Reckoning with the past: How Leeds Law School supports my research into legal responses to atrocity crimes

Colleague Spotlight | Dr Agata Fijalkowski


Leeds Law School Reader Agata sat smiling with her dog

Agata Fijalkowski joined Leeds Law School in July 2019. She carries out research about the (mal) administration of justice during authoritarian rule from the perspective of individuals working within the law or at the other end of the law. Her focus is on the immediate WW2 period and on developments occurring in Central and Eastern Europe, specifically judicial responses to atrocity crimes and the wider societal implications of these legal measures. 

Tell us a bit about you and what led you to working with Leeds Law School?

Leeds Law School supports interdisciplinary research, which is important to me. I am passionate about archival research and my love of languages has taken me to some special places to work, all of which I try to bring back to my writing and teaching, notably in the module I lead, Genocide and War Crimes.

It is in this module that I can showcase key issues that represent the subject matter in a more meaningful way, through the readings and activities centred on landmark court rulings. In all units I add material from archives, both written and visual material.

What makes you passionate about your work and why is it important? 

As an interdisciplinary scholar, I reach out to other disciplines, mostly within the humanities (like history and visual culture) to analyse how the law works. I do this because I do not believe that the law works on its own, rather there is an interplay between society and the law.

My focus on the post-WW2 period and Central and Eastern Europe is in large part because this was a pivotal moment for the legal communities (those who survived WW2) in the region. The key challenges came in the form of how to address the question of accountability for the crimes committed and whether these answers could be found in domestic criminal legal provisions. As a result, there were numerous national war crimes trials that were held. It is vital to look at how this was done, as many of the efforts are still widely unknown, because the focus is on the international level.

These often overlooked national rulings at times offered novel interpretation of the law and legal principles.

I am passionate about teaching about these forgotten trials and write about the ways that national efforts and its respective legal teams are an important part of the international criminal justice timeline that is tied to any consideration of how states reckon with the past.

How is collaboration integral to your work, and what are one or two collaborations that have been most meaningful to you? 

Collaboration is at the heart of my work. I would not have been able to do my research without the assistance of archivists in Central, East and Southeast Europe, who have the expert knowledge about certain collections and who have guided me on where to look.

After an archival trip, when I am faced with a mountain of material, it is collaborations with former students, who have assisted me on specific research projects, that has been the most meaningful. Their skills in organising documents have been illuminating. I am happy I can do this with support from Leeds Law School. It is good for them, for me, and for everyone involved.

What achievements in this area have you been most proud of while working with Leeds Law School? 

I am very proud to be an EHRI/Conny Kristel Fellow, which is a competitive and prestigious award: this fellowship supports archival work in the Netherlands, specifically the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD) to investigate ‘Dutch Judicial Responses to German Crimes’.

I also am proud to have completed my MA in Screenwriting at the Northern Film School. My final project was a feature film screenplay entitled ‘Hilde’, inspired by the story of an East German judge. I have written about Hilde Benjamin in my recently published monograph, Law, Visual Culture, and the Show Trial (Routledge 2023) – and yes, I am immensely proud of my book too. I would love to see my film made.

What does the future hold for you? 

The diary already has time set aside for archival research concerning special courts set up in West European countries in the immediate post- WW2 period with a remit not only to hear cases against war criminals but also individuals charged as collaborators with Germans during German occupation. Alongside this, I have some ideas to pursue for a new screenplay.

My writing is not done solo and any future project includes a team of amazing research assistants, starting with Sputnik the German Shepherd dog, Max the Belgian Malinois, and our three cats – Sugar, Majik, and Modi. All projects include time for some baking, which I see as important therapy.

For more information about the academic team at Leeds Law School, visit our staff page.

Dr Agata Fijalkowski

Reader / Leeds Law School

Dr Agata Fijalkowski (Reader) writes about the dispensation of justice in post-WW2 Europe. Her recent monograph Law, Visual Culture, and the Show Trial (Routledge) addresses the importance of legal photography/photojournalism via three vignettes from Albania, East Germany, and Poland.

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