water, seems ethically dubious to me. Does anyone really need multiple mansions or multiple cars or multiple anything?

American psychologist Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper postulated a ‘hierarchy of needs’, expressed as a five-level triangle well known to psychology students everywhere. At the base he had the really basic metabolic physiological needs for human survival: clean air for oxygen to maintain the body’s processes, as well as water and food, closely followed by clothing to keep us naked primates warm and shelter from the elements.

Other layers of his triangle demanded, in ascending order, safety (protection from war, crime and the maintenance of good health); love and belonging to sustain mental health; esteem; and the geekily scientific-sounding ‘self actualisation’ (in normal English, that’s the realisation of personal potential). So only the lowest level is about basic physical needs: those things that literally keep us alive.

Of course, it goes without saying, Biblically speaking, that Man does not live by bread alone. We need sufficient wealth to put food on the table, buy clothes now and then and, often, pay the mortgage or rent to keep a roof over our heads. And in the second level of the Maslowian triangle, society at large needs to generate sufficient wealth to fund health care, other social services, policing and, sadly but necessarily, you might say, a military.

But that being said, even the most ardent opponent of materialism would admit that to live a rewarding life above the subsistence level, everyone needs a certain amount of ‘surplus’ cash once basic survival and social security needs are met: money to spend on relative fripperies such as entertainment, social media (many of us do, anyway) or holidays.

Here though we leave basic needs behind and move into the trickier category of wants. We enter a very inexact philosophy because relativity comes into the equation. One person, once he or she has sufficient food, clothing and shelter for survival, might be perfectly happy and content with the simple pleasures of life, such as interaction with family and friends, mental stimulation like access to a good book, nature, pets, and so on, whereas another would expect much more. They would feel that they should have far more, deserve far more; that their disposable income should greatly exceed basic survival requirements; that it’s perfectly reasonable to aspire to a huge salary or win a huge lottery prize. They wouldn’t be troubled by guilt that they have so much whilst others have little, about the fundamental unfairness of great inequality, whether within a country or between them.

But how much – or how much more than others, to be comparative about it – is ‘reasonable’? There are no absolutes, no absolute moral benchmark. One of the tenets of most religions is that one should share the good fortune of one’s wealth, if you have a lot of it, with the poor and disadvantaged. Some Christians and similarly people of other faiths (in Islam there’s even a percentage of income prescribed to be given away) are indeed philanthropic. Bill Gates gives huge chunks of his great wealth for the betterment of suffering mankind. So are some rich non-religious people. It’s by no means contradictory to be blessed with great wealth and also have a social conscience.

Others don’t see any moral requirement for sharing wealth though, or prefer to spend their huge surpluses of wealth on vanity projects such as developing space flight for the enjoyment of other wealthy people. It’s a matter of personal ethics and inclination, which in my view is the strongest argument for a robust, progressive tax system that compels those at the top of the pyramid of wealth to contribute to the social good fully but fairly, rather than vigorously avoid (for which read ‘dodge’) tax, as many do. Unresentful tax paying for the greater good is, after all, the sign of a civilised, empathetic society.

In his classic 2007 book Affluenza, psychologist Oliver James maintains that being too focused on, too obsessed with money and the stuff it buys can actually make us mentally ill. He cites examples from around the world of excessively wealthy people succumbing to this malady. You know the old adage, ‘money (ie lots of it) can’t buy happiness. He suggests, rather, that to a significant extent it’s a country’s culture and measures like good social support that make for happiness; that whereas extremely capitalist countries like the US, Britain and Singapore disproportionately succumb to the affluenza virus, countries which are more equal, more content with their lot and less aspiring to riches have a greater degree of wellbeing.

James was saying this back in the noughties and it still holds true. Since 2012, the United Nations has been publishing World Happiness Reports, which rate countries by the happiness of their people. In 2017 the top ten places were held by the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Norway was top, closely followed by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland. The US was fourteenth and the UK nineteenth although in the wealth league those two are ranked number one and number five. Only two of the happiest countries, Canada and Australia (positions seven and nine) are also in the top ten of the wealth league (positions eight and nine).

He concludes, and I agree with him, that true affluence doesn’t have to be – shouldn’t be – measured in terms of monetary wealth. The antidote (once basic needs plus a reasonable surplus of spare cash for material life-enrichment have been met) to affluenza is to focus on the ‘intrinsic’ riches; quality of life over quantity of consumption. Which is better: to earn mouth-wateringly huge amounts of money for doing something essentially trivial in the grand scheme of things, such as entertaining, or a modest but sufficient wage for doing something vital, like being an emergency worker?

It might be said that apart from having their basic needs met at Maslow levels one and two, together with a reasonable surplus of cash purely for indulgence, the expectation and right of everyone on earth should consist in attaining goals such as freedom from drudgery, a fair amount of leisure time to devote to pleasure, socialising with family and friends, possibly altruistically volunteering, and generally realising potential. Forget about selfish greed.  In a nutshell, settling for happiness and fulfilment. And what’s so wrong with that modest aspiration?

But affluence, like prostitution, is centuries old. Some anthropologists suggest that it began with the advent of farming. Before then, all hunter-gatherers were pretty uniformly poor. But when it became a matter of clearing and fighting for the best agricultural land, and having the good fortune to live in parts of the world blessed with animals capable of being tamed as beasts of burden or pullers of ploughs, which increased land productivity enormously, the wealthy were on their way.

And they’ve never looked back.

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Alphabetical musings

Here are some ramblings about selected words in the English language: words about whose meanings I feel strongly.


A is for . . .

Absolutism [mass noun] the holding of absolute principles in political, philosophical or theological matters.


As Lord John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902, prominent English historian, Catholic, writer, thinker and politician) once famously observed, ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. He completed that oft-quoted pearl of wisdom saying, ‘Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.’

Some might see him as unnecessarily cynical, but looking around the political scene today, I think he had a point. One of the most notorious examples from history of power going to the leader’s head is of course Adolf Hitler. He may well have begun his rise to power fired by the idealistic and patriotic zeal to free Germany of the weakness and corruption of the Weimar Republic, but he quickly became an absolutist in the most brutal and authoritarian way possible.

Other examples include Joseph Stalin and Napoleon Bonaparte, and, let’s not let Britain off the guilty hook, people like Oliver Cromwell and Cecil Rhodes.

Throughout history, public opinion has oscillated between liberal moderation and absolutism, extremism and social polarisation. Think Europe in the 1930s with its competing ideologies of fascism and communism and contrast that with the hopeful, hard-lesson-learned social democracy of the post-war years.

And then look at things today. We have Trumpism in America and a centrifugal shift to the hard, sometimes authoritarian ends of the political spectrum in Europe. There’s little appetite for the moderate centre ground. In Britain, too, there’s been a rejection of the left-of-centre Blair governments and the following liberal/fairly-moderate-right coalition of 2010-15. Now, the political centre has disappeared, leaving the Liberal Democrats decimated and toothless.

And don’t get me started on Brexit! A referendum that erstwhile prime minister Cameron confidently thought would see off the threat to his party by Ukip has resulted in a terrible, bitter cleaving of opinion in Britain, with Leavers and Remainers insulting each other daily on social media.

Some Remainers of a moderate disposition, like me, feel that the only way out of the ideological impasse that the – close – vote has created is to find a compromise (like, for example, negotiating a Norway-style looser relationship with the EU) which might reflect the divergent opinion on Europe and keep both sides reasonably happy.

But oh no; that wouldn’t satisfy the absolutist Leavers, or the absolutist DUP tail that’s now wagging the ineffectual minority Tory dog, who demand nothing less than total divorce, telling the ‘snowflakes’, the ‘remoaners’ to just suck it up, we’re leaving, lock stock and barrel because ‘the people’ willed it.

Then take that other great citadel of power: religion. There has been a glacially slow liberalisation of outlook in some religions – in mainstream Protestantism, anyway – but most are ruled by rigidly unyielding dogma. Their way is the only ‘true’ way; anything else is heresy. Hindus and Muslims slaughtered each other in pre-partition India. Sunnis and Shi’as still do today.

Even Buddhists, admired and emulated by many spiritually-minded, pacifistic Westerners, have recently been visiting unspeakable cruelty on Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and the hitherto almost saintly, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi seems to have been corrupted by those yielding absolute power.

The other side of the coin, the polar opposite really, is relativism. It holds that that there are no universal and absolute moral commands that apply to all cultures and in all situations. For liberal thinkers, that can pose a philosophical dilemma. To take just one example, animal cruelty: yes, we can humanely, reasonably insist (some of us do, anyway) that cruelty is cruelty is cruelty and applies everywhere, whether it’s the Korean breeding of dogs for meat or, in the relatively liberal West, bullfighting, fox hunting or force feeding geese for foie gras.

But we can also insist that some moral values are indeed relative to individual societies, cultures and situations; that it’s a matter of context. What is accepted as reasonable behaviour and validated by tradition in one culture, such as women wearing the veil and dressing ‘modestly’, is regarded as oppressive and misogynistic in others, which have a much more anything-goes (well, almost) attitude to dress, but both points of view are ‘valid’.

Take another couple of examples to illustrate the difference. An absolutist, or religious fundamentalist, would say that abortion is never, ever, justifiable. Even in the case of rape or a diagnosed severely damaged foetus. And the same with assisted dying, regardless of the mental or physical suffering, or wishes, of the patient. Whereas a relativist would say, in both cases, it all depends.

In a sense, the two opposing philosophies of absolutism and completely permissive relativism can themselves be considered absolutes, occupying either end of a grey-scale, a spectrum, of social outlook or convention. But the thing about relativism is, it allows for variability, for nuanced argument. Free from the absolute certainty of absolutism (as it were), it demands weighing up of opposing positions, of self-examination, of considering things case by case, issue by issue; in short, thinking for oneself. It can sometimes be philosophically messy.

Where exactly we sit on the scale depends on our own particular character and world view. I suppose this idealistic, reasonably liberal old geezer sits about midway between the centre point and the unfettered relativism end.

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The rest of a life

Here is the final part, the epilogue, of Christobel and an update on the rest of a life. If you’ve been following this unapologetically anti-war and pro-European Union (amongst other issues) story, I hope you’ve enjoyed it and thanks for your interest.

If you haven’t been doing but your interest is piqued a little, and would like to begin at the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive (it’s the last one on the list for that month) and then read each successive post apart from Unwelcome to Britain? which isn’t a chapter post but a little rant about one possible consequence of Brexit.


 Chris and Frieda lay very closely together (which they didn’t mind at all), she in the crook of his arm, on the sofa, covered by the spare duvet. They’d given Pam the use of the bed in deference to her age. After food, more post-prandial wine and a lot of catching up, she’d congratulated them on a wonderful meal and retired there quite early, tired after her long exhausting journey.

They were browsing through Christobel’s journal, picking out the particularly interesting entries, every bit as fascinated by the rest of her life story as they had been by the foregoing testament. Frieda stayed Chris’s hand, which was doing the page turning, at an entry.


16th September, 1960

There was a programme about the fifteenth anniversary of Victory Japan Day on the television last night. Fifteen years already. How quickly the final years of my life seem to be running away! I’m sure time is accelerating. It doesn’t seem five minutes since the day itself, following Japan’s surrender after the dropping of those two terrible bombs that forced her into submission. Although whether visiting such massive death and destruction on thousands of people with no warning really did bring that remaining part of the Second World War to a significantly earlier conclusion than would otherwise have been the case remains a moot point, in my opinion, whatever the Americans might say. Japan was heading for certain defeat anyway. But we can never know now. What was it Oppenheimer, the scientist who created the dreadful things said? “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. Yes indeed, Mr. Oppenheimer, you did!

It’s certainly true that since the two major wars of the first part of this century, mankind has invented ever more gross and obscene ways of slaughtering itself. Even those atom bombs are dwarfed by the monstrous hydrogen ones they have nowadays, including in this country. Why ever Britain and now France, who aren’t super powers, feel they have to have them, for “deterrence”, is beyond me. I wish I were ten years younger; then I’d be more actively involved with CND. It’s all very well donating to the cause, and I know I joined the march for the last couple of miles to Aldermaston two years ago, but I want to be out there protesting about the madness, not just feeling angry from my armchair!

Just think; over nine years of my life have been seared by terrible wars – and they were “conventional” ones, which were bad enough. The politicians vowed after the Great War that it would be the last, but it wasn’t, and then again after the second one, but still America and the U.S.S.R. rattle sabres at each other. But I should feel thankful, all the same. The first war nearly claimed my life after all, and it did my poor long lost Henri’s.

Yes, what a long time ago those days are now. Forty five years since the terror of that trial. But things did gradually improve after the Armistice and my release from prison though. It was good to return to England and Sleaford, back with my parents, after Émilie died in nineteen twenty-one. Poor Émilie; I think she died of a broken heart; she never really got over losing her son.

How my fortunes changed after moving back to England though, after hearing from Sam Shepherd, via the girls at ru de la Culture, that he’d still got the diaries I’d entrusted to his safe keeping and wanted to return them! And then meeting up with him in London because he’d been transferred to his government’s British Embassy. And then of course the exchanging of letters, which became both increasingly regular and increasingly intimate as we found ourselves surprisingly kindred spirits and also in the same position, because he was a widower, having lost his wife to The Great Influenza, the pandemic which so ravaged the world in 1918.

I really didn’t think I’d ever find another good man after Henri, but there we were, marrying in nineteen twenty-two, after which I found myself living in some style in London and working as a sister back at St. Thomas’s. There were no more children of course, but then both of us were pretty much past it. I was forty-three and already into my menopause (it possibly came early because of the privations of my prison term) when we married and Sam was forty-eight. So there was only Jacques and the one child, Debra, Sam had with Jocelyn. But we were quite content with our lot. We had many happy years together.

And then of course there was the move to Pennsylvania after Sam retired in nineteen thirty-four, which was another whole new experience, leaving Jacques behind in England because he’d met Dorothy, and he was twenty-two after all and a young man wanting to make his own way in the world, not be tied to his parents. But then the tragedy, the awful loss, when, having volunteered for the British army, he was killed in action crossing the Rhine in the final push to Berlin just a few months shy of the end of the war. And so another one dear to me fell victim to the greedy ogre of conflict.

Yes, my life has certainly been varied, with tremendous ups and downs, ending with the return to England in nineteen forty-nine after Sam died and moving in with Dorothy and the grandchildren in a “granny flat” as they call them nowadays. Not a great deal has happened in the eleven years since then, except very pedestrian things! But at least I’ve ended this entry on a happier note.


Chris flicked through some more entries: the rest of that year, then nineteen sixty-one and into sixty-two, until their attention was arrested again.


23rd October, 1962

I just can’t believe it: according to the news, the world looks as though it’s going to go mad again. President Kennedy is making belligerent noises at the U.S.S.R. He’s broadcast to America about the Soviet missiles that have been spotted in Cuba, which the Soviets claim are to defend Cuba from being invaded. He is going to blockade the island to prevent any more being shipped there, and has demanded that the Soviets remove those already there. Although, it seems, America has got them in Turkey, as close to Russia as Cuba is to the United States, which does seem a little hypocritical, really. It seems to be the usual politicians’ sabre-rattling at times of international tension, except that this is with extremely high stakes.

I desperately hope that this isn’t the precursor to yet another, even more deadly, global war. Why do the men (and it’s always men) in charge never learn? There has been more than enough death and suffering already this century, surely to Goodness? Is this what all the millions, including my Henri and Jacques, died for in the last two wars: this continuing constant fear and distrust of foreign countries which have cultures or political systems or religions which we don’t approve of?

Yes, I suppose the pragmatists, the generals, are right in saying that having those terrible things stationed so close to and pointed at America (and Russia) is unacceptable, and the leaders of those countries have a duty to demand they be removed in order to protect their citizens, but they are playing an enormously dangerous game of bluff, of you-blink-first. What will happen if the Soviets refuse to remove their missiles, because they too feel threatened, and it becomes a shooting-match which then escalates to the use of nuclear weapons, and other countries, as always happens, get dragged in? The consequences are just too horrific to contemplate.

The world seems to be teetering on the edge of catastrophe. Let’s just hope and pray that Kennedy and Krushchev avoid doing anything really silly. Please!


29th October, 1962

They’re saying on the television that the Cuba crisis seems to be over, thank the Lord. After an enormously tense situation when Soviet ships carrying another consignment of missiles were met by blockading American ships, they avoided coming to blows and turned around and headed back home. Apparently America has promised not to invade Cuba in return, thus giving a quid pro quo and a face- saving for the U.S.S.R.

Well, that’s an enormous relief! This time the world – in spite of the posturing of its male leaders – has turned back from the brink of unimaginable disaster. Hopefully, America might agree to remove its missiles from Turkey too and further lessen the tension. Perhaps the people of the world can sleep a little more soundly in their beds tonight.


Chris and Frieda flicked through to the last entry in the only-two-thirds-full book.


1st January 1963

So; the beginning of yet another year. Almost certainly the last of my life, I suspect, as the heart pills I’ve had from the doctor for the last two years seem to be becoming less and less efficacious. The angina is markedly worse lately. Well, never mind. I’ve had a good long life in spite of everything; I really can’t complain. I managed to stay up last night to see the New Year in. I don’t know why – memory is a funny thing – but I remembered another New Year, sixty-three years ago, at the turn of the century, at St Thomas’s. We were so optimistic for the new century, I remember. I was such a bright hopeful young thing then, just twenty years old, enthusiastic about caring for the suffering of the world. I wasn’t to know then how much suffering of one sort and another was coming my way. But we all have our crosses to bear.

Anyway, it was lovely to see all the family gathered together. I suspect everyone congregated here for my benefit. I’ve always thought it a shame that Dorothy never married again. I’m sure Jacques would have wanted her to. But instead she just got on with things and single-handedly brought up Elise and Raymond and Pam, the baby of the family, who must have been conceived during Jacques’ embarkation leave if you do the arithmetic, before he became the hero he always wanted to be, like his father, and laid down his life in the Rhineland.

I wonder what their grandchildren will be doing with their lives, fifty or sixty years from now. It’s impossible to imagine what the world will be like then, seeing all the changes there have been in my life. Whatever it’s like, I hope it’s peaceful for them; that they’ll be living in a united, danger-free Europe (and the rest of the world for that matter), finally rid of the forces of darkness.

Perhaps one day my descendents will read these ramblings of an old woman and find them a tiny bit interesting. Well, I really must close and get to my bed. I’m very tired. All the excitement of last night seems to have caught up with me!


Author’s note

Although the characters Christobel and Henri are entirely fictional, the account of real-life Edith Cavell’s training school and prisoner-escape network is based on actual events. The associated people mentioned in Edith’s story (apart from Gunther Braun) did exist too. This book is a tribute to those brave people and dedicated to the European Union ideal.

If you would like to learn more about Edith Cavell, I recommend Edith Cavell by Diana Souhami, to whom I am indebted for so much information about an inspirational English heroine.








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Justice done

Welcome to the final chapter of my sometimes heart-rending and emotional (sorry) novel Christobel. The action is now in 2016, with more momentous and divisive events soon to happen in Europe, from Britain’s point of view anyway. Although it’s still not quite the end of the story of Christobel; there’s an epilogue to come.

If you would prefer to start at the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive. It’s the last post on the list. Then read each successive post on from there, except the one entitled Unwelcome to Britain? which is a diversionary rant on my part about one of the possible consequences of Brexit.

Chapter 26

 The last day of March, twenty-sixteen. Having been a model prisoner, impeccably behaved, Chris had gone through the release-from-prison-early procedure. Almost a free man again, he was sitting in the discharge suite waiting for a final meeting with Gunther Braun. Why such a thing was necessary was beyond him, but still. He assumed it was just efficient German bureaucracy operating, not quite willing to let him go just yet.

At least his erstwhile lawyer didn’t keep him waiting though. Braun bustled in on the stroke of ten thirty. He shook hands, beamed, sank into a chair beside Chris. There was no dividing table now. Well, only a small circular one, upon which Braun dropped his attaché case. ‘How are you today, Mr Benson?’

Chris grinned. ‘Well, no disrespect, but very happy to be leaving.’

‘Yes, I am sure you are.’ He came straight to the point. ‘I am required to ask you, just as a formality, one or two questions about your time spent here.’

‘Oh, really? What are they?’

‘Well firstly, have you any complaints about your care here – given that you would obviously rather not have been here in the first place?’

Chris smiled again. ‘No, not really. Yes, it’s been an experience I would rather have done without, but no; no complaints.’

‘Good. And were you satisfied with the quality of your state-appointed defence?’

‘Er, yes. I thought you spoke very well for me, considering that I’d confessed, basically. And you were really just trying to paint my motives in the best light, weren’t you?’

Braun looked mildly relieved, as if he’d passed some sort of inspection or been spared the bother of a tiresome complaint procedure.

‘Yes, that was the essence of it. The crime wasn’t in question. Cases like this are always complex, as they in some ways aren’t black and white.’

‘No,’ Chris said, ruefully.

‘Well I must say, Mr Benson,’ Braun said, smiling again, ‘you have certainly been a model client. Unlike many of the people I find myself defending. Many of them would – what is your English expression now – “sell their own grandmother,” to be truthful.’

‘Mm, like a lot of the people in here. I tried to keep well away from them.’

‘Yes, very wise. But you are intelligent enough not to allow yourself to fall under bad influence.’

‘Well, I’d like to think so.’

Braun became serious. ‘I do not know whether you have been following the news in here, but the Bundestag has now passed the Assisted Dying Bill. It passed into law last November. So now, in common with some other countries, like Switzerland, Canada, Japan and some American states, it is perfectly lawful to help people to die if it is absolutely clear that they wish it.’

‘Oh, really?’

‘Yes, but there is a clear distinction between helping, for example placing a beaker of barbiturate in someone’s hands for them to swallow and do the deed themselves, and actively doing it, like Hans Neumann did, by injection, or other means. That is still regarded as euthanasia and is still illegal. And it is illegal even to assist the person to do it themselves if money is involved, so the regulations are still quite tight.’

‘I see. So what Hans, Andreas and I did is still illegal and we would still have had to go to trial, even now?’

‘Yes, that is so, I am afraid. Perhaps one day the public mood will change again and demand full euthanasia, with robust safeguards, as in countries like The Netherlands or Belgium, but not at the moment. In some respects, it is still a slightly grey area.’

‘Mm. Well anyway, it’s a bit ironic that I found myself on trial here when my great-great-grandmother, who was also a nurse, did too. Well, not here exactly, but in Belgium.’

Braun’s ears pricked. ‘Oh? When was that?’

Chris suddenly realised where the conservation might head. ‘Er . . . during World War One . . .’

Braun smiled. ‘It is all right, you need not be embarrassed. It is a very long time ago. And only the female line of my family is German, as a matter of fact. You are talking about the occupation of Belgium then?’

‘Erm, yes.’

‘Well that is a coincidence, that you have a forebear who was also a nurse. In fact, two of mine were also lawyers during that period: my grandfather Thomas Braun and my great-grandfather Alexandre Braun. They were Belgian. I am only German because my father settled in Germany in the nineteen sixties, marrying my German mother, and I was born here.’

‘Oh, really?’

‘Yes. I have researched my male ancestors and discovered that they were involved in defending your World War One heroine Edith Cavell and her associates on charges of treason and espionage in nineteen fif – ’

Chris interrupted, ‘No!’

Braun looked puzzled. ‘Yes. Thomas was originally going to defend Edith Cavell but was dismissed by the authorities from doing so, but his father Alexandre did defend two aristocratic ladies. I forget their names now. Why do you say no?’

‘Well this is amazing!’ Chris said. ‘My great-great-granny Christobel worked for Edith Cavell in Brussels and got involved in the escape network she ran. I know this because she – Christobel I mean – kept a diary and recorded it all. I read it a couple years ago, before, er, this happened.’

Now it was Gunther Braun’s turn to be incredulous. He stared at Chris open-mouthed. ‘Well that is astonishing!’ He paused. ‘But wait; yes, I think I remember that name from reading about the trial. Well, it was not a proper trial, just a military tribunal, and very badly conducted at that. If I remember correctly, only Edith Cavell and two men were shot in the end, although six were originally given the death penalty, and most of the rest were given prison with hard labour. What was your great-great-grandmother’s surname?’

‘Farley. She was Christobel Farley.’

‘Farley. Farley.’ Braun repeated the name, trying to dredge it from memory. ‘Ah, yes. That is right. I think I remember reading that she was one of the alleged ringleaders and was sent to Siegburg Prison here in Germany.’

‘Yes. She thought she was going to get the death penalty too but in the end it was only prison with hard labour. Although that was bad enough, the way she wrote about it. She might have died from typhoid while she was in there but managed to survive. But unfortunately my great-great-grandfather didn’t. Not typhoid; he was one of the three who were shot.’

‘Oh? I don’t remember an Englishman being tried.’

‘No, he wasn’t – English, I mean. He was a Belgian: Henri Pascal. He and Christobel weren’t married, although they had a son, Jacques, my great-grandfather. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here today telling you this, of course.’

Braun looked grave. ‘No, you would not. Well I am very sorry about your great-great-grandfather. Those were terrible times. Terrible. And justice was very harsh.’ He smiled wryly. ‘I would like to think that my country is much more enlightened now.’

Chris smiled. ‘Yes, I think my trial and sentence were very fair.’

‘Mm. Well hopefully Europe will never again descend into such madness. We have had peace for over seventy years now, due in no small part to the EU. But I hope Britain does not decide to leave when you have your referendum in June.’

‘Well, I shouldn’t think that’s very likely,’ Chris said.


The trial and subsequent meting out of justice were already a thing of the past. To his enormous relief, Chris had been re-employed at the Klinikum, his criminal record notwithstanding – although he was banned from entry to the pharmacy. But then most nursing staff were now. Since the case, the hospital had tightened its procedures as far as access to drugs was concerned. Not that, Chris had reflected ruefully, they need have been at all anxious about him. Not now.

On June the twenty-sixth, three days after Britain’s EU referendum, they visited Andreas and Birgit for Sunday lunch. Of course there was only one subject of conversation. Holding forth over the Bratwurst, Andreas was in expansive, financial-commentator mood.

‘Well, Chris; your Brexit result was certainly unexpected, wasn’t it?’

Chris hated trying to combine eating with conversation. He had never fully mastered the art of speaking fluently whilst simultaneously stoking his mouth. Dinner party competence was not his forte. He gulped a piece of sausage down. ‘Yes, I suppose it was. It wasn’t what they were forecasting, I don’t think.’

‘No, my paper did not predict it either. And now you are left without a Prime Minister and a very uncertain future. I am sorry to say it, but I do think the people who voted Leave have been sold a lie – well, a series of them, actually. That three hundred and fifty million pounds per week on the side of a bus for your health service; no more immigration of nasty foreigners; new trading deals struck around the world to replace all the trade you could lose from waving goodbye to a huge trading bloc on your doorstep; to name but three. I am sorry to appear critical of your fellow-countrymen and women, Chris, but I do think they are experiencing a sort of collective, self-destructive madness, and have caused a lot of bad feeling here.

‘When the EU begins to negotiate the terms of leaving with Britain, it will make sure that it will be disadvantageous for you to do so, otherwise the rot will set in and everyone else will want to leave too. And then where will we be? Back to square one and a disparate collection of, all right, fully sovereign states, although for most practical purposes we already are, with all the dangers of returning to the bad old days of nationalism and insularity and my-country-right-or-wrong.’

He paused to take another mouthful. Chris said, ‘Yes, well I don’t understand economics really, Andreas, but I suppose you’re right. I do know about the Health Service though. It seems they’ve already backtracked on that and admitted it won’t happen. I think that’s absolutely scandalous. And I don’t know who they mean by “immigrants”. They’re already quite tightly controlled from the rest of the world anyway, so I suppose they mean EU workers should be restricted too. But our health service relies on them heavily. It certainly did when I was working back in England, and I don’t suppose the staffing position has got any better since.’

Andreas resumed. ‘Yes, well that’s one of the four pillars of EU membership; free movement of labour. It’s mutually beneficial. After all, you are working over here, aren’t you? You have had the perfect right to, and to settle here, perhaps in a permanent relationship with someone.’ He grinned slyly at Frieda. ‘And vice-versa of course. For all its other faults, that has been one of the really civilising aspects of the European Project, and arguably has done a lot to keep the peace all these years.’

‘Yes, that is what worries us,’ Frieda put in. ‘The residency aspect. At the moment Chris is entirely free to work and live here with me, and I can do the same in Britain. But what will happen after Britain is no longer in the EU? Will either Germany or Britain still welcome the other’s nationals? Or nationals as partners?’

‘Indeed,’ said Andreas. ‘Or even spouses or children? I can imagine things becoming very messy, with possibly families being split up. It could become very inhumane. I am afraid your Ukip and other populist politicians have really opened Pandora’s Box. A lot of evils could be released into the world. There have already been reports of hate crime; of perfectly innocent foreign-looking, or sounding, people being abused and told to go home. Do we never learn from history? It is all rather depressing.’

‘Yes it is,’ said Chris. He looked at Frieda. ‘Well, we’ll just have to keep a careful eye on things I suppose. See which way the wind is blowing and make plans accordingly.’

‘Yes,’ Frieda agreed.


Chris’s gran, Pam, came to stay for a week. It was the first time she’d seen her grandson since his release from prison and was dying to see him. It wasn’t an ideal visit as Chris, having rejoined the Klinikum only fairly recently, had built up no holiday entitlement. But Frieda took a week of hers, so Pam wasn’t left alone in the apartment. The two women would be able to have a high old time, sightseeing and shopping and visiting Birgit, whom Pam was eager to meet, and female-centric pursuits like that.

Chris and Frieda met the beaming Pam off the train and they brought her back to the apartment. Over a nice cup of revivifying English tea, she declared herself pleased to see the couple reunited and, looking around approvingly, well impressed by their domestic situation. With her usual slightly blundering near-tactlessness, she said that it had been a terrible situation for Chris and Andreas and that other poor young man who was still in jail paying for his supposed crime. She couldn’t see why they had been found guilty at all, if all they’d done was help a desperate suffering old man die when he wanted to. It was what she wanted when her time came, if things looked as though they might be unpleasant, she said stoutly.

Chris told her about the remarkable coincidence of his defending lawyer’s ancestor defending at great-great- grandma Christobel’s trial. Her mouth formed a perfect O of surprise. ‘Really, darling? Well isn’t that just amazing! That there should be a link between what you’ve been through and that other terrible business all those years ago.’ She glanced quickly at Frieda to check for inadvertent offence-causing, but Frieda simply smiled; said, ‘Yes, it is extraordinary, isn’t it?’

Pam looked relieved. ‘Oh, talking about Granny Christobel: I’ve brought something for you. There was one last diary of hers that I didn’t give you before. I discovered it when I was spring cleaning the flat but wasn’t sure whether I could send it while you were in prison, darling.’

Chris’s eyes lit up. ‘Oh, wonderful, Gran. Great; thanks!’

Pam heaved herself off the sofa and went to her bags; unzipped one of them. Rummaged around and brought out a well-worn blue rexine-covered book with Diary gold-blocked in informal script across the top. Beneath it was a pasted-on paper label framed with flowers rendered in somewhat splodgy watercolour and the time span written in a familiar but now wavery copperplate: September 1959 – . Someone had added, less elegantly, 1st January, 1963. She handed it to Chris, who gazed at it reverentially. ‘I can’t wait to read the rest of her story. I thought she’d just lost interest in writing in the late fifties.’

‘No, not at all. This is the last of her diaries. The last entry she made was on the first of January; she felt too weak to write any more after that. My mum completed the label on the front – not very expertly, as you can see. She died in her sleep on the seventh.’

‘Aah,’ Frieda murmured.

‘So how old was she, Gran?’ Chris wondered.


‘Mm; that’s a good innings.’

‘Yes,’ Frieda agreed, although slightly unsure what Chris meant.

‘Well she certainly had an eventful life, which nearly got cut short at one point – no, two really: first in nineteen fifteen and then again in seventeen, with the typhoid. But at least she didn’t get the flu that came after the first war, so that was something.’

‘Yeah. That would have been too cruel, to have died from that after surviving everything else. So what finally carried her off; do you know?’

Pam sighed. ‘Mum said it was her heart. Perhaps weakened by her time in prison. But yes, she had a good long life, all the same.’

‘Yes, she did,’ Frieda agreed again.



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What happened to Christobel

Welcome to chapter 25 of heartrending and unashamedly emotional Christobel, and the revelation of the fate of our eponymous WW1 heroine.

If before reading it, and for the avoidance of a spoiler, you would like to begin reading Christobel from the beginning because you haven’t been following this serialisation, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive (it’s the last one on the list) and then read each successive post on from there, apart from Unwelcome to Britain? which is not a chapter post.

Chapter 25: the journal

 11th December, 1918

I’m taking up my pen again for the first time in over three years. It’s exactly a month since the Armistice was signed and it took three weeks for the slow wheels of prisoner-of-war repatriation to grind and my companions and I to be returned to Belgium from that dreadful prison in Siegburg. I’m back at ru de la Culture for the time being, in the loving bosom of my old friends there. They are looking after me wonderfully, although, Heaven knows, they’ve suffered a lot of deprivation too. But not imprisonment and hard labour; everything is relative, I suppose. Well, it’s all over now; I’m free and the dreadful conflict is finished. I can look to the future. And now, after a few days’ rest, I feel able – indeed the need – to resume my journal.

But I must first chronicle those final few fear-filled days following the trial, three years and two months ago. I’ve been too exhausted to write during my time in prison, not that I could have got the materials or would have been allowed to anyway. What a terrible weekend that was, waiting alone to hear whether the powers that held our very lives in their merciless hands would sever the thread for the Sword of Damocles to fall. The constant fear, the heart leaping into my mouth every time the keys in the cell door turned, expecting that it would be the announcement of my fate. It really was cruel, making us wait over a weekend like that.

And it didn’t even come early on the Monday morning: it was the afternoon, about three o’clock, before I was taken from my cell into the central hall of the prison. There, other prisoners, including Henri, who stared at me with such love and concern on his dear face, were standing in a semicircle, which I was made to join. Other prisoners were brought in too until we were all present, anxiously waiting to hear our fates. Then the Prosecutor came in, accompanied by two officers, the German prison governor, an interpreter and in another mockery of decent norms, the solemn-faced prison chaplain. As if his presence would somehow sanctify, legitimise the cruel sentences about to be meted out.

The Prosecutor began to speak in short phrases which the interpreter translated. For Miss Cavell, Louis Severin, Philippe Baucq, Louise Thuliez and Jeanne de Belleville: the death penalty. And for Henri too. For Herman Capiau, myself and several others: fifteen years’ imprisonment with hard labour. Between ten and fifteen years of the same for the other people they regarded as ringleaders. Lesser amounts for many others and acquittal for a few.

Of course my immediate reaction was one of relief – of absurd gratitude to my captors, almost. That was how cowed I was; how low I’d been brought. But then the realisation hit: they had only spared me. Not Henri. It seemed that he had succeeded in convincing our oppressors that he had played a greater part in our “subversion” than I, which wasn’t true at all. I looked at him. He had bowed his head but then he raised it again to stare fixedly at the Prosecutor, as if to dare him to do his worst, with such composure, dignity and bravery. For myself, seeing his courage, I felt something die deep inside, as if all hope was leaving.

As for the others, Miss Cavell seemed equally calm, although her face flushed crimson. Philippe made a despairing cry and looked as though he were about to collapse. Louis, it seemed, had written something down – a plea for mercy, presumably – and he handed it to the officer nearest to him. Louise and Jeanne seemed calm too, although Jeanne did ask the chaplain if anything could be done to save them. He said that they could appeal to the Governor General and Louise asked Miss Cavell if she would do so, to which she replied, “No, it is useless. I am English.”

And that was it. Thus our fates were decided. We were taken out of the hall. Henri and I exchanged final long, despairing looks. Philippe tried to protest his innocence but he was roughly bundled out. Myself, I was in a state of numbed confusion. It was the last I would see of Miss Cavell, Louis and Philippe. And the love of my life: my poor brave Henri.

Those of us who were to be imprisoned spent several more days back in our cells at St. Gilles before being taken to our places of internment. Thierry told me that was because the death sentences of Louis, Jeanne and Louise had been postponed pending appeals for clemency. I’ve now learned that considerable pressure for it was brought by the American legation in Brussels, the Vatican and the King of Spain, and the Kaiser finally bowed to their requests. But it came too late for Miss Cavell, Philippe and my Henri; they were hurriedly executed in the early hours the day after the sentencing.

And so, although Louis was sent elsewhere, Louise, Jeanne and I were taken over the border to Germany to Siegburg Prison to begin our harsh imprisonment. It certainly was, too. The food was meagre: barely more than six ounces of coarse black bread to accompany a vile gruel we called “insect soup”, or “mouse soup”. Goodness knows what it was made from. It didn’t really bear thinking about. But we were so famished all the time, we were grateful for anything. Later, in the last year of the war, we were also given hard military-style biscuits, which had to be soaked for some time in the gruel to render them eatable with our deteriorating teeth. I lost a considerable amount of weight and it’s a shock to see myself in the mirror now. I’ve aged a good ten years.

As for the labour, it was remorseless: fifteen hours per day, seven days per week. We were set to armament manufacture; making fuses for munitions, which would of course be used against The Allies. If I had been mentally strong enough I should have refused to do such work, what with my Quaker pacifism apart from anything else, but I confess that I took the coward’s way out and didn’t. I was too afraid of the consequences if I did rebel. Some of the other women bravely did so and were given solitary confinement for their pains. I could not have endured that, after the lonely, terrifying incarceration during the trial. I crave human company now and will probably always be afraid of solitude.

Then there was the equally frightening typhoid epidemic which struck us in 1917. With no medical assistance offered, we just had to make the best of things, giving our suffering and dying fellow-inmates what limited comfort we could, hoping that it wouldn’t be our turn next; that, having been spared the firing squad, we would escape the disease’s cruel game of chance too.

But it was certainly a wonderful, hardly-to-be-believed day when we were informed on the twelfth of November that our countries were no longer at war, and we would be repatriated as soon as possible. So here I am now; free after three years and two months, not the fifteen imposed upon me by the oppressor. Well, the former oppressor now. Now we must learn to forgive and forget, even though brutal men took my Henri from me, and millions of other innocent lives too.

I can resume my life, perhaps even return to nursing when I’m fully recovered, in the hope that there will be no more disruptive and destructive European wars – or indeed any more wars anywhere. One day, hopefully, Europe might be united in peace and cooperation, rather than its countries still myopically locked in stupid insular nationalism.


18th December 1918

A letter has come from Émilie to say how relieved she is that I am back in Belgium, after I sent her a short note that I was at ru de le Culture. There was an underlying sadness to her letter of course, but she says she is making arrangements to return to Brussels as soon as possible, after the house has been checked over and any essential repairs made to it. She doesn’t know how well it would have fared, standing empty and vulnerable for over three years. I’ve no idea what has become of it, of course (we were obliged to leave it unoccupied in rather a hurry); it might have been requisitioned by the enemy, for all I know. No; I must stop calling them that. But if it had been, I think Émilie would certainly want all traces of their occupation utterly expunged.

And she has passed on a very kind invitation from her sister Lottie to spend Christmas with them. Lottie appreciates that after all I’ve been through, I’m in no condition to organise a celebration for myself, and that I’m probably in need of some intensive looking-after. That’s certainly true; I feel quite tearful at her considerateness. The main thing though is that I’ll be seeing my little Jacques again, after wondering on so many desolate, desperate occasions whether I ever would again. Well, he’ll be not-so-little now; six years old. He must be very different. Oh, it will be so wonderful to see him!


28th December, 1918

15 Potgieterstraat, Amsterdam.

I’ve waited a few days before making another entry because for one thing, I wanted to spend as much time as possible with Jacques and for another, I didn’t want to reject Lottie’s kind hospitality with my nose stuck in my journal all the time!

What a wonderful, sweetly anticipatory journey here it was. Yes, poor Belgium has been so ravaged by war and occupation, but already there is a palpable air of optimism, of determination to go forward and rebuild, and once the border (once so impenetrable) was crossed, Holland, which was virtually unscathed by conflict, with its placid flat fields and big skies, was like a country on another planet.

As the train pulled into Amsterdam Centraal station I put my head out of the window to scan the platform. At first I didn’t spot Émilie. But then there she was, standing well back from the edge, holding the hand of a small child. It took a moment for my brain to register that it was my child; my Jacques. She had thought to bring him to meet me! I waved to attract attention but the carriage I was in came to a stop well beyond them, so I had to gather my borrowed suitcase, step down and walk back along the platform to them. Émilie had spotted me too and was making her way towards me.

We met and I took in her sad face but my eyes dropped quickly, hungrily, to Jacques. Yes, he was very different; tall for a six-year-old, as if taking after his Papa already, but with the same curly sloe-black hair escaping from beneath his cap and solemn brown eyes I knew from an eon ago. He looked at me uncertainly. No doubt he’d been told the reason for the exciting visit to the railway station, but perhaps he didn’t remember me. And after all, I do look very different.

Émilie bent to him, said, “Look Jacques, it’s your Mama come home to you. Say hello to her.”

Probably overcome with shyness, my little boy stayed mute. I dropped to my knees too, vision suddenly blurred by wetness, and said (well, croaked), a little inanely, “Hello, darling. It’s me. Your Mama.” I let go of the suitcase and opened my arms, and he hesitantly came to me, and then I had him, had his little body clutched tightly to mine, as my tears came in a torrent and I pressed his cheek against mine. It felt so, so wonderful. I think we stayed like that for quite a long time, until he began to fidget, thoroughly wet, and pulled away.

I made myself give some attention to Émilie and stood to embrace her too and kiss both cheeks. Yes, she looked as though the last three years had not been kind to her either. Her face was drawn, thin, with markedly more wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. Like mine, her grief must have been almost too much to bear, knowing how fiercely, possessively, she had loved her only child. But she gave me a brave smile, although she must have been shocked by my appearance, and her reciprocal kisses were generous. “Hello Christobel,” she said, “it is good to have you home. So very good.”

So we set off from the station, the three of us, Jacques in the middle holding both our hands, looking up at me frequently, shyly, catching my eye as I, frequently too, looked down upon him.

The Christmas festivities have been wonderful in spite of the obvious tinge of sadness that one person was missing. Lottie, very different from her sister – as plump, blonde, rosy-faced and jolly as her sister is none of those things – and her quiet husband Lars, who looks a little like Vincent Van Gogh, made me very welcome, Lottie constantly fluttering around me like a mother hen, making sure I was well looked after, compassion glowing softly in her kind eyes. Their two offspring, Ruben and Natalie and assorted grandchildren, visiting for the day, added up to quite a gathering.

The goose for Christmas lunch tasted like ambrosia, and the toast we drank before tucking in could only have been to one thing of course: a peaceful 1919 and many more peaceful years to come. Émilie showed more considerateness again in buying a present, a wooden toy train with two splendidly-painted carriages, for me to ostensibly give to Jacques. I’m afraid that just hadn’t occurred to me; all I wanted was to see him. Not that I had any money for such relative trivialities, anyway. My friends at ru de la Culture kindly bought my railway ticket for me, and Émilie has offered to pay for a boat train ticket to England for Jacques and I to see my own family for the New Year. People are so kind.

And of course it was simply heavenly to spend time with my little boy, getting to know him all over again. He gradually came out of his shell and became quite chatty, as if old forgotten memories of happy times were resurfacing. I’ve had to really discipline myself to allow him to go to bed; I could have happily let him stay up all night, nodding off to sleep in my arms. But there has been the pleasure of reading him a (long, mainly for my own benefit) bedtime story every night, anyway.

He brought up the subject of his Daddy just once, during one of our conversations. Of course, Émilie had had the dreadful task, in more ways than one, of telling him about Henri’s death. I don’t know how well he would have coped with the information at the time – he would only have been three – but he seems to have accepted the situation reasonably well now.

He looked at me and said, very solemnly, as if I might not be aware of the fact – and quite maturely and gently, for such a little boy, as if anxious not to cause me pain – that his Papa would not be coming back because bad people had killed him, but it was all right, because he was in Heaven now. Of course that provoked tears, and I had to hug him again and say that, yes, I knew, but that he had been very brave; a hero. Then I had to try and explain what a hero was, as he lay against my chest and nodded sagely and said, well, he’d like to be a hero when he grew up then.

And so tomorrow we set off for England. That will be an adventure for Jacques; seeing the sea and going on a big ship, and then seeing the country where his mother was born. When I tucked him in tonight he said he was very excited. I can’t wait to see his face!  













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The reckoning

Welcome to chapter 24 of my humanistic and unapologetically Europhile novel Christobel. In 2015, things are coming to a fateful judicial conclusion for Chris and his fellow-accused . . .

If you would like to begin reading Christobel from the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive (it’s the last of the entries there) and then read each successive post on from there, apart from Unwelcome to Britain? which is not a chapter post.

Chapter 24

Chris had spent another sleepless night. The trial was almost over. It was nearly crunch-time, just a final van ride through the grey March Osnabrück morning to the courthouse where he would be judged: guilty as charged or free. He didn’t feel optimistic about it. Gunther Braun had counselled against it so as not to raise his hopes. Better to expect the worst and hopefully be relieved when it didn’t happen, he had said.

A heavy black pall hung over him. A pall of what? Foreboding? Fear, probably; anxiety and dread certainly. He felt physically sick. How had things come to this?

He regretted what he’d done now. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but it had seemed right at the time, it really had. Perhaps he had been naive but there had seemed to be clear moral justification; assisting in the relieving of suffering, both physical and mental, of a desperate old man. Well, justified or not, he couldn’t go back in time and do things differently. Not now.

Frieda was there again, with Birgit, both of them still looking pale and anxious. And Andreas and Hans of course, also wearing grim expressions. For a last time the court was asked to rise as the procession of red-gowned judges entered. They sat, followed by the court, and an expectant silence fell. Vortizender Wolfe cleared his throat, looked around the gathering and then down at his papers.

‘I, Berufsrichter Conrad Wolfe, hereby state that the panel of judges has reached its verdict in the trials of Hans Neumann, Andreas Ernst and Christopher Mark Benson on this the sixteenth of March, twenty-fifteen.’

He paused, the statutory declaration delivered. Glanced at the nervously-waiting trio in the dock. Resumed. ‘This has been a case as much about morality and philosophy and how society views the question of assisted suicide, or euthanasia, as about applying the law as it presently stands with regard to those matters. This court cannot anticipate possible changes in law, only apply those which currently exist. But in view of the fact that all three defendants have admitted their roles in the death of Herr Dieter Ernst, and bearing in mind the moral and philosophical questions thrown up, there is some scope for individual mitigation to a greater or lesser extent.

‘We have heard the words “compassion” and “sympathy” and “empathy”, even “altruism” used a lot over the course of this trial. And we are persuaded that it was not a matter of any of the accused conspiring as they did out of motives of hate or with any other nefarious intent. Although it should be said that in the cases of Hans Neumann and Andreas Ernst, money was a factor. But we are content that the various motivations of the defendants for ending a life do seem to have been born out of sympathy.

‘We have also heard the opposite moral case made that it is contrary to all Christian principles to end a life, no matter how strong a mercy motive there might be. And that embarking on a road of legalising assisted suicide might be the beginning of a slippery slope. Whether that is happening in some of our fellow-European countries or those American states which pracise it is very much a matter of conjecture. Furthermore, Germany, with its dark Nazi past, should particularly, more so than many other European countries, avoid at all costs a slide into legalised, state-authorised killing.

‘Of course, involving religious attitudes in law can sometimes produce a moral minefield, given that considerations of personal, subjective belief enter the equation, as with abortion, for example. But whatever the sociological or religious implications, or whatever might be the case in the future, I repeat: we can only apply the law as it stands today.

‘So we have come to a view that balances the law’s duty to punish wrongdoing – and each of the defendants has admitted to that – with due allowance for the compassion which seems to have driven their various involvements in the technically unlawful killing of Herr Dieter Ernst.

‘I will now pronounce sentence. Hans Neumann: please stand.’

Hans got to his feet, pale-faced. Gripped the rail in front of him. Closed his eyes. Waited.

Wolfe continued. ‘Hans Neumann; of the three defendants here today, your crime is in some respects the most serious. It was your hand which, as you are not a qualified doctor, somewhat recklessly executed the actual deed which caused the death of Herr Dieter Ernst. Furthermore, you did so having been persuaded to, at least to some extent, by the bribe of two thousand Euros. One has to wonder if you would still have done the deed had there been no money involved. You did break the law and the ethical codes of the health care profession. But set against that, we are satisfied that you did feel genuine sympathy for your client in his parlous state, had refused to assist him to die at his first asking and finally only practised euthanasia because he had repeatedly asked, indeed pleaded, for it.

‘Therefore, the court rules that you will go to prison for five years, with the time spent on remand deducted from your term. Do you wish to make a final statement?’

Hans shook his head dumbly.

‘Very well. You may sit down. Andreas Ernst; please stand.’

Andreas stood, eyeing the judge uneasily.

‘Andreas Ernst; the court acknowledges that your part in the death of your father Herr Dieter Ernst was not practical. Neither was it assisting it. But you did organise it, and facilitate it by offering Hans Neumann a substantial bribe to tempt him to agree to take the necessary practical steps. Therefore, technically and legally, you are guilty of conspiracy to patricide. However, the court noted your very moving final statement and is assured that what you did was motivated entirely by love of your father and a strong wish to both end his suffering and obey his request to be helped to die, even though, as he was no longer able to die by his own hand in any meaningful sense, that would have to mean resorting to euthanasia.

‘We also acknowledge the considerable mental strain you must have been under, seeing your father unhappy and suffering, and knowing that by refusing to accede to his desperate pleas for help you were prolonging his desperate state. And of course we recognise your pain at the prospect of losing a loved parent. To quite a large extent you were in a very difficult situation.

‘Therefore, the court finds you guilty of the technical offence of patricide and awards a sentence of three years’ imprisonment, but in recognition of the strong mitigating circumstances suspends the sentence for two years. You are free to go. Is there anything you wish to say?’

Andreas exhaled a palpable sigh of relief. ‘No, thank you Herr Vortizender. Other than to thank the court for its fairness, kindness and understanding. Thank you.’

Wolfe stifled a smile. ‘You may sit down, Herr Ernst.’ He moved his gaze to Chris. ‘Christopher Benson; please stand.’

Chris rose; his heart in his mouth. He flicked a look towards Frieda. She was staring, transfixed, her mouth open. Beside her, Birgit was wiping away tears of relief.

‘Christopher Benson. Your part in this affair was possibly the most minor, as you neither instigated nor executed the death of Herr Dieter Ernst. But it was unlawful on two counts: stealing potentially dangerous drugs from your employer for an inappropriate use and conniving in an unlawful killing. Furthermore, you abused the hospitality of this country in allowing you to reside and work here.

‘However, we are satisfied that in your case too your actions were motivated by sympathy and compassion, after also initially refusing to help Herr Dieter Ernst die, rather than any nefarious desires. We therefore recognise certain mitigations and sentence you to two years’ imprisonment, reduced by the time you have already spent in prison on remand. Whether you will be able to resume your previous type of employment after you have served your term is for your employer to decide, not this court. Is there anything you wish to say?’

Chris was dumbstruck. Light-headed with shock. Two years! Well, eighteen months, really. Encouraged in pessimism by Bauer, he had expected far more than that. He felt irrational tears pricking. Felt almost faint with gratitude to the court for its leniency. He managed to stutter, ‘Er, no, thank you. Erm; just that I am very sorry. Thank you . . .’

Wolfe suppressed a smile again. ‘Very well. You may sit down, Herr Benson.


Chris sat in the holding cell waiting for the transport back to prison, trying to order his churning thoughts. The immediate emotion was relief, after quite imagining in a pessimistic glass-half-empty sort of way a harsher sentence. The relief was displaced by rueful feelings shading to a sharper regret. This wasn’t what he’d hoped for or expected when he became a nurse. And certainly not when he’d met Frieda on Facebook all those months ago and found the exhilarating prospect of happiness with her and a new life in Europe. Then there were still darker thoughts. Was this the end of the dream? Well, yes, obviously it was for the next eighteen months, at least. But what after that? Would there still be Frieda? Or the job? Would the Klinikum employ him again, having acquired the sort of criminal record no nurse should have? But then, with no Frieda there would be no point in remaining in Germany, anyway.

And he might be deported at the end of his term, a convicted criminal, an undesirable, for that matter. So what if that happened, supposing that she were still around? Would she move to England to be with him? Or would it be an ignominious return alone, jobless, with a stain on his CV, to a soul-destroying job in a warehouse or call centre or some such? It was a gloomy prospect. And all because he’d weakened and agreed to participate in Andreas’s plan to help poor old Dieter! But no; that wasn’t fair. The scheme had been hatched for the most compassionate of reasons, whatever that prosecutor had said. The mistake was more down to Hans’s really; if he hadn’t unthinkingly told an untruth that was easily disprovable and the police had become involved, thanks to the spiteful Clara, Dieter could have been quietly laid to rest and the family could have grieved without any of this happening.

If only . . .

His gloomy thoughts were interrupted by the cell door opening to admit Gunther Bauer. There was no seating other than a hard bench attached to the wall so the lawyer sat down beside Chris. He smiled. ‘Well, that is it. All over. Justice has been done. How do you feel?’

Chris smiled wryly. ‘Oh, okay, I suppose. Yes, glad it’s all over. You were wrong about the sentence though, weren’t you? It was less than you warned me of.’

Bauer grinned too. ‘No, not really. It was about what I expected. It was pretty fair, in the circumstances. You could not really have been completely acquitted, the law being what it is. And I was being deliberately pessimistic in my forecast just so as not to raise your hopes.’

‘Well, thanks for that, anyway!’

Bauer ignored that. ‘And besides, you probably won’t even serve the eighteen months; you could well be released after a year if you are a model prisoner, which I am sure you will be.’

‘Really? It’s like that in Britain too, I think. People sometimes serve only part of the term. And yes, I certainly will be a good boy. You can bet your life!’

The lawyer smiled again. ‘Good. Well there you are then.’

‘There is one thing though. Would I be deported back to England afterwards, do you think?’

‘No; that is not very likely. It is not as if you have been convicted of a crime involving violence which would make you a possible ongoing danger to the public. You would not be considered persona non grata.’

Chris breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Oh, well that’s something. Although I don’t suppose I’d be able to resume my job at the Klinikum.’

‘Well, I really could not comment on that. It would be entirely up to them, whether they would employ a convicted criminal. They might take a lenient view. You would just have to wait and see.’


Chris had settled reasonably well into the routine of prison life. He had had nearly six months’ practice at it, after all. The main difference was the change of faces around him. Before, waiting on remand to go to trial, he had been locked up with other men also with their lives on hold in pre-trial limbo. But now all his companions were convicted criminals: men paying their dues to society for all manner of misdemeanour. There were murderers, rapists, thieves, embezzlers, men of violence. They represented the whole gamut of inhumanity to fellow man, woman – and sometimes, he was finding to his horror, children.

He was quickly learning which people to avoid: the serious, often serial offenders, the ones who looked at him with dead emotionless eyes, almost daring him to say a word out of place or disrespect them in some way. He had no wish to befriend any of those; not the slightest. He had no particular wish to befriend any prisoners really; found himself wanting to say – but biting his lip – that he was different from them; he hadn’t knowingly committed a crime for base reasons. Not at all. He was in a different category completely. Except that he wasn’t as far as the prison authorities were concerned. In their eyes he was just another prisoner doing time for a somewhat tenuous link to murder. Yes, it was murder after all, technically speaking. Not manslaughter as a result of loss of control or violence, or reckless driving, or anything like that.

But at least Hans was there too, doing his four and a half years (or less than three, hopefully, with remission) on the same wing as he, so they could, and did, gravitate to each other. Have a normal friendship with another non-criminal person. Although Hans was taking it harder, with the prospect of his longer term stretching ahead and his heavier burden of regret for his actions. But Hans had Chris to unburden to, of course; that was something, anyway. The two young men, united in a common consequence of their actions, had formed a steadfast bond.


Three weeks after the beginning of his term, Chris sat in the visitors’ room. It was the large communal one now, as he was no longer on remand and what he said to visitors was no longer subject to censorship. He had had a letter from Frieda, handwritten in a sometimes wavering hand betraying sometimes wavering emotional control, saying how relieved she was at the comparative lightness of his sentence and apologising for her coldness, which had been due as much as anything to simply not knowing what was going on; what he had done. How when his involvement had became clear, because Andreas hadn’t been held in custody and incommunicado before the trial, she had felt confused, angry about her father’s motives in arranging the euthanasia.

But she had gradually come to realise that he, and Chris, had acted for the best as they saw it in a dreadful, difficult situation. She wanted to visit; wanted to tell him how she felt about everything, even if the meeting were somewhat inhibited, constrained by its surroundings. Of course he had written back, also hugely relieved, to say that yes, of course, please do visit, at the next scheduled visiting time. He was desperate to see her. Desperate.

It would begin at three o’clock and last for a full, time-precious hour. He had entered the room at the earliest opportunity, ridiculously early really, as soon as its door was unlocked and a warder took up his supervisory position. If she was early, he didn’t want to waste a minute. And at two minutes to the hour there she was, the first visitor, coming hesitantly through the visitors’ door, scanning the room and spotting him sitting at a table in the corner, raising a hand and grinning, causing his heart to somersault.

She approached. He wasn’t sure whether embracing and kissing visitors was allowed but risked it anyway, standing, putting hands on her biceps and tentatively planting his lips on hers, feeling her willing response. They sat across the table from each other, eyes locked, holding both hands, in silence. He broke it. ‘Hi Frie. How are you?’

She smiled, blinked a bit. ‘Hello sweetheart. I am good. Are you?’

‘Yes, fine. Am now, anyway. Now you’ve come. It’s wonderful to see you. Wunderbar.

‘Ja, wunderbar. The same here. Oh, Chris, it is so good to see you!’ Frieda rummaged in her shoulder bag. ‘I have brought you a few things. Look. Some books. You must get very bored I suppose. And some chocolate. I know you like it. Am I allowed to give you that?’

Chris grinned. ‘Yes, I suppose so. Although it might have to be screened. But I shouldn’t think you’ve hidden a file in it, have you?’

She looked puzzled. ‘Sorry?’

‘It’s a corny English joke. Smuggling a file into prison so the inmate can file through the bars on the window and escape. Usually using knotted bed sheets.’

‘Oh, that sort of file. I thought you meant . . . Ha ha; very funny. You Brits have a strange sense of humour!’

‘Yes, so foreigners always tell us. But seriously, thanks very much. I’ll share some of it with Hans. And the books. It might cheer him up a bit. Do you mind?’

‘No, of course not. Poor Hans. He has had the heaviest punishment. And Vater the lightest, although it has cost him a lot of money in legal fees.’

‘Yes, I suppose it has. I suppose that as he was found guilty, he has to pay his defence lawyer, at least.’

‘That is right. And some other costs too, I think. Oh, that reminds me. He asked me to tell you that you will have some too, but not to worry about it. He will pay them. And Hans’s. He feels very bad that he dragged you two into all this, just because he felt so sorry for Opa and wanted to help him . . . you know.’

‘Oh, really, Frie? I hadn’t thought of that. That’s good of him.’

‘Well, he thinks it’s the least he can do. Poor Vater too. Apart from everything else, this awful business has been very expensive for him.’

‘Mm; right.’

‘And poor you too, of course, getting embroiled in my family’s affairs.’

He smiled wryly. ‘Yes, well, I could have said no and kept firmly out of it, but I felt as sorry for your granddad and wanted to help him as much as anyone else. I’m a soft touch.’

‘Yes, you are. I am not quite sure what that expression means, but I think I do from the context. And it is why I love you.’

‘Oh Frie; really? Do you?’

‘Of course!’

‘Well I’ll keep that thought in my head when I go to bed tonight.’

‘Yes, you do that, my sweet Chris. I will think of you too. I will be counting off the days until you are back with me. It won’t be too long.’

The room was filling up with prisoners and visitors. The tables next to theirs were occupied now, impinging on their privacy. It was becoming difficult to make themselves heard above the cacophony of conversations all around.

He squeezed her hands tightly, as if hanging on for grim death. Spoke louder. ‘No, I suppose it won’t. It just feels like that at the moment. And you will wait for me? Promise?’

Frieda detached one of her hands and cupped the side of his face. ‘You do not have to ask, my silly boy. Of course I will!’





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Judgement nears

Chapter 23 of my searing, thought-provoking novel Christobel. Back in 1915, it’s day two of the military tribunal and the tension mounts as judgement approaches . . .

If you would like to begin reading Christobel at the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive (it’s at the bottom of the list) and then read each successive post on from there, except Unwelcome to Britain? which is not a chapter post.

Chapter 23: the journal

 8th October, 1915

The second day of the charade which passes for a trial. I must keep writing, keep my fevered brain occupied, or I will go mad. Thierry has again promised to get this, almost certainly my last ever testament whatever tomorrow might bring, to the American legation.

After a sleepless night in spite of all my efforts to tire myself out, and another early start to the day, we were again transported to the government building. Again we more “important” accused sat in senators chairs facing the rostrum whilst the others crouched on benches with their backs to it. Henri had already arrived and was seated, and I caught his eye. He gave me a wan smile, and the one I returned must have been equally pallid. Our five defence lawyers were seated behind us again but there was still no opportunity to talk to them. Their presence seemed utterly pointless.

The proceedings commenced with the prosecutor on his feet giving an interminable speech, his final one, in German of course. There was no translation for the majority of it, so again there was no way in which we non-German speakers could know what was being said against us.

It was a mild autumn day and no windows seemed to be open in the chamber, and the temperature steadily rose. As did my physical discomfort too. The Judges and Prosecutor had carafes and glasses of water, but we had nothing. My throat quickly became parched. No doubt that was due to the stress; my nerves felt stretched to breaking point. I felt like screaming, succumbing to my desperate feelings.

The only words most of us understood were our own names, which began to creep in and punctuate the Prosecutor’s extravagantly-gestured oration, and which was delivered again as if he were an actor declaiming to a theatre audience rather than a court of law. But then it was by no generally accepted, civilised measure a place of justice. Clearly, when our names began to appear, it meant that he was talking about us, levelling his exaggerated claims against us individually. And then, towards the end, came two dread phrases we knew the meanings of only too well: Todesstrafe: death penalty, and verrat: treason.

My spirits plummeted when they were repeated with increasing frequency. And then suddenly the tribunal translator began to speak, reprising the Prosecutor’s words in French for our unwilling benefit. They were the sentences he was demanding for each of us. He began with a general charge that the German army had been greatly endangered by the nefarious actions of we “insurgents”, which was absurd of course. We had simply been a relatively small group of patriots trying to do our best and help our fellow-man in a dreadful situation. As if stating an obvious fact, he said that therefore we were guilty of treason, punishable by death according to paragraph sixty-eight of the German Military Code, which included in that category “conducting soldiers to the enemy”.

Then he came to the cruel crux of the matter. He demanded the death penalty for those of us he described as ringleaders: Miss Cavell, Louis Séverin, Philippe Baucq, Herman Capiau, The Countess Jeanne de Belleville and two or three others whom I didn’t know. And Henri.

And myself.


My heart felt as if it were being gripped by a merciless iron fist when I heard the words. I could barely breathe. And then the prosecutor’s following words seemed to fade, come from a great distance, as though the room was receding. I felt disembodied, light-headed; unable to fully understand the import of what was being said. I thought I was going to faint. One of the prisoners on the bench, a young woman, did so, slumping against her neighbour. I couldn’t see Henri now because he was on the opposite end of the row, so I couldn’t tell what his reaction was. Others cried, groaned or shouted “No!” and “Mon dieu, aide moi!”, my God, save me! Next to me, Louis shut his eyes tightly, as if to shut the awful reality out. Next to him, Miss Cavell stared calmly ahead, her mouth clasped tightly shut, maintaining a dignified composure.

It was difficult to concentrate on the proceedings after that. I think the prosecutor demanded lengthy imprisonment with hard labour for the other defendants and then he finished his speech. The defence counsel were then invited to make their arguments, but it was a complete farce because each of them seemed to be “representing” several defendants, in some cases about ten of us, with none of whom they had had any discussion whatsoever. So they could have had no time in which to prepare any sort of defence.

The first lawyer, who seemed to be Belgian because he spoke fluent French, rose to his feet behind us. Speaking for, amongst others, Herman Capiau and Philippe Baucq, he tried nervously to insist that there was no centrally-organised resistance or sabotage organisation, certainly nothing devoted to actively fighting or endangering the German forces; that his clients were simply a collection of disparate individuals doing what they felt to be his or her patriotic duty and relieve suffering. That was not strictly true; of course we acted co-operatively as part of a network, but it wasn’t dedicated to armed resistance as our accusers were trying to maintain. We were simply trying to help soldiers escape. But obviously, the defence counsel could not admit that.

He really had no other points to make – certainly none about the individual prisoners; just his generalised denial that there was any organised resistance group. His words were translated into German (although we had no way of knowing whether accurately) back to the Prosecutor and judges. They seemed to cut no ice though, judging by their stony expressions. Then that batch of defendants was invited to say anything they wished in their own defence. With varying degrees of boldness some tried to maintain that they had acted individually, but many remained silent as if in shock.

It sounded as though Miss Cavell had been tricked or pressured into implicating Philippe Capiau, because the Prosecutor suddenly rounded on her, ordering her to stand and explain why she now seemed to be retracting a confession she’d made – supposedly – that he, Philippe, had given her money for the organisation. He probably had, to fund the escaping, but I’m sure Miss Cavell wouldn’t have knowingly implicated him. Briefly losing her composure, she blushed and said that her memory was wrong on the matter; that now she remembered that it was not from him. After her words had been translated for him, the Prosecutor glared at her and told her to sit down.

Then it was the turn of the second defence lawyer to speak. He, it seemed, was representing Miss Cavell, Louis Séverin, five people I didn’t know, Henri and me. He also seemed to be Belgian, judging from his command of French. His defence too, such as it was, was that there was no organisation. He declared quite stoutly that Miss Cavell, Henri and I were simply following our professional and humanitarian instincts to care for and protect wounded soldiers from harm; that we had not intended to act subversively or in any way inimically to the interests of the German State.

Emboldened, he maintained that the tribunal did not have the right to condemn to death doctors and nurses; they had cared for German soldiers too. He contended that we were not guilty of treason but possibly attempted treason at most; that we should only have imprisonment to prevent any further activity of that sort. But after hearing his defiant words translated, the Prosecutor, unmoved, simply glared balefully at him too.

Then it was our turn to say our piece. Again there was a mixture of attempted denial and stricken silence. For myself I could find no words. It seemed that there was nothing I could have said in the face of such an implacable enemy bent on meting out such a travesty of justice. Tears came to my eyes though when Henri tried bravely to take all blame for our fugitive-sheltering upon himself, declaring that I knew nothing about the people we were harbouring nor the reasons for it. But of course the Germans knew full well that at my initial interrogation I had feebly tried to wrap my denial of any involvement in a lie. So, dear Henri, it was probably a well-meant but futile gesture.

The Prosecutor addressed Miss Cavell again, asking if she had anything further to say for herself. She rose once more and, her dignity restored, said firmly, “Je n’ai rien ՝a jouter”, I have nothing to add. The second Belgian lawyer stood up again too and attempted more defence of Louis and some of the rest of us, which seemed to infuriate the Prosecutor, who accused the lawyer of insulting him.

And then the third lawyer got up to speak. Again he was Belgian, addressed as Herr Braun, and representing just two of the defendants: the Countess de Belleville and Princess Marie de Croy, whom I didn’t know personally but Miss Cavell had spoken of her. She and her brother Prince Reginald had been very involved in our missions of rescue, although he had made his escape from Belgium before the net closed upon us. I suppose that because those two ladies were aristocratic and wealthy, they could afford to properly employ legal representatives.

But for all that they could buy expensive representation, he could only repeat what the other two had said: that his clients were not part of an organisation but had acted largely alone and cared impartially for German wounded too. And the prosecutor had asked for the ultimate penalty for the Countess de Belleville, all the same.

There were still all the remaining prisoners to deal with, the rest of the twenty-five or so who had been huddled uncomfortably on the benches against the rostrum. They had even slighter representation and were hurriedly charged and tried, in German again with little translation. There was confusion over names and charges at times but the word verrat, treason kept punctuating the prosecutor’s oration. So they were not going to be let off lightly either. Judging by the hurry to get things done, it looked as though the tribunal was anxious, as it was a Friday, to complete the proceedings before the end of the day.

And so the mockery of a trial went on, without a break and with no food or water for we prisoners, until the last prisoner had been judged and the hands on the chamber’s ornate clock told five o’ clock.

We then waited with our hearts in our mouths and lead in our stomachs for what might be coming next, assuming it would be the final judgement. But the translation of the tribunal’s final words was that we had to return to prison and that our sentences would be communicated to us in due course. And so we were driven back here to St. Gilles in a terrible state of anti-climax and anxiety. It would almost have been a release to know one way or the other what our fates are to be.

I suppose we will be told tomorrow. Our cruel oppressor will have decided whether we have posed such a serious threat to them that it warrants the ultimate penalty. But all we did was to help poor wounded boys escape – and a few who weren’t actually wounded but wanted in their patriotic idealism to enlist to fight the foe; to defend their mother land. I do find my Quaker beliefs of unswerving pacifism floundering a little now, I must admit. I’m as vehemently opposed to war and its utter, utter cruelty as I ever was, having now experienced its horrors first-hand, but I do not see how words alone, or pacifism, or appealing to the enemy’s better nature, will bring this nightmare to a finish. Only defeat, or the prospect of inevitable defeat, will do that now; only that will bring an armistice of any sort.      

Well, it must be very late now. I seem to have been writing this for ages, trying to fend off dark terrifying thoughts; the horrors of the night. I dread to think what tomorrow might bring. I really am not brave at all, not like Miss Cavell. Well at least you are safe with your Grand-mama in Holland, my little Jacques. One day, surely, this madness will be over. If I and your Papa are one day reunited with you, that will be wonderful beyond words. But if it not to be, I hope you will know, from this testament, that your loving Mama died as bravely as she could. If I am not to see you again, please know that my love goes with you on your journey through a hopefully peaceful life. Goodbye my little one. I’m afraid your Mama cannot write any more.


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Anticipating the reckoning

Chapter 22 of Christobel, back in present-day Germany. The trial of Chris and his fellow-defendents is in full swing. He has no idea what the outcome, the verdict, will be, but he isn’t  optimistic . . .

If you would like to begin at the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January  2017 archive and then read each succeding post on from there, except Unwelcome to Britain?, which isn’t a chapter post.

Chapter 22

After another listless toying with his lunch, Chris was taken back to court for the afternoon session. Andreas and Hans looked no happier than him either. Herr Vortizender resumed the proceedings. ‘We will now hear a witness for the defence of Hans Neumann. I call Frieda Ernst.’

Chris was jolted out of his lethargy. Frie!

She made her way to the witness stand, not meeting his eye, and nervously regarded the judges. Swore the non-religious oath. Confirmed her name. Wolfe began. ‘And you are the granddaughter of Herr Dieter Ernst?’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘Would you please describe your grandfather’s state of mind during’ – Wolfe paused as if mentally calculating a significant or reasonable period – ‘shall we say, the last three months?’

‘He was becoming increasingly depressed. He said more than once that he felt he had nothing left to live for.’

‘You say “increasingly?”’

‘Yes, definitely. He had steadily become more unhappy as his condition worsened and especially after my grandmother died in February last year.’

‘I see. And – forgive me if this is distressing – depressed to the point where he expressed a wish to die?’

Frieda bit her lower lip, which had begun to tremble. ‘Yes.’

‘On one occasion, or more than that?’

‘More than that.’

‘How many times?’

Frieda paused, furrowing her brow, trying to recollect. ‘Oh, four times at least. He had left it and gone beyond the stage where he could have done it himself. He could not have travelled to Switzerland or The Netherlands or somewhere like that without assistance and no one in the family was prepared to travel with him to help him. Perhaps, while my grandmother was still alive he had not had such desperate thoughts. He first asked me if I would give him an injection or something in July, round about then, but I refused. Apart from my ethical feelings, I was not qualified to do it of course. Administer drugs, I mean. Giving injections is not part of my job and I would not have known the proper dosage and would have been afraid of, er, bungling it . . .’ She trailed off, blushing, aware of perhaps having said too much.

‘Quite so. And were all the requests for help to die made to yourself?’

‘No. The second time he asked my father. I know that because my father told me. But he was even less qualified to do it than me, and refused too.’

‘I see. And what happened the time after that?’

‘Well, my Grandfather tried asking his care staff: Hans and Clara and Heidi, but they also all refused. I know that because Hans told me.’

‘And Hans Neumann definitely declined to do it?’

‘Well, yes. That’s what he told me.’

‘You said there were more than three times, Frau Ernst’ Wolfe reminded her.

‘Erm, there was one other time, very near . . . the end of his life.’ Frieda hesitated. The recalling was painful.

‘Please go on,’ the judge urged gently.

‘It was the last time I saw him. It was not really a direct request that time. More, a general plea for . . . release, I think. He was even more depressed. He said that he thought it pointless carrying on. And he was certainly in a very poor physical state. He had lost all use of his limbs and was bedridden, and his breathing was very difficult. He was on oxygen. Chris – Christopher – and I, and Hans, tried to make him as comfortable as we could, but he said if he were a pet, we would call a vet to send him to sleep. I said a human life was much more valuable than a pet’s or something like that, but he asked why he couldn’t just be helped to slip away. I said that we could not do that; it was a human rights issue, and he said, what about his human right, his free will, to choose the time and manner of his passing himself.

‘It was a really difficult situation for me: I did not know how to answer him. Soon after that we left. But he must have spoken to my father and asked him again, because he – my father – asked Christopher if he would do it.’

‘How do you know that?’

Frieda cast an anxious glance at Andreas. ‘Because I was present at the time. My father telephoned us at our apartment that last time we saw my grandfather, after we got home, and asked Christopher to give him an injection. He thought that he would know the right sort of drug to use. But he refused to do it too.’

‘And were you aware that your father had then a few days later approached Hans Neumann, offering him money to give the injections, which he had agreed to do, and that he had then persuaded Christopher Benson to steal and provide the necessary drugs?’

Frieda flushed. ‘No! I was not! I knew nothing about it.’

‘How would you have felt about it if you had known?’

‘Um, I would have been appalled, at the time . . .’

‘At the time? Have you changed your view?’

She was flustered now. ‘Well, not about the, er, irregularity of stealing the drugs. That is a serious matter.’ She stole a glance at Chris. ‘And so is the tempting of Hans with money. But about the general principle of helping people to die if they wish to: yes I have, a little. I can see now that it is a complex issue, now that I have had personal experience of the situation – have had a loved one die in those circumstances, I mean.’

‘How do you see it as complex?’

‘Well, because there are moral considerations and also ones of possible exploitation of the vulnerable, but I have come to think that my grandfather was right. That he had the ultimate human right to end his life when it became unbearable for him, and if he could not physically do it himself, it was reasonable to ask help in doing so.’

‘But it went beyond “helping”, did it not? It was active homicide in the eyes of the law as it is presently understood.’

Frieda bowed her head, abashed. ‘Yes, I suppose so, technically speaking. But it was the only way my grandfather could have been helped, and it was a completely peaceful and painless end for him, I think. Like simply passing away in his sleep. I now think we were being a little cruel to him in refusing to help at first. We were selfishly putting our own moral and emotional feelings ahead of his. It was an act of kindness and . . . mercy.’ Her voice trailed away to a whisper.

The courtroom fell silent. Two of the judges bowed their heads too, in apparent empathy, seemingly touched by Frieda’s words.

The spell was broken by Judge Wolfe. ‘Thank you, Frau Ernst,’ he said gently. ‘You may stand down’. He looked at his notes. ‘We will now hear the final Prosecution summing up. If you please, Herr Abrahamson.’

Abrahamson got to his feet. ‘Thank you Herr Vortizender. Yes, we have just heard a somewhat heartfelt testimony by the witness for the defence. I will concede that. But I would remind the court that we are trying the defendants not on the basis of personal and therefore subjective and variable moral opinion, but on that of a higher moral authority: God. The Good Book tells us that life, all life, whether at its inception or nearing its end, and no matter how imperfect it’s bodily form, is sacred. I am completely at one with Christian colleagues on this matter. It is a simple matter of theological teaching, whatever our faith.

‘There may be a groundswell of popular opinion in the country at the moment in favour of so-called “mercy killing”, but in some matters the wisdom of legislators must transcend the populistic view; the guidance of the highest moral court, our Creator, must prevail. After all, as a civilised country, we no longer execute, some would say judicially kill, murderers, no matter how heinous their crimes. But if it were left to public opinion on that matter, we might still be doing so.

‘Society – and our German society in particular, given our dark Nazi past, must be forever vigilant against an insidious slide towards euthanasia. If other countries, like some of our neighbours, choose that course, it is up to them. But here in Germany, for obvious historical reasons, our moral compass must be, and must be seen to be, completely impeccable. The weakest and most vulnerable members of our society must be protected against any possibility that they might be, so to speak, disposed of, sanctioned by a dubious legal permission, because they are in any way a burden. Or of course for nefarious reasons like family members hoping to gain financially from the early death of a loved one, although I do not suggest that is the case with regard to Andreas Ernst or Christopher Benson

‘There is also the “slippery slope” argument. The history of social development tends to be in the direction of increased liberalism and enlightenment, and in many cases I would wholeheartedly agree with that. Such as in the example I cited a little while ago of capital punishment, and attitudes to the punishment of criminality generally; and social attitudes on race or sexual orientation too. But to lump those unquestionably desirable examples of progress in social attitudes together with issues of sanctity of life is a false equivalence.

‘So what might be seen by its proponents as a small, carefully controlled liberalisation of the law on euthanasia could very easily creep towards a much wider legal permissiveness.

‘But that is not really the issue being judged here today. The bench is charged with judging not only a moral crime but a legally-defined one too, according to the current criminal code; whether or not the Bundestag changes legislation on this matter in the near future is irrelevant. We can only apply law as it presently exists; not anticipate the law of the future.

‘Therefore, to reiterate, the Prosecution’s case is that Hans Neumann, tempted by the bribe offered him by Andreas Ernst, did knowingly cause the death of Dieter Ernst. We might quibble about precise semantics: murder or euthanasia, and there is the sentimental view that if it was done “humanely” it was no different from a situation where Herr Ernst had died without awareness in his sleep; but the fact remains that Neumann took Herr Ernst’s life.

‘And we also contend that Andreas Ernst, as an intelligent man and a journalist, was perfectly aware that euthanasia is illegal in Germany but still chose to effect his father’s death by persuading, with bribery, Hans Neumann to do the actual deed. Therefore, he is equally complicit in Herr Ernst’s death.

‘And further, we contend that Christopher Benson was complicit and guilty too. He may have had no financial motivation, but equally he did not have the possible mitigation of being a loving family member distressed by Herr Dieter Ernst’s unfortunate situation. The fact is that he recklessly stole drugs from his employer, the Friedrich Schiller Klinikum to facilitate the euthanasia. And furthermore, he abused his status as a guest worker in Germany after only a few months in our country. That is a serious betrayal of trust.’

‘And so I respectfully request that the bench finds all three defendants: Hans Neumann, Andreas Ernst and Christopher Mark Benson, guilty of performing, procuring or aiding a reckless and illegal medical procedure, as none of them are doctors; and of the greater crime of euthanasia.’

With that, his lengthy oration complete and to barely-concealed sighs of relief from two of the judges, Abrahamson sat down. Vortizender Wolfe said, ‘Can we now have the closing statements for the defence. Frau Keller, if you please.’

Hannah Keller stood. With less verbosity than Abrahamson, she summed up the defence case for Hans. Again she skirted deftly around the weak point: his having accepted money to do the deed. She spoke of his admission of the charge against him but his sympathy for Dieter in his distress; how he had only agreed to do what he did because his client had asked, indeed pleaded, to be helped in his release. Of how he had later been further pressurised and tempted into it by Andreas Ernst. Asserted that he would never for a moment have hastened Dieter’s end otherwise. Maintained that he was a well thought of, conscientious carer who had perhaps crossed an ethical line in a moment of somewhat misplaced compassion, but he had done it for the best of reasons.

She was followed by Seidel for Andreas. His speech was longer, matching in length but making the philosophical counter-arguments to Abrahamson’s. Whilst conceding that his client was possibly wrong to persuade Hans to act illegally with a tempting bag of gold, he reiterated his points about ultimate freedom of choice over one’s own body; one’s own life. He again discussed distinctions between passively assisting suicide – handing over a lethal draught for self-administration – and actively doing so, contending that the difference became academic when the patient had expressly and desperately requested help but was unable to die by his own hand. Fixing each judge in turn with an unblinking stare, holding their gaze, he spoke of meaningful quality of life as opposed to enforced prolongation of a miserable existence.

Becoming theatrically emotive, leaving pauses between points for absorbing and reflection, he again asked them to imagine themselves in the invidious position of Andreas Ernst when faced with a suffering parent who in his mental anguish had asked help to pass peacefully away. Did they, as civilised, compassionate, empathetic people, have the right to insist he deny his loved one that release? Did society have the right to condemn a fellow human being to extended unnecessary misery in the name of religious mores which were followed by some people, of faith, but not everyone, and not the dying person in question?

He put it to them that whilst Germany did, obviously, have to be permanently mindful of and learn from its dark past, and that whilst taking a life in any circumstance without the victim’s consent was clearly murder or, if unintended, manslaughter, sedating a suffering, willing person to sleep and then causing their heart to stop beating was quite another matter. It was indeed an act of mercy. It was a good death.

Seidel finished and passed his gaze down the row of judges again, lingering on each face, engaging each conscience, before quietly taking his seat.

The court was silent again, digesting Seidel’s words. Then Judge Wolfe spoke, inviting closing remarks from Gunther Braun. He was as brief as Keller had been. Perhaps he felt that his colleague had spoken with sufficient eloquence and persuasive humanity for all the defendants. He said again that Chris’s action, although illegal, had been relatively marginal; he had not actively participated in the assisted suicide – he too avoided the word euthanasia – of Dieter Ernst. He expressed his client’s regret at contravening, for altruistic motives, German law and said he felt deep contrition. He pleaded with the judges to recognize the moral dilemma that Chris too had faced, and invited them to show understanding and leniency. And then, leaving them with that thought to ponder, he sat down.

The presiding judge looked across to Hans, Andreas and Chris. ‘Do any of the defendants wish to make a closing statement? Herr Neumann?’

Hans mutely shook his head.

‘Herr Benson?’

‘No. Er, thank you.’ Chris mumbled. He had understood nearly all of what the Prosecutor and defence council had said and any unfamiliar words had been explained by context. But he couldn’t think of any words of mitigation or defence. Just ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Herr Ernst?’

Andreas spoke, firmly, almost defiantly. ‘Yes, Herr Vortizender. I would like to make a statement, please.’

‘Very well. Please come to the witness stand.’

Andreas crossed the chamber to the stand; stood waiting.

‘There is no need to swear an oath. What did you wish to say?’

‘Thank you, Herr Vortizender. Well; just this. Firstly, I wish to apologize to my fellow-defendants for involving them in this business. It was unfair of me, although it seemed at the time that it was the only thing I could do. I would like to say that I feel their motives were entirely honourable and motivated only by altruism and kindness. Even Herr Neumann’s, although there was a fee involved.’

Andreas hesitated. Wolfe said, ‘Is that all?’

‘Er, no. I would like to say something about the actual circumstances of my father’s death. Give my public testimony of it.’

‘Very well. Please proceed.’

Andreas drew a deep breath. ‘Thank you. I visited my father on the morning of October the sixteenth, last year. He was extremely distressed. Weeping, in fact. He had previously asked my help in dying, as the court has heard, and also asked both his carers, my daughter and Christopher Benson for assistance, but had been unsuccessful. But he was now desperate, and it was pitiful to see. I doubted whether Clara Winkler or the other carer, Heidi, would participate in assisting my father to die but thought that Hans Neumann might possibly be persuaded. So, out of earshot of her – Clara; she was on duty – I told my father that I would try to arrange something.

‘I left him and returned home, and telephoned Hans. I thought he might respond to the offering of a fee to give my father a lethal injection and, desperate to find help, offered him two thousand Euros. At first he declined again, but after more attempts to persuade him, he agreed to do it, although he did not know what the procedure for helping a person die like that was. I spent some time on the internet trying to find out what it was and discovered the appropriate dose of sedative to administer to induce coma and the dosage of muscle relaxant to stop the heart.

‘Then in the afternoon I telephoned Christopher Benson at the Friedrich Schiller Klinikum and asked whether he could obtain those drugs. At first he was reluctant, like Hans, but I told him what a wretched and desperate state my father was in and he finally agreed. An hour later he phoned to say that he had them and I went to the hospital to see him, and he discretely passed them to me. Then I had to wait for Hans to come on duty at midnight. I drove to my father’s house. My father was still awake and still in a parlous state.

‘I told him that I had the drugs and asked if he still wanted Hans to inject them. He said yes; he cried and pleaded with Hans to do so.’

Andreas paused, clamped his mouth shut and swallowed, bowing his head, his eyes misting. He struggled for control for a few seconds, then resumed. ‘Sorry. I sat with him and held his hand, and wiped away his tears and told him how much we all loved him, and thanked him for having been a wonderful father, and such an inspiration and guiding light in our lives. He smiled and looked briefly serene and happy, and thanked the family and I for being such a joy to him. We sat like that for a few minutes, with nothing more to say, and then he said, “I’m ready, Andreas, goodbye,” and closed his eyes.

‘I said “Goodbye Vater” and kissed his poor pale forehead, and Hans injected the sedative, and we waited for a few moments. Then Hans checked that he was fully unconscious, and asked me if he should inject the other drug, and I said yes, and he did so. It was over in a few moments. The pain had left his face. Hans checked for a pulse and found none, so we concluded that he was now at rest. He was gone painlessly into his merciful night; he was at peace.’

Andreas paused again; fumbled in a pocket for a handkerchief to staunch the tears that were now falling freely. Chris looked across to Frieda and Birgit. They were both weeping too, clinging to each other. Andreas blew his nose and resumed again. ‘I regret involving Christopher and Hans in this terrible business, and that they will now possibly have to pay a heavy price. I would be quite prepared to take all the blame upon myself. But I do not apologise for speeding my father’s end; for bringing him blessed release from his physical prostration and mental anguish. I am ready to pay the appropriate penalty, whatever it might be.’






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Rough justice

Chapter 21 of Christobel. 1915. The trial begins of our heroine and her fellow-subversives. The likelihood of a fair hearing seems very slim though . . .

If you would like to begin reading Christobel from the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family and then read each subsequent post on from there, apart from Unwelcome to Britain? which is not a chapter post.

Chapter 21: the journal

 7th October, 1915

I was awoken early this morning and dread clutched my chest as, after a moment, the realisation of what was to come flooded back. I was brought breakfast but there was hardly time to eat it before soldiers came and with rough hands on my arms took me out into the prison courtyard. A black police van was drawn up and I was bundled into it. There were several other prisoners already seated on its hard benches. Two of them I know: Herman Capiau and Louis Séverin. They are both active in our rescue movement. Herman gave me a grim smile but Louis stared at his feet. There were two armed soldiers in there too.

And then Miss Cavell was put inside too. To my surprise, she was smartly dressed in off-duty clothes including a feather hat. She must have sent out for them because she was taken away those many weeks ago still in her matron’s uniform. She looked remarkably calm and dignified; much more so than I was feeling, certainly. I made to speak to her; ask her how she was, but was brusquely told “Schweigen” by one of the guards.

We were driven to the Parliament House and ushered inside to the Senate Chamber. What a terrible, cruel misappropriation of Belgium’s elegant and dignified seat of lawmaking as a court to dispense our oppressor’s faux justice! There were many more accused already there. Including our group, there must have been more than thirty, so the Germans must have made a wide sweep of we suspected “insurgents”. And my dear Henri was amongst them. He looked pale and haggard and I wondered whether he’d been mistreated during our weeks of incarceration awaiting trial. He looked in my direction and his face seemed to crumple momentarily, but then he recovered himself and he gave me a brave smile.

Miss Cavell, Henri, Herman Capiau, Jeanne de Belleville (whom I also know), three others and I were made to take senators’ seats – another perversion if ever there was one – facing the rostrum, which the judges would occupy. Henri and I were not permitted to sit together though, but placed on opposite ends of the row. The remaining defendants were made to sit on benches with their backs to the judges, so they couldn’t even see their accusers. Five men who apparently were defence council, although I for one had had no contact with such a person and I doubted whether any of the others had either, entered and took places behind us. That was ridiculous; there was no contact, visually or otherwise, between us and them.

Then the judges entered. They were all sternly military, helmeted, booted and be-medalled. A sixth person, also military and tall and thin with a waxed moustache and monocle, was the Prosecutor. He carried a thick file of papers and what looked like a large legal tome. There was also a German officer who was a translator. The three Kommendantur officers who had interrogated me: the lieutenant, the translating sergeant and the recording sergeant, came in too. I presumed they were to be witnesses, and that they had probably interrogated all of us.

The Prosecutor then began the trial, reading the charges, in German of course. The court interpreter translated snatches of it for us, the gist of it being, as far as I could tell, that we were all accused of “conducting soldiers to the enemy”, which was regarded as treason under the German military penal code. Well if that was what I had confessed to during the charade of my interrogation, I hadn’t been aware of it at the time.

The reading of the charges was followed by a lengthy address by the policeman Lieutenant Bergan, again, obviously, in German with intermittent translation into French. Presumably that was his prosecution testimony, corroborating the charges. But again, it was difficult to obtain a clear understanding of what the prosecution’s case against us was. We defendants were then sent out of the chamber, to be brought back in and tried individually. Miss Cavell was first in. She showed no fear as she left us and held her head high. Of course we had no idea what she said in answer to her questioning; we didn’t know whether she denied all the charges or admitted to them, and if so, whether she implicated the rest of us. But I would like to think that she didn’t do that. She has always been very concerned for our safety.

Of course we were under armed guard as we nervously waited, and again, if we dared to speak to one another we were sharply ordered to be silent. I managed to at least move close to Henri. I would have given anything for him to have been able to take me in his arms. It would have felt like a semblance of comfort and protection at least. But he couldn’t. We managed to briefly touch hands, before a guard noticed and roughly pulled him away from me, and after that we could only try to speak mutely, confer love, with our eyes.  

The questioning must have been very brief, judging by how quickly people were being taken back into the chamber – it was at little more than ten-minute intervals. I was the seventh person. The procedure was that the intimidating Prosecutor spoke in German, his eyes fixed on me, cold and pitiless, and the interpreter rendered it into French for me. He asked whether – no, he charged that – I had been complicit in sheltering enemy soldiers until they were conveyed to Holland, and thence back to rejoin our forces. There seemed little point in continuing my denial of that, so I said yes, I had enabled a few, but they were wounded and probably finished as soldiers, so I was simply doing an act of kindness, following my normal nursing instincts.

The interpreter translated my words back to the Prosecutor, although I had no way of knowing whether he was doing so accurately or colouring them with his own interpretation – or for that matter simply telling the Prosecutor what he wanted to hear. I was asked how many, and plucking a number out of the air said “about ten or eleven”, although it was certainly more than that. When my answer was translated to the Prosecutor, he glared at me, as if he didn’t believe a word. The next question was: did I know the names of the guides who helped the fugitives we sheltered escape. I said no, I didn’t. That was not true either of course, but I couldn’t implicate either my fellow-accused or those not yet arrested.

The Prosecutor frowned angrily at my translated reply and then accused me of being part of a subversive organisation that was working “against the interests of the German state”. Summoning up what courage and dignity I had (which wasn’t a great deal), I said no, I was not aware that I was collaborating with a resistance movement, reiterating that my deeds were simply individual acts of compassion and kindness, and that I had exercised my professional care as a nurse for German wounded as conscientiously as for our own soldiers. I maintained that I didn’t distinguish between nationalities when it came to relieving suffering.

I anxiously watched the Prosecutor’s face, hoping for any slight signs of empathy or understanding as my reply was translated back (if indeed it had been translated accurately), but he remained completely poker-faced. And that was pretty much the extent of my cross-examination. I was told to sit in the senator’s chair I’d occupied earlier and the next defendant was brought in. It was Henri. He was taken through exactly the same series of questions, accusations, as me. He also confessed to the harbouring of the fugitives – presumably, like me, he probably realised there was no way of really denying it, and also refused to name any names or concede that we were part of any organisation.

And so it continued throughout the rest of the morning: the same questions/accusations repeated as if by rote. There were no interventions from the supposed defence lawyers sitting behind us. Some defendants were proud and defiant. One, Philippe Baucq, when asked if he were Belgian, said loudly, “Yes, and a good patriot”, which seemed to annoy the Prosecutor, who repeated it sarcastically in all his questions. Philippe admitted distributing the underground newspaper La Libre Belgique and working with others to assist fugitives to escape, but stoutly denied guiding himself or knowledge of the structure of any organisation.

But most defendants were nervous, apprehensive, disconsolate, and some were clearly frightened. The more I listened to the sad, anxious litany of confessions or denials, the more I felt the overwhelming sense that the proceedings were a complete charade; that we had all been adjudged guilty from the beginning, and that our guilt was a foregone conclusion; that this was simply a show trial.

The court broke for lunch. At least, lunch for the judges, policemen and lawyers, who left the chamber. We defendants had to remain, under guard of course. There was no food provided for us, although a few people had had the foresight (but not me, it hadn’t occurred to me) to bring bits of food in with them, which they shared around. The guards were brought a tureen of soup and they cruelly tormented the prisoners by offering them the dregs of their bowls. A container of weak coffee was brought though, although nothing to drink it out of, until one kind-hearted guard offered his soup bowl and we used that, taking it in turns, passing it around. Presumably, the other prisoners still waiting outside to be dealt with fared no better.

Then it was time to resume proceedings and “try” the rest of us. They too were brought in one by one, and they too, with varying degrees of courage, tried to maintain that they had only been involved in conveying prisoners to safety, not in fighting the occupiers, or bombing, or anything like that. But whether or not they were believed, I had no idea.

When all the prisoners were back in the chamber and had been cross-examined, Lieutenant Bergan was questioned as a witness, although we had no way of knowing whether he was simply reiterating the points in his lengthy speech at the beginning of the proceedings as the translation was so sketchy. He seemed to be saying that we were part of a highly organised ring with the aim of getting soldiers and civilian men out of Belgium so that they could enlist, with Miss Cavell in charge of things in Brussels. It was nonsense, at least as far as the soldiers were concerned. Few of the British boys who passed through our hands expressed any wish to rejoin their regiments. They had seen what fighting entailed. Miss Cavell’s motives for helping them were entirely humanitarian. Although that was the intention of the few Belgian civilian men who we enabled to cross the Dutch border, I must admit.  

The second and last witness for the prosecution was, surprisingly, a young boy of fifteen or so: Philippe, the son of one of the defendants, Ada Bodart. It looked very much as though the police had trapped him into giving evidence against Philippe Baucq because he was asked to confirm that he had taken copies of La Libre Belgique to Ada’s house. The flustered, intimidated boy said yes, he had. He was then asked if he’d overheard Baucq saying he’d devised a route to the Dutch border for escapees. Again, young Philippe said yes. Baucq called out that it wasn’t so; that the boy had misunderstood what he’d said. But it was too late; the damage was done. The Prosecutor coldly told the boy to say goodbye to his mother, as she was going to prison. He did so and she kissed him. It was a heartbreaking sight.

At seven in the evening the session was over. Every defendant had been cross-examined and the prosecution witnesses had given their dubious testimonies. We were told that the court would reconvene in the morning. There had still been no opportunity to speak to our lawyers, who had said nothing all day. It was a complete travesty of proper legal procedure.

Henri and I cast each other longing looks and we were driven back to the prison, given our meagre evening meal, and as Thierry was on duty and was the one who brought it to me, I asked him for more writing paper on which to write this. He was very sympathetic when I told him of the day’s events and what a cruelly nonsensical process the trial had been. He shook his head sadly and said he wished he could do more to help me, but he couldn’t. I understand that. But, running an enormous risk, he did return with a few more sheets of paper for me. More than ever, I want to leave a record of this injustice, this parody of law.

Apart from that, I want to keep my mind occupied; tire my brain out as much as possible so that sleep comes quickly. I don’t want to spend hours tossing and turning in insomnia, fearful of what tomorrow might bring.                      

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Trial and tribulations

Chapter 20 of my novel Christobel, set back in 2015 with day two of Chris’s trial. His prospects still seem bleak . . .

If you would like to begin reading from the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive and read each successive post from there, except Unwelcome to Britain?, which isn’t a chapter post.

Chapter 20

Day two of the trial. Gunther Braun had told Chris that it would be devoted to witness questioning – first, witnesses for the prosecution and then, if time allowed it, ones for the defendants. Chris wondered morosely who there could be who would be prepared to testify to his, Andreas’s or Hans’ good characters, given that it would possibly come down to that, as they were all admitting the charges and the prosecution case seemed cut and dried.

Frieda was there again, sitting with her family, as he was led into the dock and sat down. Andreas, also already there, gave him a small rueful smile. Frieda looked across and gifted a smile too. It seemed slightly warmer than previous ones. Or was he imagining that? Hans, who had taken his seat before him, stared ahead, grim-faced, but then his crime was probably the greatest in the eyes of the law. An official called the court to rise and the panel of judges filed in. After a few preliminaries presiding judge Wolfe said, ‘We will now hear witness testimonies for the prosecution please, Herr Abrahamson.’

The prosecutor rose. ‘Thank you, Herr Vortizender. I first call Clara Winkler.’

A young woman, stocky, blonde-plaited and rosy-cheeked, entered the courtroom and took her position on the witness stand. Wolfe said, ‘Do you confirm that you are Clara Winkler?’

The woman nodded and spoke, nervously. ‘Yes, I do.’

‘Thank you. Now do you wish to swear a religious oath, a non-religious oath or make an equivalent non-sworn affirmation?’

Clara Winkler looked mildly shocked. ‘Er, oh, a religious one, of course!’

‘Very well. Please raise your right hand. Do you swear by God the Almighty and Omniscient that, to the best of your knowledge, you will tell the pure truth and not conceal anything?’

Clara Winkler said, blushing, her cheeks even more roseate, ‘I swear, so help me God.’

Wolfe smiled kindly. ‘Thank you. Now, you are a care-professional, employed by the same social care company as Hans Neumann; is that correct?’

‘Yes, I am. Yes.’

‘And you and he were both employed caring for Herr Dieter Ernst?’

‘Yes, we were.’

‘And you were working with Hans Neumann in the execution of those duties on the seventeenth of October, two thousand and fourteen?’

‘Yes, that is correct.’

‘So would you tell the court please what happened regarding Herr Dieter Ernst on that date?’

Clara Winkler paused, frowning, as if marshalling her recollections and composure. Took a deep breath. ‘Yes. I arrived at the house at nine in the morning to begin the day shift.’

‘You were taking over from Hans Neumann, who had been working the previous night shift. Is that correct?’

‘It is.’

‘Please continue.’

‘Well, as soon as I got through the door, Hans told me that Herr Ernst was dead. That he had found him dead half an hour previously.’

‘He definitely said that; that Herr Ernst had died then?’

‘Yes, definitely.’

‘And what was his demeanour?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘What was Hans Neumann’s behaviour like? How did he seem?’

‘Well, he seemed distressed.’

‘Aren’t carers like yourselves accustomed to dealing with death though?’

‘Yes, we are, and although it’s never nice, we put our feelings aside and get on with things, doing what has to be done. But he seemed unusually upset.’

‘Did that seem odd to you?’

‘Well, not immediately.’

‘But later?’


‘Right; we will come to that. So what did you do next?’

‘The procedure with a death is that we call the client’s physician as soon as possible, so that a death certificate can be issued. We have their name and contact number in the file.’

‘Your colleague had not already done that?’

‘No, he said he had not. Well, it was fairly early in the day and I suppose he felt there was no point in calling a doctor out as it wasn’t an emergency. And as I said, Hans was very upset.’

‘So what happened next? Did you call the doctor?’

‘Yes. Hans went home and I called him. Then I waited for him to arrive. It was over an hour before he came, because he said he had some patients to see first.’

‘What about informing the next of kin? I presume you had done that?’

‘Yes, I rang Frau Ernst and she said that she would tell her husband and the other members of the family.’

‘And what led you to suspect that things were not as they should have been?’

‘Well, I was not thinking that. At least not at first. When the doctor came I told him that the client had died about two hours previously, because Hans said it was at about eight-thirty. The doctor was surprised; he thought that death must have happened longer ago than that, because rigor mortis was fairly well established. He said it was in the entire face and neck and had already spread to the shoulders and upper arms. And also, he said, there was pronounced livor mortis; the undersides of the body and limbs were quite discoloured, which I think means the blood settling to the lowest points because it isn’t being pumped around the body anymore.’

‘Quite so,’ the judge interjected. ‘I think we may be having expert witness testimony which confirms that. So what finally decided you to contact the police?’

‘Well it was thinking about that later while I was waiting for the undertaker to come to collect the body: that actually Herr Ernst had died sometime during the night. If he had done so, why would Hans not have contacted the family as soon as it happened? It seemed almost as though there was no need for him to, because it had somehow been arranged, been expected, and they wouldn’t have needed to be informed. And also, I remembered that the client had asked all of us, Hans, Heidi and myself, to help him die. I just thought it a little odd, so then I reported it to the police.’

‘So you suspected there might have been some sort of conspiracy?’

‘No, not that exactly. It just seemed a bit strange.’

‘Mm. And so then the Kriminalpolizei attended at Herr Ernst’s house and you gave them the testimony you have repeated to this court?’

‘Yes, they came quite quickly, before the undertaker. They looked at the body and they asked where Han’s lived, and I gave them his phone number.’

‘I see. Thank you. Lawyers for the defence; do you have any questions of the witness?’

Both Braun and Seidel representing Andreas shook their heads but Keller for Hans got to her feet. ‘Frau Winkler; how would you describe your relationship with Hans Neumann?’

She looked puzzled. ‘I am sorry; how do you mean?’

‘Did you like him?’

‘Er, yes. We got along fine together.’

‘Well that is not the story my client tells. According to him, there was bad feeling between you two because of your attitude to his sexuality.’

Clara Winkler blushed again. ‘Well, that was nothing to do with me. It was his own business. It did not affect our working together.’

Hannah Keller smiled. ‘And there is no reason why it should, of course. But I would suggest that you disliked, disapproved of Hans Neumann, and also that you hold very firm pro-life views, and that was why you reported your concerns to the police. You wanted to get him into trouble.’

The presiding judge interrupted again. ‘Frau Keller, the witness’s opinion of the defendant and his sexual orientation, and his personal values-system, really are an irrelevance. They do not alter the facts of the case at all, as I am sure you well know. We are here to establish whether Hans Neumann murdered Dieter Ernst for personal financial gain or assisted his dying for altruistic reasons. I direct that this line of questioning be removed from the record.’

‘My apologies, Herr Vortizender,’ Keller said, somewhat resignedly, and sat down.

The judge thanked and dismissed Clara Winkler and, scowling at Hans, she left the courtroom.

The prosecutor rose again. ‘Herr Vortizender, I now call Kriminalkommisar Müller.’

Müller took the stand and took the oath. The presiding judge resumed. ‘You are Kriminalkommisar Franz Müller of Osnabrück police?’

‘I am.’

‘And you investigated the suspicious death of Herr Dieter Ernst?’

‘Yes, I and my team did.’

‘Please take us through the events of the seventeenth of October, twenty-fourteen.’

Müller took a notebook from his pocket and cleared his throat. ‘At eleven-oh-six that morning, we received a call from Frau Clara Winkler, reporting a suspicious death. I spoke to her myself. She said that the doctor who had attended to certify death had given an estimated time of death at some variance with her colleague Hans Neumann’s reported time.

‘I sent one of my officers, Kriminalmeister Schumann, and two uniformed officers to the address, where he took a statement from Frau Winkler and inspected the deceased. Schumann observed that there was evidence of both rigor mortis and livor mortis, both well-established, suggesting that death had occurred longer ago than the defendant’s reported time.

‘He reported back to me, and having ascertained the defendant’s contact number, we telephoned and then visited him. I asked him to explain why he had reported the death as having occurred later in the morning than seemed plausible, and at first he said that he had made a mistake in his timing because of the stress of the death. When I put it to him that the likely time of death was possibly around midnight or one o’clock, and asked why he hadn’t reported it to the next of kin then, he became very evasive. I then arrested him and we took him to headquarters for further questioning.

‘We provided him with a preliminary lawyer, who advised him to remain silent. We then detained him in custody and applied for consent for an urgent autopsy on the deceased. That autopsy showed the presence of a high dose of barbiturate and another drug in his blood, sufficient to cause death. We then interviewed him again and he confessed to having injected the drugs at around one-thirty in the morning, whilst Herr Ernst was sleeping. He said that he had done so in the presence of and with the permission of Herr Andreas Ernst, the son of the deceased. And also at the deceased’s request.

‘We then arrested and questioned Andreas Ernst, who was also evasive at first but then admitted that he had asked Hans Neumann to administer the drug. He also said that the deceased had requested that this be done, and that he and Neumann were carrying out his wishes in a spirit of compassion.

‘I asked Andreas Ernst how the drug had been obtained and after some pressing on the point he admitted it had been taken from the Friedrich Schiller Klinikum by his daughter’s boyfriend Christopher Benson, who worked there as a nurse. I then arrested Herr Benson, who after initially exercising his right to silence admitted that he had done so and given it to Andreas Ernst, who passed it to Hans Neumann for administering.

‘In a later interview I asked Andreas Ernst why Christopher Benson hadn’t administered the injection. He said that he had asked him to but Herr Benson had refused, and then he had persuaded Hans Neumann to do it instead. I asked whether he had paid him a fee for doing this, and he denied doing so. But an examination of his bank account showed a transfer of a sum of two thousand Euros to Hans Neumann’s personal account.

‘As a result of all these findings, I applied to the regional investigating judge for the indictment of Hans Neumann, Andreas Ernst and Christopher Benson of complicity in the murder of Dieter Ernst.’

Müller finished speaking. Judge Wolfe said, ‘Does that conclude your evidence. Herr Kriminalkommisar?’

‘It does.’

‘Thank you. Are there any questions from defence lawyers?’

All three shook their heads. Abrahamson rose again. ‘Herr Vortizender, I now call Doktor Klaus Differing.’

The court waited as a white-haired, grey-stubbled, elderly man, gaunt-framed in a tweed suit, took the witness stand. He elected to make the non-sworn affirmation and took a notebook from his inside jacket pocket. Judge Wolfe began. ‘Herr Doktor Differing, did you perform an autopsy on the body of the late Dieter Ernst on the evening of the seventeenth of October, twenty-fourteen?’

‘I did.’

‘And what were your findings?’

‘Apart from the normal post-mortem indications, the body was in an advanced state of muscular and neurological degeneration due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.’

‘Could you express that in layman’s terms, please?’

‘Yes, of course. My apologies. Effectively, severe muscle wasting and atrophy caused by a motor neurone disease.’

‘Would the person have been in a high degree of distress or discomfort, in your opinion?’

Differing smiled sadly. ‘Oh yes; most certainly. In the latter stages of the disease, in addition to total paralysis, breathing and even eventually swallowing would become difficult and then fail. It would be a miserable state to be in.’

‘I see. And did you detect any other unusual indications?’

‘Yes. Haematological tests showed high levels of the sedative sodium thiopental and also the muscle relaxant pancuronium.’

‘And are these drugs that are routinely used in palliative management of motor neurone disease?’

‘Well, no. Not at all. The sedative used in high dosage would rapidly induce coma – sometimes it is used medically for just that purpose when necessary – and a high dosage of muscle relaxant stops the heart, which of course is fatal unless artificial circulation temporarily replaces it – such as during major surgery.’

‘Yes; obviously. So, used together, these two drugs could have a clear application for euthanasia?’

Differing bridled visibly. ‘Well, if you must use that term, yes,’ he retorted.

‘Please respect the court, Herr Doktor,’ Judge Wolfe said sternly. ‘That is the issue we are trying here.’

Differing bowed his head. ‘My apologies.’

‘Where you able to establish a probable time of death?’ Wolfe asked.

‘Yes, I was, give or take an hour or so.’ The pathologist consulted his notebook, turning the pages unhurriedly as the judge and court waited patiently. ‘I saw the deceased at seven in the evening and the degree of bodily degeneration suggested a period of mortality of sixteen to eighteen hours. That would place the time of death between one and two o’clock the previous night.’

‘I see. Thank you, Herr Doktor.’ Wolfe turned to the lawyers. ‘Do the representatives of any of the defendants wish to question the witness?’

Andreas’s man was on his feet immediately.

‘I take it, Herr Doktor, that using these two drugs would be a completely distress-free means of effecting death?’

‘Oh, yes. Absolutely. It would be entirely humane. It would be like falling asleep, or going under anaesthesia, and simply never waking up. It would certainly be something I would choose for myself if I had a really distressing terminal condition.’

‘Yes, well we aren’t asking your opinion on the matter, Herr Doktor, with respect,’ Wolfe commented drily. ‘Now, are those all the questions of this witness?’ He looked questioningly at the defendants’ team and received a trinity of nods. ‘Very well. The court will adjourn for lunch.



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