Germany finally pays tribute to first Nazi hunter Fritz Bauer

Gay and Jewish, he faced death threats for his activities in a post-war state where Third Reich attitudes endured

He was gay, Jewish, and a high-profile German state prosecutor in 1960s West Germany. But it was his dogged determination to bring Hitler’s henchmen to justice that meant Fritz Bauer was ostracised by politicians, feared denunciation as a “criminal homosexual” and received constant death threats.

Bauer, who was found mysteriously drowned in his bathtub in 1968, was Germany’s first Nazi hunter. He brought Adolf Eichmann to trial and subsequent execution in Israel in 1962 and put Nazis who ran Auschwitz in court for the first time in Germany the following year.

Yet like the Holocaust hero Oskar Schindler, the key role Bauer played as one of the handful of Germans who fought the evils of the Nazism remained forgotten for decades after his death. Fifty years on and just as the last ageing Auschwitz guards still alive are going on trial for the first time, Germany’s forgotten first Nazi hunter is being rediscovered and rehabilitated.

An acclaimed feature film about his life, The State Versus Fritz Bauer won an award at this month’s Berlin Film Festival. And last week a televised drama about him was screened on Germany’s ARD television. They follow two other films about the chain-smoking, art-loving Nazi hunter, as well as his first biography.

“We should really be asking ourselves why Fritz Bauer has been consigned to obscurity for so long,” said Ronen Steinke, the author of Fritz Bauer or Auschwitz on Trial. “My guess is that until now the Germans did not want to honour a person who pointed so openly to their incompetence in dealing with their Nazi past,” he said. 

Bauer, who was from a middle-class Stuttgart Jewish family, became Germany’s youngest judge in 1930 at the age of 27. He was sent to a concentration camp when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and released nine months later after being coerced into signing a statement pledging obedience to Nazi rule. He fled to Denmark and eventually escaped to Sweden where he lived out the rest of the war.

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But when Bauer returned to his native country to work again as a judge in 1949, he found a West Germany in which many Third Reich values were still admired. Former Nazis held key positions in government. The closest aide and national security adviser to the then Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was Hans Globke, a former Nazi government member who helped draw up Nazi race laws.

Anti-Semitism was so prevalent that Bauer hid the fact that he was Jewish to avoid being labelled a traitor who was “bent on revenge”. West Germany still enforced Nazi-era laws outlawing homosexuality. Bauer lived in fear of being publicly denounced and ousted from his job because he was gay. His attempts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice earned him the reputation as a judge who “fouled his own nest.” He once told a colleague: “As soon as I leave the confines of my office, I am on enemy territory.” Death threats were common.

But in 1957 Bauer was tipped off by a colleague in Argentina that Adolf Eichmann had escaped to Buenos Aires and was living there under an assumed name. By this time Bauer was employed as chief state prosecutor in Frankfurt. But his mistrust of post-war West Germany was so great that he kept Eichmann’s whereabouts secret from the German judiciary and told the Israeli secret service Mossad instead. Under West German law his actions were a treasonable offence. 

But with the help of Bauer’s information, Mossad agents kidnapped Eichmann in a spectacular operation in 1960. He was tried and hanged in Israel 1962. 

Although he did not think so himself, Bauer’s greatest achievement was West Germany’s famous Auschwitz trials, which began in Frankfurt the following year, when 22 Nazi SS henchmen faced justice for the first time in Germany. Surviving film footage reveals how controversial the trial was. Inside the court the police saluted the accused as former “comrades”.

Only six of the accused were given life sentences. Twelve others were given terms of up to 14 years. The trials nevertheless obliged a reluctant German public to face up to the horrors of the Holocaust and accept that the perpetrators lived in their midst. 

With hindsight, the Auschwitz trials were remarkable because so many were convicted. The rest of Germany’s track record is less impressive. Some 120,000  investigations into Nazi war crimes after 1945  resulted in just 560 convictions. The shockingly low conviction rate was largely due to the fact that judges insisted on eyewitness evidence to prosecute.

Bauer was found drowned his bathtub at his Frankfurt home in 1968. A post-mortem examination showed that he had taken sleeping pills. There is speculation that he may have committed suicide because of the strain he was under. Half a century on, reunited Germany is seeking to make amends for its failure to track down and convict the Holocaust perpetrators. In a belated triumph for Bauer, they are using his legal arguments that working in the death camps meant complicity in murder.