A young German prosecutor in the late 1950s discovers that a former Auschwitz camp guard is teaching in his local elementary school, which is supposed to be illegal. He decides to prosecute, and quickly runs into a wall of opposition, in his own office. Germany in that era was well into denialism — most Germans preferred to believe that Nazis had been a small minority, and virtually all of them were prosecuted at Nuremberg. Why open that can of worms again? But the young prosecutor finds he has an unexpected ally — the country’s Attorney General, who is himself Jewish, and wants very much to open that can of worms, preferably spearheaded by someone too young to be implicated in the crimes of the Nazi era.
The prosecutor’s single investigation ultimately morphed into a successful class action against several hundred mid-level Nazis, hiding in plain sight in postwar Germany. More importantly, the testimony of German Jewish survivors forced ordinary Germans to come to terms with their own history — a salutary exercise.
The basic outlines of the story are true, although the personal details of the young prosecutor have been fictionalized to make him more of a German “everyman.” The Jewish AG, Bauer, was very real, as were his backchannel contacts with Mossad.