German and Other Heroes – 10
In 1962, Fritz Bauer wrote about his return to Germany in 1949: “I came back, because I believed I could bring (…) some of the spirit and determination of resistance in the emigration in their fight against governmental injustice with me. German democracy had already failed once because it had no democrats. I wanted to be one of them. The German judiciary had already failed once when it ought to have defended the democracy but had misused its power – and crimes of government had been endless between 1933 and1945 (…). I wanted to be a lawyer who would not just pay lip service to the law and to justice, to humaneness and peace (Wojak, p. 232, my translation).”
The Remer trial in 1952 formed an important early part in Bauer’s efforts to help build a new and just German democracy. Otto Ernst Remer, the former commander of a battalion which had been instrumental in putting down the rebellion of July 20, 1944 in Berlin, was a member of the Sozialistische Reichspartei (SRP), a successor of the NSDAP. (It was prohibited by the Constitutional Court in 1952.) Bremer had spread slander and defamation against the resistance, whose activists he called traitors – a view still held by most Germans at the time.
Fritz Bauer wanted to use the trial against Bremer to legitimate the resistance, and he won, against severe odds (see Wojak, pp. 265-279). Hardly any of the officials in the judiciary, the police or in administration who had built up the Nazi regime and committed thousands of crimes against the opposition, had been tried successfully. Typically, in 1951 a court in Munich had acquitted the judge who had sentenced a number of famous resisters to death in the closing days of the war. The argument was that they had indeed committed high treason according to the law of the time.
Together with witnesses from the resistance and experts in history and moral theology, Fritz Bauer argued that the activists of July 1944 never intended to harm Germany but wanted to save it, and (2) that in all democratic and many other traditions people were entitled to resist their government, if it no longer respected their basic human rights. In his powerful and moving final speech, he said: “A political regime embodying injustice such as the Third Reich cannot even be the object of high treason at all (Wojak, p. 274).”
Bremer was sentenced to three months in prison. The case and the verdict were a historical turning point, although in strict juridical terms, Fritz Bauer’s success was limited. He had only rehabilitated one group of resisters, and he had had to focus on their intentions. Objectively, they still had committed treason in the eyes of the vast majority of his colleagues.
Deserters and their families had to wait the longest. In the 1990s, German courts rehabilitated a number of individual deserters, many of whom had been sentenced to death and executed during the war. Finally, in 2005, the German Federal Parliament rehabilitated all deserters from the Wehrmacht generally and collectively. By then, even those who had survived the war were mostly dead.
(My foto shows a court building in Frankfurt on Main with Article 1 of our constitution on it: Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar/Man’s dignity is inviolable. Fritz Bauer had it placed there.)
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- German and Other Heroes