World Literature

Rolf Hochhuth

 

BORN: 1931, Eschwege, Germany

NATIONALITY: German

GENRE: Drama

MAJOR WORKS:

The Deputy (1963)

Soldiers (1967)

A Love in Germany (1968)

The Midwife (1971)

Lawyers (1979)

 

 

Rolf Hochhuth. Hochhuth, Rolf, photograph. AP / Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

Rolf Hochhuth is widely considered one of the most controversial German playwrights of the 1960s. Some of his plays have been challenged by the Catholic Church, while others have been banned by the British parliament. Besides being severely criticized for his choice of subject matter, Hochhuth has had his writing dismissed as historically inaccurate and derided as technically inept. Yet several of his plays have effected significant social and political consequences and continue to enjoy public popularity.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Reluctant Hitler Youth. Hochhuth was born on April 1, 1931, in Eschwege, east of Kassel, Germany, to shoemaker and manufacturer Walter Hochhuth and his wife, Ilse Holzapfel Hochhuth. After being forced to close his shoe factory in the Depression, in 1932, Hochhuth’s father managed the wholesale business of his wife’s family.

The family had liberal leanings in politics, though the young Hochhuth was an unenthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth. The Hitler Youth were a paramilitary arm of the Nazi Party whose membership included older teenage boys, and after 1936, all eligible German boys had to join the group. Hitler took power in Germany in the early 1930s, and imbued the floundering country with pride through massive military expansion and aggressive territorial ambitions. Under Hitler’s dictatorship, Germany forced the beginning of World War II in Europe by invading Poland in 1939. Hitler’s actions determined Hochhuth’s early life to such an extent that he now, ironically, calls Hitler his father.

The Success and Failure of The Deputy. After leaving school at the Realgymnasium of Eschwege early, Hochhuth became a bookseller’s apprentice in Marburg, Kassel, and Munich. In 1955, he became a reader for the Bertelsmann publishing house, and in 1957, he married Marianne Heinemann, a former schoolmate. They had two sons.

Hochhuth’s first and best known play was The Deputy (1963). Starting in 1959, Hochhuth worked on the play daily, using records of the events at Auschwitz (the largest concentration camp where Nazis took jews to complete the goals of the Holocaust; over 1.1 million people were killed there), the testimony of witnesses he interviewed in Rome, the accounts of Nazi officer Kurt Gerstein (who tried to sabotage the mass murders of jews), and secondary sources on the Vatican’s attitude regarding the deportation of Roman Jews. The play was completed in 1961, but fears of legal action by the Vatican prevented its publication. A prize for promising young authors was awarded for it in 1962, but its future was still in doubt until H. M. Ledig-Rowohlt of the Rowohlt publishing house decided to publish it. Ledig-Rowohlt showed the proofs to the producer Erwin Piscator, who agreed to stage it. It caused a tempest of controversy in Western Europe and North America.

The Deputy points to the failure of the Vatican— specifically Pope Pius XII—to speak up about, and possibly halt the Holocaust. Before the first performance, the secrecy surrounding the play and excerpts leaked from it stirred up an atmosphere of impending scandal. After positive response from audiences on opening night, the first production ran for 117 performances in Berlin and then toured to 21 cities in Germany. The next season there were 13 productions in Germany, reaching a total of 504 performances. In France, the play was even more popular, with 346 performances of Peter Brook’s production. Other early versions were staged in Sweden, Switzerland, Great Britain, and the United States.

In Rome, however, the play was almost banned. The Catholic Church—shaken by the threat of losing its moral authority—considered legal action against Hochhuth for antichurch utterances or for libel of a dead person. Then it started a campaign that led to serious public disorder in Basel. On seeing how the Swiss defended his freedom of speech against six thousand Catholic and right-wing demonstrators, Hochhuth moved with his family to Riehen, near Basel. In the long run, the church had to take Hochhuth seriously. They released materials from the Vatican archives and began looking more critically at Pius XII, who had up to then been thought a candidate for canonization. Because the Catholic Church was a pillar of the West German state (created after World War II when Germany was divided into two countries: the Western democracy of West Germany and the Soviet-influenced East Germany) and interdependent with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the ruling party, the ecclesiastical scandal was also a threat to the government.

The Wrong Effects. In his next play, Soldiers (1967), Hochhuth tried to give Winston Churchill—as the man responsible for ordering the bombing of Dresden—the same treatment he had given Pope Pius XII. (Churchill had been Great Britain’s leader for much of World War II. In 1945, he played a key role in ordering the bombing of the German city of Dresden, in which 527 bombers spent two days essentially annihilating the city. There were also casualties in the thousands.) When Sir Laurence Olivier accepted the play for an English-language production at the National Theatre in London, Soldiers caused a controversy in the British press because of its view of Churchill. It was banned by Lord Chamberlain (a chief officer of the royal household in the British government), whose office as censor of plays was abolished as a consequence of the affair. Thereafter, the play had its biggest success in London, with 122 performances.

The play had no noticeable effect, however, on the regulation of aerial warfare—a subject important to Hochhuth, who was shocked by indiscriminate bombing during the Vietnam War (a conflict in Vietnam in which the United States tried unsuccessfully to ensure the country would not fall into the control of Communists). Hochhuth had started writing the play in order to press for the extension of the Geneva conventions to aerial warfare. He had apparently intended it as a contribution to the attacks on American strategy in Vietnam, but this aspect was little discussed in connection with the play.

Message about America. In 1968, in response to civil unrest in America, the murders of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon’s election as president, and the rise in Germany of the extraparliamentary opposition, Hochhuth started work on Guerillas (1970). The material of the play was seen as worth a dramatic exploration, but too many problems with the work rendered it ineffective—including the grand scale Hochhuth chose, the melodramatic events and sensational incidents the playwright attempted to cover, and the intrusions of theory. In the early 1970s, Hochhuth’s personal life was also transformed. He divorced his first wife in 1972, and was married again to a medical student, Dana Pavic, in 1975. The couple later had one son.

Improved Dramatic Construction. In Lawyers (1979), Hochhuth returned to the formula of his first plays. As did many others, Hochhuth maintained his criticism of post-World War II politics and law in Germany. In Lawyers, he focuses on the fact that no German lawyer was ever prosecuted after 1945 for anything he did under Hitlerian laws. In fact, attorneys were exonerated because they were ‘‘only obeying orders’’—whereas the same defense was rejected when it was used by military personnel. The play could have ended the career of a leading Christian Democratic Union (CDU) politician Hans Filbinger, but Hochhuth let some of his evidence out beforehand in an advance extract published in the newspaper Time of a narrative work, A German Love Story (1980). Hochhuth, who had just moved from Basel to Vienna, was sued by Filbinger for five hundred thousand marks in damages.

Additional Protests In Judith (1984), Hochhuth reworked the subject matter of Guerillas. The work was found to be rambling, containing inconclusive discussions on the ethics of assassination, offering improbabilities from the world of the cheap thriller, and suffering from a parade of topics Hochhuth was fixated on. In Summer 14 (1989), Hochhuth offered an argument aired in the notes to Judith. That the arms race produces war and that there are parallels between the increase of armaments in the 1980s and the growth of the German armed forces before 1914. The argument of Summer 14 was found, again, to be inconsistent.

Continued Complaints and Demands. Hochhuth continued to produce original plays as well as essays and nonfiction in the 1990s and early 2000s, though none have matched the importance or popularity of his early works and few have been translated into English. Later works include Heil Hitler (2001) and McKinsey kommt (2003). The latter is a play that focused on the problems of capitalism in postwar Germany. He continues to reside near Basel.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Hochhuth's famous contemporaries include:

Alvin Ailey Jr. (1931-1989): The American modern dancer and choreographer who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Edward M. Kennedy (1932-): The United States senator from Massachusetts known both for his liberal political stance and as the younger sibling of two slain brothers— president John F. Kennedy and senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Gunter Grass (1927-): German novelist and playwright and Nobel laureate whose 2006 admission that he was a member of the Waffen-SS, an elite Nazi military group, stirred an international controversy.

Toni Morrison (1931-): The American author and winner of both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes. Her novels include Beloved (1988).

 

Works in Literary Context

Much of Hochhuth’s work is directly influenced by the author’s experiences in and the outfall from World War II. In addition to dubbing former Nazi leader Adolf Hitler his father, Hochhuth drew on what happened to Germany in the postwar period and the lack of consequences for actions taken during the conflict. While realism, historicism, and even current events were important to the author’s works, he also employed symbolism, myths, and metaphysical aspects as well. Thus many of Hochhuth’s dramas are thesis plays; that is, they have a strong political message and focus on contemporary problems.

Shocking Style Hochhuth’s style relies heavily on shock value to express his convictions. The strength of his two first plays, for example, lay in their eliciting reactions of shock from the audience to historical events and the actions of historical personages. His third play, Guerillas, even puts forth the suggestion that the audience will be shocked by the undemocratic nature of the United States.

Controversial Presentation of Themes. Hochhuth’s coverage of vital themes has been controversial to the point of being scandalous. This is demonstrated in plays like The Deputy, for instance. Since 1945, various dramatists have dealt with the crimes of the Hitler era, mainly in highly symbolic, mythical, metaphysical, or philosophical ways. In narrative literature, a more realistic approach has often been used, though only prose works like Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum (1959) have attracted mass attention. The Deputy is an attempt at what is called in German Vergangenheitsbewatigung—managing, or coming to terms with, the past.

Hochhuth’s Wide-Reaching Influence. Despite or because of the controversial critical attack on Pope Pius XII in The Deputy, no other postwar German drama reached out as this one did to influence people who never visited a theater. Much of the discussion, to be sure, left the play itself to one side, addressing matters Hochhuth had not raised, such as whether papal protest would have hastened the end of the Nazi regime. But none of it would have happened without the catalyst provided by Hochhuth.

The greatest effect comes when Hochhuth—a militant pessimist—attacks. Twice, with his attacks on Pius XII and on Hans Filbinger, Hochhuth signaled changes of direction in West German society and helped to strip away conspiracies of silence. His plays have been at their most effective when he has seized on a historical cover-up or a social injustice and presented it in a direct and realistic way.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Here are a few works by writers who have also explored political or social injustice as major themes:

Anthem (1938), a novel by Ayn Rand. In this work the author presents a dystopian (anti-utopian) society where socialism, or collectivism, rules.

Johnny Got His Gun (1939), a novel by Dalton Trumbo. This story is told from the point of view of World War I American soldier Joe Bonham, who loses his arms, legs, eyes, nose, and ears in battle and must learn to exist and communicate quite differently than he did before.

The Satanic Verses (1988), a novel by Salman Rushdie. This work, which centers on Muhammad as he is ''tricked'' by Satan, elicited death threats against its author.

Red Azalea (1994), a memoir by Anchee Min. In this autobiographical work, the author recounts her biggest challenge, in which she was forced to choose between self-will and the will of the Chinese Communist Party.

 

Works in Critical Context

Hochhuth’s plays have received little critical praise. From a literary perspective, the consensus is that he is incapable of structuring a play, of writing dialogue that is not impossibly wooden, or even of thinking clearly about the kind of aesthetic effect he intends. With Guerillas, for instance, critics pointed to a plot overloaded with sensational incidents that distract attention from the political analysis, supposedly shocking social injustices that never appear onstage, cheaply introduced sex, and shallow characterizations.

But whatever their artistic failings, a number of his plays have had direct social and political consequences. At least three have had considerable success with the public—regardless of the critical issues with either the topics or the treatment of those topics. This success is demonstrated, for example, in such plays as The Deputy.

The Deputy. Critics almost universally found that no previous post-World War II dramatic work shook the conscience of Europe as did Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy. Such critics noted that where other playwrights gave sophisticated artistic presentations of nothing much, Hochhuth gave a depiction of important subjects that was sneered at by experts but capable of keeping the audience arguing for hours after the curtain fell. As David Boroff wrote in the National Observer, ‘‘Though it is both flawed and arguable, it has restored seriousness to the Broadway theater. Not since Death of a Salesman or The Diary of Anne Frank have audiences been so profoundly shaken.’’

Literary critics, glad of a serious political subject to write about, paid much attention to the accuracy of Hochhuth’s treatment but had no criteria other than Hochhuth’s own historical notes for judging it. Such discussions tended to increase the respect paid to his qualities as a self-taught historian. There also has been much argument as to whether Hochhuth portrays Pius XII fairly. Some critics have expressed the wish that the theme had been treated more competently, though no other writer had thought of treating it at all. Others believe that much of the depiction of Nazism should be omitted as irrelevant to the plot. Walter Kerr, drama critic for the New York Herald Tribune, agreed that the work is flawed, but he, too, concluded, ‘‘We are also left with the aftermath of The Deputy, making a clamor in the world which may, hopefully, become the equivalent of a call to prayer. Any virtues the work possesses are extra-theatrical. They may indeed become virtues.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Hochhuth’s The Deputy is centered on working out a proper moral response to Nazism. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about the response of the German people to the rise of the Nazi Party. Were they all enthusiastic? Did some resist Nazi activities? How? What consequences might a resistor face? As a group, discuss how you think you would have reacted if you were a German civilian in Germany during the late 1930s and 1940s.

2. Read a Hochhuth play that has been censored by some group or government. Highlight specific parts of the play that you think might have prompted its censorship. Do you think the censors were right to try to block the play? Do you think censoring a work of literature serves a productive purpose? Or does it serve only to make the work of literature more intriguing to readers?

3. Hochhuth’s play The Deputy highlights a phenomenon of worldwide significance. He shows that during the Holocaust there were cultures that were quiet or intentionally neglectful about the atrocity, and afterward there were many people who denied it ever happened. Investigate Holocaust denial, looking into the arguments of such Holocaust deniers as David Irving. What supportive evidence do these people offer to insist there was no such occurrence? Provide a list of examples of the ‘‘evidence.’’ What is the Holocaust denier’s purpose? What does he (or she) gain from this argument?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bentley, Eric, ed. The Storm over “The Deputy.’ New York: Grove, 1964.

Kaufmann, Walter. Tragedy and Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1969.

Periodicals

Broff, David. Review of The Deputy. National Observer (March 2, 1964; March 4, 1968).

Glenn, Jerry. ‘‘Faith, Love and the Tragic Conflict in Hochhuth’s The Deputy,’ German Studies Review 7 (October 1984): 481-98.

Kerr, Walter. Review of The Deputy. New York Herald Tribune, February 27, 1964.

Web Sites

Hochhuth, Rolf. Die offizielle Internetprasenz von Rolf Hochhuth. Retrieved March 25, 2008, from http://www.rolf-hochhuth.de/.

International Literature Festival Berlin. Rolf Hochhuth. Retrieved June 21, 2008, from http://www.literaturfestival.com/bios1_3_6_218.html.