German jurist Fritz Bauer (1903–1968) was instrumental in bringing to justice members of Germany's Nazi regime as the country began building democratic institutions following World War II. Most famously, Bauer passed information to Israel's Mossad intelligence service that resulted in the capture and trial of Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann.
The story of how Fritz Bauer helped bring Adolf Eichmann to trial and eventual execution in Israel in 1962 is a dramatic one, filled with cloak-and-dagger elements such as Bauer's planning the burglary of his own office by Israeli agents. Yet, to focus on this single episode obscures the jurist's many contributions to a postwar German jurisprudence emphasizing human rights and the rule of law. Forced to flee his country during the Nazi era, Bauer returned to Germany and to his former profession after the war. In the words of David Rüschenschmidt, writing on Germany's Lasalle Kreis website, he was “a social democrat from the heart, an indefatigable and idealistic fighter for democracy, the rule of law, and justice, even in his student years.” Although he faced resistance in Germany even after the war, Bauer was one of the few Jews to apply those ideals as the country rebuilt its institutions.
Bauer was born on July 16, 1903, into a businessoriented Jewish family in Stuttgart, Germany. During his school years, he suffered some effects of anti-Semitism, but because his family was well off he avoided the difficulties faced by other German Jews. Influenced by a high-school philosophy teacher, Bauer began to adopt socialist political ideals. While studying law and economics at the University of Heidelberg, where he earned a doctoral degree in 1927, he became a prominent member of Free Scientific Union, a student group that included many liberal Jewish students but also proclaimed itself German and patriotic. Fellow students recalled him as “never boring,” according to Rüschenschmidt. As a young man, Bauer was asked by a member of the Hitler Youth organization whether he considered himself German, Jewish, or stateless. His answer, as quoted by Ofer Aderet in Haaretz, was: “Listen, Gunter, you will probably laugh, but I am at one and the same time German, Jewish and stateless.”
Bauer undertook further studies at universities in Munich and Tübingen, and then began a rapid rise through the German judiciary in the later years of the country's Weimar Republic democracy. Emerging as a young protégé of Social Democratic party leader and anti-Nazi politician Kurt Schumacher, Bauer was named assistant judge at Stuttgart's district court, becoming, at age 27, the youngest person ever to hold that post. His high-flying career came to an abrupt halt in 1933, however, when Adolf Hitler's National Socialist (Nazi) party seized power and began purging Jews from government positions. Bauer was one of the first prominent Jews to be imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp: charged with anti-Nazi activities, he was sent to Lager Heuberg, in Baden-Württemberg. After several months of imprisonment, he signed a statement saying that he would submit to Nazi authority and was released.
Bauer's eventual return to Germany was facilitated by Schumacher, who had survived the war in a series of concentration camps including that at Dachau. The plan was that he would aid in rebuilding an independent judiciary in Germany, and his first job was as a district court director in the state of Lower Saxony. There he was active in the legal rehabilitation of a group of convicts who had been imprisoned by the Nazis for resistance activities in 1944. Bauer moved on to a post as advocate general (a kind of government prosecutor) in the Braunschweig Oberland region beginning in 1950, and in 1956 he was appointed general prosecutor in the large German state of Hesse.
Many former Nazi officials tried to escape prosecution by fleeing to South America during the months and years immediately following the war, and none was more notorious than Eichmann, a member of the Schutzstaffel or S.S. and chief architect of the Holocaust death camps in which much of Germany's Jewish population perished. After living for several years in Austria under an assumed name, Eichmann escaped to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he worked as a manager in a German-owned auto plant.
In 1957, Bauer received a tip from a colleague in Buenos Aires, Argentina, who had discovered Eichmann's identity when his daughter began dating the former lieutenant colonel's son. Bauer, however, was cognizant of Germany's thus-far-lackadaisical efforts in prosecuting former Nazis and mistrusted the ability of the country's judicial system to extradite Eichmann and bring him to trial. So he developed a file on Eichmann but told no one else in Germany where the former Nazi official was hiding.
Bauer passed his file on Eichmann to Mossad director Isser Harel in an unusual fashion. He furnished the Mossad with keys to the Hessian state prosecutor's office, providing a plan of its layout. Using this information, Mossad agent Michael Maor, a Holocaust survivor, broke into Bauer's offices and took the file. In May of 1960, Eichmann was kidnapped by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires. Flown to Israel while sedated and dressed as a flight attendant, he was then put on trial, convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes, and executed on June 1, 1962.
Following this success, Bauer emerged more openly as a Nazi hunter in Germany. He launched a series of probes into German commanders at the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp, bringing the first of them to trial in 1963. This prosecution was notable as one of the first times a concentration camp official was prosecuted in a German court of law; the famous Nuremberg trials of the late 1940s were held by Allied military officials. Bauer won convictions against more than 20 commanders, including Wilhelm Boger, Rudolf Höss, and Robert Mulka, in these so-called Auschwitz trials.
In 1965, Bauer began an investigation of another key Holocaust group, the drafters and signers of a 1941 document that had provided the legal basis for the Holocaust killings, referred to as euthanasia. The euthanasia proceedings would remain unfinished at his death in 1968 and were ultimately abandoned.
Upon his return to Germany, Bauer took steps to conceal his Jewish background. According to his biographer Ronen Steinke, he did so because he was contemplating a career in politics and was aware that anti-Semitism was still prevalent in postwar Germany: he “was concerned that his rivals would say, ‘He is a Jew, he is out for revenge, he should not be taken seriously.’” When asked about his faith, Bauer identified himself as a nonbeliever.
Bauer may have been secretive about his background for another reason: Steinke identified an account by the jurist, written when he was a younger man, that suggested that he was homosexual. In West Germany, being identified as gay would have meant the end of Bauer's career or worse; homosexuality would not be legalized in unified Germany until 1994.
For some years, Bauer's contributions remained largely unknown, both in Germany and in Israel, where, according to Mossad deputy director Shlomo Cohen Abarbanel, he continued to feed information to intelligence agencies following Eichmann's capture. His efforts gained greater appreciation within Germany following the publication of biographies by Steinke and Irmtrud Wojak as well as the release of three films about him: Fritz Bauer—Tod auf Raten (“Fritz Bauer—Death by Installments,”2010), Im Labyrinth des Schweigens (“Labyrinth of Lies,”2014), and Der Staat vs. Fritz Bauer (“The People vs. Fritz Bauer,”2015). These books and films, as well as several documentaries and television films, remain untranslated into English.
Haaretz, October 18, 2013, Ofer Aderet, “Secret Life of the German Judge Who Brought the Mossad to Eichmann.”
Independent (London, England), February 28, 2016, Tony Paterson, “Germany Finally Pays Tribute to First Nazi Hunter Fritz Bauer.”
“Fritz Bauer: Death by Installments,” http://www.fritz-bauer-film.de/ (July 1, 2017), “Biography.”
Goethe Institute, https://www.goethe.de/en/kul/flm/20707345.html (July 1, 2017), “Fritz Bauer Biography.”
Lassalle Kreis, http://lassalle-kreis.de/sites/default/files/fritz_bauer_biografie.pdf (July 1, 2017), David Rüschenschmidt, “Fritz Bauer (1903–1968).”□