February 9, 2017 by: Simon Kuper
Well into the 1970s, West Germany remained a fragile democracy, short on convinced democrats. Former Nazis still occupied top jobs. One of them was Hans Filbinger, premier of the state of Baden-Württemberg. In 1978 the newspaper Die Zeit revealed that, as a naval judge in 1945, Filbinger had enforced Nazi laws against German soldiers even after Germany’s capitulation. Filbinger retorted: “What was legal then, can’t be illegal now,” and sued Die Zeit.
It soon emerged that weeks after Hitler’s suicide, Filbinger was still pronouncing death sentences against deserters. An elegant, ironic media lawyer named Heinrich Senfft won the case for Die Zeit. Filbinger resigned as premier.
Senfft died last month aged 88, a few days before Donald Trump’s inauguration. Now that the US president is attacking judges, the media and the electoral process, Senfft’s life provides a model for how to defend democracy. I’m not arguing that Trump is a Nazi. Rather, my point is that West Germans of Senfft’s generation knew how fragile democracy was, and did the daily work of strengthening it. Meanwhile, many Americans, grown complacent after centuries of uninterrupted elections, lapsed into boasting about their perfect democracy.
Senfft, just too young to fight in the war, grew up in posh conservative circles in Swabia. The “castle lad”, as his writer friend Günter Gaus later teasingly called him, remained a conservative until the late 1950s. But studying at Berkeley in the US gave Senfft a new perspective on Germany. When he married Erika Ludin in Berkeley in 1960, his best man was a German Jewish émigré he’d met there.
Senfft began wondering about his law professors in Germany. Some had taken the jobs of banned Jews, and then written Nazi law. With men like that still dominant, he regarded West Germany as a “fair-weather democracy” that could relapse the moment the economy faltered.
Nazi ghosts filled his own marital home. Erika’s father, whom she had loved, was Hanns Ludin, who as Hitler’s point-man in Slovakia had ordered Jewish deportations. Ludin was hanged in 1947 — his death struggle on the gallows reputedly lasted nine minutes. His guilt, denied by his widow, haunted Erika. She sometimes cried when his name was mentioned. She grew depressed, and died aged 64 after plunging into a bathtub filled with boiling water, wrote Senfft’s daughter Alexandra in a memoir.
The uprisings of 1968 meant different things in different countries. In West Germany, the student revolt took aim at old Nazis in public life. Senfft joined in. A powerful bully like Filbinger was his ideal target. He also defeated the department-store tycoon Helmut Horten, a former friend of Nazis who, bizarrely, had sued a writer over an uncomplimentary poem.
Elsewhere, Senfft defended Günter Wallraff, an undercover journalist sued by Bild newspaper after he revealed its brutal underhand methods in the late 1970s. But Senfft didn’t believe in absolute freedom of the press. He represented the actor Romy Schneider against media invading her privacy. Coverage of her relationship with French actor Alain Delon, commented Senfft, “had a pogrom or lynch atmosphere about it”.
Senfft the lawyer was what Trump would call “a winner”. After the leftwing historian Karl Heinz Roth offended the Springer media group in 1968, a mere note from Senfft saying he would represent Roth helped persuade the company’s lawyers to drop the matter. Senfft wrote the note for free, Roth recalled in a loving obituary. Another time, Roth accused a social scientist of working for the West German military’s secret services. Senfft took the case, again for free, but warned Roth: “You leftists always lean very far out of the window, but you’re sloppy, and in the end you lack evidence.” Senfft cared about facts. When Roth replied that he did have evidence, Senfft advised: “Put it on the gentleman’s table.” Roth did, and the matter was dropped.
After the Berlin Wall fell, Senfft defended senior East German regime figures. He disliked communism but he also disliked West German anticommunists persecuting communists with a zeal they had never shown against Nazis.
He began writing about Nazism and its West German legacy. He noted that even the country’s president Richard von Weizsäcker, in his 1985 speech about German responsibility for Nazism, had failed to acknowledge his father’s guilt or to recall his own enthusiasm as a young soldier invading the USSR.
Late in life Senfft became a Londoner. But his second wife died young, the new rightwing populism upset him, and melancholy overcame him. “Ageing is shit,” Roth recalled him saying.
Yet the Germany he always fretted about now looks like a more stable democracy than either of the great Enlightenment “homes of liberty”. The US has Trump, while France’s quasi-permanent state of emergency might fall into the hands of a President Marine Le Pen this spring.
Senfft’s generation of Germans built a democracy on mostly unwritten rules. For instance: German politicians would place the law above the so-called will of the people. They wouldn’t paint political rivals as enemies. They would prefer tedium to bombast. They would ensure poorer Germans didn’t fall too far, as had happened in the Weimar Republic. They would leave journalists alone. Perhaps Germans can now teach democracy to Americans.