This is the second in a series of blogs that explores the relationship between law and the visual. It starts with the premise that the relationship between law and art has been long established. The practice of law contains deeply performative elements, best exemplified by the concept of the trial. In East Germany, political trials presented a valuable propaganda opportunity, and state-employed photographers covered such events in depth. The resulting images were then published in the main broadsheets of the day.
This post provides a snapshot of my investigation into East German justice, with the image of the East German judge Hilde Benjamin—or ‘Bloody Hilde’ as she became known—serving as the starting point. As in my Albanian case study about the writer and political dissident Musine Kokalari , this exploration also begins with a captivating photograph.
Hilde Benjamin (1902-1989) played an integral role in the construction of the East German legal system. In the post-WWII period, she first worked as a prosecutor [Fig.1], then as a judge on the High Court (1949-1953), then as Minister of Justice (1953-1967). Benjamin modelled herself on the Soviet jurist and Attorney General Andrei Vyshinsky (1883-1954); it was Vyshinsky who developed Lenin’s idea that law was a political weapon, which proved vital during the Stalinist period. Benjamin is mainly known for her unwavering commitment to communism, and during the 1950s as High Court judge she rendered judgments in cases that resulted in the capital sentence, which earned her the nickname ‘Bloody Hilde’ or ‘The Red Guillotine’.
Benjamin presided over all of the decisions in political cases. By learning more about this figure we are able to uncover diverging narratives that serve to broaden our understanding of the context of dispensing justice in East Germany, where the visual played a pivotal role in the process. This material aspect of the image is intertwined with its affectivity. In other words, for some of us the eye is drawn to certain features in the image that result in an affective response. We relive the captured moment at each viewing. Our understanding of the key legal actors and the dispensation of justice is made richer by the personal accounts and legal processes that were at play at that captured moment.
As in the Albanian case the images are captivating and the viewer is drawn to a certain aesthetic in the photograph. They are also powerful because of their courtroom setting: spacious theatre venues that provided room for a large audience. Finally, they are compelling because of the subject matter that also includes us as the audience in the spectacle. The driving force underpinning the law’s ability to speak legally in the East German case study points to the performance of education and ‘throttling’ [Fig.2 and Fig.4] during the trial proceedings, but also to Benjamin’s ambiguous positioning within East Germany. I intend to challenge the viewer by testing the parameters of Benjamin’s accountability within the GDR’s apparatus of repression.
Who was Hilde Benjamin? Why do we need to dig deeper behind her photograph? Her philosophy was ‘you laugh with your friends; you hate your enemies’, a perspective rooted in Benjamin’s past. This past was one of discrimination and persecution: first, because of her gender, second, as a mistaken minority, third, as a member of a culturally leaning family and finally as a communist. After surviving the war, Benjamin decided to offer her legal qualifications to the service of the East German communist state.
Benjamin’s life account is less than well known in the English language (and not widely studied in German legal discourses). She was brought up in petit bourgeois family in West Berlin. Her personal relationships, perhaps most notably that with Georg Benjamin (brother of the philosopher, Walter), who would later become a victim of the Nazi regime, informed her politically. She was discriminated against by her compatriots who thought she was either Roma or Jewish (though she was neither). These components resulted in her decision to pursue a legal career and to commit herself ideologically to the GDR. Benjamin skyrocketed in her legal career and intentionally used the law as a political weapon against her enemies, remoulding Vyshinsky’s approach to her own.
At the same time Benjamin actively sought the inclusion of more women in the legal profession and tried to address the contradiction she saw in socialism – its gender divide. She thus became involved in the reform of family law, and also played a significant role in the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity. As Minister of Justice, Benjamin was at the forefront of these developments. In 1967, she was eventually forced to relocate by Walter Ulbricht, East Germany’s leader and Chairman, when her ‘political fanaticism’ fell out of favour. The wider implications of this part of the project raise important questions about Benjamin’s location in legal historical discourses, such as in Germany in the post-1991 unification period.
Benjamin, the judge, was at the heart of meting out punishment against substantial numbers of people accused of anti-state activities in the post-war period. But to stop short at this point would be to provide a superficial reading of the case study, especially where Benjamin is concerned. Engaging with her images and accompanying conflicting narratives of her upbringing and political views forces us to ask where Benjamin is located in current historical accounts of East German law, and to rethink the GDR’s role in shaping international discourses about the law and justice. Watch this space for a further evaluation of Benjamin in my forthcoming monograph.
Dr Agata Fijalkowski is a Senior Lecturer in Lancaster University’s Law School, where she is currently working on a monograph on ‘visual law’, which considers photographs of trials from the period 1944-1957 in Albania, Germany and Poland and the way that these photographs ‘speak legally’. More broadly, she is interested in transitional criminal justice, law and the visual and war crimes. In July 2019 she will be joining Leeds Beckett University as Reader in Law. Find her on Twitter at @AgataFijalkow
 Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas, and Martha Merrill Umphrey, eds., Law and Performance (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2018) and Desmond Manderson, ed., Law and the Visual: Representations, Technologies, and Critique (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018).
 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans: Richard Howard (London: Vintage, 2000), pp. 21-25.
 Here ‘throttling’ refers to the violent dispensation of justice as a means of suppression and control.
 Andrea Feth, correspondence with author, 9 July 2017.
 Andrea Feth, Hilde Benjamin – Eine Biographie (Berlin: Arno Spitz, 1997)
 MDR, Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk produced a television series on Hilde Benjamin in 2013, see https://www.mdr.de/zeitreise/biographie-hilde-benjamin100.html