Watch on the Rhine has as its central theme anti-Fascism, which was one of the fundamental issues of the 1930’s and early 1940’s. Perhaps no group of Americans of the period was more concerned with European political and social events than were members of the artistic community. Lillian Hellman was among those who sought to use her art as a means to alter the attitudes of play-going Americans, many of whom were untouched by the war in Europe. Her purpose, as she described it in her autobiographical work, Pentimento (1973), was “to write a play about nice, liberal Americans whose lives would be shaken up by Europeans, by a world the new Fascists had won because the old values had long been dead.” In her play, the anti-Fascist refugee, Kurt Muller, kills the immoral European aristocrat, Teck de Brancovis, and in so doing helps to awaken the American conscience to the real and present danger of world tyranny.
Beneath the surface, a lesser theme of the play highlights Hellman’s concern with the inequalities of wealth and poverty. She further sees differences between the customs and values of Americans of money and privilege and those of Europeans—on the one hand, there are members of the aristocracy and, on the other, there are the educated Europeans, dedicated to the cause of freedom, regardless of the cost. Fanny Farrelly, whose position of wealth is secure, is surrounded by servants who are among her best friends. The French housekeeper and the black butler are accustomed to her style and are not daunted by her occasional attempted insults. There is humor in their exchanges, and an outsider might even envy their easy relationships. One is certain that the Romanian count, however, would not have been on such familiar terms with servants, had he been in a financial position which allowed him to maintain his own household. He, unlike Fanny, has no sense of humor. Life is a serious and treacherous business for him, because he has no means of his own and finds it expedient to live at the expense of others, using bribery or blackmail if necessary. By contrast, Kurt Muller and his family are poor but dedicated, and they exhibit among them the kind of love and warmth which does not exist between Teck and Marthe de Brancovis and which is not easily shown by Fanny for her family.