Other Literary Forms

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Rolf Hochhuth is foremost a dramatist. That he achieved world renown with his first drama, The Deputy—a play that condemns Pope Pius XII for tolerating the extermination of the Jews in Nazi death camps during World War II by not speaking out publicly—tends to overshadow Hochhuth’s admittedly more modest accomplishments in the fields of poetry, fiction, and the essay.

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The moral fervor that is evident in The Deputy and in subsequent plays also infuses his collection of essays Krieg und Klassenkrieg (1971; war and class war). In these essays, Hochhuth drew attention to phenomena that were supposedly no longer existent in the West German welfare state: poverty, lack of housing, job-related accidents, and a high incidence of disease among certain segments of the population. Not surprisingly, politicians and other establishment figures reacted harshly. Despite the employment of Marxist vocabulary in his first major essay collection, Hochhuth is not advocating the radical and sudden upheaval of society in the hope of achieving the ideal state. Rather, he points out the ills of society in copiously documented writings that too often elicit invective instead of factual analysis.

In Tell ’38 (1979; English translation, 1984), his acceptance speech on being awarded the Basel Art Prize in 1976, Hochhuth returned to the Nazi past that he had first explored in The Deputy. In a similar vein, the writer paid tribute to members of the German student resistance movement in Räuber-Rede: Drei deutsche Vorwürfe: Schiller, Lessing, Geschwister Scholl (1982; a lecture on robbers: three German subjects).

The title of Hochhuth’s essay collection Einsprüche! Zur Geschichte, Politik und Literatur (2001; interventions: On history, politics, and literature) indicates both his motivation for writing, that is, to intervene in public affairs as well as the—rather broadly defined—areas he considers his province as a writer. Frequently, Hochhuth focuses on extraordinary historical individuals, for example, in the volume of essays Täter und Denker (1987; doers and thinkers). In Und Brecht sah das Tragische nicht (1996; Brecht did not perceive the tragic), Hochhuth faulted playwright Bertolt Brecht for ignoring the tragic dimension in his dramas. In his lectures on poetics, Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Krieg: Frankfurter Poetik-Vorlesungen (2001; the birth of tragedy out of war), Hochhuth alludes to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and posits in a far-reaching historical survey that drama is the offspring of politics and war.

Hochhuth’s novel Die Berliner Antigone (1963; the Berlin Antigone) presents a Sophoclean heroine who appears in modern guise in Berlin during World War II and accepts the death penalty for burying her brother, who had been executed by the Nazis. His Eine Liebe in Deutschland (1978; A German Love Story, 1980) delves even more deeply into the Nazi past by unearthing a shocking, though not atypical, occurrence: the love story of a German woman and a Polish prisoner of war that ended when the incident was reported to the authorities.

The narrative Alan Turing (1987) features the British mathematician by the same name who, during World War II, was instrumental in breaking the code of the encoding machine used by the German military and thereby contributed significantly to the eventual victory of the allies. In Julia: Oder, Der Weg zur Macht (1994; Julia: or the way to power), Hochhuth deals with another victim of history (and historiography), Julia, daughter of Roman emperor Augustus.

Achievements

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When on February 20, 1963, The Deputy premiered in West Berlin, neither the play’s famed director, Erwin Piscator, nor its then completely unknown author could have anticipated the full extent of the violent, international controversy in which it soon became engulfed. In fact, the critic Eric Bentley claimed in The Storm over “The Deputy” (1964) that the uproar was “almost the largest storm ever raised by a play in the whole history of the drama.”

In this five-act play, Rolf Hochhuth contrasts the fictitious protagonist Riccardo, a young and idealistic Italian Jesuit priest, with Pope Pius XII. After Riccardo has learned in Berlin that the extermination of European Jews is taking place in Auschwitz on a grand scale, he becomes convinced that only an unequivocal appeal by the pope to the Nazi leaders can halt the mass slaughter. When Riccardo confronts the pope and begs him to exercise his moral authority, the latter places political considerations above humanitarian and Christian values. Riccardo then takes it on himself to set an example; he joins the Roman Jews, who have been arrested virtually under the pope’s nose, on their transport to Auschwitz, where he dies a martyr’s death.

Underlying Hochhuth’s condemnation of the pope’s failure to act is a concept of history that endows the individual with a high degree of autonomy and the ability to influence historical processes. The dramaturgy that pits Riccardo against the pope is ultimately derived from Friedrich Schiller’s historical drama of conscience rather than from Bertolt Brecht’s sociologically oriented epic theater; the wealth of documentary material has been fashioned into a drama with a traditional structure, albeit a sprawling one, that relies essentially on elements of the illusionist stage.

In his second drama, Soldiers, Hochhuth tackled another controversial issue harking back to World War II: Winston Churchill’s responsibility for the indiscriminate bombing of German population centers. The furor over Hochhuth’s alleged character assassination of Churchill obscured one of the dramatist’s vital concerns: the adoption of an international agreement that would outlaw the bombing of urban areas predominantly inhabited by civilians. In his subsequent plays, Hochhuth turned to topical, current events with varying degrees of success.

There remains a seeming paradox in the reception of Hochhuth’s plays: Whereas theater critics tend to dwell on the real or imagined flaws of Hochhuth’s works—such as the traditional dramaturgy that derives from an outmoded concept of the individual’s place in the historical process, the portrayal of largely one-dimensional characters, the employment of sensational or melodramatic elements, the excessive documentation—audiences have been quite receptive to Hochhuth’s dramas. Moreover, as the furor over The Deputy amply demonstrates, Hochhuth’s plays have stimulated public debate, resulting in a reexamination of the past in the light of the present and, in some instances, actually influencing current events. Although Hochhuth will be remembered for his role in the development of documentary theater, it is perhaps his uncompromising stance as an outspoken public figure and moralist of radical convictions that ensures the dramatist a place of significance among those writers who emerged in the 1960’s and who have continued to shape the literary scene as well as the theater for four decades or so.

Since 1962, Hochhuth has received a number of literary prizes, among them that dedicated to Hans and Sophie Scholl, members of a Munich student resistance movement against Hitler, who were executed. In 2001, in recognition of his endeavors to creatively preserve and further develop the German language that he sees as threatened by the encroachment of (American) English, he was awarded the newly established prize named after Jacob Grimm, one of the Grimm brothers.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 331

Bentley, Eric, ed. The Storm over “The Deputy.” New York: Grove, 1964. A useful compilation of reviews of the play, editorials, and comments by literary critics and philosophers. Bibliography.

Bosmajian, Hamida. Metaphors of Evil: Contemporary German Literature and the Shadow of Nazism. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1979. The volume includes a valid comparison of The Deputy and Peter Weiss’s Die Ermittlung (pr., pb. 1965; The Investigation, 1966) in terms of coming to grips with Nazism.

Durzak, Manfred. “American Mythologies: Rolf Hochhuth’s Plays Guerillas, Tod eines Jägers, and Judith.” In Amerika! New Images in German Literature, edited by Heinz D. Osterle. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. A cogent discussion of Hochhuth’s three “American” plays that sees them as projections of Hochhuth’s ambivalent attitude toward the United States.

Rennison, Lucinda. “‘Was von Bismarck übrigblieb …’ Rolf Hochhuth and the German Question.” In The New Germany: Literature and Society After Unification, edited by Osman Durrani, Colin Good, and Kevin Hilliard. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995. A detailed examination of Hochhuth’s position with regard to Germany from his emergence as a writer in the 1960’s to the postunification period.

Sanchez, Jose M. “The Search for the Historical Pius.” America 186, no. 5 (February 18, 2002): 8-11. An examination of the controversy surrounding the role of the Catholic Church, particularly Pope Pius XII, during the Holocaust. Mentions The Deputy as one of the earliest sources of the debate.

Schmidt, Dolores B., and Earl R. Schmidt, eds. The Deputy Reader: Studies in Moral Responsibility. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1965. This useful compilation of essays, not all of which address The Deputy, seeks to establish the historical, literary and critical perspectives from which the play may be viewed.

Taëni, Rainer. Rolf Hochhuth. Translated by R. W. Last. London: Wolff, 1977. A succinct survey of Hochhuth’s life, work, and politics that focuses especially on the plays, including Tod eines Jägers.

Ward, Margaret E. Rolf Hochhuth. Boston: Twayne, 1977. A sound, general survey of Hochhuth’s works, including Tod eines Jägers.

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