There is a consensus among critics that Rolf Hochhuth is to be taken seriously as playwright because of the moral fervor with which he confronts significant issues. At the same time, critics have been reluctant to proclaim Hochhuth a major dramatist, pointing to the artistic shortcomings of his plays. Whatever the final verdict on his drama—that is, regardless of whether Hochhuth’s plays endure as dramatic literature—he has undeniably contributed to the program of moral revaluation that distinguishes postwar German literature. Like his contemporary Günter Grass, he has not reserved his criticism for the Nazis and those who made their rise possible. He has also been unsparing in his criticism of the Western democracies. As a platform for provocative expression of moral and political viewpoints, his theater is a resounding success.
Both his strengths and his weaknesses are evident in The Deputy, his first drama. The time of action in the first act is 1942. The Jesuit Riccardo, who has been transferred to the nuncio’s office in Berlin, is almost immediately confronted with an explosive revelation by the SS officer Gerstein—who, unlike Riccardo, is a historical figure. Gerstein informs the nuncio about the mass killings of Jews in Auschwitz by means of gas. In contrast to the ambivalent attitude displayed by the nuncio, Riccardo decides to act; he assures Gerstein that this information will induce the pope to issue a formal protest that will stop the murders. Unlike Gerstein, whose conscience has forced him to reveal the terrible secret about Auschwitz and who has to hide his horror and revulsion in order not to betray himself, Eichmann and other Nazi functionaries chat jovially about the “final solution” of the Jewish problem while they relax by drinking beer and bowling.
In the second act, Riccardo has returned to Rome; his conversation with his father, the pope’s trusted adviser in financial matters, indicates that it will be difficult to persuade the pope to speak out against the systematic killing of the Jews. Political considerations are of prime importance. Hitler’s setbacks on the eastern front have weakened his position as a bulwark against Joseph Stalin and communism, and moral condemnation on the part of the pope might further diminish Hitler’s strength. Another high church official essentially agrees with this assessment. Both Riccardo’s father and the cardinal aver that the pope’s heart is with the innocent victims; however, they are not sanguine about the prospects of the pope’s intervention. Both men see in Riccardo a dangerous idealist who, in his complete disregard for realpolitik, is able to do harm to the interests of the Church.
In the third act, Riccardo is joined by Gerstein. The former has almost given up hope that the pope will intervene forcefully. In desperation, he proposes to a Jesuit general, who has been actively engaged in assisting Jews, to murder the pope and to blame the SS on the grounds that they considered the pope a protector of the Jews. Riccardo’s plan is regarded as completely unacceptable by the Jesuit general. At the end of act 3, the SS and their Italian collaborators arrest the Roman Jews, among them converts to Catholicism who live within earshot of the Vatican. The officer in charge, reminded by Gerstein that Hitler does not want any complications in his relations with the pope, is reluctant to proceed with the deportation of the Jews, but in the absence of any unequivocal statement by the pope he follows orders. Hochhuth uses this scene as an effective demonstration of his insistently promoted thesis: that by speaking out, the pope could indeed have stopped the transport of Jews to Auschwitz and their subsequent deaths.
The fourth act shows a pope who does not seriously entertain the notion of condemning Hitler’s crimes; rather, he thinks and acts like a functionary of the institutional church, whose sphere of influence and material possessions he has to protect against the onslaught of communism. Humanitarian concerns, Hochhuth provocatively asserts, decidedly take second place in the pope’s scheme of things. Thus Riccardo’s mission is bound to fail. The pope’s declaration of compassion for innocent victims regardless of their nationality, religion, or race is formulated in such nonspecific terms that Riccardo perceives it to be an authorization for Hitler to continue his persecution of the Jews unhampered by the Catholic Church. In a gesture of defiance and desperate protest, Riccardo pins the yellow star, which Jews were forced to wear as an identifying mark, to his cassock. In the pope’s stead, Riccardo will act as the true deputy of Christ by sharing the Jews’ suffering.
The figure of Riccardo has thus been designed as the embodiment of pure humanity, the dramaturgical function of which is to call attention to the pope’s failure to follow his calling. The drama that compels the protagonist to accept the consequences of his idealistic humanitarianism, however, does not end with the fourth act. Just as Riccardo is profoundly good, so the nameless Doctor, who has been introduced in the first act, is profoundly evil. The realm of this satanic figure is, appropriately, the inferno of Auschwitz, the setting of the fifth act. Several critics took exception to the figure of the Doctor. They argued that he was less a fully developed character than evil incarnate, a figure of almost mythological dimensions that seemed out of place in a drama professing to hew to documented history. In addition, these critics claimed, the final encounter between the Doctor and Riccardo in the concentration camp seemed to suggest a view of the world that was simplistically divided into good and evil.
The fifth act in particular presents other problems. Hochhuth himself remarked in one of his stage directions—which, in conjunction with the interspersed playwright’s comments, contribute to the play’s unwieldiness—that naturalistic devices were insufficient to depict Auschwitz onstage. Yet Hochhuth does use acoustical and optical means that are clearly derived from the naturalistic-illusionist theater. At the same time, he transcends naturalism by means of introducing such figures as the Doctor, whose sordid love affairs, however, tend to diminish his stature as the embodiment of evil. Neither pure documentary drama in the vein of Peter Weiss’s Die Ermittlung (pr., pb. 1965; The Investigation, 1966) nor unadulterated Brechtian epic theater, The Deputy contains a somewhat bewildering mixture of styles, but its impact—especially in presenting persuasive evidence of the pope’s silence in the face of the Holocaust—is undeniable.
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