The Political Playwright Rolf Hochhuth Assails the Catholic Church for 'Immoral Inaction'

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Actor Dieter Borsche as the pope in the play “The Deputy,” by Rolf Hochhuth. On the left, Guenther Tabor as “Riccardo,” and Hans Nielsen on the right as the Cardinal in 1963.

Chaos rules at this rowdy 1964 meeting of the Overseas Press Club. The guest panel includes Catholic Church critic, Rolf Hochhuth, and a Catholic Church official. 

Hochhuth, the author of the controversial play "The Deputy" (1963) has been invited, along with the play's producer, Herman Shumlin. Unbeknownst to them, the officers of the club have also invited Msgr. John M. Oesterreicher. Since the play is a brutal assault on Pope Pius XII and his relations with the Nazis, fireworks quickly ensue. The first question concerns Cardinal Francis J. Spellman's denunciation of the play. Hochhuth replies that he refuses to answer anybody who has not read or seen it. Oesterreicher then attempts to give a speech defending the church. Shumlin objects that he and Hochhuth have been lured to the event under false pretenses. They were not expecting a debate. Oesterreicher, citing his right to free speech, asks if this is not America.  Shumlin renews his objection. Oesterreicher finally stops, saying, "The silence they wish to impose on me is answer enough." He then hands out copies of his speech.

A questioner asks Hochhuth about the argument that if Pius had objected to the extermination of the Jews, additional Jews being sheltered in Italian monasteries would have been deported. Hochhuth (speaking in German with simultaneous translation) launches into a detailed attack on this position, citing many instances in which the Nazis did defer to objections by the church, in particular to those made by the Bishop of Muenster. Oesterreicher attempts to intervene. He is opposed again by Shumlin. Oesterreicher is heard to say, "You make a fool of yourself." A moment of unexpected levity is provided when the translator begins translating the German…into more German! The moderator attempts to restore order, pleading, "I would ask the panelists not to pound the table."

A question comparing the fate of Jews in Protestant countries like Denmark and Finland to that of Jews in Catholic countries like France and Hungary elicits similar outrage, pro and con. Hochhuth, after detailing all the arguments for Pius' seeming inaction, concludes, "…they are sufficient to justify a diplomat completely in the eyes of history but they are not sufficient to justify the representative of Christ." Shumlin then commandeers the stage and seems to imply that the slaughter of Croats (Greek Orthodox Christians) by Serbs (Roman Catholics) was tacitly encouraged by Pius. Hochhuth points out that his play was published 13 months prior and that if the Vatican had any documents to disprove his assertions it would have produced them by now. He concludes by thanking New York for the tolerance his play has found here, saying that after the violence attending productions in Basel, Switzerland, and in Paris, he "has found a free forum."

Hochhuth was born in 1931. "The Deputy" is by far his most famous work. His penchant for controversy can be seen in his next play, "Soldiers" (1967), as well, which accused Winston Churchill of complicity in the death of the Polish General Władysław Sikorsky as well as being responsible for the saturation bombing of civilian targets during World War II. The play was briefly banned in England. These early plays set a pattern for Hochhuth's politically driven dramas. The website of the Berlin International Literary Festival describes Hochhuth as:

…the most important representative of German documentary theater.  His theater pieces combine fictional dialogue with historical and incriminatory material, in which the artistic occasionally gives way to the factual.  His flair for political as well as emotionally charged themes has made him one of the most successful and controversial artists in the country.  As a consequence of his embracing social taboos, and his absolute insistence on the moral responsibility of the individual, Hochhuth has contributed to the development of the critical awareness in postwar Germany.

Hochhuth has also written several novels and film scripts. In an ironic twist to accusations surrounding "The Deputy," he would later be criticized for championing the work of David Irving, a well-known Holocaust denier.

Shumlin (1898-1979) was a respected Broadway producer. He won a Tony award for this production of "The Deputy." He also directed two well-respected films, "Watch on the Rhine" (1943) and "Confidential Agent" (1945). Lillian Hellman, whose plays he produced and directed, wrote that he:

 …has made many an actor into a star, and many a star into a decent actor. The theater, for him, is not a place to show off. ...He is one of the few directors who believes in the play; he is one of the very few who has the sharp clarity, the sensitivity, the understanding, which should be the director's gift to the play.

Oesterreicher (1904-1993) was born Jewish and became a Catholic convert before World War II. In the United States, he focused on improving Jewish-Catholic relations. His most notable achievement was drafting the Vatican document "Nostra Aetate." As the Seton Hall University Jewish-Islamic-Christian Virtual Media Library reports, "'Nostra Aetate' was the Vatican II document that denounced anti-Semitism, said that the Jews as a group were not responsible for deicide, and that said it was inappropriate to depict Jews as accursed by G’d."

The historical questions raised by "The Deputy" are still very much in dispute.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.