I wonder whether I should have introduced the Party in an earlier chapter of this book. Did anything ever happen without its blessings? West Germans never doubted that in the GDR all matters of any importance were decided by the Party. My East German conversation partners shared this view. They, too, believed that in their country in the end all depended on the Party. Does that mean that I ought to describe the East German judicial system and the Party in one breath, as it were, to achieve an accurate portrayal of both?
Whatever its role in the adjudicatory process, the Party left surprisingly few traces in the Lüritz archive. Until now, we only rarely met it in the flesh: as for instance in 1959, when Judge Steinmetz let Frau Hille’s lawsuit flounder in the face of opposition by the “SED District Bureau/Department Fishing Industry”; in 1983, when the Supreme Court—“honoring a specific task set by the Party”— tried to impress upon the Lüritz court the need for a less punitive approach to “asocial’ behavior; or in 1984, when in “Orff vs. VEB Phoenix Shipyard” the Lüritz District Party leaned on Herr Orff’s union representative to make him testify against his client’s interest at the trial. Such chance encounters produce a very conflicting portrait. The Party contemptuous of the law in matters “Fishing Industry”? A force of law reform as far as “asocial” defendants are concerned? A puppeteer pulling his strings in “Orff vs. Phoenix”? Up to this point, the Party rather looks like a Cheshire cat whose disembodied smile (or frown) turns up out of the blue and vanishes again before a reader of the files can get hold of the apparition and question it about how to anticipate its future moves. To really understand the Party’s role in everyday legal life, I have to start a systematic search for it.
In the Lüritz case files, that is: as a visible and openly acknowledged participant in the resolution of legal disputes, the Party shows up only in the very early years, when a motley crew of people’s judges and old bourgeois lawyers like Herr Curtius tried as best they could to process the law suits flooding the Lüritz court and when the new political authorities in town did not yet know how to handle their suddenly acquired powers. In 1948, for instance, in a fight between a widow and her brother-in-law over a bicycle left by the plaintiff’s husband, the defendant, obviously a Party member, informs the court that the SED District Bureau “had taken an interest” in the matter. The hint has the desired impact.