On Easter Sunday, 1943, when all resistance from the Warsaw Ghetto had been crushed, the holiday crowds on their way from Mass “pushed through the streets to catch sight of Warsaw’s newest spectacle…Batteries of artillery were set up in Nonwiniarska Street, from which the Germans kept up a steady barrage against the ghetto. And everywhere the flame, and the stench of roasting human flesh. The sight was awesome—and exciting. From time to time a living torch would be seen crouched on a window sill and then leaping through the air. Occasionally one such figure caught in some obstruction and hung there. The spectators would shout to the German riflemen, ‘Hey, look over there!…no, over there!’ As each figure completed its gruesome trajectory, the crowds cheered” (Alexander Donat, “Our Last Days In The Warsaw Ghetto”).
The interest that the spectators took in this carnage was “medieval,” in the sense that the public massacre of Jews had in the Middle Ages provided the onlookers with a sense of their own righteousness. It must have been frightful to watch Jews burn, but in the Middle Ages they were feared and marked off with so much holy zeal that to watch them burn established your own credit with God. The Poles suffered atrociously at the hands of the Nazis, but at Easter time, a favorite time for pogroms, the average Pole could still attend church, walk the streets, sit in a park, work in an office, get legally married, attend to his children—and thus despise and fear the Jews, who were being hunted down with such raging hatred by a great power already at war with half the world, that it was impossible for the average Pole, growing up in an anti-Semitic society, not to feel disgust and loathing for the Jews precisely because they were so much hated. Just as in the Middle Ages the towns-people of Mainz, Toledo, Worms, and York, watching Jews being burned, could not help despising and fearing people who provoked so much odium, so in 1943 even many a patriot in the resistance was exasperated by the sufferings of the Jews—who were always the same and whose sufferings were the same, and who were so bewildered yet fatalistic as they were mown down in the hundreds, with their babies, by a single machine gunner smoking a cigarette. How could you identify with people who suffered so much and had no friendly Polish neighbors to escape to? How could you help drawing away from what the S.S. professors, watching an “action,” fastidiously (and in Latin) called “the asshole of the world?”
Suffering can make people disgusting. The people whose martyrdom was called an “extermination,” even to the destruction of a million of their children, made them not objects of compassion, but a disease to stay away from. The Nazis made it easy for the majority to stay away, to look away, to hold their noses, to shrug their shoulders. All very natural—if you gag at the viscera of a dog some passing car has ripped open on the highway, what would you feel at all those mounds of human hair, gold teeth, children’s toys smeared with excrement and blood?
The sufferings of the Jews made them unbearable—and this was the war that the Nazis won. Of course there were many individuals throughout Europe, and even a whole people, the Danes, who were not sickened by Jewish suffering, who felt the terror of children as an outrage to Christianity, who saw that “Europe,” “the West,” “the free world,” “the Church,” could become empty terms if it were permitted to shovel the Jews out like so much dirt. The Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe took another man’s place in one of the “starvation cells” at Auschwitz and died after weeks of agony. Provost Lichtenberg, of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin, prayed openly for the Jews, asked to accompany deportees to camp, and died on his way to Dachau. A Catholic editor in Bologna, Focherini, lost all seven of his children in a camp because he was active in saving Italian Jews. Many of the lower clergy in France and Holland conspired to save Jews, and saved hundreds. But millions were killed, and it is doubtful that whole communities, towns, districts would have been wiped out if the American government, the British government, the Vatican, had not been able to bear with equanimity the destruction of so many civilians who were not Americans, British, or Catholic. Of course the reasons of state given for their inaction by the heads of state were entirely tenable and normal—as normal as Chamberlain’s refusal, as Prime Minister, even to look at the reports of Nazi atrocities sent to him by British diplomats in Germany. Roosevelt had smart diplomatic reasons for not performing any extraordinary action. Pius XII saw no reason to confuse the millions of German Catholics fighting for Hitler. In the face of the total terror against all the Jews—every Jew in the world was marked for destruction—Realpolitik paid off. And soon the “normal” world came back. By now many a German civil servant, professor, doctor, policeman, judge, must wonder if he was really he who one day in 1944 drove children into a pit to be shot, who watched the naked women screaming for twenty minutes as the gas came on.
Yet obviously this effort to reclaim “normaley” and “good sense” has not worked for everyone. Although life is rich in West Germany and Chancellor Erhard fits even better into a Texas barbecue than the late President Kennedy would have done, the Germans don’t seem to achieve “normal” status. Herr Adenauer was the very quintessence of a good German mayor, but he was always being embarrassed by associates like Dr. Globke, who did nothing but frame the Nuremburg race laws. The other day it developed that Herr Erhard’s Refugee Minister, Dr. Hans Kruger, had been a Nazi judge in Poland. Then the chief of Herr Erhard’s own security guard, Herr Peters, who had flown down to the LBJ ranch to guard his boss, was identified as the member of a murder squad in wartime Russia, and took his life to save the government further embarrassment. The Germans would love to get back to “normal” life and to be unequivocally trusted by their allies in NATO, but all sorts of young Germans themselves, like Rolf Hochhuth (born in 1931), are outraged by the claim to bourgeois respectability on the part of so many people who twenty years ago were robbing, torturing and killing all over Europe.
It is rage against the unbearable moral obtuseness of the German philistine, now restored to the complacent gluttony of the good old days plus the self-righteousness of “the free world,” that is obviously behind Hochhuth’s play. What the author must have said to himself was: How can I attack hypocritical “authority” at its most vulnerable point? How can I shake these symbols of a moral tradition that no longer exists? Who was the one leader during the war whose Realpolitik symbolizes more than any other’s the moral failure of Europe during the war? The Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth, the “deputy” and “representative” of Christ, the Pope…Pius XII. Not once did he condemn the massacre of the Jews specifically and by name. He did not speak out even when Italian Jews (many of them baptized Catholics) were being rounded up under the Pope’s very windows. He never once ordered priests to pray for the Jews. He never saw to it that spiritual aid was given to the Catholics of Jewish origin (many of them priests and nuns) transported to the camps. He never threatened (as even his predecessor had done before the war) to break the concordat with Hitler. he never even threatened to excommunicate Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, and other Nazi leaders who had been baptized as Catholics.
Hochhuth’s calculated provocation has worked. Pope Paul VI, when still Cardinal Montini, was moved to special remonstrances against Hochhuth; his defense of Pius XII was included in each programme at the London production of The Deputy and was repeated during his brief stay in Israel. The play has aroused violent protests from members of the Bundestag, the German hierarchy, theater audiences in Vienna and Paris—in Paris some members of the audience, crying A bas les juifs!, leaped to the stage and tried to keep the actors from going on—and American Jewish organizations, which sought to dissuade Herman Shumlin from putting the play on after Billy Rose had dropped it. In answer to Hochhuth, whose play charges Pius XII with indifference to the Jews, it has been pointed out that many Jews were given refuge in monasteries, that priests and nuns risked their lives to save Jews, that the Pope once offered Vatican funds to meet the Nazi demand for ransom. None of these points answers to Hochhuth’s main charge—he is not attacking the Catholic Church and his work is even dedicated to Father Kolbe and to Prior Lichtenberg. And he rejects Cardinal Montini’s claim that Pius XII wanted to protest the atrocities suffered by the Jews, but was silent for fear that he would bring worse down on them. What would have been worse?
Hochhuth offers us both a documented play and a documentary of the times. He makes extremely serious charges in the play and in his historical notes, and so invites the counter-charges that inevitably make up discussion of the play. Yet that is the kind of play it is. It is not a work of art, not a transmutation into imaginative symbols. It is a tract in dramatic form that attempts to humanize what C. P. Snow called “the worst episode in human history”; it is a dramatization of “reality,” a vast script out of which different productions can be made and have been made. It is probably impossible, and even intolerable, to fit Auschwitz to the common scale and moral satisfactions of a work of art. Hochhuth’s script—humane, polemical, “daring”—was captive to the delusion that anything can be put on the stage and explained on the stage long before he sat down to write. But for a young German writer, there is a spiritual necessity in at least trying to cut through the silence that prevails between the Jews and the Germans. Hitler Germany is the nightmare from which we are all trying to awaken. A German writer who was fourteen years old in 1945 must go down into that hell if he wants to write anything meaningful about his country and his people in the future. I salute Hochhuth for not shirking that journey into hell, for seeking to understand himself in the light of modern German history.
Hochhuth’s whole effort here, it seems to me, is to make a dramatic kaleidoscope that will involve people now in the fate of the Jews as it couldn’t and didn’t involve them before. But as a playwright of the whole Nazi terror, as a documentary maker in dramatic form, he’s been too appalled, disturbed and even fascinated by the cruelties of the Nazis even to be able to think of events and people as figures in his own imagination. Piscator, who did the Berlin production, claims in his pretentious preface to the German text that the play has links with Schiller’s historical dramas, which Piscator sees as a type of “dramatic novel.” And it is true that Hochhuth, whose characters speak in vaguely rhythmic lines that are meant to recall dramatic verse, has put Pius XII and other recent historic personages into some kind of costume drama; he wants to create an effect of historical “art” around the terrible facts. But his play is too eclectic, it is too consciously truth and fiction at once, to suggest anything more moving than his own struggle with these materials.
Hochhuth’s “book” has left his producers with so many possibilities and freedoms that it is no wonder that the Berlin and London productions emphasized different sides of it, and that the New York production is sharply different from the others. Shumlin has freely adapted the play, virtually cutting Kurt Gerstein out of it, and has added passages of his own, some of which plainly depart from Hochhuth’s own voice. The New York production is bare, crude, and shockingly listless in places; much of it is an anti-Nazi movie of the John Garfield period. If it weren’t for Emlyn William’s venomously stylized performance in Act II as Pius XII, and the sheer unavoidable horror of the truth as it comes through by the end, the New York production would be amazingly dull. (Most of the excitement opening night came from the American Nazis noisily picketing the play. The audience was asked not to leave the theater during intermission, which was more of a shock than it got from the first act.)
As a “book,” complete with sixty pages of historical documentary and stage directions that are understandable assurances that a play about murder factories is possible but should not be taken as “the whole truth,” Hochhuth’s work lends itself to the most tendentious kind of Broadway production. There are just too many characters, scenes, comments, charges, notes. It opens in the house of the Papal Nuncio to Berlin, when an heroic “spy” in the S.S., Kurt Gerstein (another real person), breaks in to beg the Nuncio to get the Vatican to protest against the murder factories. It ends in Auschwitz, with the unnamed Doctor who assigned the victims directly to the gas chambers debating God’s silence with the young Jesuit who, anguished by the Vatican’s silence, put a yellow star of David on his soutane and accompanied Jews to Auschwitz. Between these two scenes of direct historical reference, we are taken to Berlin for rapid glimpses of Eichmann living it up in the company of a Rhineland industrialist, mapping Krupp’s future holdings in Russia, a Nazi “scientist” who collects Jewish-Bolshevist skulls for his anatomical collection, and other such charmers out of a horror film; we are in Rome to hear a Cardinal defend the Pope’s silence to a Papal count; we attend as Pius XII heatedly defends his policy while Jews are being rounded up in Rome by Nazi policemen who are now amiable bureaucrats in Bonn.
So all the oppressors and victims and onlookers are represented in the play, and everything is made—how Hochhuth would like to make it—believable, actable, dramatic, moving. If in design Hochhuth’s play is costume drama (Rome: a palace…The Vatican: the Pope’s chambers), in language it is very like the “living theater” of the 1930s. The “rhythmic” lines are not prose only in the sense that they allow a character to give us information in “spoken” form—
One million eight hundred thousand Jews
in Poland alone
have been murdered already—and since this figure
was given officially to the Papal Legate
in Washington this July by the Am- bassador
from Warsaw to the White House…
But the tone is not right: no tone is right for this kind of thing on the stage. Hochhuth moves up to Auschwitz, in the last act, full of fear and trembling for his own presumption; but he does think he can put it on the stage and make it dramatically swallowable. So we can hate “The Doctor”—based on Joseph Mengele, who made the final selection of the victims, and who is still at large—as this mad scientist boasts about “whistling Freud’s sister up the chimney,” or shows the brains of a pair of Jewish twins, or tells the Jesuit that he has put endless Jews to death so as to “provoke” God to answer.
Of course Hochhuth doesn’t really understand this “Doctor,” who in Elie Wiesel’s memoir of Auschwitz, La Nuit, is remembered as pointing out his victims with a conductor’s baton. These Auschwitz scenes, with their attempt to give the Doctor a pseudo-theological and very “German” rationale in philosophy for his frightful crimes, are pretentious and false. The bitter truth, the ultimate humiliation for us humanists and anti-Nazis, is that the “Doctor” was not a theologian, not a false theologian, not even an antitheologian, but a sadistic clown, a frivolous maniac and gangster. That is the horror for us, who for thirty years now have tried to make Hitlerism accountable to our humane culture—the horror is that so many frivolous, hysterical, ignorant, trivial people could have captured the hearts of millions of Germans and have killed millions of human beings for reasons no more “significant” and “historical” than their own murderous vanity and rage. One is now supposed to honor Napoleon for the millions of deaths he caused because he was the vehicle of historical progress. In the case of Hitler and his gang, no delusion is possible. Like the boy who stabbed an enemy in a gang war and as he took the knife out, said to the corpse, “Thanks very much!”, Hitler operated on the weakness of his victims and the fear he inspired in the outlookers. He had no serious historical ideas, no tenable hopes. All those millions died to the frenzy of murdering gangsters. They died meaninglessly. And how do you make art out of what is inherently meaningless, was never a contest? Nowhere has totalitarianism as a climate, or totalitarianism as a subject, been able to produce a work of art. What it does provoke, from the millions ground down in our time by the Moloch of “History” or “Race,” is occasional personal testimony. The victims alone can testify to the power of these murderous abstractions. Their own existence is the moral authenticity they have saved from the encompassing conformism and cruelty.
Hochhuth’s polemic is irrefutable on one point. If it was all for nothing, if this was a massacre of the helpless and the innocent that in the end became as horrible in its felt insignificance as any industrial process, shouldn’t those who believe that God is present in history, that He once came to earth as man—shouldn’t they have protested against so much frivolity and meaninglessness—not in love for the Jews, but in defense of Christianity itself? On August 23, 1942, Archbishop Saliège cried out in Toulouse—“Why does the right of asylum no longer exist in our churches? Why are we a vanquished people? Lord, have pity upon us! Our Lady, pray for France! These Jews are men, these Jewesses are women; these aliens are men and women. All is not permissible against them, against these men and women, against these fathers and mothers. They belong to mankind. They are our brothers, as are so many others. No Christian can forget that.”
What would have happened in Europe in 1943, 1944, 1945, when Jews were being killed at the rate of a thousand an hour—how many children would have been saved from the fire—if the Vicar of Christ on earth had said that?