The Deputy (Der Stellvertreter: Ein Christliches Trauerspiel)

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THE DEPUTY (Der Stellvertreter: Ein christliches Trauerspiel)

Play by Rolf Hochhuth, 1963

From its first performance in 1963, Hochhuth's Der Stellvertreter: Ein christliches Trauerspiel (The Deputy, translated as The Representative in Britain) quickly became the focus of heated debate across the West over papal policy during the Holocaust. While Hochhuth's polemic against Pope Pius XII is unmistakable, The Deputy remains one of the most useful treatments of the context of the pope's decision not to break his Concordat with the Nazis. Dismissed by many critics for its leftist and anti-Catholic polemic, The Deputy has nevertheless won plaudits for its sustained liberal focus on the ability of bystanders and perpetrators to choose their response to the development of the Nazis' Final Solution. Hochhuth's documentary approach to the history of the Holocaust sits uneasily with his more philosophical objectives: The Deputy is also a rewriting of the Christian drama in the light of the challenges to faith presented by the Holocaust. All characters are abstracted into stereotypes to fit this dramatic schema, and not even the victims escape the distorted lens through which Hochhuth's philosophical insights unfold.

The Deputy is structured so as to contrast the Vatican's measured criticisms of Nazi policy toward the Jews with the heroism of individual Christian opponents of the Nazis. The two heroes of the play, SS-Obersturmbannführer Gerstein and Riccardo Fontana, find that, like Christ, they have no option if they wish to remain truly Christian but to break with their churches and to sacrifice their lives for and with the Jews, the first stage in this Christian tragedy. Their passion begins with a recognition that the Catholic hierarchy is unwilling to take even small risks to save Jews, a caution which Hochhuth suggests was partly motivated by an overriding concern to combat Soviet influence at all costs. Time and again, according to his understanding of the historical record, church protests succeeded in modifying Nazi policies. When Germany made clear it needed the Vatican in order to sue for peace, the Vatican chose to use its influence to encourage a peace settlement instead of intervening more vigorously in favour of the Jews, for Hochhuth a deeply un-Christian choice.

The action begins and ends not in Rome but in Germany. From the outset it is clear that Hochhuth saw his subject as Germany as much as Christianity. The perpetrators who appear in the cast—led by the evil Auschwitz Doctor—are faceless archetypes of bigotry and brutality, "civilised" men who made a Faustian pact with the Nazi regime at the expense of Jewish lives. In Germany Hochhuth's play was a landmark in the debate over the connections between Germany's recent past and contemporary politics, shaking the assumption that there was a fundamental breach between the perpetrators of the Holocaust and the rest of the German political elite. Hochhuth's sharpest critiques, set in Berlin and in Auschwitz, center on the cultural norms that he felt relieved Germans of any sense of responsibility for their action or inaction. Though inspired by the archetypal figures of medieval mystery plays, Hochhuth's bystanders and perpetrators nevertheless only differ from his heroes because of their decision to scorn the humane values of Christianity. The inability of any of the churches to challenge the marginalization and inversion of Christianity by its erst-while supporters is the second key to Hochhuth's view that the Holocaust represented a Christian tragedy.

The marginal role played by Jews in The Deputy reflects Hochhuth's dismay at the passivity of Jews as they were led to their deaths (a view he owed to Hannah Arendt). The play opens with instructions that the cast is to play perpetrators and victims as if they are interchangeable. Sensitive to the victims' suffering, Hochhuth nevertheless had little understanding or sympathy for the way Jewish victims saw themselves. Thus, he cast all of his Jewish characters as Christian or nonreligious Western Europeans (a minority of the actual victims) and even introduced one with a brief commentary on his "Old Testament harshness." In Auschwitz the limits to Hochhuth's much-vaunted emphasis on free will are most evident. Only in order to add final insult to injury did the Doctor create the semblance of choice, tricking mothers into sending their children to a speedier and more certain death. With devilish cunning the Doctor shows Riccardo the total inability of Christians to affect the bureaucratic killing machine and the impossibility of seeking, through martyrdom, to suffer the same choiceless fate as the Jews. This presents the third level on which the Holocaust merits the description of a Christian tragedy. In the anonymous machine of Auschwitz, according to Hochhuth, God was dead, and Christianity too.

—George R. Wilkes