When you accept a posthumous award on behalf of someone else, one question is to be expected: How would the award-winner have reacted?
I think, more than anything else, Fritz Bauer would have been surprised. Shortly after his death in 1968, he was described by a German newspaper as the “best hated man in the Federal Republic”. In his office, letters full of hostilities and threats filled entire files. The man who wrote legal history with the Auschwitz trials was largely treated with distrust and contempt during his lifetime.
What drives a person to take something like that upon themselves?
Recently, I discovered an old television programme from 1964, where Fritz Bauer was discussing his work with young people. He said that in Germany, showing humanity still felt like being “weak and feeble” to many people, even 20 years after the end of Nazi terror.
Fritz Bauer didn’t have to say how absurd he found this concept. After all, his entire life bears witness to the very opposite. It testifies to the courage to show humanity.
- Fritz Bauer bravely worked to bolster the fragile democracy of the Weimar Republic as a young judge. He wanted to be a free-thinking jurist. Someone for whom the authority of the state had to serve the individual, not vice versa. For this mindset he was stripped of his position and imprisoned by the Nazis.
- He bravely supported the resistance movement against Hitler from exile.
- And he bravely fought for the young Federal Republic to investigate the Nazi crimes against humanity in the 1960s.
Fritz Bauer was never out for revenge. He rejected these inhumane standards that were part of Nazi ideology.
For him, addressing the horrors of the past was a necessary step towards a better future. His benchmark was not the perverted legal system of the National Socialist state. Fritz Bauer was convinced that no oath and no law can compel people to overstep the boundaries of humanity.
On the contrary: Everyone has the right but also the obligation to defend humanity – even against their own state, if necessary.
This courage to resist also marked Fritz Bauer’s own life. When the Federal Government refused to pursue the extradition of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina, he informed the Israeli authorities of Eichmann’s hiding place.
In doing so, he put his career on the line. But not taking action was never an option for him in view of Eichmann’s role as the “administrator of the Holocaust”.
Yet it would be unfair to reduce Fritz Bauer to the role of “Nazi hunter”. The “problem of Auschwitz” did not only begin at the gates of Auschwitz and Birkenau, as he said himself.
For it was not only the Nazi henchmen in the extermination camps who kept the killing machines working. It was perfectly normal people – civil servants, engineers, doctors, accountants – who by remaining silent or serving as “desk criminals” enabled the genocide.
Millions of people for whom humanity represented weakness. Who believed in brutality and violence, in orders and obedience.
The Nazi reign of terror was possible because these people did not stand up against its vicious ideology. Because hatred towards minorities fell on fertile soil in German society.
Fritz Bauer wanted to provide young people with role models. He wanted them to recognise: When human dignity is under assault, we must be responsible subjects rather than objects of state authority. Then, we have a duty to disobey.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In the television programme I just mentioned, Fritz Bauer says to the young men and women: “Our constitution gave us democracy, but we also need people to live out democracy.”
Democracy will fail without people to defend it.
That is why a few years ago, in my role as Minister of Justice, I established a Fritz Bauer award to encourage law students to address crimes against humanity, work towards humane justice systems and protect human rights.
Democracy needs democrats. This is as important today as it was in Fritz Bauer’s day, perhaps even more so. For the surface of civilisation is thinner than we think.
To see this, we only need to look at Charlottesville or Christchurch. Or to German cities where neo‑Nazis once again give the Nazi salute and Jews are attacked for wearing a kippah. This is shameful. For all of us in Germany.
Populists and nationalists are gaining support all over the world. Those who think differently are defamed. Facts are deliberately distorted. The internet is often dominated by a language of fury. And the heart of our democracy – the struggle to reach compromises – is framed as weakness.
Fritz Bauer would have rung the warning bell. He would have said that the strong are not those with the loudest voices. Not the ones who draw their strength from the weakness of others. But those who have the courage to show humanity.
And he would have appealed to us to act – as organisations such as FASPE] and our hosts from the LRN Corporation are doing every day. I would like to express my sincere thanks to you for your work.
Empowering people to follow their conscience, to take a stand against injustice, exclusion and hatred was Fritz Bauer’s goal throughout his lifetime. And that is the goal of the work of FASPE
I can therefore think of no better recipient of the FASPE Award for Ethical Leadership than Fritz Bauer. Thank you very much. And I can hardly think of a greater honour than to accept this award on his behalf.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Fritz Bauer was a hero - one of the few in the history of the German justice system. He was a defender of our shared humanity. This award pays tribute to this legacy.
It should inspire us to demonstrate courage today. In New York, the United States, in Europe, all over the world. The courage to show humanity.