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When Art Changes Reality: Literature and Criminal Law

When art changes reality: the Romance scholar Susanne Zepp-Zwirner and the criminologist Klaus Hoffmann-Holland deal with the interplay between law and literature.

From Der Tagespiegel, by Pepe Egger:

“Kafka's novel “The Trial” made it clear that law and literature are related to one another.

“For several years now, Susanne Zepp-Zwirner, Professor of Romance Philology at the Free University of Berlin, and Klaus Hoffmann-Holland, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Law there, have been exploring how exactly this network of relationships and tension looks in joint lectures.

“Without Zola, the Dreyfus affair would not have been dealt with. “Both law and literature are text studies. Our cooperation links conceptual and theoretical work from the legal field with interpretive procedures in literary studies,” explains Klaus Hoffmann-Holland. “The common starting point was to reconstruct scenarios in which the law had not or not yet reacted, … scenarios in which literature then demanded that the law deal with it.” An example: the Dreyfus affair. Without Émile Zola's “J'accuse” - “I accuse” - from 1898, there would have been no legal reappraisal of the unjust conviction of Alfred Dreyfus and the cover-up of the judicial scandal, says Klaus Hoffmann-Holland.  

“The literary scholar [Susanne Zepp-Zwirner] recalls Franz Werfel's novel “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” as an important strand of this development: “The novel is a literary accusation of the genocide perpetrated against the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915/1916,” she explains. “Because of the principle of non-interference, crimes of this kind could not be punished at the time. Werfel, however, describes the specifics of the act - that people are only persecuted and murdered because of the chance of their birth - and thus shows the need to classify such crimes as something that must be punished legally as a global community. "

“And how did the law react? “Raphael Lemkin introduced the term genocide into legal theory and jurisprudence and was significantly involved in the formulation of the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention,” explains Klaus Hoffmann-Holland.”  

The collaboration between Susanne Zepp-Zwirner and Klaus Hoffmann-Holland gave rise to interdisciplinary research and a lecture series “Key Legal Concepts in Law and Literature” which took place last winter semester. Seminars with students looked at the concept of genocide from different historical epochs up to the present: the Holocaust, the genocide of the Herero and Nama by German colonial troops, the genocide of the indigenous Ixil population in Guatemala, the genocidal crimes against the Yazidis in Iraq and that of the indigenous population in Brazil were investigated.

“These crimes are being committed while we are talking to each other, right now,” says Lena Hein, a master’s student in general and comparative literature who attended the seminar in the winter semester. And her fellow student, Romance studies student Anna Maria Roscher, was impressed by how topical and relevant it is to study the relationship between law and literature.

Full article in German at:


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