Friday, February 24, 2012

A New Cultural History of Law: Historical Perspectives on Weimar Legal Culture


About a month ago, I received an invitation to participate in a small workshop on Weimar Legal Culture sponsored by the Max Kade Center for European and German Studies at Vanderbilt University. I immediately contacted the organizer, Henning Grunwald, and informed him that I must have been mistakenly invited as I work on U.S. legal history. He kindly informed me that there was no mistake as they wanted somebody to attend with an outside prospective. All twelve participants presented excellent work which in one way or another made me reflect upon my own work and the larger field of U.S. Legal History. Below I just highlight the work of two participants, but the workshop in general brought up crucial questions such as the role of the trials in mass legal culture, the relationship between law, politics, and ideology, how the mass media reflected and constructed ideas of justice, and the relationship between high and low legal culture.

Henning Grunwald discussed his forthcoming book, Courtroom to Revolutionary Stage: Performance and Ideology in Weimar Political Trials (Oxford, 2012), which explores the effects of the political trials that proliferated in the Weimar Republic. Grunwald’s presentation focused on the legal strategy of Red Aid lawyers who were part of the Communist Party and provided free representation.  In political trials, they largely eschewed legal reasoning in favor of sensational rhetoric and courtroom theatrics that sought to undermine the legal system and the state. These efforts, Grunwald argues, and not jurisprudence, defined the outcome of these important political trials. Grunwald places the courtroom as the “privileged site of ideological combat,” in which the message that political justice could not come without the destruction of the Republic contributed to the rise of National Socialism. At the same time, these lawyers often put the goals of the party ahead of their client’s, looking for guilty verdicts and the creation of political martyrs.

Ann Goldberg examines the Kaiserreich’s legal culture of honor in her work published in Honor, Politics, and the Law in Imperial Germany (Cambridge, 2010). Criminal defamation suits proliferated in early twentieth century Germany because the notion of protecting one’s honor was deeply embedded within the culture. Tens of thousands of such suits were brought each year bringing ordinary people of all classes into contact with the court system. Goldberg argues that these suits, in which a legal action could be brought for a mere insult, flourished not despite the liberalization of German law, but in part, because of it. They were both a reflection of pre-modern culture and of modernity which shaped new ideas about both citizenship and the state.

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