The Czech constitutional court judge, Dr. Vojtech Simicek (on the right), during his lecture at the IOR in Regensburg with host, Prof. Herbert Küpper (centre)
The Czech constitutional court judge, Dr. Vojtech Simicek (on the right), during his lecture at the IOR in Regensburg with host, Prof. Herbert Küpper (centre)

From 19 to 22 September 2017, Munich, Regensburg and Nuremberg were the venues for a working visit, organised by the IRZ for experts from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia on the subject of “Coming to terms with the past – objectives, difficulties and ways forward”.

All the participating law professionals speak German and had already worked on issues concerning the legal processes for dealing with the past of various authoritarian systems in Germany and/or in their own countries. The focus of the study visit was on exchanging experiences and ideas with experts from the Munich Institute for Eastern European Law (IOR) based in Regensburg.

“The Notary and Aryanisation” event in Munich

To open the event, the President of the German Association of Notaries, Dr. Oliver Vossius, talked about “The Notary and Aryanisation”, a subject on which he had also put together a collection of relevant sources. Vossius explained that the National Socialist system of injustice stretched across three phases:

A revolutionary phase, which began with the seizure of power and ended with the “Röhm-Putsch” (also known as the “Night of the Long Knives”), followed by a phase of semblance of legality (July 1934 to the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941) and then a period of “Removal of legal boundaries” ending in 1945.

Lively exchange of ideas at the IOR in Regensburg

At the Munich Institute for Eastern European Law (IOR) in Regensburg, the South-East European guests met with the regional consultants from the Institute to discuss relevant experiences in the following countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary Macedonia, Poland and Serbia.

Overall, the general conclusion was that the process of dealing with the past in most former socialist states has only been - and still is - very hesitant, just like the situation in Germany with regards to National Socialism during the first few years after the war.

When it comes to making the appropriate legal provisions, for example by compensating and rehabilitating victims of previous authoritarian regimes, Hungary has made the most progress.

On the other hand, the former Yugoslavian states remain far behind the former socialist states of Eastern Europe in this matter, as well as in the way this topic is handled by society in general. With regards to the handling of injustice in the socialist system, discussions focussed on one of the possible causes, which is the fact that during the collapse of Yugoslavia, there was no broad social consensus on the ending of the socialist regime, but rather a desire to create several national states.

South-East European projects for dealing with the past

Various projects, for which the first results of the corresponding research in these countries has already been compiled, were also presented. These include a research project led by the IOR, which was introduced by IOR Managing Director Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Herbert Küpper. The results of the project were published in 2010 in a book entitled “Die rechtliche Aufarbeitung der kommunistischen Vergangenheit in Europa” (“Legal review of the communist past in Europe”) by Prof. Dr. Dres. h.c. Friedrich-Christian Schroeder, Academic Director of the IOR, and Prof. Dr. Herbert Küpper.

For former Czechoslovakia, the publication “Communist Law in Czechoslovakia”, which contains more than a thousand pages, was presented during the study visit by the lecturer Dr. Vojtech Simicek, a judge at the Constitutional Court of the Czech Republic and one of the publishers of this work. Much of the content of this publication can be viewed on the website.

Fortunately, some initial approaches have also been made towards coming to terms with the past in the former Yugoslavian region. These range from various events on the subject, which have been carried out with the support of the IRZ, to papers that have already appeared or are currently being prepared. There are also a few publications on this subject.

Particularly worth mentioning here is the journal “Hereticus - a magazine for re-examination of the past” published by a group including two Belgrade university lecturers, Prof. Dr. Jovica Trkulja and Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Vladimir Vodinelic. The journal has been in circulation since 2006 and is therefore the most in-depth and long-lasting project of its kind in South-East European succession states. The journal has published articles on the region’s communist past, for example during the time of the Milosevic regime, as well as on overcoming the Nazi regime in Germany.

During the study visit, Benjamina Londrc from the Faculty of Law in Zenica also presented the publication on the legal situation of the Jewish community in Herzegovina between 1918 and 1945, which is already in its second edition.

Other initiatives relating to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia were also mentioned by Prof. Dr. Zlatan Meskic, also from Zenica, and lecturers Dr. Aleksandar Spasov and Prof. Dr. Slavko Djordjevic from Kragujevac.

The various objectives for dealing with the past

During the course of the discussions, it became clear that there is a fundamental difference between Germany and the former socialist states of South-East Europe when it comes to their objectives for dealing with the past. In Germany, dealing with the past has been about self-critical reflection and studying the wrongdoings of their own people, whilst in the region of former Yugoslavia it is more a case of pointing out the wrongdoings of other ethnic groups, whilst members of their own groups are frequently seen indiscriminately as “heroes” and/or “victims”.

Nuremberg as the last port of call on the study visit

Nuremberg was last on the itinerary and the South-East European guests visited the Documentation Centre at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds and the Nuremberg Trials Memorial. As well as a guided tour and discussions with an expert at the Memorial, Andreas Mix, there was also a lecture by Dr. Sabina Ferhadbegovic from the University of Jena on the punishment of German war crimes in former Yugoslavia.

Concrete results

  • The working visit provided participants with a number of concrete references on the comparative legal situation and sources relating to this.
  • It brought together a transnational network of experts working on this important, though often unpopular, subject.
  • The presentation of the documentation of the results of projects in publications and on websites provided valuable “technical” support.
  • The IOR and the Faculty of Law in Kragujevac have decided to exchange publications in future.
  • The working visit led to various ideas finding their way into the current activities of the participants.
  • Therefore, the IRZ will continue the transnational handling of the subject of “Coming to terms with the past”.
  • The format of a shared exchange of expertise between IRZ project partners and experts at the IOR has also proved to be successful. This will therefore also be used in future for other suitable subjects.