Careers and Continuities: The German Federal Ministry of Justice and its Pasts

„Alas, what is it that is to be investigated and researched here?” That question was present in all presentations and discussions of a long conference day at the Berliner Kammergericht on 26 April 2012, marking the establishment of the ”Unabhängige Wissenschaftliche Kommission beim Bundesministerium der Justiz zur Aufarbeitung der NS-Vergangenheit“ (“Independent Scientific Commission at the Federal Ministry of Justice for the Investigation of the National-Socialist Past”). Is it not well known how quickly, in the early years of the Federal Republic, the old elites found their way back into their previous leading positions? Are we not more than familiar with the facts stressed in Berlin once again by Freiburg historian Ulrich Herbert: that the German judicial system was dominated, in the first three postwar decades, by former Nazis? And is it not already common wisdom for anyone interest in contemporary history, that “remarkably successful aggressive self-assertion of the lawyers”?

Research in the archives of the Federal Ministry of Justice (BMJ) could now contribute to a discovery and disclosure of questions still lurking under the surface of the current state of scholarship. Michael Stolleis recently characterised these questions in the just published concluding volume of his seminal four-volume treatise on the history of German Public Law, “Geschichte des öffentlichen Rechts in Deutschland” (1945 bis 1990), as the „more relevant questions”: “How about the German society’s sensibility to recognize its own cultural past? How was a new beginning possible, with so many leading figures “burdened” by their own past?”

These questions are directly linked to the question of the interrelations between personal and substantial continuities – a question raised and adressed to the scholars by the Federal Minister of Justice in her introductory statement, before she sat down and listened attentively for an entire conference day ...

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