Between May and October of the current year, half a million people will have traveled to the village of Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps to attend performances of the best known of the world’s surviving Passion plays. Now in its fortieth season, the play originated during the Thirty Years’ War after an invasion by the plague caused eighty deaths, and the village elders made a solemn vow to commemorate the Passion of Jesus Christ in dramatic form in return for divine protection.

Since the first performance in 1634, the play has been repeated roughly every ten years, with exceptions in 1770 and 1940. During that time the plot has not changed essentially, although the answers to fundamental questions raised by it—such as the question of who killed Jesus—have been modified or changed with the passage of time. Almost half of Oberammergau’s population of 5,200 men, women, and children perform in the play, participation being restricted to natives, residents of twenty years’ duration, and spouses of townspeople. The original stipulation that only Catholics could have leading roles has been rescinded, and in 2000 for the first time one of the Roman soldiers will be played by a longtime resident of Turkish descent.

To appear in the play, particularly in a leading role such as Jesus, Mary, Caiaphas, or Pilate, is a matter of pride and prestige, making acceptable the months spent growing the beards and head hair required by the parts and the onerous schedule of rehearsals. Perhaps not unnaturally, the parts tend to subvert the real identity of the players, so that in the ten-year intervals between performances a passing bicyclist is apt to elicit the comment, “There goes Judas.” Some roles remain in the same families for generations, reinforcing the identification of the community and its inhabitants with the Passion play, which with the passing of the years has become all but complete.

James Shapiro, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, has now written a history of the play that is both entertaining and attentive to its questionable aspects. In his careful reconstruction of the play’s origins, he makes clear that in the early productions the story of the suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus tended to be compromised by its audience’s preference for lively theatrical effects. Drawing heavily on the conventions of earlier Passion plays, including the Augsburger Passionsspiel and a sixteenth-century play by the Meistersinger Sebastian Wild, the play concentrated almost as heavily on the machinations of Satan and Lucifer as it did on the mission of Jesus and his apostles. Roman soldiers and Jews fought noisily on the stage, which also swarmed with devils, who at appropriate moments dragged Judas off to hell and consumed his intestines (which were probably made of fried batter or sausages) and hauled away the bad thief who was crucified with Jesus while the good one was saved by angels. It was, Shapiro writes, “rough-and-tumble theater,” and vastly entertaining to the audience, which laughed and cheered noisily.

The very things that made the religious plays popular with the masses worried the Catholic Church, less because it resented the competition posed by the plays—although this was doubtless a factor (one archbishop complained that “the churches are empty and deserted” and “the sacrament displayed in public is devoid of worshippers”)—than because it felt that dramatizing sacred subjects verged on blasphemy. Throughout the eighteenth century there were repeated efforts to regulate religious drama in Bavaria. In 1749 Christmas plays were banned, and in March 1770, Oberammergau and hundreds of other villages were informed that Passion playing was henceforth forbidden by order of the Ecclesiastical Council of the Elector Maximilian Joseph. The justification given was that “the great mystery of our holy religion should not be displayed on a public stage.”

For Oberammergau this was devastating, since the town had already invested deeply in its projected 1770 performance, but in the long run it profited from the ban. A skillful diplomatic campaign, which stressed Oberammergau’s continuous fidelity to the oath of 1633, and a series of revisions that expelled Satan and his hordes from the play and purged the script of all other elements that were offensive to the Church authorities, regained the privileges that were lost. Other towns with Passion plays were not so successful. By 1830 Oberammergau was relieved of competition, with a text that had profited from the changes to which it had been submitted, a new theater, and a musical score by Rochus Dedler which greatly enhanced its emotional impact.

The most important of the textual revisions were those provided by Joseph Alois Daisenberger after his appointment as Oberammergau’s parish priest in 1845. By shortening the longer speeches and focusing more upon character and motivation, Daisenberger fashioned a tighter plot and a more plausible one. Even more important, he took special care to leave out all references to matters in dispute between the different confessions. Protestants had long regarded the play as a Catholic affair. They were now able to enjoy it on equal terms, and one English critic wrote that what was played in Oberammergau was “even in a certain sense unconsciously Protestant.” In Daisenberger’s handling of the Last Supper, this critic continued, the “attitude of the Apostles in receiving, and of their Master in giving, the bread and wine of the supper far more nearly resembles that of a Presbyterian than of a Roman Catholic ritual.”


This had a profound effect upon the size and nature of the play’s audience and the numbers of people from other parts of Germany who traveled to Bavaria to see the play. So probably did the discovery of the German actor-manager Eduard Devrient, after seeing the play in 1850, that an “old German atmosphere, as fresh and alive as if it had been conceived yesterday,” was reflected in the performance. Impressed apparently less by the content of the play than by the fact that it was played by unprofessional and unsophisticated townspeople, Devrient, the author of a book on German stagecraft, attributed the play’s success to national genius, writing, “Its innocence, its untroubled childhood joy, seems to say to all of us, ‘Be of good cheer because the old hoard of the German folk spirit is indestructible and inexhaustible.”‘ Shapiro points out that in 1934, with Hitler in power, Devrient’s words were quoted in the preface of the Passion play’s official program, where it was said that they prefigured the “new life which reunites us all in our race.”

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Oberammergau was established as a leading European tourist attraction. Shapiro writes:

It appealed equally to devout pilgrims and to those interested in a quick and inexpensive jaunt on the Continent. It was safe enough for independent young women and unusual enough to attract the most world-weary Victorians. It attracted English clergymen as well as German nationalists. It had an intrinsic appeal for artists, writers, musicians, actors, and scholars. And best of all, visitors of all stripes could brag of the experience, confident in the knowledge that their jealous listeners had to wait another decade before undertaking the trip themselves.

By 1880 Thomas Cook was well established in the village and was handling three quarters of the booming English and American traffic.

Perhaps it was natural for the visitors, who often lodged in the homes of actors in the play and enjoyed the illusion of being in close contact with Jesus, Mary, and Peter, to regard the Oberammergau villagers as belonging to a superior class of beings—innocent in the ways of the world, marvelously pious and naturally gifted, so that they could perform their roles on the stage without tuition. Shapiro quotes a tourist as saying that Oberammergau was “one of the few spots in all the world where faith and idealism have successfully withstood materialism and commercial greed.”

Yet the villagers were by no means innocent when it came to economic matters. Oberammergau had been an important center for wood-carving with a thriving export trade ever since the twelfth century. Its merchants were fully conscious of the Passion play’s importance to the local economy, and one of the arguments employed in their appeals against the prohibition of 1770 was the hardship imposed by cutting off the flow of visitors. In the nineteenth century they were adroit in developing the trade in souvenirs and in seeing that their monopoly on the publication of official programs and texts of the play was not breached. By the end of the century the same kind of people who had praised their lack of mercenary motives were complaining that players were demanding fees for signing programs.

All the while, of course, there remained the inherent problem of the Passion play, rarely mentioned but always there, its role in fomenting hatred of the Jews. To be sure, performances of the play were no longer followed by the burning down of ghettos, which had been a frequent occurrence in the Middle Ages, but some visitors were reminded of those outrages. Shapiro quotes a reflective Scottish writer who saw the play in 1860 and commented,

With strange emotions you gazed upon the executioners as upon wild beasts when they tore his mantle into shreds, and cast lots for his vesture; and the Jewish race appeared hateful in your eyes, as you watched them gathering around the cross, looking upon the man they had crucified, and railing at him, and taunting him with his powerlessness and his pain. Then for the first time you seemed to understand the significance of those ungovernable explosions that in the history of the middle ages one reads of, when sudden outbursts of hatred against the Hebrew race have taken place, and have been followed by cruelties and barbarities unrivalled in history. Just such a feeling seemed excited in this Ammergau audience by this representation.

Nevertheless, in an age in which Jewish assimilation had made conspicuous progress in Germany, the Daisenberger text continued to argue that the Jews had killed Jesus and, by doing so, had incurred and accepted a collective guilt. Against this anti-Semitic version of history, no significant objection was raised until it found its ultimate expression in National Socialism and the Holocaust.


Since Bavaria was the original home of the Nazi Party, Oberammergau always had a sizable number of party members, which increased after Hitler came to power in 1933. Shapiro has discovered that of the 714 villagers who were in the play in 1934 (including a large number of children), 152 were Parteigenossen, and that this number included Jesus, played by Alois Lang, eight of his apostles, and the Virgin Mary. Only Judas, played by Hans Zwink, is known to have been “a strong anti-Nazi.” Party membership does not seem to have had adverse effects upon postwar careers. Anton Preisinger, who was convicted by a denazification court in 1947 on charges of open anti-Semitism, became the most influential figure in the Passion play in the postwar years and was chosen to play Jesus in the productions of 1950 and 1960.

Shapiro believes that “probably nothing has damaged Oberammergau’s international reputation more than Hitler’s enthusiasm for their play.” The Führer visited Oberammergau twice, in 1930, when his appearance caused no great stir, and in 1934, six weeks after “the Night of the Long Knives,” in which he had broken the power of the SA in a bloody coup, and two weeks after the consolidation of his power after the death of Field Marshal von Hindenburg. He received a tumultuous welcome and was apparently impressed both by it and by the performance. In 1942, in the course of a speech about the danger of the Jews, he declared that

it is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry.

When that speech was made, Hitler’s armies were deep inside Russia, and the Holocaust had begun.

Whether the Oberammergau tradition would continue in the postwar period was highly questionable. Politically, the town was deeply compromised, and both the Western press and the Allied military administration expressed the strongest of doubts about the advisability of permitting a resumption of production. But this opposition, and that of the American Jewish Congress, were in the end overcome by skillful diplomacy on the part of the play’s supporters. In appeals to the American military administration of Bavaria, they argued that both the economic recovery of the region and the state of German-American cultural relations would benefit from renewal of the usual performances. In the end, the Americans bankrolled the 1950 production of the play, and no attention was paid to those who argued that this should be conditional upon a critical revision of the text. The opening performance on May 18 was graced by the appearance of the US and British High Commissioners, John J. McCloy and Sir Brian Robertson, and a sizable group of high-ranking officers in uniform, a reassuring symbol of American- German cooperation on the eve of the Korean War.

This did not, however, put an end to criticism of the play and demands for textual revision. Against this, its defenders had always been able to argue that the Church was on their side, and indeed this seemed true and destined to continue, for on the eve of the 1950 production Cardinal Michael Faulhaber of Munich conferred the missio canonica upon the villagers, declaring that their play was in accordance with Church doctrine.

That powerful protection now came to an end. In 1959, Pope John XXIII announced that he intended to invoke a second general council of the Catholic Church (Vatican II), and on October 28, 1965, 2,500 Catholic bishops promulgated Nostra Aetate (no. 4), the “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” Reversing two thousand years of Church teaching about the collective responsibility for the death of Jesus, the declaration proclaimed:

True, authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His Passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as repudiated or cursed by God, as if such views followed from the Holy Scripture.

There was no way of reconciling the Daisenberger text of the Oberammergau Passion play, with its emphasis upon Jewish collective guilt, with Nostra Aetate, and this gave the American Jewish Congress and other religious organizations an opportunity to press the Church to insist on a thoroughgoing revision of the story. When a revised text was prepared at the urging of Cardinal Döpfner of Munich for the 1970 performance, it was, however, rejected by the people of Oberammergau, who were clearly apprehensive lest any changes weaken the dramatic force of the play and its economic viability. They therefore dug their heels in and answered all criticism either by arguing that they were merely repeating what was in the Bible or that the play was a commercial enterprise that was not subject to religious control.

This worked in the short run. The play continued to be performed at ten-year intervals. But the cost was high: continuing controversy, a bad press, and a steady increase in the number of Jewish and interdenominational organizations insisting that the failure to agree to basic reform was a scandal that should not be tolerated. In 1970 there was a boycott of the play organized by Jewish organizations in the United States. For the first time in the play’s history there were empty seats in the playhouse, and these seemed to be a sign of worse to come.

As a new generation won a majority in the village council in the 1980s, sentiment for reform began to grow. For the 1990 production, the youngest director in the play’s long history was appointed, Christian Stückl, who had made a reputation in Oberammergau by a series of brilliant Shakespeare productions. At the same time, a special commission was set up to work on the text and to try to find answers to objections raised by the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith. Although the years that followed were highly contentious, the new direction had been set. For the millennial production, Stückl was confirmed as director and revision of the text was assigned to Otto Huber, a teacher in Murnau whose life had been dominated by the play, in which he had appeared as a child in 1950 and again when he was thirteen years old. Known for his liberal views, he had been excluded in the 1980s but had helped direct a Passion play in Lavingen, near Ulm. It had always been his dream to remake the Oberammergau play.

Working in close collaboration with Stückl and with Professor Ludwig Mödl, who was appointed to oversee the Church’s interest, Huber gave a major facelift to the text, deleting the contentious line from Matthew in which the Jews accepted responsibility for killing Christ, eliminating the word “Messiah” throughout the text, because it was provocative to Jews, transforming the roles of Pilate, Caiaphas, and Judas to enhance their political aspects, and, above all, making Jesus much less passive and much more Jewish than he had been in earlier productions. This last change particularly impressed Mödl, who declared emphatically that “there is no longer any anti-Semitism in the play…. The dangerous and all-inclusive reproach that the evil Jews had crucified Jesus is simply gone.”

Neither the Jewish critics who were invited to Germany to discuss the changes nor those whom Huber met in a visit to the United States, which Shapiro discusses in interesting detail, agreed. As the controversy went on, however, it became gradually clear that there was no way of satisfying all parties. Certainly verbal changes alone would not be sufficient to do so. James Rudin of the American Jewish Congress went to Germany in 1984 to see the play and was startled by what he discovered. He wrote subsequently:

Nineteen eighty-four was a real shock—it was really a shock…. I realized that we had not missed the boat on the text, but that the costuming, the staging, the blocking was as important as the text. [I was] stunned by the effect it had on the audience…lay people who were there, Christian clergy—this was the Gospel, it was a religious experience for them. It was not what I had expected.

If this were true, the only way to assure that no anti-Semitism was generated by the play was to eliminate the crucifixion. But then there would be no play, and the people of Oberammergau, whose lives were so intimately bound up with it, would not tolerate that.

Disturbing also to Rudin was another circumstance. In 1984, people who saw the play with him seemed impervious to the anti-Semitism that he saw and felt, and it was difficult to persuade them that it was important. By 1990 he was beginning to understand that “it was not going to be a big thing with the lay people…and some of our lay people said, ‘What the hell are you knocking yourself out for? Okay, so five hundred thousand people see it—they’re trying to improve it.”‘ On the eve of the 2000 production the controversy was losing its edge and giving way to an unacknowledged but effective unspoken truce, with the play continuing in a version close to the modified form arrived at by Huber.

This finds expression in the official publication, Passion Play 2000, the ideal supplement to Shapiro’s excellent book. In addition to 130 pages of stunning color photographs by Brigitte Maria Mayer, which, along with accompanying notes by Otto Huber, serve as a comprehensive depiction of the play’s action and the tableaux vivants that separate its scenes, this volume includes an essay on the 2000 production by Christian Stückl, a detailed illustrated chronology of the Passion play since 1633 by Otto Huber, and photographs of the actors and actresses in the current production. In his introductory essay, Christian Stückl makes an acknowledgment that would have frozen on the lips of his conservative predecessors. After saying that the Passion play is “the story of the man whose message has set worlds in motion for 2,000 years,” he adds:

But this is also the story of a man whose followers, the Christians, brought unbelievable suffering into the world. Their religious zeal recoiled from no act of violence, and left a bloody trail through the centuries. Millions of Jews—the people who shared the faith of Jesus—died in the twentieth century. They had to die because the church, and yes, the Passion Play for centuries sowed the seeds of anti-Semitism, of Jew-hating. The Nazis harvested a well-fertilized field.

This Issue

August 10, 2000