Hochhuth Stages a Critique of Pope Pius XII’s Silence During the Holocaust

The premiere of Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy in West Berlin generated a huge controversy over the role of Pope Pius XII and that of the Vatican during the years of the Holocaust.

Summary of Event

The premiere of Rolf Hochhuth’s Der Stellvertreter: Ein Christliches Trauerspiel (The Representative, 1963; also known as The Deputy, 1964) in Berlin on February 20, 1963, generated a considerable uproar and an inordinate amount of controversy, much of it over the portrayal of Pope Pius XII. Subtitled A Christian Tragedy, the play is essentially about individual responsibility and moral choices. In opposition to literary critics or dramatists such as Friedrich Dürrenmatt, who held that in view of the anonymity of the modern industrial age the individual had become irrelevant, Hochhuth firmly believed that every individual, especially a prominent one, had the freedom of choice to make decisions that affected the course of history. Deputy, The (Hochhuth)
Theater;historical drama
Holocaust;Rolf Hochhuth[Hochhuth]
[kw]Hochhuth Stages a Critique of Pope Pius XII’s Silence During the Holocaust (Feb. 20, 1963)
[kw]Critique of Pope Pius XII’s Silence During the Holocaust, Hochhuth Stages a (Feb. 20, 1963)[Critique of Pope Pius 12s Silence During the Holocaust, Hochhuth Stages a]
[kw]Pope Pius XII’s Silence During the Holocaust, Hochhuth Stages a Critique of (Feb. 20, 1963)[Pope Pius 12s Silence During the Holocaust, Hochhuth Stages a Critique of]
[kw]Pius XII’s Silence During the Holocaust, Hochhuth Stages a Critique of Pope (Feb. 20, 1963)[Pius 12s Silence During the Holocaust, Hochhuth Stages a Critique of Pope]
[kw]Holocaust, Hochhuth Stages a Critique of Pope Pius XII’s Silence During the (Feb. 20, 1963)
Deputy, The (Hochhuth)
Theater;historical drama
Holocaust;Rolf Hochhuth[Hochhuth]
[g]Europe;Feb. 20, 1963: Hochhuth Stages a Critique of Pope Pius XII’s Silence During the Holocaust[07540]
[g]Germany;Feb. 20, 1963: Hochhuth Stages a Critique of Pope Pius XII’s Silence During the Holocaust[07540]
[g]West Germany;Feb. 20, 1963: Hochhuth Stages a Critique of Pope Pius XII’s Silence During the Holocaust[07540]
[c]Theater;Feb. 20, 1963: Hochhuth Stages a Critique of Pope Pius XII’s Silence During the Holocaust[07540]
[c]World War II;Feb. 20, 1963: Hochhuth Stages a Critique of Pope Pius XII’s Silence During the Holocaust[07540]
Hochhuth, Rolf
Pius XII
Gerstein, Kurt
Piscator, Erwin
Dürrenmatt, Friedrich

Like German dramatist Friedrich von Schiller, Hochhuth believed that it was the function of the theater to teach a moral lesson, so he sought to provoke and hoped that his play would become a force for change by helping Germans face their Nazi past. Convinced that the issues of the recent past could be presented truthfully in the style of a documentary drama, he used selected historical facts as much as possible to present historical figures. At the same time he also created fictitious characters and events, using his imagination to transform what he considered the raw materials of history into drama.

The origins of The Deputy go back to the late 1950’s, when Hochhuth became interested in the life of Kurt Gerstein, who, although an active member of the Protestant Confessing Church, had joined the Schutzstaffel Schutzstaffel (SS) to learn more about Nazi policies. As head of the Technical Disinfection Department of the SS, Gerstein acquired firsthand knowledge of the extent of the mass exterminations in the Nazi concentration camps in Poland. Hochhuth became particularly intrigued by Gerstein’s desperate efforts to bring his experiences in Poland to the attention of the Allies and to the higher church authorities in Berlin. Eventually, Hochhuth widened his field of inquiry and began to examine the relationship between the Vatican and the Third Reich during the period of the Holocaust. After further historical research he completed the play in 1961.

The central figure of the drama, written in free verse, is the Jesuit priest Riccardo Fontana, a composite character modeled after the Polish Franciscan priest Maximilian Kolbe Kolbe, Maximilian , who was killed at Auschwitz, and after Provost Bernhard Lichtenberg Lichtenberg, Bernhard of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin, who died on his way to a concentration camp. Fontana becomes consumed with the task of informing Pope Pius XII about the Nazi atrocities in Poland, especially after he is informed by Gerstein of the extent of the exterminations during a chance meeting at the Berlin offices of the papal nuncio. Incensed about the pope’s silence on the issue, Fontana manages to confront Pius XII in Rome. Fontana’s efforts to persuade the pope, who is portrayed as cold, evasive, and noncommittal, to speak out publicly and specifically against the extermination of the Jews come to nothing. Although Pius XII does not play a major dramatic role in the play, it is his silence on the question of the Holocaust that remains at the heart of the play. Having failed to convince the pope, Fontana realizes that he can only discharge his moral responsibility through a public act of solidarity with the Jewish victims. He decides to wear the yellow star of David, which the Nazis had made obligatory for all Jews, and joins a group of Roman Jews on their journey to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, where he shares their fate.

The play was first staged in Berlin by Erwin Piscator, a veteran German theatrical director who had long been an advocate of documentary theater. However, the play as performed at Berlin and elsewhere represented only a fraction of the book version of The Deputy, which appeared simultaneously with the premiere. This 350-page play, complete with extensive stage directions, was published along with a lengthy appendix of historical documentation compiled by the author to shore up the principal contentions of the play. Because a performance of the published version of the play would have taken some seven hours, Piscator made substantial cuts, thereby reducing the performance to about three-and-a-half hours. In the process more than half of the play was cut and a number of characters and subplots disappeared. Thus, SS leaders such as Adolf Eichmann, as well as prominent representatives of German industry who are shown to be in league with the Nazi’s economic enterprises in the concentration camps, were missing from Piscator’s version of the play.

Rolf Hochhuth (right) and British writer David Irving in 1966.

Because of all these cuts, the stage play lost much of its breadth and focused largely on the relationship between Fontana and Pius XII. Act 5 of the play, which takes place in Auschwitz, proved to be the most difficult to stage, forcing Piscator and many subsequent directors to make even more drastic cuts. As a result, the allegorical figure of “The Doctor,” an SS physician meant to personify evil, was drastically reduced. For the performance at Basel, Switzerland, Hochhuth even wrote a different ending, in which the story no longer ends in Auschwitz, and in which Fontana is simply handed over to the German secret state police, the Gestapo, in Rome.

Critical reaction to the play, especially its published version, was swift. Although the reactions of German audiences turned out to be relatively mild, the performance in Basel required a sizeable police presence, while in Paris an irate audience physically threatened the actors. The limited discussion of the artistic merits of the play was from the outset overshadowed by a heated debate in the press and in some scholarly circles. Some critics attacked the play as an anti-Catholic polemic and faulted the author with a petit-bourgeois idealism, as well as with improper use of historical evidence. Other commentators praised Hochhuth for his courage to deal with a sensitive and explosive subject.


Hochhuth’s controversial first play quickly became the most successful dramatic work on the post-war German stage and propelled its author into international prominence. His style of documentary theater gave a much needed impetus to the German stage. Within a short time, other documentary plays by authors such as Heinar Kipphardt and Peter Weiss continued to make the German theater into a forum for the discussion of contemporary issues.

Hochhuth’s second, equally lengthy and controversial play Soldaten: Nekrolog auf Genf
Soldiers (Hochhuth) (1967; Soldiers: An Obituary for Geneva, 1968) was again based on selected historical evidence. It focused on British prime minister Winston Churchill’s Churchill, Winston
[p]Churchill, Winston;representation in Soldiers connection with the firebombing of German cities and his alleged complicity in the death of Polish general Władysław Sikorski Sikorski, W{lstrok}adys{lstrok}aw . Once again, Hochhuth stressed the importance of individual decision making and of personal responsibility.

The heated and often acrimonious debate over The Deputy generated some seven thousand written works within a decade. Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, protested the portrayal of Pius XII, while the German foreign minister issued an apology to the Vatican. Although most critics found few if any positive things to say about the artistic merits of the play or its historical accuracy, many credited The Deputy with having provided an important stimulus for Germany’s long overdue self-examination of its Nazi past. Deputy, The (Hochhuth)
Theater;historical drama
Holocaust;Rolf Hochhuth[Hochhuth]

Further Reading

  • Bentley, Eric, ed. The Storm over “The Deputy.” New York: Grove Press, 1964. An indispensable collection of essays and articles by literary critics, historians, and social scientists. Contains an essay by Erwin Piscator and an interview with Rolf Hochhuth.
  • Hochhuth, Rolf.“The Deputy.” Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Grove Press, 1964. Includes a preface by Albert Schweitzer and Hochhuth’s “Sidelights on History.”
  • Rychlak, Ronald J. Hitler, the War, and the Pope. Columbus, Mo.: Genesis Press, 2000. Written by a trial lawyer and law professor. Offers a point-by-point refutation of the various charges leveled against Pius XII.
  • Sanchez, José M. Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2002. Contains a brief examination of the issues raised in The Deputy, and does so within the broader context of the Vatican’s role during the Holocaust.
  • Schumacher, Claude, and Derek Fogg, eds. Hochhuth’s “The Representative” at the Glasgow Citizens’, 1986. Glasgow, Scotland: Theatre Studies Publications, 1988. Contains several seminar lectures given at the Goethe Institute Glasgow in connection with the performance of Hochhuth’s play. Also contains press reviews and photographs of the stage production.
  • Ward, Margaret E. Rolf Hochhuth. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Balanced and lucid discussion of the major aspects of The Deputy and other works by Hochhuth. Well documented with a useful bibliography. Ideally suited for readers new to The Deputy and Soldiers.

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