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Fritz Bauers Erbe – Gerechtigkeit verjährt nicht

Directors: Isabel Gathof, Sabine Lamby, Cornelia Partmann (Germany). Year of Release: 2023

The film starts in Münster, at the start of the trial of Bruno Dey, former SS member and guard at the Stutthof Concentration Camp In Poland. 65,000 people were murdered in Stutthof by the Nazis, and Dey was being tried for co-responsibility for over 5,000 of these deaths. The trial was delayed and moved to Hamburg. At one point it looked like it may be stopped entirely, another victim of Covid. But the persistent judge was keen to see this one through to the end.

Why did it take nearly 70 years for this case to come to court? On one level, the answer lies in the difficulty of making the charges stick. Under German law, Concentration Camp guards could only be found guilty if there was evidence of them actively contributing to someone’s death. Now, most victims are dead or have fading memory. But even after the camps were liberated, witnesses were hard to identify as one of the unwritten rules for survival was never to look the guards in the face.

With this need to prove direct involvement, former guards lined up to mouth the same words. “We didn’t know about the killings, Well, maybe one or two, but we didn’t know about the gas chambers. We had no choice We were just doing our jobs.” Not that the German State showed too much interest in finding justice. At the end of the war, only 6,500 guards were tried, although 170,000 were named and accused.

The film follows 2 former inmates of Stutthof (one lawyer warns against using the term Häftlinge, or prisoners, as they were only ever people who had been illegally deprived of their freedom). Roza Bloch is now based in Israel, while Judith Meisel is in the USA. Both women were small girls when they were in the Camps, and are now supported by their children and grandchildren. Neither can quite believe that it has taken so long for them to even approach finding justice.

So, who is Fritz Bauer, and what has all this to do with him? In the early 1960s, Bauer was the Director of Public Prosecutions in Hessen. In this role, he was part of the first Auschwitz trials. He developed the “cog theory” which said that a large machine is only able to function because of the individual actions of small cogs. This meant that Concentration Camp guards did not have to be guilty of any individual act. Merely by being there, they helped to sustain the Holocaust machine.

Bauer’s theory was listened to, and largely ignored. There were few serious attempts to bring concentration camp guards to justice, or even to talk about it. Post-war West Germany, and in particular those in power, was reluctant to confront its recent crimes. The government and big business were riddled with former Nazis (as was the US nuclear programme). Ordinary people who were less culpable were still ashamed of their recent actions and preferred to “not mention the war”.

Then, in the 1980s, two things happened. On 8th May 1985, West German president Richard von Weizäcker gave a speech on the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Addressing the need to remember past crimes, his speech opened a debate of how Germany should confront its history. Then in 1989 the wall came down. Bauer’s cog theory was rehabilitated to use against former enemies in the East.

Politicians who had been reluctant to take on former Nazis seized on a theory which could be used to prosecute anyone who had a remote connection with the old DDR state apparatus, A by-product was that the State considered using the laws against the Nazis who were Bauer’s original target. But the first major case to reach a verdict was when Oskar Gröning, the “accountant of Auschwitz”, who was convicted of being an accessory to 300,000 deaths. Gröning’s trial was in 2015.

Fritz Bauers Erbe is in equal parts fascinating and frustrating – fascinating for what it shows, but frustrating for what it leaves out. On the fascinating side, it pulls no punches on the suggestion that former Nazi guards should not be pursued because they are now old men. It makes it clear that this is not about retribution, or (primarily) satisfaction for the survivors. The prosecutions show that even a society with the limitations of liberal capitalism cannot tolerate industrial genocide.

On the frustrating side, much is made of the amount of time that people like Roza and Judith have had to wait for justice. Many others either died in the Holocaust, or did not live to see justice. It is mentioned several times that in 70 years, only the highest-ranking Nazis had been prosecuted, and guards were left alone. This is largely accepted as something which unfortunately happened. There is little concrete discussion about why the state was reluctant to prosecute old Nazis.

IG Farben (now Bayer) produced the Zyklon B gas that was used in the Camps, Hugo Boss clothed the Nazis, and Volkswagen provided them with transport. These companies all received massive support from the post-war West German State. After the very top Nazis were tried in Nuremberg, politicians and lawyers were not keen to turn onto their friends. While it is important that former guards are brought to justice, this must not be used to let more powerful villains off the hook.

Maybe this is the work of a different film, and it is unfair to blame this film for missing out on a point which would have required it to switch its attention from this very important story. But such a film is urgently necessary. It is right that the cogs who ensured that the mass murder could take place have been prosecuted, but some larger cogs have still not been brought close to justice. We best avenge the victims by putting them all in the dock – however great or small they are.

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