Watch on the Rhine

by Lillian Hellman

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Critical Evaluation

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When Lillian Hellman began writing Watch on the Rhine in 1939, the United States had not yet entered World War II, although the playwright was among those urging the U.S. government to commit itself to resisting the Nazi drive to conquer Europe and, perhaps, the United States as well. By the time the play was produced, the Soviet Union had renounced its anti-Nazi policies and had formed a pact with Adolf Hitler. Even though Hellman had supported Joseph Stalin’s antifascist line earlier, she refused to endorse the American Communist Party’s allegiance to the Hitler-Stalin pact. Indeed, her play renews her commitment to the antifascist cause.

Hellman’s aim, however, is not merely to expose the work of Nazi agents in the United States, nor is it to celebrate the heroism of antifascists such as Kurt Muller. She wants, rather, to destroy American complacency—the idea that those like Fanny are safe at home. Evil lurks in Fanny’s home precisely because she has provided it with a domicile. Not until Americans like Fanny become aware of America’s role in the world, and realize that the country cannot remain isolationist—and keep itself from evil—will the United States be safe and sound.

In early drafts of the play, Hellman identifies Kurt as a communist, thus honoring her belief that the communists are owed a tribute for their early and stalwart opposition to fascism. However, Kurt’s communist beliefs become a liability as soon as Stalin forms his partnership with Hitler. Gradually, through many drafts, she drops Kurt’s party affiliation, deciding it is more important to make him a universal figure of resistance, a common man called to do extraordinary feats to help restore sanity and order to society.

It had been very important for Hellman to present Kurt as not only a family man but also a vulnerable hero. He detests the need to murder Teck. Such brutality cannot be reconciled with civilized values, and yet the play offers Kurt no other choice. Fanny and David recognize this; that they are willing to become implicated in Kurt’s crime is Hellman’s signal to her American audience that they, too, will have to become involved in evil to expunge it.

Watch on the Rhine is generally considered the best of the anti-Nazi plays of the 1930’s and 1940’s, primarily because Hellman wraps her political message in a character drama that focuses on several positive and likable characters. Hellman has been praised for making her protagonist a German, allowing for Muller to assess the Nazis from the point of view of another German.

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