Reinhard Strecker faced slander and death threats after his 1959 exhibition exposed the Nazi past of dozens of post-war German judges. Ben Knight reports from a discussion in his honor at the Justice Ministry in Berlin.
In November 1959, a penniless 29-year-old graduate set out 105 files in the backroom of the "Krokodil," a student bar in the south-western city of Karlsruhe. The collection, which Reinhard Strecker had spent several years gathering, blew up the complacency of a post-war West Germany that was carefully refusing to face its own recent history.
The exhibition Ungesühnte Nazijustiz ("Unpunished Nazi Judiciary") featured hundreds of laboriously and expensively photocopied court files that showed the verdicts of Nazi-era judges still serving in Germany. Strecker suffered death threats and slander (not least by the West German government) for his trouble, but he attracted huge national and international press interest.
Over half a century later, Strecker is gradually being rehabilitated by the German state. Having been awarded the Federal Order of Merit by President Joachim Gauck this August, the ailing 85-year-old appeared at a podium discussion in the German Justice Ministry in Berlin on Wednesday.
"It's not surprising that you faced so much hostility for your engagement," said Justice Ministry deputy minister Christian Lange as he welcomed Strecker. "You even had to endure death threats. Nevertheless you held fast to your goal of a creating critical self-appraisal in a democracy. For that achievement I want to thank you personally."
Strecker, though mild and occasionally rambling, still glowered with the anger of 55 years ago. As he recounted his story, the old outrage and humiliation resurfaced as he described the antipathy he faced from officials and the public in both West and East Germany.
That was why the honor he received this summer was so important to him. "It was the official retraction of all the slander against my work and my person by the authorities and political parties," he told DW. "And it meant that finally my name could never again be a burden for my children in their professional lives."
The documents in the exhibition, gleaned from court archives both inside and outside Germany, showed how the judges perverted German law to accommodate the Nazi system. Sentences were arbitrarily increased (the concentration camp network was first developed because prisons had become overcrowded). There were death penalties for stealing food, overtly racist interpretations of laws - often predating the Nuremberg race laws of 1935 - and treason verdicts for anyone who opposed Nazism.
In short, the exhibition documented how the German judiciary had zealously adapted itself to Adolf Hitler's regime, violating judicial and constitutional principles to create a corrupt legal system that explicitly worked to identify the National Socialist Party with the German state itself.
It also showed how hundreds of these criminal jurists were still interpreting and framing laws in post-war West Germany - in some cases in higher offices than they had had in the Third Reich. For a country interested only in building an "economic miracle" and aligning itself with NATO in the new Cold War, the exhibition was a disruptive reminder that 1945 had not been a tidy break from the past.
Slander and death threats
As it toured Germany, leaving a trail of media controversy, the exhibition hit home - politicians claimed that the documents were faked, while the government press office briefed that Strecker was a communist in the pay of the Soviet Union.
Even the Social Democratic Party, which Strecker joined in 1960, distanced itself from him and from the Socialist German Student Union (SDS), which had helped set up the exhibition.
Nevertheless, the German attorney general Max Güde took notice, invited Strecker to bring his documents to his office, and declared that they were not fake. Strecker brought charges against 43 sitting judges, while dozens more slipped quietly into early retirement to avoid prosecution.
"I wanted to leave Germany again," he said. "But then after I was successful, against all my expectations - but only thanks to support from Warsaw and London - then I thought, I can't go now." Many of the criminals were still in power - in 1961, Strecker published a book of documents that showed that Hans Globke, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's closest advisor, had interpreted the Nuremberg race laws. The government sought to suppress the book.
Also at Wednesday's event was Matthias Burchard, Strecker's friend and most assiduous campaigner. He thinks that Strecker's rehabilitation is still far from complete - that various German authorities should follow the Justice Ministry's lead and organize debates.
"Two Berlin ministry authorities actively perpetrated character assassination on him," he told DW. "They maliciously tried to obstruct him and abuse him." Burchard doesn't have kind words for the Berlin jurists organizations either. "I mean it's shabby - they invited him quietly to a lunch for a discussion so that no one would notice," he said.
Burchard also thinks Strecker deserves an official apology from the Free University of Berlin, which prevented him using its rooms for the exhibition. "The best would be a declaration and an apology from the FU, and a dignified discussion like the one today," he said. For people like Burchard, there is still much history for certain German institutions to dig up.