Play Accuses Pope Pius XII of Complicity in the Holocaust Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

At the height of the Cold War, Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy accused Catholic pope Pius XII of complicity in Nazi Germany’s extermination of Jews during World War II. The play’s thesis was widely accepted and resulted in the publication of numerous anti-Catholic polemics. The validity of Hochhuth’s claims was undermined by the release of numerous Vatican documents and the revelation of the play’s links to a Soviet disinformation campaign against the Catholic Church.

Summary of Event

German playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy: A Christian Tragedy debuted in Berlin on February 23, 1963. The five-hour play, originally written and published as Der Stellvertreter: Ein Christliches Trauerspiel (1963), was staged in English in Great Britain at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre later that year. It was staged (in an abridged form) on Broadway theater Broadway in New York in 1964. The Deputy accused Roman Catholic pope Pius XII of acquiescing to Nazi Germany’s murder of Europe’s Jews during World War II to protect the Catholic Church’s financial interests. [kw]Pius XII of Complicity in the Holocaust, Play Accuses Pope (Feb. 23, 1963) [kw]Holocaust, Play Accuses Pope Pius XII of Complicity in the (Feb. 23, 1963) Deputy, The (play) Hochhuth, Rolf Pius XII Holocaust;and Pius XII[Pius12] Roman Catholic Church;and Holocaust[Holocaust] World War II[World War 02];and Pius XII[Pius XII] Vatican City Deputy, The (play) Hochhuth, Rolf Pius XII Holocaust;and Pius XII[Pius12] Roman Catholic Church;and Holocaust[Holocaust] World War II[World War 02];and Pius XII[Pius XII] Vatican City [g]Europe;Feb. 23, 1963: Play Accuses Pope Pius XII of Complicity in the Holocaust[01160] [g]Germany;Feb. 23, 1963: Play Accuses Pope Pius XII of Complicity in the Holocaust[01160] [g]Vatican City;Feb. 23, 1963: Play Accuses Pope Pius XII of Complicity in the Holocaust[01160] [c]Performing arts;Feb. 23, 1963: Play Accuses Pope Pius XII of Complicity in the Holocaust[01160] [c]Publishing and journalism;Feb. 23, 1963: Play Accuses Pope Pius XII of Complicity in the Holocaust[01160] [c]Religion;Feb. 23, 1963: Play Accuses Pope Pius XII of Complicity in the Holocaust[01160]

Although a work of fiction, the play’s thesis is that the pope, the central figure of Western Christian civilization, kept silent about one of human history’s greatest crimes—the Holocaust. Hochhuth attributes such indifference to the pope’s cold personality, German sympathies, and fears about the future of the Church. The play’s thesis was accepted by most left-leaning intellectuals and artists in Europe and the United States, many of whom condemned the Church for other reasons as well. Indeed, many of the play’s supporters were themselves liberal Catholics or former Catholics.

The play inspired a debate among historians regarding the role of the Vatican during the Holocaust and World War II. A variety of historians point out that Pius XII personally intervened to save Jews in Italy, hid Jews in the Vatican itself, directed others to aid Jews, was perceived by Nazi leaders as pro-Jewish, and was widely praised by Jews in the years immediately after the war for his assistance.

Even more damaging to the reputation of Hochhuth’s play was the revelation by a former Romanian communist spymaster, Pacepa, Ion Mihai Ion Mihai Pacepa, of the play’s close links to a Soviet Union;and the Vatican[Vatican] Soviet disinformation campaign against the Vatican. The campaign was designed to undercut the Church’s moral standing in Western Europe and the United States in the context of Cold War propaganda. Following the failed effort to frame Hungary’s cardinal and the fiasco surrounding the arrest of Poland’s cardinal, the Catholic Church had enjoyed significant public sympathy as a victim of communist persecution. In 1960, the KGB KGB began a major effort to create propaganda in the West portraying Catholics in general and Pius XII in particular as Nazi sympathizers who had remained silent in the face of the Holocaust or even aided the Nazi regime. The effort to write and promote The Deputy was part of a much larger effort, but was overseen at a high level by the KGB and Eastern bloc intelligence agencies.

Prior to the play’s debut, Hochhuth was virtually unknown as a literary figure. He claimed to have taken a leave of absence from his job, traveled to Rome, interviewed bishops, and viewed otherwise secret Vatican archives to which no other scholar or member of the public had had access. Instead, it is likely that Hochhuth was given the general outline of the play and routine documents stolen from Vatican archives by Romanian agents at the behest of the KGB KGB that had little incriminating value but which might seem suggestive to average readers. The play was brought to the Berlin stage by director Erwin Piscator, a long-time communist who had spent the war years in the Soviet Union before emigrating to the United States under mysterious circumstances.

The most popular work supporting Hochhuth’s thesis about Pius XII was John Cornwell’s 1999 book Hitler’s Pope. Cornwell and others critical of the Catholic Church adopted approaches and language directly from Hochhuth’s play. At the heart of their case were two main items: the Concordat signed between Germany and the Vatican while Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, was papal nuncio in Germany, and the history of anti-Jewish polemics by various Christian leaders over the centuries.

Although widely acclaimed by Pius XII’s detractors, Cornwell’s book was attacked in numerous scholarly reviews for false and misleading claims, inaccurate use of primary documents, selective reading of secondary literature, and misquoting of both living and deceased witnesses. Reviewers also pointed out that Cornwell’s claims of using previously unknown documents were false, as all the documents he cited were previously published and known to scholars.

Impact

Despite its fundamentally unscholarly character, The Deputy significantly shaped both scholarly and popular perceptions of the Catholic Church’s role during World War II. The play has done so for Catholics as well as non-Catholics. To this day, the general public perception is that Pius XII either remained silent or aided the Nazis, conclusions strongly at variance with the historical record. Many scholars, particularly those unversed in the actual Vatican documents, have accepted this view at face value, supported by a few works such Cornwell’s heavily criticized book, Hitler’s Pope. Indeed, as Rabbi David Dalin points out in his book The Myth of Hitler’s Pope (2005), the continuing salience of the issue has much to do with the rancor felt by many former Catholics, such as Cornwell, toward the allegedly conservative papacy of John Paul II (1978-2005) and its unwillingness to loosen Church teaching on priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, abortion, and other issues in the manner they would have liked.

At the same time, scandal created by Hochhuth’s play resulted in a massive publishing effort and forced the Vatican to release large quantities of documents that would have otherwise remained secret for many years. As a result, the papacy of Pius XII is one of the best documented of modern times.

Finally, the popularity of the play made Hochhuth something of a celebrity. Although his later plays, including one based on the work of Holocaust revisionist David Irving, have had far less acclaim, The Deputy has been published in some twenty languages and remains one of the best known German plays of the postwar era. Vatican City Deputy, The (play) Hochhuth, Rolf Pius XII Holocaust;and Pius XII[Pius12] Roman Catholic Church;and Holocaust[Holocaust] World War II[World War 02];and Pius XII[Pius XII]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cornwell, John. Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. New York: Viking Press, 1999. The controversial, much-debated, book largely based on Hochhuth’s The Deputy. Cornwell supports the play’s thesis that Pius XII did little, if anything, to stop the Holocaust.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dalin, David G. The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2005. Counters the claim that Pius XII neglected the Jews during World War II, with meticulous details from countless documents. Argues that Pius’s detractors were simply anti-Catholic radicals. Includes the chapters “Popes in Defense of the Jews” and “Righteous Gentile: Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pacepa, Ion Mihai. “Moscow’s Assault on the Vatican: The KGB Made Corrupting the Church a Priority.” National Review, January 25, 2007. Discusses the play’s close links to a Soviet disinformation campaign against the Vatican. This campaign was designed to undercut the Church’s moral standing with the West during the Cold War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubenstein, William J. “Hitler’s Pope.” First Things, January, 2000. An article that explores the controversy over the play and its continuing relevance. First Things is a nonpartisan ecumenical magazine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rychlak, Ronald J. Hitler, the War, and the Pope. Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2000. The author, a professor of law, examines the controversy from many perspectives to refute the claims made against Pius XII and the role of the Church in World War II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stein, Leon. “The Deputy.” In Holocaust Literature, vol. 1, edited by John K. Roth. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2008. An extensive review and analysis of The Deputy and its place in the context of literature on the Holocaust. Part of a two-volume set in the Magill’s Choice series.

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Categories: History