Born in 1931, Rolf Hochhuth grew up in Hesse, Germany, under the Nazi regime. This shoe maker son is recruited from the Hitler Youth, like many young people of his generation. War and National Socialism will form the heart of his work.
Like his first play, The vicar which recounts the fate of Kurt Gerstein, an SS witness to the extermination of the Jews in Poland. He tried to inform the Vatican through the Berlin nunciature, to no avail. Performed for the first time at the Volksbühne, at the time in East Berlin, in February 1963, the play immediately caused scandal by its explicit denunciation of the silence of Pius XII on the Shoah. The translation of the play into 17 languages and its adaptation in 27 countries – in a very tense climate in Paris, at the Théâtre de l’Athénée, in December 1963 – then its resumption in the cinema with Amen of Costa-Gavras, completed creating “the Pius XII affair”.
Historian Muriel Guittat-Naudin, author of “Pius XII after Pius XII. Story of a controversy “(1) recalls that before The vicar, public opinion was rather favorable to the pope on this subject, anyway little discussed. The room “ smash In his words, the positive image of the pontiff elected in 1939 and died in 1958, which destabilizes the episcopate to the point.
The historian mentions the reaction of Mgr Feltin, then Archbishop of Paris: ” There are only subjects that are approached with respect. So it is with the supreme responsibility of a pope at the heart of a tragedy as tragic as that which shook the world twenty years ago. “Detention not shown by the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Spellman, who immediately denounces a play” who insults the memory of a tall and good man “
The German episcopate even pays homage to the one who ” raised his voice against inhuman atrocities, particularly against the suppression and destruction of individuals and peoples “, Referring to the message of Pius XII, at Christmas 1942, on Vatican Radio. The pope spoke of these ” hundreds of thousands of people, who, without any fault on their part, and sometimes for the mere fact of their nationality or race, have been doomed to death or to progressive extermination “
In response to these accusations, Paul VI, in the midst of Vatican Council II, entrusted Jesuit historians with the task of publishing a selection of Vatican archive documents, published from 1965 to 1981. In 2004, John Paul II opened the archives from the Information Office for Prisoners of War.
While Rolf Hochhuth’s play may have had the virtue of clarifying the role of the Church during the Nazi period, many questions remain as to the motivations for his writing. In his thesis, Muriel Guittat-Naudin shows that some interpret the gesture of the author as a way of clearing the German people of their responsibilities, by making everything rest on the shoulders of the Pope. In the play, his character washes his hands when he learns of the mass deportations of Jews, and he appears much more obsessed with the fight against communism.
However, recalled Philippe Chenaux (2), professor of the history of the modern and contemporary Church at the Pontifical Lateran University, questioned by The cross at the time of the opening, in March, of the archives of the pontificate of Pius XII, ” iThere was, of course, a certain silence, but it was a painful, tormented silence, assumed in the interest of the victims – and not for political reasons or by anti-Semitism “
In the midst of the Cold War, it was indeed all of the states that displayed relative timidity in condemning the Nazi horrors. The Eichmann trial, which opened in 1961, is the first trial of a Nazi criminal since that of Nuremberg in 1945.
No doubt in this, Rolf Hochhuth was a “Courageous taboo breaker”, as described by the Central Council of Jews in Germany. The German government salutes the memory of a committed writer who never had “Afraid of controversial debates”.
The German weekly Die Zeit recalls that his research on the role of former Nazi judges in the Federal Republic led to the resignation of the former Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg Hans Filbinger in 1978. But the newspaper also reports that in the 2000s, Rolf Hochhuth took over defense of the British Holocaust denier David Irving…
With an impulsive temper, the playwright often expressed his disagreement with the management of the Berliner Ensemble, a theater he owned. The title of his biography, written by Birgit Lahann in 2016, effectively sums up the life of this character: Der störenfried, “The disruptor” in German.