Kaleck was raised in West Germany, in a small town near the Dutch border. After getting his law degree in Bonn, he bucked the corporate track and moved to Berlin. It was the late 1980s, a politically turbulent time as the Cold War entered its final throes, and Kaleck’s interests quickly bent toward activism. He joined those calling for the Berlin Wall to come down, protested against the G7, and agitated against U.S.-backed military regimes in Latin America. During his legal traineeship, he followed a girlfriend across the Atlantic and ended up in Mexico City, working for an exiled human rights group representing victims of the military dictatorship in Guatemala.
It was a formative experience. In his 2015 memoir, Law Versus Power, Kaleck writes about meeting people who had seen their villages razed and their neighbors murdered. With no viable court system under the dictatorship and no international criminal court then in existence, the victims had little recourse but to share their stories with legal aid groups hoping to gather enough international support for an intervention. He learned how slow this process could be, how small the hope that anything could change, and how the very evidence they accumulated could be used by foreign actors, like the U.S., for their own narrow geopolitical interests. And as a German, he knew there was only so much he could do outside his home country. He returned to Berlin in late 1990, just as Germany was beginning the awkward reunification of West and East.
There, he opened a law firm with Dieter Hummel, another young lawyer interested in human rights. Berlin offered plenty of work for left-leaning lawyers throughout the 1990s, and they loaded up with cases of the downtrodden, persecuted, and oppressed in Berlin and the surrounding former East. They represented punks, squatters, immigrants, people who were beaten badly or killed by neo-Nazis. Kaleck worked with many East Berliners to access the files kept on them by the Stasi—a rare window into the workings of one of the most notorious arms of the East German Communist government. “There were few offices that did what we did,” says Hummel, who still runs the firm, now known as DKA, today.
Kaleck developed a reputation for punching up, pursuing human rights cases with long odds and targets seemingly out of reach. Though cases in Germany kept him busy, he was by now an avowed internationalist looking to use his skills on more intractable legal challenges around the world.