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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2365

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The Deputy begins in August, 1942, at the papal legation in Berlin. Riccardo Fontana, an idealistic Jesuit priest, pleads with the papal representative (the nuncio) of Germany to ask the pope to condemn publicly the Nazi extermination of the Jews of Europe. Kurt Gerstein, a German who joined the Schutzstaffel (SS) to gather information on the killings, and who has witnessed gassings of Jews in the Belec extermination camp, presents his graphic eyewitness account of the gassings and cremations to the nuncio. This confirms Fontana’s worst fears.

The nuncio tells Gerstein that he is not authorized to deal with German officers and directs him to leave. Father Riccardo, however, continues to listen with horror to Gerstein’s account. Gerstein says that at the Belec camp he saw 750 people crammed into each of four gas chambers, 3,000 people who were gassed in twenty-five minutes. Like Fontana, Gerstein has visited the nuncio to urge him to tell the pope to speak out against the mass murders in his capacity as Christ’s deputy on earth.

The action shifts to Berlin, where Adolf Eichmann, the bureaucrat in charge of the deportations to the extermination camps, is relaxing, socializing, and casually discussing the extermination of the Jews with top industrialists and government officials. Also present is the cynical Doctor, who is in charge of selections for the gas chambers and medical experiments at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Pleased that most Europeans are indifferent to the exterminations, they express their concerns about possible negative reactions from the pope. The Nazi view that the extermination of the Jews is an idealistic and scientific necessity is expounded upon.

The final scene of the first act is set in Gerstein’s Berlin apartment, where he has hidden a Jew named Jacobson. Gerstein and Riccardo will help the Jew escape by providing him with a false passport. The camp Doctor later enters Gerstein’s apartment and expresses his cynical pride that one can exterminate Jews and still be accepted as a Christian. He is intent on challenging all categories of meaning by exterminating innocent people day after day without limit. The scene ends when Father Riccardo tells Gerstein that he will do everything in his power as a true Christian to beg the pope personally to speak out on behalf of Jews, who are being murdered all over Europe.

Act 2 reveals the spectrum of the reaction of Roman Catholic officialdom to the Holocaust. Riccardo tells his own father (who is a trusted counsel to the Holy See) about the extermination of the Jews. The elder Fontana first is incredulous, then tells his son that it would be impolite for the pope to speak out against Germany, for this would violate his policy of neutrality. Riccardo replies that the Deputy of Christ would be derelict in his duty not to take a moral stand before all Christian humanity. The father retorts that his son must be obedient to the Vatican and must respect the interests of the Church. An important cardinal then enters and reminds Riccardo that Nazi Germany is a bulwark against the anti-Christian threat of Soviet Russia. He reproaches Riccardo for his unrealistic idealism, while further suggesting that the Jews have brought their grim fate on themselves.

Act 3 deals with the brutal seizure of the baptized Jews of Rome by the SS. When Father Riccardo expresses his outrage that the Jews are being seized under the very windows of the Vatican, the cardinal replies that the churches and monasteries around Rome have hidden large numbers of Jews. Riccardo holds to his belief that only a public statement from the pope can present a chance of saving the rest of Europe’s Jews from the gas chambers—that only the Deputy of Christ can face down Adolf Hitler, the anti-Christ. The act ends at the headquarters of the Gestapo in Rome. SS officers reveal their sadistic brutality as they round up the Jews of Rome; they also demonstrate their contempt for Christianity.

Suspense builds as the pope finally makes his appearance in a meeting with Father Riccardo. The fourth act is the shortest of the five, for Riccardo’s confrontation with the pope is intense and to the point. The pope is a cold, remote, formal, diplomatic, politically cautious, and calculating figure. He is neutral at best, favorable to Germany at worst, and completely unwilling to take the moral public stand that Fontana urges him to take. In a final gesture of extreme protest, Father Riccardo pins the Jewish Star of David to his cassock in the name of brotherly love and in solidarity with Christ’s blood relatives. The pope is outraged by this gesture.

Act 5 is set in Auschwitz. True to his beliefs, Father Riccardo has chosen to accompany the Jewish victims in a railroad cattle car to Auschwitz. He meets the Doctor, who calls himself the “lord of life and death.” The Doctor expresses extreme satisfaction in conducting “the boldest experiment that mankind has ever seen.” He proclaims that “Auschwitz refutes creator, creation, and the creature” and declares that many of the leaders of the SS came from good Catholic backgrounds. Riccardo is put to work in the crematoria but does not relinquish his Christian faith. When he witnesses the Doctor sadistically driving a woman prisoner mad, Riccardo acts. In a last desperate gesture in which he affirms his faith in man and God, Riccardo tries to shoot the Doctor but is himself mortally wounded by a guard. The play ends as a German document about the pope’s failure to act is read by an unemotional announcer. The spectator is left with a feeling of utter futility as the announcer concludes that the gas chambers continued to do their work until the end of 1944, when the Russians liberated the prisoners of Auschwitz.

The published text of the play includes a sixty-five page appendix titled “Sidelights on History” in which Hochhuth seeks to document the events dramatized. Hochhuth researched his topic for three years, and he provides a lengthy account of the policies of the Vatican during the Holocaust. He acknowledges that some characters, such as Father Riccardo, are fictional and that he conceived some scenes (such as Riccardo’s confrontation with the pope) for dramatic effect. The main historical figures are real: Gerstein, the Doctor (modeled on the infamous Josef Mengele), and the pope were vital actors on the stage of history.

The Deputy is primarily a play about the failure of Western Christian civilization, centered in the person of the pope, to act against one of the greatest crimes in history—the Nazi extermination of six million innocent Jews for the crime of having been born. It is a drama about indifference and inaction, commitment and despair. During the Holocaust, Christians were perpetrators, bystanders, and victims. The Deputy is a Christian tragedy: Father Riccardo becomes the tragic hero by taking on the burden that should have belonged to the pope. In doing so, he is forced to be insubordinate to the pope and eventually to try to murder the viciously evil Doctor.

The Deputy is also a drama about the nature of evil and the choices that people must make in response to it. The SS officials and the Doctor have chosen to participate—to humiliate and to kill—while Father Riccardo and Kurt Gerstein choose to tell the civilized world about this evil. They strive to galvanize the pope into action and in the end give their lives for their Christian beliefs. According to Hochhuth, Pope Pius XII is particularly culpable, for he has chosen not to make a choice. He has therefore abdicated his role as the Deputy of Christ, which is to be a witness and sufferer for humanity and the truth. The play is also a reenactment of an extremely painful episode in modern history; its almost unbearable descriptions of life and death in the camps and its heartbreaking depictions of the suffering of innocent, abandoned people were intended to stir the conscience of the world.

The Deputy tries to answer the questions of why the pope kept silent, whether he should have kept silent, and what the consequences of his behavior were. Hochhuth attributes the pope’s silence to his timid, cold personality, his sympathy for Germany, his fear of a schism in the Church, and above all his belief that the political, diplomatic, and financial interests of the Church had to be preserved at all costs. Some critics of the play, such as the future Pope Paul VI, believed the play to be an unfair attack on the pope. They argued that many church officials all over Europe tried to help Jews, while the pope himself approved of the hiding of Italian Jews and suffered great anguish over his inability to do more. Defenders of the play responded that the pope refused to recognize that the Nazis were really pagan apostates from Christianity. They pointed out that the pope did condemn the German invasion of neutral Belgium and Holland and condemned the Soviet aggression against Finland, while failing to take a public stand on an extermination campaign against innocent, helpless people. In addition, the pope failed to excommunicate top Nazis who were baptized Catholics and who never formally left the Church, such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and Heinrich Himmler.

The last act deals not with the pope but with what the play calls the silence of God in Auschwitz. The play suggests that the answer to the meaningless universe of negation embodied in Auschwitz must come from humankind. In its view, Christianity failed in the person and institution of the papacy. Christian teachings must be lived and acted upon (as Riccardo and Gerstein act upon them) in order to be authentic.

The richness of dramatic devices, extreme length, overwhelming subject, and unusual appendix make this play difficult to categorize. It is a Christian tragedy, a drama of soaring heroism in the manner of Friedrich Schiller, an existentialist work on the struggle for meaning and human choices, and a historical docudrama with real characters. It is a polemic, a modern morality play, and a warning to the future. More than a play, it is a challenging book, a news story, a factual statement, and a philosophical tract. The original version of the play takes from six to eight hours to perform. Many shortened (three-hour) versions of The Deputy have been staged in Europe and the United States. All have failed to capture the complete texture of the original, for any serious cuts eliminate crucial episodes and therefore distort and trivialize the full meaning of the play.

In The Deputy, Hochhuth uses a wide variety of literary as well as dramatic devices. Each act is preceded by a few epigraphs and by a lengthy preface detailing its historical significance. In his preface to scene 2 of act 5, Hochhuth writes: “What took place in the interior of this underworld at the crematorium itself, exceeds imagination. There is no way of conveying it.” Hochhuth was aware of the fact that the historical reality of the Holocaust threatens to exceed the imagination of the artist. However, he believed that it had to be dramatized to shock the spectator into an indignation that would lead to moral action.

The play is replete with irony. The pope is portrayed as a man who is shocked by the tactlessness of the Germans in carrying off the Jews of Rome within view of his windows, when he should be indignant about the murder of innocent people. He is also depicted as a man immersed in the trivia of religious observance instead of his moral duties as Christ’s deputy. The supreme irony is that the evil Doctor, who mocks God and man, seems to triumph because the pope has not spoken out against him and the genocide he represents. Written in free verse, the play contains vivid narratives of historical events, stirring dialogues, pithy aphorisms, and dramatic irony. It forces the spectator to confront an unbearable but crucial episode in history.

Because of the great length of the play and the importance of the events with which it deals, it should be performed in its original version or not at all. Further, because of its lengthy appendix, it should be read and studied as well as performed. This drama thus imposes unique demands on performers, readers, and spectators. It is history as drama, a drama that calls for a scale as vast as its challenging subject.

The Deputy has been characterized as one of the most controversial plays of its time, perhaps of its century. When it premiered, it inspired a wealth of reactions—some negative, many favorable. It touched off demonstrations and angry debate, with responses to the play—in the form of reviews, essays, letters, and news reports—numbering in the thousands. The Deputy was written at a time when the Holocaust was being confronted by the West. The way had been prepared by the publication of Anne Frank’s Het Achterhuis (1947; The Diary of a Young Girl, 1952) and the dramatization of that work as The Diary of Anne Frank, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (pr. 1955), the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 and 1962, and films and novels that had begun to deal with the Holocaust. Together with these developments, The Deputy was instrumental in forcing a wider awareness of the Holocaust. By dramatically centering his drama on the person and institution of the papacy, Hochhuth was able to provoke a controversy and awareness that a generalized criticism of Western civilization could never have accomplished.

Despite its flaws, The Deputy was a courageous and timely dramatization of a period of history that graphically demonstrated the expanding possibilities of evil and reiterated the necessity of facing and fighting that evil. The drama is ultimately a warning of what can happen when leaders and role models fail to act against inhumanity. It also, however, presents an inspiring example of those few ordinary yet heroic people who made the choice to confront overpowering forces. As Albert Schweitzer notes in his preface to the published edition of the play, The Deputy is a warning regarding the inhumanity that exists in the modern era.