Secret Life of the German Judge Who Brought the Mossad to Eichmann

Much mystery surrounds the life of Fritz Bauer, the German-Jewish judge who told Israel where Adolf Eichmann was hiding. A new biography sheds light on Bauer - who hid the fact that he was Jewish and possibly homosexual.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In 1960, Michael Maor, a Holocaust survivor, paratrooper, student of photography and agent of the Mossad, was given a “dangerous and far from simple” assignment. Its success would pave the way to Adolf Eichmann’s capture and subsequent trial in Israel. Maor’s handlers instructed him to break into a building in Frankfurt, Germany, find and photograph the German prosecution’s files on Eichmann and escape without leaving a trace. Maor carried out the task − which was facilitated by the fact that he had a key to and a plan of the building. After the photocopies of the documents reached Israel, a Mossad team was given the go-ahead, and a few weeks later Eichmann was abducted to Israel from Buenos Aires. The rest is written in the history books.

How did Maor manage to enter the well-guarded building of the German prosecution and get his hands on the file containing the classified and incriminating information about Eichmann? The success of the mission was due to one person: Fritz Bauer (1903-1968) a German Jew who was a judge when the Nazis rose to power. He fled the country and returned after the war to hold several positions in the judicial system, the last of which was district attorney of the State of Hesse, headquartered in Frankfurt.

Bauer actually invited the Mossad to burgle his office and furnished the spy organization with the key and the building plan. He left the Eichmann files on his desk. But he did more: He told the Israelis where Eichmann was hiding and pressed them to capture him after it became clear that Germany would not lift a finger to bring him to trial. In fact, it was thanks to his stubborn persistence − since Israel and the Mossad initially did not treat his information seriously − that Eichmann’s life ended as it did.

Furthermore, Bauer also operated as a Nazi hunter, the first and only one in Germany. He tracked down commanders from Auschwitz, investigated them and indicted them, resulting in the “Auschwitz trials” held in Germany in the 1960s.

Bauer acted in the face of statutes of limitations, the German public’s forgiveness of Nazi criminals and the lethargy of the German bureaucracy, a combination of circumstances that allowed former Nazis to escape punishment.

Now, about half a century after the fake break-in and 45 years after his sudden death in his home, a biography of Bauer has been published in Germany ‏(“Fritz Bauer, or Auschwitz on Trial”‏) which aims to shed light on his fascinating life and enigmatic personality.

The author of the biography, Ronen Steinke, 30, a journalist with the newspaper Suddeutschen Zeitung, told me: “A few years ago, while studying law, I chanced on a story about a German prosecutor who worked secretly for the Mossad.” He wanted to find out more, “but to my surprise I did not find even one biography about him.”

In the course of researching Bauer’s life, Steinke interviewed people who had known him − most of them elderly but also some younger men − and dug through archives, including those of German courts. “I met people who knew him, worked with him, drank with him and argued with him,” Steinke says. He discovered new details about Bauer’s private life: in addition to being a Jew and a social democrat, he was also apparently a homosexual. What makes this an important element in the story is that homosexuals in Germany were persecuted from the 19th century through the Nazi period and even afterward. In fact, it was not until 1994, after a number of reforms and amendments, that the notorious Article 175, which banned intimate relations between men, was formally erased from the law books.

For Bauer, these two key aspects of his identity − Jew and gay − were crucial. He held senior posts in the judicial system, as a judge in the period of the Weimar Republic and after the war as a general prosecutor, at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offense that could terminate one’s career if it came to light.

Steinke takes a cautious approach. “I made a great effort to answer this question [about Bauer’s sexual proclivity], because this would be one key to his personal life” he says. He found only one testimony − from Bauer himself when he was in his early thirties − suggesting that he had had sexual relations with a man. In fact, despite the stories in the biography about Bauer’s intimate ties with young men, Steinke terms his attraction to men a “rumor.”

“Bauer was subject to powerful pressure because of these rumors, but he displayed tremendous and admirable courage by ignoring them and fighting for the rights of homosexuals in the 1960s,” Steinke says.

A second pillar of Bauer’s identity − his Jewishness − is also discussed extensively in the book. Contrary to what Bauer himself said, he did not, Steinke discovered, come from a typical assimilated family that shunned and disavowed its Jewish origins. During his adolescence, a 15-year-old member of the Hitler Youth asked him, “Tell me, Fritz, are you German, Jewish or stateless?” To which Bauer says he replied, “Listen, Gunter, you will probably laugh, but I am at one and the same time German, Jewish and stateless.” However, after the war he talked differently about his Jewish origins. When asked about his faith, he replied, “non-believer,” and let it go at that.

Why did he disavow his Jewishness after the Holocaust?

“He wanted to enter politics,” Steinke says, “to represent German institutions. He was stunned to see that anti-Semitism was still very much alive and was concerned that his rivals would say, ‘He is a Jew, he is out for revenge, he should not be taken seriously.’ So he made a tactical decision to hide the fact that he was Jewish.”

Steinke sees this as a tragic development. “Bauer was the most important Jew in postwar German politics,” he notes. “But he was scared to death of being identified as a Jew by the German public.”

Bauer was found dead in the bathtub at his home in the summer of 1968. An inquiry into the cause of death revealed that he had died of a heart attack induced by an overdose of sleeping pills. Did he commit suicide because he could no longer cope with the many threats to his life from Germans who were opposed to the activity of the Jewish jurist? It is unlikely that we will ever know.

Additional information, though obscure, is related to the services Bauer provided to the Mossad after Eichmann’s capture. “He continued to give Israel many different services in vital subjects,” the deputy director of the Mossad, Shlomo Cohen Abarbanel, said after Bauer’s death. His remarks, which were revealed by Tom Segev in his biography of the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, appear in a statement Abarbanel made to the Israeli Supreme Court, in a hearing about a petition submitted by former Mossad chief Isser Harel. Harel wanted to make public Bauer’s contribution to Eichmann’s capture. As the Mossad archives are closed to the public, we will probably never know what Abarbanel was referring to.

Still, the very fact that a biography of Bauer has been published is important. “The Germans did not want to honor a person who had pointed so openly to their incompetence in coping with their Nazi past,” Steinke explains. Only in recent years have things begun to change. Two cities in Germany have named streets for Bauer. Next spring, an exhibition about his life will be held at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt. Four decades after Bauer’s death, his lost honor appears about to be restored in Germany. In Israel, though, there is not even a street named after him.

Fritz Bauer. “I am at one and the same time German, Jewish and stateless.”Credit: AP

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