Legendary prosecutor Fritz Bauer died 50 years ago. Unjustly, he was not as revered as the 68er icons Dutschke and Langhans.
A picture of Fritz Bauer in a Frankfurt exhibition in 2014 Photo: dpa
Sunday, some people will remember him, but an honorable part of the collective memory is not the day: on July 1, 1968, the most prominent prosecutor of the then still young Federal Republic, Fritz Bauer, was found dead in his bathtub. In the middle of the agitated time of (not only) student unrest, the symbolic figure of a humane rule of law, of a liberalization of mores, dies in a still authoritarian-minded Federal Republic – could that be?
Didn’t he have enemies, old Nazis, for example, of whom there were still hundreds of thousands? People whom he legally pursued not only in secret, and often successfully? The autopsy of his corpse did not reveal any external culpability; the Stuttgart-born 64-year-old suffered from a damaged heart and acute bronchitis.
It was also found that he had taken sleeping pills, but, as friends reported, this was not unusual for Bauer; he had not been able to find peace without them. Next Monday and Tuesday, after all, the institute named after him is holding a conference in Frankfurt am Main: "Fritz Bauer and the 68ers". A suggestive title, because it suggests that this jurist had a special cultural or political proximity to those who stand for this era called 68, the radical left students.
A libertarian democrat
And this is a misunderstanding, because Bauer, the libertarian democrat, believed, like Hannah Arendt, in the possibilities that the Federal Republic offered as a political community – despite all the years of Konrad Adenauer’s government and his party, which knew how to keep the Federal Republic with all its might under the moral umbrellas of strict Christianity – against which Fritz Bauer fought first and foremost.
However: Compared to those persons who became important above all with the student revolts of 1968, icons such as Rudi Dutschke, Rainer Langhans, Fritz Teufel, Dieter Kunzelmann, Ulrike Meinhof or Hans-Jurgen Krahl, for example, Bauer’s veneration remained rather modest. He was not a figure of radical leftist glamour, not a flamboyant figure who had grand designs on world revolution or the great upheaval to offer.
Rather, he was a man who dug thick boards, acknowledged the trickiness of politics – and relied on persuasion rather than triumphant revolutionaryism. He was a lawyer, but what a lawyer: a de facto civil rights campaigner, in fact, for everything that right-wing populists and ethnicists hate today, which made someone like AfD Vice President Jorg Meuthen "delirious about the left-red-green-infested Germany of ’68."
This text comes from the taz am wochenende. Always from Saturday on the newsstand, in the eKiosk or immediately in the practical weekend subscription. And on Facebook and Twitter.
For these, the Volkische, would have possibly agreed with someone like Dutschke, who dreamed of national reunification more than of liberalization of the conditions. To someone like Fritz Bauer, if they knew him or had known him, their hatred would have been certain. For everything he stood for, everything he fought for, was consistently criticized by those who grew up under the Nazis or were already counted among the national conservatives, the authoritarians, the disciplinarians of morality and decency during the Weimar Republic.
Who was Fritz Bauer, how did he earn his more than minor posthumous fame? Raised in a Jewish family in Swabia, he studied law and was an ardent friend of the Weimar Republic, not one who wished it dead – whether for Marxist-Communist or National Socialist reasons – on the contrary. Bauer, the budding star lawyer, who had been interned in the Heuberg concentration camp for several months after the Nazi takeover, was finally able to emigrate to Denmark in 1936, and later, from the Nazi-occupied country to safe Sweden.
In 1949 he returned to Germany as a remigrant – and became district court director in . From 1956 on, he worked in Frankfurt am Main as attorney general, under the protection of Georg-August Zinn, the SPD state premier at the time. Bauer wanted to build on the liberal traditions that had already been vital during the Weimar Republic: This was a kind of inner mission for him, completely a German patriot, for whom the black-red-gold tricolor was attractive if only because it was despised by the National Socialists and German nationalists.
Bauer’s work since 1949 has been immense, measured against the confused dreams of revolution of the minority of the 68ers, such as Rudi Dutschke. Not only did he cleverly promote and shape the jurisprudential discourses on humane criminal law, on prisons without extermination character, on prosecutions of Nazi perpetrators that were solidly based on the rule of law: Fritz Bauer was decisively involved in the arrest of Adolf Eichmann – and in any case in the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt am Main at the beginning of the 1960s.
Now, such a commitment only works as a team, but Fritz Bauer, who some of his followers refuse to believe was a gay man because they consider this evidence to be a fact that taints him, actually helped set the course for a liberal constitutional state in the Federal Republic.
What he was most interested in, however, was more than the punishment – and thus public discussion – of Nazi crimes (and criminals), but rather, as Werner Renz, once a research assistant at the Fritz Bauer Institute, pointed out, the fight against the moral legislation of the Adenauer years. He was, as one might say, all about the fuss.
He was concerned with the suffering of legally persecuted minorities, gay men, for example, with the legal discrimination against women, with the attempts of Catholic and Protestant priests to censor culture, to keep the canvases clean of "dirt and filth. He was concerned with the possibility of resocializing young people who came into conflict with the law in the long term and not just jailing them.
Driving the authoritarian spirit out of the country
What drove Bauer was the idea of exorcising the authoritarian spirit from the country in favor of a modern, liberal Federal Republic – he was concerned with what the historian Christina von Hodenberg recently published as a study: with a different 68, with changing gender and moral relations, not with barricades and socialisms. Rather, it is about what has seriously made the Federal Republic better: a country whose moral self-image is not based on revenge, but on understanding, balance, compromise, freedom.
Fritz Bauer never received a Federal Cross of Merit, he would have been happy about this recognition. Once a person has died, the rules are that he can no longer receive such a medal. It would be a coup if the Office of the Federal President would make an exception for Fritz Bauer. No one would be more deserving of an award than he, the occasionally rapacious, formal, and now and then choleric jurist who has enabled this country to be more vibrant than that for which the "official" 68 stands.