Enter Ghost: Haunted Courts and Haunting Judgments in Transitional Justice


How can we account for trials in which the judgment speaks not only to and about the defendants and their deeds, but also about injustices from a more distant past? Building on approaches to ghosts and haunting by Jacques Derrida and Avery Gordon, I propose to examine a set of the German post-1990 trials for human rights violations committed in the former East Germany as instances of haunted justice. Here, the courts not only adjudicated the present cases, but also tried to ‘go back and make whole what has been smashed’ (Benjamin 1969) by their own lack of judgment in the failed trials of the Nazi perpetrators. In this instance, the ‘time is out of joint’, and we see the ghosts of the failed trials of Nazi perpetrators standing next to the inheritance of impunity fostered in West German courts, and next to the now present East German perpetrators. What can justice mean in such a complex constellation of injustices? I argue that the ghostly dimension of these cases point to a need for a kind of justice and engagement that can ultimately not be found in courts—yet the courts’ engagement with this ghostly matter is nevertheless important.

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  1. 1.

    Rechtsbeugung, a crime according to the German criminal code, literally means ‘bending the law’. Since there is no good translation of this concept, I use the more literal ‘bending the law’ and the more conceptual term ‘miscarriage of justice’ interchangeably.

  2. 2.

    German criminal cases are not commonly named after the defendant. For ease of identification and reference, I follow the common-law way of identifying legal cases by the defendants’ last names if the defendants’ names are publicly available.

  3. 3.

    Erklärung der Verteidigung im Verfahren gegen Hauke u.a. (12 July 1995). Robert Havemann Archiv Berlin, RH 327.

  4. 4.

    I owe this formulation to Lindy Ledohowski.


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I want to thank Doris Buss, Lindy Ledohowski, and Lena Foljanty, inspiring fellow travellers in exploring the ghostly dimension, as well as Rosemary Nagy, Melissa Williams and Erica Frederiksen and the listeners and commentators on ‘ghost stories’ presented at the conference of the Canadian Initiative in Law, Culture and Humanities in October 2007, the Political Theory Colloquium at the University of Greifswald, Germany, and the Conference Keine Zeit zu trauern? Die Justiz nach 1945: Was war der Preis für ihr nahtloses Weiterfunktionieren? at the Justizakademie des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen.

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Correspondence to Christiane Wilke.

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Wilke, C. Enter Ghost: Haunted Courts and Haunting Judgments in Transitional Justice. Law Critique 21, 73–92 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10978-009-9065-y

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  • Haunting
  • Germany
  • Ghosts
  • Time
  • Transitional justice
  • Trials