1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

The lawyer who took on Germany's Nazi past

Christoph Strack / kbmOctober 1, 2015

Fritz Bauer was a man with a cause: to bring Nazi Germany's war criminals to justice. The trouble was, in prosperous post-war Germany, his mission was not popular. Bauer's story is now in cinemas.

Film still from "The People vs. Fritz Bauer," Copyright: zero one film GmbH
Image: zero one film GmbH

"I absolutely wanted to play the role of Fritz Bauer," said Burkhart Klaussner, "because I always wanted to play a hero - a broken hero. There aren't that many people like that in Germany."

Fritz Bauer (1903-1968) was an attorney. And a Jew. And a homosexual. As West Germany's Attorney General, he was a driving force in helping the country work through its Nazi past from a legal perspective - despite much resistance.

Born in Stuttgart in southern Germany, Bauer was a socialist and survived the Third Reich by living in exile. After World War II, he was often alone in his fight to bring the Nazi war criminals to court.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Germany was experiencing an economic upswing and many simply wanted to forget the terrible past. There were also political reasons for sweeping the Nazi era under the rug: Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had developed strong ties with the West and was working on reconciliation with the young Israeli state.

In many cases, the motivation to forget the Holocaust was personal: Many Germans had been involved in the Nazi party.

Bauer works against the state

In post-war Germany, many former Nazis had worked themselves into the public sphere, relying on old connections. They held positions in the judicial system, in the secret service, in political office, and also in the private sector.

Put bluntly, Bauer was tired of having them around. It was fitting that director Lars Kraume called his film "The People vs. Fritz Bauer" and not the other way around. The attorney investigated the crimes against humanity committed during the Nazi period, while the state employees impeded his work to protect old colleagues.

Film still from "The People vs. Fritz Bauer," Copyright: zero one film GmbH
Intelligence offier Paul Gebhardt (Jörg Schüttauf, l.) hinders Bauer's work; public prosecutor Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld) was on his sideImage: Contrast Film Bern GmbH

"The question is, whether and for how long we can afford to have such an attorney general," says a state intelligence expert at the beginning of the film.

"My own public authority is the enemy country," says Bauer shortly thereafter.

In particular, Bauer sought out Adolf Eichmann, who had fled to Argentina. Eichmann was a high ranking officer in the Nazi SS and largely responsible for the deportation and murder of millions of Jews. Bauer tipped off the Israeli secret service to Eichmann's whereabouts in Argentina. Ultimately, Eichmann was taken to court, sentenced to death, and executed in 1962.

Films replace WWII eyewitnesses

The film is gripping - in part because, today in reunified Germany, Bauer has largely been forgotten. Even many lawyers didn't know of him until the so-called Auschwitz Trials began in 1963. The film "Labyrinth of Lies" (2014) recounted these spectacular court cases, which lasted for five years.

It is also gripping because the entanglement of power and justice, guilt and irresponsibility is still so prevalent: in South America, in the Arab World and elsewhere, where the law is only made to please those in power. And there's no end in sight.

Director Lars Kraume, 42, speaks of the "encrusted years" of post-war Germany, of a "dark time." The generation of eyewitnesses is dying out; we who are left can only rely on books and films.

Fritz Bauer, Copyright: picture alliance/Manfred Rehm
The real Fritz BauerImage: picture alliance/Manfred Rehm

"The People vs. Fritz Bauer" is a film with precise, but subtle camera work and with attention to detail. In its existentialism and drama, the film seems more like a play. And Burkhart Klaussner, who portrays Bauer, is perhaps the greatest actor of his generation for this genre, and is largely responsible for its success. From the first scenes, Fritz Bauer is ubiquitous.

Treason: A message for today

More significant, however, is that the film has a message for 2015. Since the end of July, Germany has been involved in a political affair that has exploded in the press. An online publication, Netzpolitik, was accused of publishing classified government information.

The case hasn't been fully resolved yet, but while government officials were accused of censorship, the publication was temporarily accused of treason - a key word in the Fritz Bauer film. The attorney general knows that one can quickly fall into breaking the law even while seeking to fulfill it. And the former Nazis around him know they can topple him with an accusation of treason - if not simply with the claim: "That Jew is gay."

Director and screenplay co-writer Kraume said that he sees Fritz Bauer as a "hero" - a man who "expressed his opinion against the zeitgeist, no matter what the cost." Who are today's heroes? After Edward Snowden, the list is short.

Kraume's work is a hommage to German attorney Fritz Bauer, but also a contemporary thriller. It opens on October 1 in German cinemas.