Retribution and Judgment


During the first decade following the regime changes in 1989 in East-Central Europe, those regimes that have successfully and peacefully democratized have engaged in some sort of retributive justice punishing wrongdoers and vindicating victims. Other regimes have become even less democratic and engaged in further violence by identifying substitute victims to sacrifice in order to avoid holding actual wrongdoers accountable for their past crimes.
The author examines the efficacy of retributive justice through the work of the division of the German criminal justice system responsible for prosecuting “governmental and reunification crime” and of a public commission of vindication. He then compares the German effort with that in select other East-Central European regimes. In order to contribute to democratic legitimacy, he concludes, regimes must studiously avoid seeking substitute victims and instead hold those in the center of the regime accountable for wrongdoing. At the same time, they must make a good faith effort to redress the wrongs of unjustly harmed parties. Effective criminal law establishes the state as a moral agent representing the entire community by reiterating the principles of responsibility and accountability for injustices as part of an attempt to reestablish the dignity of victims. In other words, to avoid a cycle of retributive violence it may be wise to go through a longer phase of retributive justice in the present.

How to Cite

Borneman, J., (1998) “Retribution and Judgment”, Ethnologia Europaea 28(2), 131-150. doi:

Publisher Notes

  • This article was previously published by Museum Tusculanum Press.


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John Borneman (Cornell University)



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