Rolf Hochhuth Hochhuth, Rolf (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hochhuth, Rolf 1931–

Hochhuth is a German dramatist and essayist now residing in Switzerland. His first play, The Deputy, was an immediate and controversial success. In this drama Hochhuth posits the complicity of Pope Pius XII in the deaths of European Jews during World War II. This play set the tone for Hochhuth's subsequent dramatic output. Although he has been criticized for the strongly polemical character of his plays, he is generally credited as being the founder of the documentary theater. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Harry T. Moore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The controversy over [The Deputy] rages chiefly around the principal question it asks: Why did God's deputy on earth, Pius XII (Pope from 1934–1958), not speak out in behalf of the Jews during the Hitler terror? (p. 158)

The play is really a projected sermon, written in verse, with a few dramatically exciting scenes and enormous stretches of dialogue. Piscator's introduction to the German text compares The Deputy to Schiller's dramas. But whereas Schiller, like Shakespeare and other earlier writers of historical plays, took liberties with fact, Hochhuth follows the records as closely as possible. In order to encourage belief in his reliability, he appended to the published text a long essay on historical sidelights. (pp. 158-59)

There was little aesthetic controversy among critics, most of whom found The Deputy, particularly in its reduced stage version, not a great play, though often a stimulating one. Perhaps Hochhuth should not have written the concentration-camp scenes, which are both cliché and distraction, and should have intensified the sections providing the reasons for Ricardo's martyrdom. The characters are not profound; they do not measure up to the scope the play attempts. Yet they are not mere mouthpieces either, since some of the scenes have an effective intensity. The ideas predominate, however, and the play seems to be one of the auguries of a new kind of dialectical theater. Ideas have of course often appeared in drama, but rarely has a play, put forth as a play, been so emphatically documentary.

Hochhuth's fellow dramatist Martin Walser paid The Deputy a high compliment when he said it combined the theater of ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre with the epic theater of Bertolt Brecht. Perhaps this praise is too great; but it cannot be denied that The Deputy has provided rare theatrical as well as extra-theatrical excitement. (pp. 159-60)

Harry T. Moore, "The Recent West German Theater," in his Twentieth-Century German Literature (© 1967 by Harry T. Moore), Basic Books, Inc., 1967, pp. 153-62.∗

Peter Demetz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I am unable to separate Rolf Hochhuth from his plays: he is completely one with the fiery rage, the restless drive, and the grand and noble simplicity of his old-fashioned drama that has recently changed the theater, publicly reminded us of our sins of silent complicity with evil, and challenged establishments old and new. (p. 137)

Hochhuth's implacable rage and his restless verse precariously hold together a ragbag of theatrical styles [in The Deputy], including elements of the old morality play, Schiller's (and Racine's) magnificent confrontations of noble antagonists, a good deal of naturalism (the Nazi functionaries in the tavern derive from Carl Zuckmayer's The Devil's General), Shaw's polemical stage directions, and a few stanzas of expressionist poetry…. Willy Haas has suggested that Hochhuth has written a historical play with a theological core, but I suspect that the play is structured the other way around: in his first act and the last act, increasingly dominated by the devilish doctor …, the playwright constructs a metaphysical frame consisting of ontological issues of humanity and history, good and evil. In the center … he creates a historical play which sometimes deteriorates into cheap melodrama and adolescent cops-and-robbers games. Hochhuth rightly argues against Paul Celan's all too beautiful concentration-camp poetry; yet Hochhuth's blonde Helga, against a backdrop of Auschwitz smoke, teasingly puts on panties adorned with SS runes. The trouble is that the diverging tendencies of the morality play and the historical drama coincide with Hochhuth's divergent moral and historical arguments, which tend to counteract rather than to enhance each other. His charge that for moral and religious reasons the Pope should have clearly and vehemently protested against the persecution of the European Jews has not been fully answered even by the most ardent admirers of Pius XII; but his historical argument that such a protest would have been politically effective and would have saved the lives of many people comes close to being a dubious predication in retrospect, for it assumes, among other things, that Hitler's Reich was a monolithic structure with unified and foreseeable responses. It was, on the contrary, a jungle of conflicting warlord interests. (pp. 139-40)

Walter Kaufmann, who admirably defends Hochhuth as a playwright, suggests that "he has tried to write a tragedy" with a "truly tragic" hero, and inevitably concentrates on showing that Riccardo Fontana, confronted with the satanic doctor and the burning corpses, "loses his faith" and implies, in his last words, that he dies a repentant sinner; we are to believe that the ardent young Jesuit abruptly fails in his faith. Yet it is difficult to demonstrate from the text that Riccardo is a hero who fails and that The Deputy is a true tragedy in the traditional sense of the word. Hochhuth tries hard to present Riccardo as a highly sensitive, irascible, and emotional human being …, but Riccardo does not yield to the doctor, who wants to break his faith; to Riccardo, the evidence of absolute evil confirms the necessary existence of God…. We are in the presence of a constant martyr who wants to save the honor of the Church (as he himself says) and gives us little reason to believe that he is a failure or, as other critics assume, that Hochhuth has written a straightforwardly anticlerical play.

In Soldiers Hochhuth takes up a question which emerged briefly in his...

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Rainer TaëNi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Hochhuth's The Representative … was an innovatory piece of dramatic writing, both in its directness and specific political references. (p. 22)

[There] is no mistaking the influence of Hochhuth's first drama on the 'documentary theatre', both in relation to the employment of material drawn from the recent past and also the concern with topical issues….

[But the term 'documentary theatre'] hardly applies to Hochhuth's dramas, a fact which he himself stresses: he regards himself as a writer who accords 'the imagination its rights', even in the historical drama, and this means admitting 'things which the "pure" documentary play would exclude, namely, the invention of characters, transposing historical events from one place to another', and the like. In Hochhuth's estimation, the judicious selective invention of individual characters does not do violence to historical truth. (p. 23)

Similar difficulties and contradictions come to light if one tries to consider Hochhuth's work in the context of Brechtian theatre. There is no disputing the fact that there were very few dramas in the years 1960–1963 which seem more closely linked with the intentions of Brecht than The Representative…. Brecht emphatically insisted that the world could only be shown to contemporary man in terms of 'a world that can be changed'. This potential for change is adapted by Hochhuth just as forcibly into a necessity for change. Yet he himself once stated that he deliberately set out to avoid falling under the influence of Brecht. He gave two reasons for this: first, Brecht the dramatist represented such a high-point in the theatre that to be exposed to his influence would be to be smothered by it; and, secondly, Brecht's theatre was not concrete enough for him…. Hochhuth, of course, deliberately refrains from stylising the action by transposing it to other countries or historical periods. In both time and setting, his plays—in contrast to those of Brecht—are always close to the audience. In depicting historical events, he is simply and solely concerned with what he describes as the 'distillation' of reality, which involves the removal of all those things not directly pertinent to his theme.

But it is in the depiction of the protagonists that Hochhuth's dramas differ most sharply from Brechtian theatre. Their most distinctive quality, which sets them apart from all the prevailing styles and fashions of the time, is the fact that they are composed of two disparate elements: although they are 'epic' in the Brechtian sense, they display very basic 'un-epic' features which in the traditional sense of the term can be called 'dramatic'…. Their epic aspect derives from the fact that they are unmistakably rooted in their own time: they have a close and precise relationship with historical events outside the context of the drama which is unfolding on stage and entirely independent of it.

Nothing would be more alien to Hochhuth than to seek to heighten the dramatic impact of the events he is depicting by resorting to the grotesque, let alone the absurd, which he firmly rejects…. (pp. 23-5)

[In] contrast to the classical 'drama', the present-day stage employs the whole gamut of 'theatrical' techniques—including the grotesque, the absurd, Brechtian songs or circus tricks—in performances whose alienated form corresponds to the alienation of modern man. It is at this particular point, setting aside the way in which a play might be staged, that Hochhuth parts company with these trends in the theatre; and this is where the 'un-epic' aspect of his work is to be found. So on the one hand he holds himself aloof from Brechtian theatre, and on the other from its opposite pole, the Theatre of the Absurd.

It is the picture of humanity presented by Hochhuth which gives his dramas their unique shape. In many respects, it is plain 'old-fashioned'…. Hochhuth insists on restoring the 'dramatic hero' to the stage, however loudly the critics may proclaim from the rooftops that such a thing fails to do any justice to the realities of contemporary life. Hochhuth refutes this charge, on the grounds that he is concerned not with abstract symbolism, but rather with the concrete representation of historical reality.

Hochhuth's insistence on the responsibility of the individual helps to explain why it is that his basic line of approach to dramatic writing is so decisively un-Brechtian, and why it almost deserves to be called 'conservative'. His attitude owes little to current trends and fashions, to which he pays scant regard…. [But controversial] themes, it appears, are less unpardonable than a supreme disregard for every rule and development in the theatre which the theoreticians have only just pronounced to be binding. And it must be a source of even greater annoyance among such folk that, despite all this, Hochhuth has been an unqualified success as far as the public is concerned. Notwithstanding his position as an outsider, he has remained until the present day one of the few truly significant German dramatists of the post-war era. (pp. 25-7)

[In Resignation, or the Story of a Marriage (1959), Hochhuth's earliest publication,] the young Hochhuth was already demonstrating his gift for psychological insight and for the depiction of complex human experiences and relationships. And indeed, he regards most of his figures, including the tragic 'heroes' of the plays, in terms of such relationships, as much victims of social institutions—in the present case, that of marriage—as of their own individual drives. And, for their part, the social institutions are just as much eroded by the psychological inadequacies of the individual as they in turn contribute to this sufferings. Above all, they ensure that the individual is continually being exposed to new situations of stress and painful experiences. For this reason, as we have known since Freud, the individual finds himself under constant pressure to suppress and sublimate his emotions. This prevents him from being his true self, and frequently from acting in a 'human' fashion. As a consequence of such conflict situations which can neither be acted out nor controlled in a socially acceptable manner, the individual tends to be aggressive, obdurate and unfeeling. Hochhuth himself appears very much inclined to regard such phenomena as an unalterable part of human nature. Statements he makes in his theoretical writings tend to confirm this supposition; but his creative works, like this first short story, make it clear that such emotional rigidity or misdirected passion are, in the last analysis, no more than reactions to an inability to come to terms with certain fundamental aspects of the human condition, and the institutions of society only serve to make matters worse. (pp. 47-8)

Even in this early story, we can see the awareness of history so characteristic of Hochhuth. At the end of the day, our realisation of the limited historical span of human life lends a certain depth and significance to the most intense of human experiences, and especially love. (pp. 48-9)

The motif of love as the most precious and meaningful thing left to man in the face of the constant threat of dehumanisation or destruction recurs time and again in Hochhuth's work….

In the last analysis, life emerges as a more powerful force than any code of morality or a calculating search for order. (p. 49)

It is [the] close interrelationship between present anxieties and the experiences of extreme situations in a wartime past which gives [Resignation] its attraction. The narrative technique fits the story line like a glove: the style of the diary entries is, by and large, that of a very precise, respectable and incorruptibly honourable woman going in search of self-awareness and drawing up some kind of account of herself…. [We] find terse, graphic descriptions of the present situation, of thoughts, conversations with Hilmes, and the like. But when it comes to recording the memories of her youthful love affair, the style changes: there are frequent long sequences of fleeting impressions jostling one another, reflecting the breathlessness, the confused emotion and the overwhelming force of her situation at that time…. [It is in these passages] that Hochhuth demonstrates his gift for psychological observation; but they also reveal his sense of the tragic nature of life, the inevitable fact of approaching old age, the increasing burden of guilt, and the finality of death.

This tragic awareness of human life comes across even more forcibly in his second published work, the story The Berlin Antigone [1961]…. The very title contains a reference to Greek tragedy; and, just as in Sophocles' Antigone, the central figure is a young woman who scorns the power of the state and its threat to her life by burying her executed brother. (pp. 50-1)

[The] situation of an un-heroic heroine and her fateful implication in the consequences of her own actions anticipates a key theme of Hochhuth's 'tragedies'. But here too we see for the first time the 'little people', the normal folk 'like you and me', who in those days collaborated and took upon themselves a measure of guilt. This does not mean that they were evil, there were simply no other options open to them, because if they opposed the state it would be impossible for them to maintain the image of themselves which they had employed all their...

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Ulf Zimmermann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A better title [for Eine Liebe in Deutschland] might be "A Hochhuth Hotchpotch." For most of the volume is stuffed with a mélange of quotations, anecdotes, documents and thoughts issuing from Hochhuth's reading, research and reflection on Germany past and present, while "Eine Liebe in Deutschland," the account of a former Polish POW doing forced labor in a German village and of a German woman with a husband off in the army, takes up far less than half of it. (p. 96)

Bringing to light the facts of [a] 1941 case—of the two lovers and the citizenry involved in their denunciation and punishment (all of whom possible he interviewed)—more than suffices to justify Hochhuth's documentary zeal and to do him credit as a writer. It therefore seems all the more to mar this sobering story, so telling in itself, that he feels compelled to offer a fictional re-creation of the lovers' inner lives, their thoughts and feelings and of their sexual activities.

While this may be meant to give the book a more literary character,… one could wish he had been satisfied with the proven political efficacy of its facts. (pp. 96-7)

Ulf Zimmermann, "German: 'Eine Liebe in Deutschland'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1980 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 54, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp. 96-7.

John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A German Love Story is subtitled 'a documentary novel'. In fact, it is neither fish, fowl nor good Bismarckherring. It purports to tell the sad story of Pauline, the German hausfrau whose husband is away at the war, and her lover, Stani, the Polish prisoner billeted next door. The narrative is clogged with long-winded speculations, rhetorical questions and banal comments…. (p. 482)

Indeed, the love story is abandoned for long stretches while the author indulges himself in essays on the self-deception of the Nazi leaders, on the Poles' contribution to the grand alliance, and on the startling discovery that 'reason goes by the board when emotion gets the upper hand'. The final insult to the lives of Pauline and Stani is the author's obvious satisfaction with his researches to the neglect of the story he had been investigating. (p. 483)

John Mellors, "Dreadful Things" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1980; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), in The Listener, Vol. 103, No. 2657, April 10, 1980, pp. 482-83.∗

Neal Ascherson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'How could they have?' is still the question about Nazi Germany. This is the question Hochhuth now attempts to answer [in A German Love Story], not as it relates to the crimes of the regime as a collective but in terms of small, ordinary people….

Hochhuth's fictional reconstruction is tender and convincing. Zasada, perhaps, doesn't come to life before his death: he remains an innocent, shadowy victim. But the little men and women who obeyed orders are pinned down….

But between the chapters of fictional narrative, Hochhuth sandwiches long discussions of the Nazi State, its leaders, the Battle of Britain, Churchill's genius, the conduct of the war by the commanders on either side. This is the aggressive Hochhuth of 'The Representative' and 'The Soldiers,' flourishing historical documents and daring scholars to challenge his conclusions.

Sometimes it works: the alternation of the love story of Pauline and Stasiek with the frightful pile of directives from the SS and Gestapo defining their 'crime' in every detail and prescribing every question to be filled in during the investigation—that is a brilliant way of showing what care the human race can take to defile itself. Sometimes, as in his adulation of Churchill's infinite foresight and cunning, he both exaggerates and rambles far from his theme. But one of these digressions—about the significance of the Ultra codebreaking—becomes a magnificent appeal for historical justice for Zasada's own people: the Poles who suffered most, whose role in the war in the West is always underplayed….

Perhaps Hochhuth sees Poland as a single Zasada; a human creature doomed to be obliterated physically or academically by indifferent bureaucracies…. Odd that the name Zasada means 'principle' in Polish … or perhaps that is exactly what Hochhuth meant.

Neal Ascherson, "How Could They Have?" in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9842, April 13, 1980, p. 38.

Paul Binding

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hochhuth is concerned that we should see in the events he brings to life [in A German Love Story] a paradigm of the helplessness of individuals in the face of society and its political developments. 'We live in sick times', his heroine tells herself uncomprehendingly, 'without reflecting that time exists solely on the face of the clock whereas "the times" are people or what they think or do.'

True, but that reflection really gets us nowhere nearer an understanding of the things that were thought and done in Nazi Germany. The story that Hochhuth investigated is at once particularly horrifying and typical enough to stand as representative of the sickness of the Third Reich…. The account of Pauline and Stasiek's fate is interspersed with extended reflections by Hochhuth himself on Nazi Germany. These, one cannot but feel, should not have been necessary to him. As it is, they interrupt to its detriment the narrative flow, blocking our emotional involvement with the people; moreover they often seem to bring no real illumination of a drama that surely in itself provides sufficient proof of Germany's spiritual illness. Hochhuth, intent on fairness, attempts to redress various balances of his earlier work—thus he shows us how devout country Catholics, including priests, often were the most morally outraged members of the community—and he pays a rather rambling and, in the context of the novel, inorganic tribute to Churchill. Really the most interesting parts of A German Love Story are the extensive quotations from Party memoranda. (pp. 629-30)

Industry and loftiness of purpose are not sufficient qualities in a novelist, however [, and A German Love Story is an emotional failure]. (p. 630)

Paul Binding, "Desperate Situations," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 99, No. 2562, April 25, 1980, pp. 629-30.∗

Geoff Butler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Hochhuth's A German Love Story] is as characteristic of his thematic range, and as well larded with moral-cum-political observations as any [work] he has ever told or dramatized….

Hochhuth's main concern is not the complicity of particular individuals in a particular act of savagery, but "the spirit of the age" in which such acts became almost commonplace….

Hochhuth's "novel" is well worth reading, a further monument to his priorities, both personal and prefessional. At the top, for all to see, is his rejection of Goethe's maxim "that injustice was easier to tolerate than disorder".

Geoff Butler, "In an Ugly Time," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4023, May 2, 1980, p. 510.