M. Brechtken u.a. (Hrsg.): Political and Transitional Justice

Political and Transitional Justice in Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Brechtken, Magnus; Bułhak, Władysław; Zarusky, Jürgen
Göttingen 2019: Wallstein Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
336 S.
€ 38,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Gintare Malinauskaite, Außenstelle Vilnius, Deutsches Historisches Institut Warschau

The volume Political and Transitional Justice in Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1950s collects papers from an international conference held in March 2015, jointly organized by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, the Institute of Contemporary History Munich-Berlin, and the Russian civil rights society Memorial in Warsaw. It presents a wide range of country-specific case studies by both distinguished and junior scholars dealing with “political justice” in Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union in the decades from the 1930s to the 1950s. Although the editors explicitly aim to contribute “to overcoming national divisions and establishing common, transnational perceptions of our shared cultural heritage” (p. 10), their book includes only one comparative chapter, namely a study by Łukasz Jasiński of Polish and Czechoslovak retribution against Germany in the immediate postwar years.

The two central theoretical concepts of the volume are “political justice” and “transitional justice” (p. 9). The first conception of “political justice”, proposed by the German-American legal expert and political theorist Otto Kirchheimer, theorizes how politics and law are intertwined and shows that justice can be misused for political purposes. The second term, “transitional justice”, refers to post-authoritarian justice and deals with the overcoming of a prior suppressive system and its coercive powers. The editors of this book seek to show “the overlapping of political and transitional justice” (p. 10). However, not all the contributors go beyond their empirical studies to enter into extensive theoretical discussions of these terms. One chapter that stands out positively here is the contribution by Paulina Gulińska-Jurgiel, who discusses how the activities of the Main Commission for Investigation of German Crimes in Poland in 1945 could be classified according to both concepts. She argues that the category of transitional justice “seems more far fitting for determining the operation of the Main Commission” (p. 206) than the concept of political justice proposed by Kirchheimer. Her argument is based on the fact that “the activities of the justice system of the new government were recognized by other states, which ultimately strengthened its international legitimization” (p. 206).

The book is divided into two sections. In the first section, which is structured chronologically, seven authors direct attention to varieties of political justice from the 1930s to the 1950s. This section presents a very intriguing and well-researched overview of findings about political justice in the Soviet Union, Germany, and Poland. All authors highlight how extrajudicial activities and propaganda shaped legal judgments in these decades. For instance, Iryna Ramanava, in her captivating study of the 1937 “Lepel case” and regional show trials in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, demonstrates how the first of these trials, held in the Lepel district of the BSSR, inspired similar legal processes, leading to a “wave of purges” and “to a nationwide suppression of local officials” (p. 72). Similarly, Maximilian Becker, in his in-depth analysis of the 1941 “Obornik Murder Trial” in German-occupied Posen, analyzes the role of media coverage for the Special Court, which sentenced former Polish police officers. He reveals how anti-Polish propaganda, which was orchestrated by the German occupation powers, entered the courtroom and how this trial legitimized the discriminatory policies of the occupiers.

The second section comprises nine articles focusing on the problems that arose in dealing with state crimes after regime changes. The authors of this section provide the readers with an overview of judicial dilemmas and problems that emerged while dealing with war crimes and prosecutions of wartime criminals. They present a large-scale panorama of various legislations, investigative commissions, and different court proceedings as well as country-specific forms of punishment. For example, Andrzej Paczkowski gives an extensive overview of Polish postwar retributive justice. He notes that postwar justice “was quite moderate in scope and form for Poles, as compared to ‘foreigners’ (Germans) who were treated much more radically, albeit rarely indiscriminately” (p. 177). In his article, he deals with such complex issues as the deportations of the German population and punishments of the Volksdeutsche, who were often regarded as traitors. The challenge of prosecuting wartime crimes in Poland is likewise discussed by Adam Dziurok, who focuses on the court proceedings that took place in the former Polish-German border area of Upper Silesia. Based on the example of the Special Criminal Court in Katowice in 1945-1946, Dziurok observes that Silesian courts “were extraordinarily lenient” in imposing penalties on the defendants, as the court “tried to see the actions of defendants within the wider context of national identity issues” (p. 250). Court rulings proclaimed that these crimes “were committed due to an ‘excusable lack of both knowledge of the illegality of the act’ and the necessary degree of ‘national consciousness’” (p. 242-243). Case studies such as these provide impressive evidence that general assertions about post-war justice can only be made cautiously and that regional perspectives are needed to understand the overall landscape of postwar retribution.

The broad variety of rich and comprehensive case studies efficaciously contributes to better understanding of postwar justice and its functioning in various country-specific historical contexts. Nevertheless, the book would have profited from a wider range of comparative studies or a concluding chapter. Even though the editors express their hope that the articles “inspire comparative reflection” (p. 10), they leave this effort to their readers. A comparative summary could have situated the presented case studies in a broader context, revealing their interconnectedness as well as exposing country-specific differences.

The contributors of the volume are historians and one jurist – a fact that brings with it specific disciplinary approaches. Although the editors do not aspire to approach the interdisciplinary dimensions of the topic, for future research it would be intriguing to look at it from a multidisciplinary perspective. How was the political justice channeled through different media sources, not only in newspapers, but also through trial films, television, or even literature? Another promising extension of perspective concerns the gender issue. In his article on political justice in Poland from 1939 to 2000, Władysław Bułhak refers to a “Lady Justice” (p. 190) and, in this manner, reminds the readers that in the symbolic imagination justice is often personified as female. This hints at how valuable it would have been to consider the perspective of gender in some of the articles and discuss these findings in the context of the postwar retributive justice. What role does gender play while punishing war criminals and collaborators? Similarly, it would be interesting to investigate the composition of different legal bodies based on a gender perspective. To what extent does the category of gender impact the work of diverse judicial or extrajudicial entities?

Despite these additional suggestions, the volume offers a highly valuable insight into less-known case studies and provides a panoramic and well-investigated overview of justice and its political dimensions in Central and Eastern Europe. The contributors show a complicated relationship between various political regimes and justice in the postwar years. The volume also depicts the legal challenges that countries had to confront in a new postwar order and examines how justice was staged and how different law practices were (mis)used for political purposes.

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