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Co-Winner of the 2011 J. Willard Hurst Book Prize for Sociolegal History, Law and Society Association
As a child, Inga Markovits dreamt of stealing and reading every letter contained in a mailbox at a busy intersection of her town in order to learn what life is all about. When, decades later, working as a legal historian, she tracked down the almost complete archive of a former East German trial court, she knew that she had finally found her mailbox. Combining her work in this extraordinary archive with interviews of former plaintiffs and defendants, judges and prosecutors, government and party functionaries, and...
As a child, Inga Markovits dreamt of stealing and reading every letter contained in a mailbox at a busy intersection of her town in order to learn what life is all about. When, decades later, working as a legal historian, she tracked down the almost complete archive of a former East German trial court, she knew that she had finally found her mailbox. Combining her work in this extraordinary archive with interviews of former plaintiffs and defendants, judges and prosecutors, government and party functionaries, and Stasi collaborators, all in the little town she calls "Lüritz," Markovits has written a remarkable grassroots history of a legal system that set out with the utopian hopes of a few and ended in the anger and disappointment of the many. This is a story of ordinary men and women who experienced Socialist law firsthand--people who applied and used the law, trusted and resented it, manipulated and broke it, and feared and opposed it, but who all dealt with it in ways that help us understand what it meant to be a citizen in a twentieth-century Socialist state, what "Socialist justice" aimed to do, and how, in the end, it failed. Brimming with human stories of obedience and resistance, endurance and cunning, and cruelty and grief, Justice in Lüritz is ultimately a book about much more than the law, or Socialism, or East Germany.
There is no Lüritz. But the place hiding behind this name exists: a town of about 55,000 inhabitants in that northern part of Germany that not so very long ago belonged to the German Democratic Republic (GDR), now deceased. Lüritz is a pretty town with a big market square, two or three beautiful churches, the remnants of two city gates, a once busy port, a shipyard (now also much reduced in size and workforce), an engineering school, and a number of splendid Renaissance buildings in front of which the tourists study their travel guides. One of these buildings houses the city's magistrate court. Of its eight judges, seven are West Germans.
There always was a courthouse in this place: under the Archduke, the Weimar Republic, the Nazis, the Socialists, and now, finally, under the rule of law. Most of the times it was called, as it is today, the "magistrate court." Only under the Socialists it was a "district court," in which, during the last years of the GDR, a crew of five judges decided together about a thousand cases a year: a potpourri of civil litigation, labor and family law disputes, and criminal cases. Today, four of those judges are attorneys in town; only the fifth, still young and inexperienced when the Wall collapsed, was kept on the bench after what the Germans call "die Wende"-the Turnabout. In the court's archive, Socialist and rule-of-law case files are peacefully united on shiny metal shelves (the old wooden shelves, all solid oak, were thrown out soon after the reunification), and only the changing colors of the folders and their suddenly increasing bulk would tell a curious visitor that around the year 1990, the town's legal life must have experienced an important change.
It was no accident that I discovered the Lüritz courthouse. Soon after the demise of Socialism, an East German colleague had hinted at possible archival finds in the former GDR: there must be courthouses, he said, that had preserved almost their entire output, because the East German administration of justice was notoriously short of staff and would not have managed to always properly weed out its superannuated records, as the law required. With a little luck, I might find a court that had held onto most of its fi les since the early postwar years.
So I went on a search in Mecklenburg, that part of Germany where Bismarck had said he wanted to be when the world came to an end, because in Mecklenburg everything happened fifty years later than elsewhere. Hopefully, that would include the cleansing of archives. Inquiries at twenty-four brand-new magistrate courts (erstwhile district courts) finally led me to Lüritz. I remember well how the sight of the Lüritz courthouse stirred my hopes: a grand affair with two broad wings, built more than four hundred years ago as a wedding present for the daughter of a duke and surely big enough to have had room to preserve the court fi les of four decades. And indeed: the shelves in the court's archive contained case law from the very beginnings of the GDR until its end-not without gaps, but complete enough to trace the life course of a legal system that started out with the hopes of a few believers and that collapsed under the suspicion and disappointment of so many.
As I left the Lüritz courthouse after that first visit, I noticed a little door in the curved wall of the circular staircase, too low for an adult to enter without stooping. "That is the wood cellar," I was told. "That's where we keep our waste paper." After the Turnabout, the court had not yet found the money to hire a hauling company to carry off its waste. The wood cellar turned out to be a dark and chilly vault filled to shoulder height with the byproducts of forty years of judicial administration: registers and ledgers of all sorts, personnel fi les, search and arrest warrants, citizens' letters and complaints, desk diaries, communications between the district court and the superior judicial bureaucracy, judges' notebooks covering briefings and training courses, work plans-a veritable garbage pile of legal history and a gold mine for me. I asked for a delay in its disposal and returned during my spring break to spend a week under the dangling light bulb of the wood cellar, sorting with freezing fingers through the treasures. As a child, I had sometimes played with the idea of stealing the contents of a mailbox at a busy intersection in town and, by reading every letter in it, discovering what life was all about. Now I had found my mailbox.
This book is based on my Lüritz discovery and on conversations with many people in town who, in one way or another, came into contact with the law: judges and prosecutors; plaintiffs and defendants; party functionaries, city officials, Stasi collaborators. With the help of my files and interviews I want to reconstruct the rise and fall of a totalitarian legal system from the vantage point of ordinary citizens. I am not interested in the big and important happenings in East German legal history: the plenary sessions of the Central Committee, the pronouncements by the Party leadership, the major decisions of the Supreme Court. We know enough about those. Legal sociologists have often told us that even under the rule of law, there are wide gaps between the law on the books and the law as practiced or not practiced in real life. Under Socialism, too, the legal prescriptions of the powerful had to be obeyed and carried out by those at the bottom. What did law made in Berlin look like by the time it was applied in Lüritz? How did Lüritz notables and ordinary citizens deal with it? How did the law affect them, and how did they affect the law? The legal institutions of Socialism in the GDR are dead. But the past is still alive in the minds of those who lived it. It is their experiences that are the subject matter of this book.
It will not be easy to extract from my fi les and interviews what Leopold von Ranke optimistically described as "what really happened." In Lüritz, too, there won't be one but several pasts, the products of the convictions and the vantage points of their respective observers. Moreover, I am an outsider, accustomed to legal conventions that may lead me to misinterpret GDR events and the reports of my informants. And can I trust even the fi les? Can I trust the memories of my conversation partners? Do I have to worry about being lied to? Or will I rather be misled by being too suspicious? The past is an uncertain territory. Some readers may remember it differently from the way I will describe it. To not appear unduly confident of my own impressions, I will present not only the facts, as I see them, in this book, but also some of my doubts and the mistakes I made on my search for what Socialist justice meant in Lüritz. I hope that in this fashion my excursion into the past may appear credible even to those who have experienced it differently.
But legal history written "from the bottom," as it is attempted in this book, is harder to justify than "top down" history that focuses on those canonical events and people on whose significance we all agree. My Lüritz story deals primarily with everyday events. It is true that the sky will be reflected even in a village pond, and I claim with this book that "justice in Lüritz" can also stand for "justice in the GDR" and, reaching even further, for "justice under Socialism" with all its failures and, who knows, successes. But I will persuade my readers of the justification of this claim only if I succeed in describing my protagonists in ways that not only depict their own everyday hopes and experiences with the law but that also show the imprint of the political system which gave rise to them. I must make visible the general underlying the specific. I must endow my Lüritz actors with the credibility of Socialist everymen and women. And I must put together the many parts of my historical puzzle in ways that produce a portrait consisting not only of many specks of color but also displaying the shades and contours of an image that allows us to recognize and, hopefully, to understand its sitter.
I am not worried whether Lüritz, as a law-town, can serve as a useful model of adjudication in the GDR in general. The economic make-up of the city, with its mixture of heavy machinery and service industries, communal administration, tourism, and an agricultural hinterland, showed enough variety to allow its legal disputes to stand for disputes litigated elsewhere in the GDR. Moreover, the East German administration insisted on the uniformity of Socialist justice and constantly compared the output of its trial courts, calling those courts to order whose arguments or sentencing habits deviated too much from the national mean. As a result, my Lüritz files will be more representative of the work of trial courts everywhere in the GDR than the files, say, of a Bavarian or Bremen magistrate court might be of West German judicial practice. But the grand lines of my Lüritz portrait will be harder to draw than if I tried to paint a history "from above." Seen from up high and at a distance, the directions of developments are easier to recognize than when blocked by the obstructions of the grassroots level. The big events that we all read and heard about seem to legitimate themselves: since they happened in this and in no other fashion, they appear endowed with a developmental logic that needs no further explanation. But the details of my Lüritz story will make historical sense only if I manage to arrange them in meaningful fashion. But how? It will not do to simply string them on a time line. Instead, like an archeologist assembling the shards of a shattered clay pot, I must move around the pieces of my puzzle, arranging them first in this way, then in that, in order to discover the fit that best reveals the former contours of the artifact.
I have other problems, too. This will be a book with few footnotes. Their absence is due to the facts that, in Germany, court fi les are not publicly accessible (I needed the permission of the state's Minister of Justice to gain entry to the Lüritz archive) and that I do not want to identify by citations even those bits of information gained from books and public archives open to all, because I want to preserve the anonymity of my town and of my story's protagonists. But footnotes make a text appear trustworthy by demonstrating outside support for the author's statements. I must find other ways to convince my readers that my account is sticking to the truth as best it can. "How can she know that?" might be asked by someone who learns of decisions and events that people usually do not know about unless they were involved in their occurrence. That means I have to talk about my sources.
First, the files that are the main foundation of my story. GDR district court files looked very different from the output of West German magistrate courts. West German judicial records are produced by lawyers for lawyers. They focus only on those issues that are disputed between the opponents at a trial; discuss these issues not in plain German but in legalese punctuated by references to code sections or case law; give voice to laypeople only in their occasional and curtailed role as witnesses; ignore the human conflict underlying a dispute and illuminate only that specific point at which a complex web of social relationships has torn apart. Since all the legally nonessential pieces of a human puzzle are lacking, it often is difficult to compose from the remaining pieces the picture of an everyday event. What actually happened? The reader, looking up from her lecture of the transcript, rarely has seen enough of the protagonists to feel sympathy with one or the other side. A West German court record is uninterested in the human dimensions of a legal conflict. What matters is who is in the right.
GDR court files tell a story. They begin at the beginning and often do not even stop at the end, perhaps because the judge may have to help solve some remaining problems of a party (such as finding a job for someone who was fi red) or because a criminal sentence is discussed ("auswerten" it was called: "evaluated" or, in literal translation, "made use of") in the defendant's work collective. Because it was the court's task to resolve not only individual disputes but also the collective tensions that had caused them, others than the immediate participants were given voice in the proceedings. Neighbors commented on the pedagogic talents of both parents in a custody dispute; co-workers assessed the work ethics of a criminal defendant; court-appointed "social defenders" or "accusers" described the collective's sympathy for or anger at a delinquent's deed. Trials were conducted not in experts' legal Mandarin but in workaday German. GDR judges were expected to instill respect for state and law in every person present in the courtroom and therefore had to be intelligible to all. Given the few attorneys and the many laypeople who participated in the process, East German court language was largely de-professionalized. What it gained in comprehensibility it lost in legal precision.
But to a reader of these files, their language is more colorful and humanly more informative than the professional lingo of West German records. In civil litigation, many parties to a dispute wrote their own briefs, and their outraged descriptions of why they were right and their opponents wrong help me to understand what mattered to Socialist citizens and what they expected from the law. The judges' admonitions and objections reflect the obsessive pedagogic urges of this legal system. The questionnaires that husbands and wives had to fill out in every divorce suit demonstrate the planners' belief in social management and provide me with information I would otherwise have missed, such as the division of household tasks in Socialist marriages or the differences in education and income between men and women in the GDR.
Even the paper used in the Lüritz records tells a story. In the immediate postwar years, when new paper was not to be had for love or money, the Lüritzers would use whatever could be squeezed into a typewriter or written on to compose their briefs, and if I turn around an early page, I might find a decision from the Weimar years or the clenched fist of a Socialist poster hero, now cut down to page size. No text from the Nazi years, though-after Germany's collapse, the Lüritz archive must have been well swept. With the gradual establishment of the new regime, civic order returned to Lüritz, and paper became again available. Already now, the stationery that Lüritz citizens selected for their missives to the court reflected something of their strangely trusting dependence on a state that did not like to see a lawyer step between it and its children. Early briefs usually are handwritten and look more like family letters than like business mail. Polite petitioners send best birthday stationery, filled in Sunday script and with a picture of a flower in the corner; obstreperous ones send a few pages torn from notebooks, hastily covered in pencil scratch. The tone is human rather than official. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, most of the briefs in the Lüritz archives are typed. Now I can tell by the quality of their paper which rank the senders hold in this society. The paper used by legal actors in the Socialist economy is smooth and firm. Communications sent by city administrators or other representatives of state officialdom look a little grainier and yellowed but still reasonably smooth. The letters coming from the Socialist judiciary are typed on miserable stock: thin and porous, in a smudgy beige. Occasionally I detect a few snow-white sheets among all the poor man's gray. They tell me that a West German attorney must have played a role in the proceedings.
I have spent so much time describing the Lüritz files because I want to show how much life may be hidden under the dust of long forgotten paper mountains. Besides the Lüritz archive, I have used other depositories of East German records: the Federal Archives (formerly in Potsdam, now in Berlin, which hold the fi les of the GDR Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Court, many of which contain reports on the country's district courts); the State Archive in Gronau (which keeps the records of the Lüritz District Leadership of the Socialist Unity Party [SED]); the Stasi Archive (for reasons that need no further explanation); the Lüritz City Archive (which holds a complete collection of the local newspaper-the Lüritz Sentinel-since 1947 that can tell me how the weather changes in East German politics affected my town). Now that the book is written, I find it difficult to leave the romance of the archives for everyday life at a university. Archives offer more sensual experiences than those provided by law libraries or search engines on computer screens: the rustling of brittle papers as you carefully loosen the string that bundles them together; their slightly musty smell of mushrooms and raked leaves; the golden shimmer on the ink of signatures that have dried long ago. Research becomes adventure. Like the discoverer of a city long lost under sand dunes or volcano ashes and now finally dug out again, I look for footprints of its citizens; try to guess from the objects that they left behind what might have happened in their daily life; rejoice if some unexpected find (the police photo of a fugitive, a newspaper clipping that somebody forgot among the pages) shines some extra light into a corner.
Excerpted from JUSTICE IN LÜRITZ by Inga Markovits Copyright © 2006 by Verlag C.H. Beck oHG, München . Excerpted by permission.
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