06 December 2016

The People vs Fritz Bauer - an excellent film

I saw the wonderful film Der Staat Gegen Fritz Bauer/The People vs. Fritz Bauer at the 2016 Jewish International Film Festival in Melbourne. The festival programme gave the following synopsis:

“Germany, 1957. Attorney General Fritz Bauer receives crucial evid­ence on the whereabouts of the so-called Architect of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann. Bauer, himself Jewish, has been trying to take crimes from the Third Reich to court ever since his return from exile, but has been stymied by an unforgiving German government. Bauer covertly el­icits the help of the Israeli secret service to bring Eichmann to justice and, in doing so, commits treason against Germany.

With fast-paced direction from Lars Kraume, The People vs. Fritz Bauer is a historical thriller that exposes the elusiveness of evil while celebrating the tenacious heroism of Bauer. Audience Award winner at the Locarno International Film Festival, and winner of six 2016 Lolas (German Oscars), including Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay”.

English film poster for the film
The People vs Fritz Bauer (German, English subtitles)
starring Burghart Klaußner who closely resembles Fritz Bauer.

But who was the real Fritz Bauer (1903-68)? Born in Stuttgart in a well educated Jewish family, he studied law at the Univ­er­s­ities of Heidelberg and Munich. After receiving his Doct­orate of Laws deg­ree, Bauer became an assessor judge in the Stuttgart local district court. After WW1 he joined the Social Democratic Party and became politic­ally active. In May 1933, a plan to organise a General Strike in the Stuttgart region against the Nazis failed, and Bauer and his colleagues were arrested and taken to Heuberg concentration camp in Baden-Württemberg.

Bauer’s own imprisonment in a Nazi camp before WW2 was very clear in the film, but the impact on his later life was vague. Somehow he was rel­eased, dismissed from his vital civil service position and escaped to Denmark in 1935. When Germany invaded Denmark in Ap 1940 and the Danish government surrendered, Bauer moved to Sweden in 1943 and created The Socialist Tribune alongside Willy Brandt.

The film did not discuss why Bauer wanted to return to Germany after the war! I can understand that in 1949 he might have felt at home back in the German justice system, but he should have considered how the new post war Federal Republic was emerging. Wouldn’t the old anti-Semitism and anti-socialism be simmering just under the surface, waiting for the right wing to rise again? Clearly he must have had a very fine legal mind - in 1956, Bauer was given the District Attorney job in Hessen, based in Frankfurt.

The film stated that Bauer was not seeking revenge for Holocaust victims. Yet every lawyer, judge and politician in the film feared revenge and seemed to block Bauer’s attempts to expose Nazi injustices. He was the one District Attorney who, despite terrible threats, tracked down Nazi commanders from Auschwitz, investigated and indicted them, and succeeded in 1958 in getting a class action lawsuit certif­ied for the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. Even then, the proceedings did not open until 1963. No wonder Bauer’s wife lived separately, in Denmark. If Fritz was very cavalier about being killed in Germany, she didn’t want it to happen to her. [Did she also think he may have been gay?]

Bauer had acted in the face of huge blockages: the statutes of limitations, the German public’s forgiveness of Nazi criminals and the German bureau­cracy’s ap­athy. In the 1950s & 60s, German history books did not mention the Holocaust as a subject at all. If there had been Nazi excesses during the war, most German citizens in the 1950s and 60s thought the excesses could only due to obeying seniors’ orders, submitting to long term anti-Semitic propaganda and thoughtlessness.

The film showed frustrating meetings for Bauer in Israel, trying to convince the Israelis that Adolf Eichmann was indeed alive in Argentina, living a pleasant family life under fake names. Only decades later did Ofer Aderet (Oct 18, 2013 Haaretz) give far more information about Bauer’s role in helping Mossad than the film did. In 1960, Mossad agent Michael Maor was assigned to capture Adolf Eichmann capture and bring him to trial in Israel. Maor was to break into Bauer’s law building in Frankfurt, find and photograph the German prosecution’s files on Eichmann and quietly escape. Maor was given a plan of the Frankfurt building, a front door key and access to the files – all by Fritz Bauer. A few weeks later Eichmann was abducted to Israel from Buenos Aires.

Find a discussion of the Eichmann Trial of 1961 in an early post.
Ronen Steinke's book
Fritz Bauer: oder Auschwitz vor Gericht, 2013
German edition

The author of Bauer's biography (2013), German journalist Ronen Steinke found that in the healing climate under Konrad Adenauer (1949-63), it was Bauer who made German post-war society talk openly about the Holocaust. But Bauer paid a great personal price. Steinke discussed the rumours about Bauer’s private life: he was a Jew, a social democrat and a homosexual. For Bauer, these key aspects of his identity were crucial. He held senior posts in the post-war judicial system as a general prosecutor, at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence that terminated careers. And when Jews kept their mouths shut.

Bauer displayed admirable courage by ignoring the rumours in the 1960s. His Jewishness, albeit from an assimilated family, was also discussed extensively in the book. So why did Bauer disavow his Jewish­ness post WW2? He wanted to enter politics, to represent German institutions. He was stunned to see that anti-Semitism flourished and was concerned that his rivals would say that he was merely a vengeful Jew.

Bauer was the most important Jew in postwar German politics yet he was found dead in the bathtub at his home in 1968, from a sleeping-pills induced heart attack. Did he commit suic­ide because he could no longer cope with the many threats to his life from Germans who were opposed to his anti-Nazi politics? Apparently so. Only in 1995 was The Fritz Bauer Institute finally established as a foundation under German civil law in Frankfurt, affiliated to Frankfurt’s Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University. Only in 2014 was a major exhibition about his life at last held at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt.


Joseph said...

The public prosecutor, Karl Angermann, was an ambivalent character. Did he really exist?

Parnassus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Parnassus said...

"...concerned that his rivals would say that he was merely a vengeful Jew." If the people of Germany said or felt that, then that must be the ultimate expression of the blame-the-victim mentality.

Hels said...


The Goethe Institute said in creating the fictitious character of Karl Angermann, a homosexual prosecutor who is Bauer’s friend and protégé, the film suggests that Bauer had homosexual leanings himself or was very supportive of other men who would have been gaoled for their homosexuality.

But I think the Angermann character had another important role. He represented the moral side of the post-war legal system in Germany. Although Angermann was very frightened of what would happen to him if he supported the hunting down and prosecuting of ex-Nazis, he none-the-less fulfilled his professional responsibilities admirably.

Hels said...


I was very hesitant to quote the concept of post-war Nazi hunting being merely a case of Jews exacting revenge. But it was in the film several times.

Before seeing the film, I had assumed that except for the rusted-on Nazis, German citizens of the 1950s and 60s had wanted to cleanse their society of a hideous past. While the ex-Nazis were still young enough to bring to justice, I had thought that the entire German legal system would have dedicated itself to the urgent task.

Now I think that apathy and exhaustion were the key factors that dominated German thinking in the 1950s and 60s, not anti-Semitism and victim-blaming per se. Saul Friedlander wrote: "In West Germany, the general public was given all the necessary pretexts to turn away from the past: Germany was now a democracy, it stood against Soviet totalitarianism, and it was paying reparations to the Jewish victims of Nazism. It was argued that putting debates about the past to rest was the only way to rebuild the country and look ahead".

Deb said...

Many judges, public prosecutors etc after the war could well have been members of the Nazi Parry in the 1933-45 era. That may have been why they blocked Bauer at every turn in the 1960s.

Hels said...


Agreed. After the war, the new government wanted the best and the brightest men to head up the public service, police, legal departments, education and health care. I don't think the politicians were keen to look at the war time history of these men... and the men were certainly not keen to uncover any Nazi Party connections they had had in the 1933-1945 era. Bauer totally upset that mutually beneficial equilibrium.

bazza said...

I would suppose that the reason Bauer wanted to go back to Germany was to help prevent a new rise in post-war antisemitism. He was clearly an extremely brave man. Were not the West Germans the first to have strong legislation in protection of Jews and against holocaust deniers? Bauer must have indirectly led to that happening.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s resumed Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


Fritz Bauer was definitely a very brave man... most of us would not have gone back to our painful past, just in case it became dangerous again in the future. But as the actor Burghart Klaußner superbly depicted, Bauer responded to the vigorous opposition with a mixture of depression, resignation and a sense of unrelenting commitment.

You are correct that the West Germans ensured that the first laws against Holocaust denial were passed 1] as a reaction to the re-emerging anti-Semitism in German society and 2] not before 1960. But as the film showed, the German judicial system in 1960 was still full of officials who started their careers in the Third Reich and in most cases were not willing to really confront their, and their country’s past.

Film Review International said...

The proverbially and progressively thickening plot is off and running. After Bauer gets a tip in a letter to him from an Argentinian that Eichmann is living in Argentina (the writer’s daughter has become engaged to one of Eichmann’s sons), Bauer finds an ally and eventually a friend within his team, young public prosecutor Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld).

Bauer risks accusations of treason by bringing this new information to Israel’s Mossad, but Isser Harel (Tilo Werner), Mossad’s director, is skeptical and requires a second independent source affirming Eichmann’s whereabouts. Bauer eventually comes up with sleazy journalist/informant Friedrich Morlach (Paulus Manker), who might also be an informant to Germany’s intelligence service or even East Germany’s Stasi intelligence unit.

Georg August Zinn (Götz Schubert), the Minister-President of Hesse who is Bauer’s boss and a fellow Socialist; Victoria (Lilith Stangenberg), a cabaret singer with whom the married Angermann gets involved; Herr Schneider (René Heinersdorff), an ex-Nazi In Bauer’s crosshairs who is now working as a Mercedes Benz executive; Israeli Attorney General Chaim Cohn (Dani Levy), with whom Bauer meets on his second visit to Israel; and SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann (Michael Schenk), also working for Mercedes Benz in Argentina.

Doris Toumarkine
Film Review International
Aug 17, 2016

Hels said...


it was indeed a progressively thickening plot. I understood all the characters except for Isser Harel, Mossad’s director. Needing proof yes but Harel clearly doubted Bauer's honesty and knew nothing of Bauer's bravery.