Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704
Rolf Hochhuth was born on April 1, 1931, the offspring of a family that had established ancient roots in Eschwege, a small town in Hesse that was, before reunification of the two postwar German states in 1990, situated in close proximity to the border separating the Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic. In 1948, Hochhuth—who, because of his youth, had missed military service in World War II—left secondary school to become a bookseller’s apprentice, a vocation in which he could indulge his appetite for reading and writing. The novelist Thomas Mann, whom in 1975 Hochhuth vehemently defended against attempts to minimize Mann’s political commitment during the latter’s exile in the United States, became his favorite author.
From 1950 to 1955, Hochhuth worked as a bookstore employee in several West German cities and audited classes at the universities of Munich and Heidelberg. In 1955, he became an editor for the Bertelsmann book club; he edited the German classics as well as modern writers, among them the nineteenth century humorist Wilhelm Busch, an edition of whose works sold a million copies within a few weeks. In his editing activities, Hochhuth often collaborated with Marianne Heinemann, a friend from Eschwege, whom he married in 1957 and from whom he was divorced in 1972. Hochhuth was married again—to Dana Pavic, a Yugoslavian medical student—in 1975.
In 1959, Hochhuth spent a sabbatical in Rome, where he engaged in archival research at the Vatican. The Deputy, the play that resulted from these studies, was accepted by a publisher in 1961; however, fearing an adverse reaction from the Catholic Church, the publisher reneged on the contract. Another publisher was willing to assume the risk of publication; in addition, one of the pioneers of the political theater of the 1920’s, Erwin Piscator, agreed to produce the play.
The royalties from The Deputy afforded Hochhuth the means to establish himself as a freelance writer in Basel, Switzerland, subsequently his principal place of residence. The uproar that followed The Deputy set the tone for the reception of Hochhuth’s later works as well; the writer’s vilification by the chancellor of the Federal Republic in 1965 was followed by numerous lawsuits that were brought against him—particularly in England—as a consequence of the publication and production of Soldiers, Hochhuth’s play about Churchill, in 1967. A German Love Story not only stirred up violent emotions but also achieved direct results in the political sphere by forcing a prominent politician with a Nazi past to withdraw from office. Hence the comparative uneventfulness of Hochhuth’s life assumes a different dimension when one takes into account the reactions to his works—which, by virtue of their author’s propensity for both controversial and topical issues, agitate public opinion beyond the confines of the theater and the literary scene.
Another major theater scandal erupted when Hochhuth’s play Wessis in Weimar: Szenen aus einem besetzten Land (1993; West Germans in Weimar: Scenes from an occupied country) was produced at the Berliner Ensemble, the (East) Berlin theater company that had served as a cultural beacon under the direction of Brecht—from 1949/1950 until his death in 1956—and his successors. Critics attacked the play’s tendentiousness because of its one-sided indictment of the practices of the Treuhand, a trust that had been set up to administer and dispose of the industrial plants that were formerly owned by the defunct East German state. However, Hochhuth protested what he considered the mutilation of his play by the director. To become independent from the assumed arbitrariness of directors, he sought to establish a theater in which dramatists were in control of most matters, including the staging of plays. Although his plans ultimately did not materialize, he achieved a success of sorts. In 1996, a foundation that he had created assumed ownership of the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, home of the Berliner Ensemble. Although the theater was leased to the city of Berlin, Hochhuth was guaranteed the right to produce his own plays. In view of the increased significance that the capital of the “Berlin Republic” is likely to assume in both the political and cultural realms, Hochhuth’s tenacity and perseverance have resulted in his obtaining a prestigious venue for the production of his plays in one of Germany’s premiere theaters.