Lawful Prosecution of Nazi Injustices
Who really was Fritz Bauer?

Through his work, Fritz Bauer played an important part in ensuring that society and the justice system in the post-war Federal Republic of Germany were not able to simply supress memories of concentration camps and the Holocaust. Two recent German feature films recall the impact of this German chief public prosecutor who in the first decades after the war played a key role in ensuring that the crimes committed during the Nazi era did not go unpunished.

Fritz Bauer (1903 – 1968), a chief public prosecutor from the state of Hesse, was one of the most important lawyers in the post-war period in Germany. Of Jewish descent and living in exile in Sweden and Denmark from 1936 until 1949, Bauer was one of the few people who took it upon themselves to make sure that perpetrators of crimes committed during the Nazi era were put on trial, thereby ensuring that this became a topic of general societal debate. If it were not for Bauer, post-war German society and the justice system might have succeeded in suppressing memories of the concentration camps and the Holocaust. Two recent German feature films and a documentary from 2010 approach this charismatic lawyer in very different ways. 

Processes of collective suppression

“Labyrinth of Lies” (Trailer) | © Universal Pictures Germany, via

Fritz Bauer plays only a supporting role in Giulio Ricciarelli’s Labyrinth of Lies (2014), a thrilling yet conventionally produced drama. Played by Gerd Voss, the chief public prosecutor is portrayed as an exemplary and charismatic father figure, which is particularly poignant in an era characterized by an “absence of fathers” as the psychoanalyst Alexander Mitscherlich described it. Johan Radmann, a fictitious young prosecutor, takes centre stage, representing a generation that at the time had heard hardly anything about Auschwitz. In the Federal Republic of the year 1958, he spends his time dealing with traffic offences until the intervention of a journalist one day draws his attention to the fact that a guard at the former Auschwitz concentration camp has escaped unpunished and is now leading a normal life. Against his superior’s will, but with the support of Chief Public Prosecutor Bauer, Radmann begins to investigate the case.

In his quest for truth, the lawyer uncovers a web of lies, denial and suppression, and increasingly finds himself socially isolated. Especially in the post-war era of reconstruction and the economic miracle, the most Germans would have liked to draw a line under the past. It was only thanks to Fritz Bauer, who initiated as chief public prosecutor the Auschwitz Trials in 1963 against perpetrators in the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, that Germans were able to confront their collective guilt and examine their personal degrees of involvement.

“Enemy territory”

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” (Trailer) | © Alamode Film via

The focus is very different in The People vs. Fritz Bauer, an award-winning film in which the director Lars Kraume pays what is in fact a rather dubious tribute to the historic figure of the eponymous lawyer. Bauer’s investigations of former SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organisers of the Holocaust, who was responsible for the murder of about six million people during the Nazi era, are the film’s recurrent theme. Bauer, played by Burkhart Klaußner, has to conduct covert investigations because neither the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) nor the German intelligence agency has any interest in bringing Eichmann, whose statements could also incriminate senior figures in the Federal Republic of Germany, to justice. In the process, he meets with bitter resistance from his own ranks, as most lawyers had already been active during the Nazi regime and feared for their own good reputations. Fritz Bauer is famous for having said “When I leave my office, I’m entering enemy territory”. 

And yet his actual life’s work, the criminal investigation of the Holocaust in Germany, becomes side-lined in Kraume’s film. Instead, Kraume shines the spotlight on the hunt for Adolf Eichmann and on Bauer’s alleged homosexuality. In creating the fictitious character of Karl Angermann, a homosexual prosecutor who is Bauer’s friend and protégé, the film also insinuates that Bauer has homosexual leanings, especially since sexual activity between men was criminalized until 1994 by the then Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code. The film derives its emotional tension from this inner conflict – while at the same time casting doubt on his historic credibility.

Different ways to approach reality

“Fritz Bauer – Death by Instalments” (Video) | © CV Films via

In Fritz Bauer – Death by Instalments, the documentary film she made in 2010, Ilona Ziok uses numerous interviews with contemporary witnesses and people who knew Bauer well, as well as photographic and film documentation of Bauer himself, to approach this historic figure in a far more nuanced fashion. His television appearances also paint in many respects a different picture of Bauer’s personality than Lars Kraume’s historical drama. They highlight the pressure under which Bauer must have been, especially given that the laws of the time prevented him from accusing his politically biased colleagues of bending the rules during the Nazi dictatorship.

Thomas Schadt, a documentary filmmaker and the director of Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg in Ludwigsburg, once claimed that the key difference between a documentary and a feature film is that a documentary portrays an actual reality while a feature film depicts a possible reality. Nonetheless, it is a pity that both feature films use a dramaturgical detour – namely the fictitious characters of the two prosecutors – to tell the story of Fritz Bauer and his significance for German post-war reality. As a result of its considerable focus on the plotline concerning Paragraph 175, Lars Kraume’s film even gives the impression that this aspect of his life was far more important than the decades he spent fighting against the suppression and concealment of the Nazi crimes. Nonetheless, it is still important even in today’s Germany to remember the impact of this leading lawyer, and this is something that both feature films undeniably achieved.

On February 24 2016, the German TV channel “Das Erste” showed the TV movie Die Akte General (i.e., The “General” File), which focuses on the life of Fritz Bauer, too. Goethe Institutes worldwide were able to show the film simultaneously with the first broadcast – or shortly after it.

Editor’s note:

In its teaser, processed by the editors, this article originally contained an overly simplified description of Fritz Bauer’s role in preserving memories of the Holocaust. We have now changed the wording of the first sentence of the article.

Goethe-Institut e. V., Online Editorial Department, 29 February 2016