The Remnants of the Rechtsstaat: An Ethnography of Nazi Law. By Jens Meierhenrich. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Date01 June 2019
Published date01 June 2019
The Remnants of the Rechtsstaat: An Ethnography of Nazi Law.By
Jens Meierhenrich. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Reviewed by Ron Levi, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public
Policy and Department of Sociology, University of Toronto
This book is a stunning contribution to the sociology of law—and
a contribution that, while empirically focused on intellectual
debates over the role of law during Nazi Germany, also develops a
theory of authoritarian law that will spark new and comparative
research on how we might identify, assess, and measure the role
that law plays in authoritarian states. This is of pressing impor-
tance for the field.
In this book, Meierhenrich pulls out all the stops. We gain a
new sociology of legal theory, focusing on the role of legality in the
most extreme situation of Nazi Germany; we gain a sociology of
the legal profession, focusing on how intellectual debates mapped
onto positions and position-takings; we gain an empirical under-
standing of the everyday life of law under authoritarian rule, as
well as the stakes involved in identifying or discounting legality in
these circumstances; we see the international legal effects of schol-
arly debates; and at its root we gain a sociology of law and authority
itself, as Meierhenrich provides an empirically grounded analysis of
the very question of what we mean by “law,” the social classifica-
tions through which we identify what counts as law, and the pro-
cesses by which we assess law’s effects for justice writ large.
Methodologically, the book is equally brilliant. First, Meierhenrich
successfully combines close reading of legal texts and doctrinal
work with an understanding of the social positions of their cham-
pions, an approach that has been all too missing in the sociology
of law to date; and second, Meierhenrich develops from his
empirical work a theory of authoritarian law that can be deployed
in new cases (including some in our present)—yet veers away
from any reductive comparisons between authoritarian regimes,
instead keeping his eye on how authoritarian law can be defined
and what that means for our sociological understanding of law,
both on the books and in action. This final chapter of the book is,
in my view, quickly destined to be a classic reading for anyone
interested in the sociology of law in challenging (but perhaps not
atypical) political environments.
As an empirical matter, Meierhenrich’s book is a chockablock
analysis of what he calls “conflicting imperatives” within law dur-
ing the Nazi era. These conflicting imperatives underwrote what
was, at the time, a classic work that has since been often forgotten:
a book published in 1941, written by Ernst Fraenkel, entitled The
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