Rolf Hochhuth

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2772

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.

The Deputy

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.


In Soldiers, which probes the ethics of massive air raids on civilians, Hochhuth employs the device of a play-within-a-play. A former Royal Air Force pilot, Dorland, a modern Everyman burdened with guilt for the destruction of Dresden, rehearses a three-act play in front of Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed by the German Luftwaffe. The central figure of this inner play is Churchill, who rejects the humanitarian arguments of the bishop of Chichester and decides in favor of the indiscriminate bombing of German cities. Although Churchill violates the dictates of morality on at least two counts—by ordering the saturation bombing and by planning the “accidental” death of General Sikorski, premier of the Polish government-in-exile in London—Hochhuth does not unequivocally condemn the British prime minister. Unlike Pius XII in The Deputy, Churchill emerges as a tragic hero who is faced with an insoluble moral dilemma and with whom the reader or spectator can sympathize. Nevertheless, the play aroused controversy, particularly in England, where its production was temporarily prohibited—an event anticipated by Hochhuth in the concluding section of the frame play. Apart from the more intricate structure, it is this portrayal of a complex moral dilemma rather than a clear choice between good and evil that distinguishes Soldiers from The Deputy.


Although Hochhuth was not a partisan of the student protest movement of the late 1960’s, Guerillas may be called a product of the revolutionary unrest that gripped many young people at that time, much of the impetus of which was derived from the Vietnam War. There is, however, a Hochhuthian twist; the revolution depicted in the play is carried out by an individual rather than by the masses. Unlike the coups that lead to military or other dictatorships, the revolution from within the establishment that is being planned by United States Senator Nicolson is intended to achieve social justice and true democracy. Hochhuth’s attempt to anticipate conceivable, if farfetched, historical developments suffers from abstract polemics that tend to accentuate the weaknesses of a plot relying heavily on effects ordinarily to be found in detective and adventure stories.

Die Hebamme

If and Lysistrate und die Nato the hope for a truly democratic society is not met in Guerillas—Nicolson is murdered, but his designated successor will carry on—the female protagonists in the comedies Die Hebamme (the midwife) and Lysistrate und die Nato (Lysistrata and NATO) are successful in achieving their altruistic goals by waging limited war with their respective establishments. Although both women are Hochhuthian heroines in that they essentially act as individuals to effect changes for the better, they employ cunning—a means germane to the genre of comedy. The midwife dupes both the elected officials of a small West German town and the military bureaucracy in order to obtain decent housing for the socially disadvantaged under her care; the modern-day Lysistrata persuades the women of a fictitious Greek island to practice the time-honored antiwar ploy suggested by Aristophanes—that is, the withholding of sexual favors until their husbands agree not to lease their land to the military for the establishment of a United States base.

Tod eines Jägers

In Hochhuth’s second “American” play, Tod eines Jägers (death of a hunter), the main character, Ernest Hemingway, before committing suicide, reflects in an extended monologue on the moral obligations of the privileged individual—including the artist and writer—to fight and speak out against social and political ills. He attributes his inability to continue writing to his failure to have become engaged in socially relevant causes. He thereby serves as an example of Hochhuth’s conviction of the decisive role of the individual in the historical process; in addition, Hemingway appears as a representative of the American dream and its destructive tendencies.


In a slightly different vein, the three-act drama Juristen (jurists), which premiered simultaneously at three West German stages, indicts an entire profession, that is, the military judges who sentenced thousands of German soldiers to death during World War II for often trivial incidents. They were usually able to continue their careers in West Germany without ever having had to justify their verdicts. The accusations against the establishment that turns a blind eye to the crimes of the Nazi era are articulated by a representative of the younger generation. Despite the seriousness of its accusatory stance, the play suffers from the incorporation of a surfeit of contemporaneous issues.


Similarly, in Ärztinnen (female doctors), Hochhuth again takes on errant professionals by exposing the dubious connections between the pharmaceutical industry and those physicians who use their patients as guinea pigs via prescribing insufficiently tested medication. Motivated by righteous indignation, Hochhuth occasionally overshoots the mark by indulging in sensationalism rather than in enlightening the spectators/readers about the genuine social ills he presents on stage.


Both Judith and Unbefleckte Empfängnis (immaculate conception) pertain to the type of Hochhuthian topical play that combines documentary and fictional elements. In the former play, Hochhuth resorted to the Judith in the Old Testament who served as a model for her two successors: a Russian woman who kills a high Nazi functionary during World War II (in the prologue), and a radical American female pacifist who wants to prevent the unfettered proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by assassinating the American president during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Although Hochhuth did not explicitly endorse assassinations as a means to a political end, he wanted to stimulate debate about one of his favorite topics: the moral responsibility of the individual in the face of life-threatening political developments and the potential consequences of such responsibility.

Unbefleckte Empfängnis

The biblical connection in Unbefleckte Empfängnis as suggested by the play’s title and subtitle, Ein Kreidekreis (a chalk circle), is rather tenuous. Nor does the drama bear any resemblance to Brecht’s well-known reinterpretation of the biblical story via a Chinese source, Der kaukasische Kreidekreis (1944-1945; The Caucasian Chalk Circle, 1948). With regard to the chalk circle, the child is not claimed by two “mothers.” Rather, both the surrogate mother, in whose womb a fertilized egg has been implanted and who gives birth to a child, and the natural mother, the donor of the egg, fight against societal prejudice and legal restrictions that prevent childless couples from having children via modern reproductive methods.

Sommer 14: Ein Totentanz

In Sommer 14: Ein Totentanz (summer, 1914: a dance of death), Hochhuth turned to a fateful moment in history, the eve of World War I. In contrast to his usual method of featuring individual protagonists, the playwright introduced the central figures of the European powers, such as the German and Austrian emperors and the king of England, in thirteen scenes. Hochhuth wanted to demonstrate that the outbreak of war was not inevitable but could have been prevented by courageous and enlightened actions on the part of those in power. As it is, only ever-present death, portrayed as an allegorical figure, is the inevitable consequence of misguided calculations and decisions on the part of statesmen and their ilk.

Wessis in Weimar

Wessis in Weimar may be considered Hochhuth’s response to German reunification, a historical event that he views from an unrelentingly bleak perspective by adopting the viewpoint of parts of the East German populace as well as West German leftist intellectuals. The latter blamed the economically straitened circumstances in East Germany on the “takeover” by the Federal Republic rather than on the decade-long mismanagement of the former German Democratic Republic. The dichotomous perception of victims (East Germans) and oppressors/exploiters (West Germans), buttressed by wealth of documentary evidence (in the printed version of the play), brings into sharp focus particularly the economic disparities between the two parts of unified Germany, but it tends to skirt the complexity of issues addressed in favor of a one-side interpretation.

Effis Nacht

Hochhuth’s desire to do justice to maligned or downtrodden figures is also evident in Effis Nacht (Effi’s night). Nineteenth century novelist Theodor Fontane had the aristocratic, adulterous heroine of his novel Effi Briest die at an early age; in contrast—and in accordance with the biography of Effi Briest’s real-life model—Hochhuth showed her as a ninety-year-old woman who, disowned by her family and impoverished, made her living as a nurse. During one night in 1943, she sits by the bedside of a dying soldier, an event that reminds her of the agonizing death of her lover, shot in a duel with her husband, and leads to her general recapitulation of as well as reflection on her life. In her monologue, she is overwhelmed by her individual guilt feelings about the death of her lover but also by the collective guilt about not having resisted Nazism more forcefully. Despite Hochhuth’s emphasis on personal responsibility, history appears to be a force that is impervious to well-intentioned human endeavor.

Mozart’s Nachtmusik

In a further attempt to set the historical record straight, the playwright investigated the circumstances surrounding Mozart’s death in 1791. In Mozart’s Nachtmusik, a play for three actors, he posits that Mozart was poisoned by a minor bureaucrat whose wife had been the composer’s mistress. The lack of compelling dramatic moments detracts from Hochhuth’s dubious hypothesis. Also, in ignoring Mozart’s genius and his creativity, the play appears to deal with a marginal aspect of the composer’s biography.

Hitlers Dr. Faust

Conversely, Hitlers Dr. Faust (Hitler’s Dr. Faustus) addresses a topic of general significance, that is, scientists’ responsibility when faced with the consequences and applications of their research. The rocket engineer Hermann Oberth is Dr. Faustus, who concludes a pact with the devil by putting his research and his practical know-how at Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s disposal. He is supported by his student Wernher von Braun, who, after World War II, was instrumental in developing the rocket program in the United States. Oberth is not depicted in entirely negative terms, however. Although he supports the war efforts of a criminal regime, he has visions of a better future for humankind via scientific discoveries. Hochhuth thus offers a somewhat differentiated portrait that avoids oversimplification.

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Hochhuth, Rolf (Vol. 11)