Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The People vs. Fritz Bauer

The recent German film The People vs. Fritz Bauer depicts the true story of  Fritz Bauer (1903-1968), a German-Jewish lawyer and Social Democrat, who, after spending the Nazi years in Denmark and then Sweden, returned to Germany after the war and became a lawyer in the West German justice system. When the film opens in 1957, Bauer is established in Frankfurt  as Attorney General in the State of Hesse. Both in real life and in the film, Bauer was preoccupied with finding and prosecuting Nazi war criminals - not much of a priority in 1950s West Germany and a cause of considerable conflict between him and much of the legal and political establishment. (Hence, The People vs.)

The film focuses primarily on his pursuit of Adolf Eichmann and the major role he played in helping Israel's Mossad both to find him and capture him in Argentina. Bauer goes to the Mossad because he realizes anyone else will likely alert Eichmann so he can escape. The danger Bauer faces is, of course, that working with a foreign intelligence agency could be construed as treason. As a closeted homosexual. he is also always in danger that his earlier sexual activities in Denmark could be uncovered, for which he could, of course, be criminally prosecuted in 1950s West Germany. That latter theme is highlighted in the film's fictional sub-plot about his friendship with a closeted, married young prosecutor on his staff, Karl Angermann, who becomes his primary collaborator.  That the Angermann plot is fictional becomes evident only at the end, when the concluding screen credits recount the rest of Bauer's story but make no mention of Angermann's fate (a surprise since we last see Angermann in German police custody). 

Later in life, Bauer went on prosecute the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in the early 1960s, the main source of his fame. His role in Eichmann's capture only became public a decade after his death.

The 1961 Eichmann trial was a pivotal event (certainly for my generation) in society's actively encountering the significance of what later came to be called the Holocaust. In retrospect Eichmann's trial in israel seems to have been so right, but Bauer had wanted Eichmann tried in Germany as a way of exposing the larger Nazi network still at large and still influential. But neither the Adenauer government nor its American ally wanted to stir up that past. Indeed, the whole film offers a profound insight into the post-war regime of forgetfulness that dominated at that time - in part for very understandable reasons (e.g., the need to focus on a new enemy in the Cold War).

Crimes against humanity continue to be perpetrated. As i have often observed, the only actual solution to war crimes is war - i.e., the military defeat of the perpetrators (which was what happened in 1945) It was only the Allies' victory and Germany's unconditional surrender that ended the Holocaust. But what to do afterwards is another and more complicated question. What is the right balance between the post-war pursuit of past war criminals and the very different - but not necessarily unimportant - imperatives of reconciliation and social unity to respond to new and different challenges?

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